Monday, November 28, 2011

Woody & Me: Through the Years

The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #22: Woody Allen.

The first Woody Allen film I remember seeing was 1973's Sleeper.  It would have been around 1978 or 79 that I saw it on TV.  I would have been just eleven or twelve at the time, so needless to say I did not get many of the sexual or political jokes.  The Orgasmatron went right over my head (kids were more naive in those days) but I do remember liking the giant chicken.  I have of course gone back and rewatched the film, on several occasions, and now consider it to be one of Woody's best and funniest films.  

My real attraction to the films of Allen Stewart Konigsberg (the name with which he was born back in 1935 Brooklyn) came around 1984 with the purchase of my very first VCR. (remember those?)  I was seventeen and this VCR was the first major purchase I ever made with my own hard-earned money.  I also got myself a membership at a local video store called Movie Merchants and began renting movies as if I were a young man with a great obsession.  Of course this was very true, as this was the time I began to evolve into the obsessive cinephile I am today.  This was to be the birth of my lifelong desire for everything cinema.  The beginning of my obsession.  But I digress.

Among the multitudes of titles (on video cassette long before the advent of DVD and Bluray!) that I rented those first few months of membership, were several Woody Allen films.   The first among these, which should come as no surprise, was Annie Hall.  Considered the director's finest work (it makes my top twenty favourite films of all-time), and a departure from his earlier slapstick comedies, Annie Hall is what a romantic comedy should be.  Both edgy and wry, the film stars Woody as Alvy Singer, a typically neurotic writer, and Diane Keaton as his love interest, the titled gal herself, Annie Hall.  The couple had been a couple offscreen as well (they had split up several years before Annie Hall was made, and remain friends to this day) and the character is actually named after Keaton, who had been born Diane "Annie" Hall.

The greatness behind the film, other than the adorable-as-hell performance from Ms. Keaton, is the direction of Mr. Allen himself.  Influenced by Ingmar Bergman as much as Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin, Allen made his film as both comedy and drama.  Tossing in multiple styles, including inner monologue subtitles, breaking the fourth wall, introducing insane asides, flashbacks, split-screens and even an animated segment, Allen's Annie Hall, winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1977 (and Best Director, Screenplay and Actress for Keaton), is what one could and should call a true masterpiece of cinema.  This was also the time period where I first saw Love and Death (influenced by Russian literature), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (Shakesperean comedy as Bergman remake), Zelig (an early mockumentary), Broadway Danny Rose (showing Allen's comedic upbringing) and Bananas (an early Chaplinesque slapstick).

The three Woody Allen films I saw in this initial flurry of filmwatching that most thrilled me though (aside from the aforementioned Annie Hall) were his ode to Bergman, the serious-minded drama Interiors, his take on Fellini's 8 1/2, Stardust Memories (a film that often gets forgotten when talking of Allen's quite prolific oeuvre) and the Woodman's homage to the city he loves so much, Manhattan.  Using the music of Gershwin (how can you not love a Woody Allen soundtrack!?) and the most stunning of black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis, Allen's Manhattan makes the city itself the main character of his movie.  A city that would play the most important part in many a Woody Allen motion picture, becomes the most important aspect of Manhattan.  The following year I would rent and watch 1985's Purple Rose of Cairo.  One of Allen's most enjoyable films, and one that has grown on me more and more with each successive viewing. 

It was 1986 that Woody and I took our cinematic relationship to a whole other level.  Up until then, I had only seen Woody on the small screen, but that year, my first year out of high school, we went big.  Big screen that is.  Hannah and Her Sisters (my third favourite Woody) would be my first Allen film seen in an actual cinema.  Seen with my mom, aunt and uncle, at an AMC theater in town, the film was a blast, as they say.  The rest of the fam wasn't all that thrilled by it (they never have been big fans of the Woodman), but I quite enjoyed my first theatrical Woody Allen experience.  My cherry popping if you want to keep going with the cine-sexual relationship angle.

The following year would bring my second theatrical rendezvous with the Woodman (how's that for innuendo?).  It would be Radio Days, and unlike the majority of Allen's films, the director would not appear on camera in this one, instead acting as narrator.   Probably the most nostalgic of Allen's films, Radio Days is an ode to that romantic era of the director's childhood.   A pair of dramatic works, September in 1987 and Another Woman in 1988, would follow Radio Days.  These too would be sans Woody the actor.  These would also be two films I would not see till much later (September in the late 1990's and Another Woman for the first time just earlier this year).  Cut now to early 1989.  It has been three years since Woody starred in one of his films.  But this would soon end - in spades. 

First would come the omnibus film New York Stories.  A three part venture directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Allen.  Scorsese's section, starring Nick Nolte as a crazed artist, is my favourite part of the film, and Coppola's part is a sentimental look at childhood in the limelight (obviously based on his daughter Sofia), but Woody's is of course the funniest.  An absurdist look at the Oedipal complex, sprightly called Oedipus Wrecks, it is the story of a man with an overbearing mother.  One day, during a magic act (Woody does love his magic), the mother vanishes, and Woody's smothered son feels free at last.  Alas, the mother comes back as a giant floating head who continues to lovingly torment her son.  Great Woody, but still just a short film.  Later that same year would bring his real (semi)comeback.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is an intriguing blend of the dramatic and the comedic.  Loosely based  on  Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Allen takes the idea of morality in murder and puts it into a very Allenesque realm.  The director would come back to these themes fifteen years later in Match Point.  After making the mostly forgotten Alice in 1990 (one of the few Allen films I have not seen), playing actor only opposite Bette Midler in Paul Mazursky's Scenes From a Mall, and directing the German Expressionist homage, Shadows and Fog (a film I would not catch on video until a few years later), the shit sort of hit the fan.  Not to play into the whole tabloid aspect of the Woody/Mia/Soon Yi relationship, it was in 1992 that the story hit the newsstands, and would taint Allen's career to this day.  I personally do not think Allen did anything illegal (immoral is a different story, but since Woody and Soon-Yi are still together today, nineteen years later...) but whether he did or not, the scandal still hangs heavy, though to a lesser degree now than then.

The film that came out in the midst of all this he said/she said nonsense was Husbands and Wives.  It would be Mia Farrow's final film with her long time lover.  It would also be Woody Allen's last truly great film for nearly two decades.  After Husbands and Wives Allen would make Manhattan Murder Mystery.  The film would star his former paramour Diane Keaton.   After this would come a succession of enjoyable but not great films.  Bullets Over Broadway in 1994, Mighty Aphrodite in 1995, Everyone Says I Love You (a musical!) in 1996, Deconstructing Harry in 1997, Celebrity in 1998 and Sweet and Lowdown in 1999.  Granted, these may not be Allen's golden age films, but they are still all quite good.  At the turn of the millennium, this would no longer be true.

In 2000 came Small Time Crooks.  A somewhat fun comedy but definitely lesser Woody Allen.  But still, the worst was yet to come.  The following year would bring the world The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.  This is possibly the director's creative low point.  Though, with followups such as Hollywood Ending, Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, perhaps it is not.  Still though, this five year period is not an era that will be remembered fondly in future studies of the filmmaker's career.  I personally would place Anything Else at the bottom of any Woody Allen list.   But this lull would not last forever.  In 2005, Woody would change in his usual New York skyline for one of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.  Setting his new film in London, Match Point played as not only a departure for the Manhattan-loving auteur, but also a comeback of sorts.  Critically acclaimed for the first time this millennium, Allen's new film was a welcome return to form for the director - even if it was a strange new form.  It was also the film that garnered Woody his sixteenth Screenplay Oscar nomination, untying him with Billy Wilder and giving him the record for the most nominations in the category.

Sadly though, this comeback would hit a glitch the following year when the rather horrendous Scoop was released.  Giving Anything Else a run for its money as the worst Woody Allen, Scoop was Allen's second film with his young new muse, Scarlett Johansson.  At least now the 71 year old old would be  playing the father figure instead of the romantic lead.  But luckily this glitch was as short-lived as the comeback before it, for, after the almost completely forgotten Cassandra's Dream (the other Woody I have never seen), 2008 would bring Allen's best film in over a decade, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  Again starring the vapid Ms. Johansson, VCM would now take the traveling Allen from France to Spain.  The film would win Penelope Cruz a Best Supporting Actress Oscar - a thing that has happened to several of Allen's ladies-in-waiting.  

Next would bring another departure for Allen.  Filming a screenplay that he had written back in 1976, and originally slated to star Zero Mostel, Whatever Works, now starring Larry David, was perhaps a failure in many people's eyes, but I am one of those select few who rather enjoyed this toss-off throwback to Woody's earlier days.   Next came You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, but it is rather a mediocre work and I really have nothing much to say about it, for better or for worse.  But Woody's next film would not be so mediocre.  2011 has brought us the director's finest work since the 1990's - Midnight in Paris.  Back to the City of Lights, this is easily one of the best films of the year - it could even give Woody his second Best Director Oscar.  2012 will bring us a new film, tentatively titled Nero Fiddled, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwig, Roberto Begnini and Allen himself.  But that is another story for another day.

So here ends the story of my life and love affair with Woody Allen.  Well, at least here it ends until the aforementioned Nero Fiddled hits theaters next year.  I hope you had a good time reminiscing about my torrid cinematic affair with the Woodman.    

1 comment:

humanprojector said...

What a comprehensive yet easy read! I myself have been doing some catching up on ‘Woodman’ and the timeline that could describe my viewing is Memento-esque to say the least. My top 5 Allen films would be(don’t we just love this part!):
Zelig: Way ahead of its times, great cinema, Woody or not.
Sweet & Lowdown: It has surprisingly matured well, Uma Thurman & Sean Penn have rarely been this sprightly and joy to watch. The mocumentary style is an added bonus, along with some great music.
Hannah & Her Sisters: Though I am yet to see this film completely(have seen the second half) but this is one of those films that you know are great by just catching a glimpse.
Sleeper/Bananas: Contrary to popular opinion I can’t help cracking up at Allen in the physical comedy mode, Allen as Castro is irresistible.
Manhattan/Annie Hall: all the reasons in the world.

oops I forgot Stardust Memories!

Not too keen on the new Allen but I did like You will meet, Midnight in Paris.