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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hide and Seek: Woody Allen's Crapshoot Universe

Moving beyond the bunk and hooey, the repeated story arcs and contrivances, the jealousies, neuroses, characters and constant realizations of meaningless despair in Woody Allen's body of work containing 40 films in 40 years, there is also a poignant repetition of cinematic adoration, an appreciation for the imagistic worlds artists and entertainers give us in order to help us make any kind of peace with the absurdity of existence. Comedy alone can perhaps only stave Tragedy off for so long, though the elements in both feed off one another to make sense of a world that is existentially and morally inexplicable. Art alone is, for Allen, a kind of ritual, a meditation where he expresses his despair. He creates so as to bargain with Nothingness. His audience can then choose to participate in active viewing, not so much laughing at the films as participating in the exhortations of Allen's expression. Maybe then we get a deeper sense of what it means to be alive, just as the film may also be a kind of elliptical escape from the suffering of life. Allen loves the seriousness of Art, but he also loves the Elsewhereville of the Movies – just as he loved the Elsewhereville of Radio as a child – and Allen manages not to judge such an escape while also remaining serious in his presentation of celluloid enriched longings towards the screen. When we see, for example, Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an abused wife and neglected romantic, at the conclusion of The Purple Rose of Cairo, staring at the screen as her life may well be ruined, the lyrics of Irving Berlin's "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" being sung by Fred Astaire, the sense is not negative. The feeling is bittersweet and conveys the relationship between Viewer and Movie, reflecting the need for any type of buffer to make life endurable, while also acknowledging its pain.

The scene of temporary escape is repeated in Allen several times. For example, his alter ego, Mickey Sachs, in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), whose sudden suicidal grasp of absurdity is eased by walking into a movie theater and watching the Marx brothers monkeying around. Or in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), where Allen's character, filmmaker Cliff Stern, goes with his niece to the movies for escape and enlightenment, just as it becomes increasingly clear that the more cynical and greedier forces in his own industry – personified in a television producer played by Alan Alda – will always win out over the sincere questions posed by meaningful artists and thinkers. In the same film, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) has somehow managed to ease his anxiety and guilt over having his too-eager-to-talk mistress (Angelica Huston) killed, by summing the drama of his entire dilemma into a movie scenario pitch, except where the tropes of familiar morality, where the unjust are punished and the just blessed, are revealed to be only consistent in the content of Hollywood, which takes its own tropes from literature, and beyond that, the Torah. The irony here is that Judah's story has just been the story of the whole film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and he's telling it to Cliff, who doesn't believe that you can make a movie with such amoral conclusions – when of course, Woody Allen the film director who is also the actor playing Cliff, indeed just has. In Allen, the movies in all of their variations give a kind of solace even for the guiltiest among us, as there is a sense of identification and thus a sign that we are not alone. The movies themselves are like individuals, something to converse with and debate, and even if the debate can never be won, the participation in the debate is an affirmation of Art.

For Allen then, the movies are not about simple escapism, but are as personal and private an experience as a religious ritual. And as a person may engage in a mental dialogue regarding the articles of faith, so too does Allen demand that we participate in the film. This is an element which makes Allen often aggravating to watch; instead of comedies levying the toil of life, or cathartic tragic dramas that come with a very direct point of view, Allen's pictures don't offer a consistent subjectivity or agency for identification on the audience's part. Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008) follows two young women with two different worldviews, but Allen offers no clarity in terms of offering a suggestion for which perspective – stable, committed, conventional, or impulsive, pleasure-seeking, and adventurous – is the better choice. As audiences, even if a story is in a landscape where there is no God or a priori moral systems, we are used to filmmakers at least nudging us in a "correct" direction for identification, where the binaries of Good and Bad may, if blurry, still be drawn.

Not so in Woody Allen. Perspectives clash loudly, all ends achieving points and debits, and there is no resolution other than, to quote the title of a recent Allen film, "whatever works." But this is frustrating for us – "whatever works for you is fine" – because, Allen understands, human beings are inclined to believe that what works for them must then also work for others, from religion on down. Confusion, resentment, uncertainty, and animosity once again re-enter the scenario and nothing is resolved. The only character that can accept "Whatever Works" working has got to be the most pessimistic and curmudgeonly nihilist, like Boris (Larry David) in Whatever Works, and even he retreads back into suicidal impulses when the world once more loses focus within his own worldview of, well, whatever works working. In a sane universe, to each his own subjectivity. But Allen, a true Freudian, does not believe in our subjectivity having any free will; after all, as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1971) reveals in all of its scenarios (aphrodisiacs; Gene Wilder's sheep love; What's Your Perversion?; the impulse of transvestism; a woman only being able to orgasm in public places; the runaway breast wreaking havoc on the countryside; and the plight of an insignificant sperm cell called up for duty), it's from our inability to control our unconscious and mysterious impulses, and our conscious ego's constant belief that it is in control (best manifested in, again, poor lovestruck Gene Wilder and his sheep) that creates the best humor.

In the meantime, we have films. And because Boris talks to us in Whatever Works, even addressing some of us in the theater as "mouth breathers," and despite his suicidal tendencies and nihilism, we're safe and the film is quite jovial, counting oddly among Allen's most mirthful. Again, the movie and the viewer are supposed to be intimately communicating. This goes back as far as Allen's Broadway play, later made in the 1973 film Play it Again, Sam, directed by Herbert Ross though still written by and starring Allen. Here, the protagonist Allan Felix tries to cope with his feelings of inadequacy and depression by having conversations with the marquee celluloid personality of Humphrey Bogart, star of his favorite film, Casablanca. The movies come as a relief and comfort but are something much more. They also demand attention, and like Bogey, they're speaking right to us, just as we, when we leave the theater, speak through the film by subconsciously embodying and imitating the archetypes we've been watching. Life and Art mimic each other until the two are indistinguishable.

It's then appropriate that many of Allen's protagonists, if they're not moviegoers, critics, or radio listeners, are then creative individuals acting within the industry, like writers, directors, producers, and performers, particularly actresses, who often amount to being the female heroine (or otherwise the femme fatale) in the Allen universe. In The Purple Rose of Cairo the actors are distinct from the characters they play in the movie. These celluloid figures seem to have a life of their own; they're stuck when one character, daring archeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), walks out of the movie screen in order to fall in love with Mia Farrow's meager and entranced Cecilia, who watches the film repeatedly. Meanwhile, as the movie playing is on indefinite hold, leaving the black and white characters to ceaselessly bicker while they wait for their estranged costar to return, in Hollywood the actor playing the character, Gil Shepherd (also Daniels), finds that his career is in jeopardy; after all, it was the way that he played Tom Baxter that enabled the fictional character's ability to quit the story and make the decision to mingle with Reality.

Another classic instance occurs in Annie Hall. While waiting in a movie theater line for The Sorrow and the Pity, Alvy Singer (Allen) displays annoyance upon having another moviegoer, a Columbia media professor, loudly and with great intellectual knowitall gravitas demean some of the recent work of Allen's own heroes, such as Fellini. His accusations of "self-indulgence" sound like the general attitude of the New York critical intelligentsia regarding Fellini, and it's the word "indulgence" that mainly throws Singer over the edge. After all, Allen, sympathetic to Fellini, is also often accused of being indulgent. Finally, as the academic begins to quote Marshall McLuhan, Singer stops the scene, addresses the camera, and physically pulls Marshall McLuhan into the frame to confront this professorial troll. The true-life intellectual chastises the fictional (but representative) one: "I heard you back there...How you ever got a job teaching is beyond me." With that, Singer/Allen looks back at the camera and says, "If only real life was like this," again conveying the difference between Art and Life, yet noting the wishful thinking that deliberately confuses the two in order to make sense out of a silly existence. It's also the movie director's ultimate revenge on the critic and academic, as Allen is here addressing, just as he will in Stardust Memories, the dismissive critics who believe that they're smarter than the artist, while often missing the ultimate points – something that happened famously to Fellini, has happened to Allen, Allen's contemporary Kubrick, and continues to happen to Scorsese, Mann, Soderbergh, Stone, Lynch, and Malick.

The most troubling instance in Allen's body of work is also one of his best, and it again exemplifies the problem of Art and Life coordinating and influencing each other. Husbands and Wives may have been the best film of 1992, and is probably Allen's last unequivocally great film (that is to say "masterpiece," following Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors; I would say he has a good number of "great" and "very good films" in succession, such as Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Anything Else, Match Point, Cassandra's Dream, and Vicki Cristina Barcelona, to say nothing of the pleasures afforded by his lighter offerings, like Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You, some of the episodes in Deconstructing Harry, Sean Penn and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, the comic half of Melinda and Melinda, Whatever Works, and, upon reevaluation, the other much-maligned Dreamworks comedies from the early part of the century, which though panned upon release, are each filled with a multitude of comic virtues and accomplish often what they set out to do: Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and particularly Hollywood Ending). A multitude of tabloid stories preceded Husbands and Wives' release in September 1992, linking the film's content of unstable marriages with husbands seeking much younger lovers to the exposed true-life sexual relationship of Allen with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. This gives the movie an undeniable air of frenzied anxiety, placing the audience in a state of uncomfortable voyeurism. The style of the film, Allen's most idiosyncratic with Carlos DiPalma's hand-held cinematography and jump-cut editing, along with the principle characters giving interviews as if they were in a documentary, compliments this shivering brush with the All-Too-Real.

Like any Allen film that stars Allen, it was sold as a comedy, and the film begins with a joke. Gabe Roth (Allen) watches a TV show where a scientist quotes Einstein, "God doesn't play with dice." Allen turns the TV off and walks away uttering, "No he doesn't play with dice. He plays hide and seek." It's a very funny joke to set a rhythm for an Allen comedy, but then Allen turns everything around and does not go back. Gabe and his wife Judy (Farrow) have invited another married couple, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), over for dinner. The Roths discover that their friends are separating. Judy is disturbed and even hurt by the announcement, as both Jack and Sally work to insist that it's a friendly break-up and for the best. "Don't turn this into a tragedy or a wake," Jack says more than once. This is a significant line, because this "comic" film doesn't want to become a tragedy either. But some films, like relationships, are unpredictable and never turn out the way you expect them to. Husbands and Wives becomes a tragicomic drama, something made more interesting by the fact that the actor playing Jack, Sydney Pollack, is an Oscar winning movie director (Tootsie, Out of Africa, Three Days of the Condor). Jack is unable to hold any sort of control over the consequential emotions of this "agreeable separation." After he says, "Please don't turn this into a wake," we might see the pictures of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald behind Judy in the Roths' apartment. We know that this then will not be an optimistic portrait of romance.

Sure enough, both Jack and Sally can't keep their happy faces on once they discover that they're both interested in other, more sexually appealing partners (played by Lysette Anthony and Liam Neeson). Meanwhile, the Roths have also been undergoing duress, as the very idea of divorce implanted by their friends has resulted in the security of their marriage to be questionable. Throughout the running time of the film, we see intelligent, successful, and progressive people who are unable to be single, unable to be satisfied (chronic dissatisfaction is another great Allen theme), and unable to resist exhibiting animosity towards the other sex. The sexes have views on each other that are equally shallow, and this is worth remembering when some of Allen's feminist critics accuse him of misogyny. Though we may notice the women are often weak and never in control of their impulses, it's because Allen refuses to write them as passive images of desire or hapless victims, like so many other filmmakers; and, by the way, have you been paying attention to the men?

Allen's viewpoint of relationships is like his view of the universe: nothing is constant and dependable, and though Love is reason enough to experience life, its unreliability and temporality, in addition to the suffering it brings, calls attention to how sorrowful and absurd Life is. This theme was first examined to great comic effect in 1975's Love and Death, the best, in my opinion, of Allen's early comedies, when Sonja (Diane Keaton) gives a hilarious philosophical monologue: "To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love, but then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy then is to suffer but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore to be unhappy one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down." There is no logic to it, and we have no control of it, but to choose tangling with relationships, particularly in a secular existential age of freedom, means to willfully engage in a universe of constant competition and uncertainty, where one gets a lover, then has to worry about losing the lover, knowing that in Reality good and noble Romance doesn't trump all. In Husbands and Wives, we observe Jack at a party, seemingly fine in his new life with a much younger (and much dumber) woman, a former escort (a scenario repeated in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). A friend casually tells him that Sally is in a happy relationship with a new man. Suddenly, Jack completely loses his composure. He breaks into his former house while Sally's sleeping with studly Liam Neeson, and suddenly wants to work things out.

Allen has often been criticized for having a rather smug set of successful socialite characters, far removed from any typical moviegoing audience: we can relate to "starving artists," but not successful ones living in big Manhattan studio apartments. But Allen is treating his successful cocktail-drinking socialites ironically; he is showing the Elites of High Society, but at their worst and most embarrassing (to quote Stardust Memories, the Intelligentsia is like the Mafia, and they only kill their own kind). Many of the scenes in Husbands and Wives are difficult to watch, not only because they exhibit uncomfortable truths about love and commitment, but because the people tangled in the web of despair here are so seemingly respectable, brought down to their pathetic end. Gabe Roth's remark at the end brings us back into the uncomfortable relationship we viewers have with the screen: "Life doesn't imitate Art; it imitates bad TV."

The other sad aspect of Husbands and Wives has to do with the downslope of Allen's subsequent career, which is not to say that I think he has become a mediocre filmmaker. Quite the contrary, as the films I listed above make clear. However, the thing he lost after Husbands and Wives which was such an integral part to the masterful collection of films he made throughout the previous decade was Mia Farrow. Allen has continued to write interesting female characters since then (three women have won Oscars for playing those women since 1994), and in comparison to other writers, they are the most well-rendered women in movies, played by the likes of Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino, Judy Davis, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Tilly, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Naomi Watts, and Scarlett Johansen, among many others. But the Farrow character, an extension and I believe an improvement on the already magnificent Diane Keaton character from Allen's 1970s years, is noticeably missing. The Farrow character, from A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, Purple Rose, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, September, Another Woman, and Alice, is the Allen character's equal and foil, the only sportive female who is more than a delusional and deceived girl, capacious and, when compared to the body of work of other actresses, incomparable. In a decade where the "defining great films" were limited to Raging Bull, Blue Velvet, Do the Right Thing, and a handful of Allen's own work, Allen and Farrow were a team worthy of Astaire and Rogers, or Burns and Gracie Allen – and yet I think that does not even come close to doing them justice. More so than De Niro and Scorsese, Brando and Kazan, the only comparable relationship between director and star to Allen and Farrow, I would be so bold to say, is John Ford and John Wayne – with the significant difference being that Farrow, in her parts, embodies far greater range than Wayne ever did. Allen's wrong against Farrow is something that hurts less as a heinous betrayal and hurts more as a fan of movies, because of the collaboration of which the audience, and both artists, were robbed (what has Farrow done of significance since Husbands and Wives? And what besides Rosemary's Baby had she done of much significance before A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy?) It's my belief that if Allen doesn't mourn the loss of a life partner or artistic collaborator, he must certainly miss his friend, whose conversations doubtless proved to be the inspiration for innumerable dialogues between combating viewpoints. We can see the capaciousness of Farrow's talent in the wonderful Radio Days (1987), where Farrow in a supporting role transforms from unsophisticated floozy to snotty socialite.

Though I like many post-Farrow Woody Allen films, what's missing from them is the strong heart that was Farrow. Her title role performance in Hannah and Her Sisters may be the most demonstrative example, as her cheating husband, Elliot (a brilliant Michael Caine), is a man exhibiting Allen's trademark mixed impulses, his voiceover narrations revealing how human emotions and erotic desires change on the most fragile whim. Elliot may cheat on Hannah, falling in love with her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), but Farrow's presence as Hannah, and her utterly graceful completeness as a character -- a sense owed both to the writing and the performance -- convinces both us and him that this is a woman that Elliot could never deliberately hurt; he loves her much more than he knows. No such female character exists in post-1992 Allen, where women are often instead brilliantly marked by their self-deception and their unstable desirability (best demonstrated by Scarlet Johansen in Match Point, Scoop, and Vicki Cristina Barcelona).

But Allen's recent work nevertheless continues his marvelous meditation on making compromises with reality, the flight into the movies and Art, into different lifestyles or ultimately Religion. As quick as we are to judge Allen for his indulgences, I admire how, though he is one of the most acutely misanthropic observers of our own collective human mishaps, he is not a scathing or resentful one. Rather, Allen seems to have a kind of gentle pity, mixed with humorous detachment, for delusional human beings. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the most recent film, dabbles with middle-aged Helena's (Gemma Jones) sudden infatuation with New Ageism after her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left her. Helena embraced the hocus pocus of religion as consolation from a suicidal depression that had set in. As she continues to get psychic readings, she falls in love with an equally bonkers New Age book dealer (Roger Ashton Griffiths) bent on communicating with his dead wife during s̩ances. The rest of her secular, non-believing family, whom Allen is no doubt closer to in terms of philosophical perspectives, entropies within the confines of their own narcissism, the irony being that this secular bunch is also blind with delusion: ex-husband Alfie takes up with a promiscuous younger woman (Lucy Punch), only to discover that she's both cheating on him and pregnant, throwing him into uncertainty concerning the fate of his offspring; daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), eager to breed also, becomes infatuated with her sexy and wealthy boss (Antonio Bandaras), believing that his drunken confessions and amiable actions towards her indicates his own attraction, when in fact he's having a passionate affair with one of her art colleagues; and then the son-in-law Roy (Josh Brolin), a fumbling novelist who is able to nab the sexy Sri Lankan girl (Freida Pinto) across the street after he steals the brilliant manuscript of a friend (Ewan Bremner) he believes has been killed Рthough it turns out he's only in a coma, and what more, likely to recover.

Allen creates a quadrangle of delusion here, using the basic motifs and tropes that he has used countless times before, something that annoys many critics. But what's odd is not only Allen's sympathy, however detached in its misanthropy, for all of the characters, but ultimately how close he is to the aging Helena, who is the only character fortunate enough to find peace in her New Age ridiculousness. The other three characters seem to lack empathy for anyone else, and act accordingly in a Godless universe where there is no ultimate moral accountability. We know, as they do, that Helena is nuts – but Allen, though not praising her escape and often making fun of it, is also admitting that she has the upper hand. Helena is the happiest of all the characters. "Whatever works, as long as you hurt no one else," Boris says in Whatever Works, and that, ultimately, applies to the characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which simultaneously attests to the absurdity of existence while also winking at us with how oddly God does indeed seem to play hide and seek.

Woody Allen

What's New, Pussycat? (1965, screenplay only)

What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

Take the Money and Run (1969)

Bananas (1970)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1971)

Play It Again, Sam (1972, screenplay only)

Sleeper (1973)

Love and Death (1975)

Annie Hall (1977)

Interiors (1978)

Manhattan (1979)

Stardust Memories (1980)

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

Zelig (1983)

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Radio Days (1987)

September (1987)

Another Woman (1988)

Oedipus Wrecks (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Alice (1990)

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Don't Drink the Water (1994)

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Celebrity (1998)

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Small Time Crooks (2000)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Hollywood Ending (2002)

Anything Else (2003)

Melinda and Melinda (2005)

Match Point (2005)

Scoop (2006)

Cassandra's Dream (2007)

Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Whatever Works (2009)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

Midnight in Paris (2011)

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