Love and Death sees Allen at a crossroads between his earlier slapstick farces and the soon-to-be whimsical, wistful flights of fancy that would mark his later, more “mature” productions, to use the conventional schematization. Faced with the choice of doubling down on the past or moving forward, he defiantly, quizzically rides two horses with inconstant passion and takes both directions to his heart’s content. For if Love and Death is a relentlessly immature, pointedly foolish construction, it is also perhaps more fun than any director has ever had knocking “maturity” down to size, playing with a burgeoning reputation as a “serious” filmmaker even before such a stature was set in stone. Love and Death saw Allen tired of mocking space opera and the state of the world. He decided to look to the only other place he knew, the past, his personal canon, and take a pitchfork to everything he loved: Tolstoy, Bergman, and everything that took Tolstoy a few inches forward over a hundred years so it could flower into Bergman. Not that Tolstoy and Bergman have anything to do with each other, but in Allen’s mind they can if he wants them to.
Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s dueling morality play about the nature of human worry, is a film of two halves coexisting with pitch-back energy and wracking each others’ brains with literate, indignant abandon. Allen’s film provides an A and a B story, and deliberately defines them as “the Bergman Allen film”, or the thoughtful and intellectual work concerned with human frailty, and the “non-Bergman Allen film”, or the zippy and nervy work about humans in need of frailty and faking it to themselves to hide the fact that they are actually doing A-okay. One story observes a doctor (Martin Landau) who plots to kill his lover and soon comes to care so little about it he can’t be bothered to let it put a limp in his step. The other follows a talented filmmaker (Allen) slumming in more commercial fair, doing okay for himself but looking for woe wherever he can find to get his nightly fix of dark thoughts. One character has no soul, and the other desperately wants to give his away. All the while, Allen’s camera sits back with a mordant smirk on its face and lets the hurt seep in. Continue reading
Annie Hall is many things: a thoughtful, perceptive dissection of romance, a frothy, light romantic comedy, and a devastating depiction of the inevitability of loss in love. It is also, more than anything, not the film Woody Allen was on the path to making in 1977. While he was a noted comedy writer-director by this time, and one who had made several strong features, his films were defined by their frothy-caustic anarchy and generally zany Marx Brothers riffs, movies structured less like narrative than improvisational comedy. This last part continues in Allen’s then most mature feature, Annie Hall, but while it boasts a number of laugh aloud moments, its humor is underscored by a fundamental nervousness that puts it at odds with Allen’s previous works.
Personified in Allen’s Alvy Singer, the kind of figure who would soon become an Allen stereotype but who here feels youthful with worry, this film was Allen’s first to tread the line between the caustic and the deeply warm-hearted, the incorrigible and the unquestionably brittle. This isn’t a depressing picture per-se – it’s far too energetic and lively – but it does deal with ends as much as beginnings, innately creating a sort of finality that breeds some sense of loss absent in any of Allen’s previously more abstract, even obtuse, sketch-like works. Annie Hall is also, in addition to all these things, and perhaps because of Allen’s skill at combining them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, pure cinematic dynamite, a film so in love with and so angry at the world it cannot help but provide us with new ways of looking at it. Continue reading
Four years later, I remain enamored of Hannah and Her Sisters, an apogee of Allen’s career, and something of an inflection point, or a balancing act. While his earlier films sometimes labor under pretenses to classical status – for instance casting themselves as Allen’s “Bergman” film”, his “Russian literature” film, etc – Hannah and Her Sisters casually commands the concerns and quandaries many of those earlier texts and artists engaged in, without Allen ever having to ennoble his meditations with unearned and overly-belabored comparisons to bygone figures that sometimes blot him from encouraging his own dramas when he chooses merely to recreate the dramas of others. At the same time, Hannah proves the mettle of Allen’s own intellectual and emotional gambits and thematic vexations without dipping, as so many of his later films did, into self-mocking-but-actually-self-exonerating parables of gender and class that quietly validate Allen’s own persona while pretending to loudly vilify him. While so many of the women in his later films exist to drive Allen forward in bas-relief, the titular figures of this film rhyme with, reflect, and inflect aspects of Allen’s consciousness but are not beholden to it. Nor do they take the position of symbolically representing Allen while having their eccentricities, personal quagmires, longings, and questions sanded-away to fulfill the tidy summation of a gendered archetype or a manifestation of a larger thematic issue. Of all the women in Allen’s cinema, they seem to, if not float free, vacillate in non-schematic ways and vibrate with their own energies. What a wonderful film.
Woody Allen has made many great films, and, as has become too obvious of late, many less than great ones. Generally, he’s at his best when things are at their most unsentimental and nervy – he’s on less sure footing when it comes to exploring purely positive, uncomplicated depictions of his characters. But for all his cynicism, Allen loves people. Or more appropriately, he uses his hate for people to deal out tough love for them, and this was never more-so true than in Hannah and Her Sisters, his only true masterpiece of mostly unaffected romantic sentimentalism and unapologetic sweetness (to go with his not insignificant number of masterpieces of far more troubled, anxious cynicism). Continue reading
Midnight in Paris feels like it was released forty years ago, when Woody Allen was still finding his way and knew what themes he wanted to address in his films, but hadn’t found a compelling way to address them. Released in 2011, it’s unfortunately more of a reminder that Allen has lost his touch for humanism. This is a guy, for all his nervousness and cynicism, who has made several of the most endearing, empowering humanist visions of the cinema, someone who seems to put on the airs of mockery to satirize a world he’s truly in love with. Or maybe, it’s the other way around. Maybe he is truly cynical and hopeless but remains in love with the idea of humanity and romanticism, feeling the need to put them in all his films even when he finds them dishonest. After all, many of his films are subtle fantasies about love and longing that match bitter, insightful truth with genuine pathos and effervescence pointed strictly at the human race. This is a man who understands the joys and sorrows of life and society, and puts them at work in his films like they are his playthings, all the while feigning a cute passivity and weakness, like he’s both confused and amused at the world and doesn’t want to get away. Perhaps in his old age he’s just given up on society and enjoys the act of getting together with actors in a nice vacation-land for a few months and ordering fine food and wine with a film, his in the making, on the side. Continue reading