Thursday, August 27, 2015

Woody Allen: Looking Back

In a rare interview with NPR at the end of July, Woody Allen "opened up" about his long-term relationship with Soon-Yi, his wife of twenty years. He didn't respond to the "allegations," past and present, of child abuse that have damaged his reputation, at least in the U.S., but he denied that it has had any effect on his freedom to make films. "I always had a small audience," he said. "People did not come in great abundance and they still don't." While this may seem like a candid admission from a film director, Allen's career has had its commercial ups and downs. While he certainly lacks what the British call the "common touch," he can't quite take comfort in being too good to be popular.

Allen, who turns 80 in December, has now made forty-five films as director. Over the decades, I have seen seventeen of them. He has managed to find an audience for his films through the fat years in the '70s and '80s as well as all the lean years since. He has done, I think, everything he wanted to do as a filmmaker - except achieve greatness. He obviously wanted to be known as much as a filmmaker of genius as he is as a comic of genius. He recently admitted that he never made it into the same room as the filmmakers he so admires and sometimes tried to imitate: Fellini, Antonioni, and especially Bergman.

But he's Woody Allen, which is more than enough. Remarkably, in an industry grounded on profit, on mega-profit, he has navigated his small vessel through the icebergs of Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, and Bay, and even the parade of comic book films. He failed, I think, to successfully separate himself from the "nebbish" character that he created in his standup routines, despite making seventeen films that he didn't act in. And this is an important problem with Allen's films that won't go away: he has acted in twenty-eight of them.

The late Stanley Kauffmann took long-lasting issue with Allen's acting; whether the characters' names are Fielding Mellish, Alvy Singer, Mickey Sachs or Joe Berlin, they're always the same fumbling, stammering, gesticulating, self-deprecating persona that Allen used in his standup routines. He's an improvement on Jerry Lewis, but he's not exactly Jacques Tati either. In his review of Allen's film Everyone Says I Love You (which he happened to enjoy), Kauffmann wrote: "The trouble isn't that he's always the same - but Allen's sameness is uninviting. His performance doesn't even create self‑parody."(1)

One of the conspicuous pleasures of watching Allen's films through the years has been his choice of leading ladies. But I sometimes had the uncomfortable feeling that they were also Allen's latest girlfriends. As Kauffmann wrote [again of Everyone Says I Love You], "At one point in the picture, Julia Roberts has, for sufficient plot reasons, gone to bed with Allen and is in a semi‑daze after his magnificent love‑making. With a real comedian - say Robin Williams or Dustin Hoffman - this moment might be funny, a gorgeous woman reeling from an encounter with a shrimp. Here, however, all we can think of is that Allen, as director, is using his power to build himself up as a man." 

I think it's fair to say that Woody Allen's genius is primarily verbal. He is adept at funny one-liners, having written, from the age of sixteen, thousands of jokes for funny performers, including Bob Hope and Sid Caesar. He began his standup career in 1960, and his first play, "Don't Drink the Water" was produced on Broadway in 1966. Studying film at NYU and CUNY, he was so dissatisfied by the film made from his first screenplay, What's New Pussycat? (1965) that he decided to direct all his scripts in future. "Allen's directing career," wrote Stanley Kauffmann, "is a prime instance of on-the-job training."   

Starting with Take the Money and Run (1969), he was exceptional in American film - since Charlie Chaplin, that is - for writing, directing, and acting in a string of comedies that culminated with Annie Hall
(1977), which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He followed it with Interiors (1978), a starkly serious drama about three daughters who each have to come to terms with their mother's suicide. It was heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman's late films, and it was released the same year as Bergman's Autumn Sonata. Vernon Young commented that Allen's film was actually a somewhat better Bergman film than Bergman's.(2) Like Chaplin's drama, A Woman of Paris (in which Chaplin did not appear), Interiors was a misguided try at a level of high seriousness that took everyone by surprise. It was greeted with incomprehension when it was greeted at all. It was an experiment that Allen never attempted again, and I think that this was a blow to Allen's ambitions as a filmmaker from which he never recovered.

For most of his career, Annie Hall was his most profitable film, with Manhattan (1979) a close second. But it was recently eclipsed by Midnight in Paris (2012), and two of his most recent films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Blue Jasmine (2013) have been surprising successes. Still, despite Roger Ebert's dubbing him "a treasure of the cinema," the most that a Woody Allen film has made ($151 million gross) is small potatoes by current industry standards. In a 2004 interview, he admitted that "In the United States things have changed a lot, and it's hard to make good small films now. The avaricious studios couldn't care less about good films - if they get a good film they're twice as happy but money-making films are their goal. They only want these $100 million pictures that make $500 million."(3) Adjusting for inflation, I can imagine such a statement coming, verbatim, from Erich von Stroheim in the 1920s, Orson Welles in the 1940s, or John Casavettes in the 1960s. Hollywood hasn't changed, really.

Which brings me to what I believe is the most searching observation about Woody Allen, again from Stanley Kauffmann:

"What's most curious in Allen is his nostalgia. He keeps trying to remake New York into what he imagines it was like about the time that he was born (1935), with music drawn from the Broadway and Hollywood hits of that decade. Radio Days was an overt attempt to go back there; Bullets Over Broadway was a grab at Damon Runyon. Through many of Allen's films, despite their freight of topical reference, there's a hint that things used to be better, especially the music. (Remember how Gershwin on the sound track supported the up‑to‑date Manhattan.) Allen, full of postwar frankness about neuroses, yearns for what he feels was a pre‑war Eden."

(1) Stanley Kauffmann, "The Food of Love," The New Republic, November 11, 1996.
(2) Vernon Young, "Autumn Interiors," Commentary, 67 (January 1979).
(3) To Simon Garfield, "Why I Love London," The Guardian (UK), August 8, 2004.

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