Talking Woody Allen: A Conversation With Joel Bocko

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Woody Allen as Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories.

Image via Joel Bocko.

For those who missed it, I was- in 2015- interviewed by critic and filmmaker Joel Bocko for his website, Lost in the Movies. The topic was my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real, and everything that might spring from it. We ended up covering cinema and the arts more broadly, over the course of 15,000 words, with special focus on some of Woody Allen’s more misunderstood or less-known works. Joel recently tweeted it out, thus reminding me of our conversation. I am posting it here again.

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Talkin’ WA … a conversation on art, criticism & Woody Allen w/ Alex Sheremet, author of Woody Allen: Reel to Real

A year ago, writer and critic Alex Sheremet contacted me about his newest project. After editing the Take 2 guide to Woody Allen’s work, which included some of my reviews (as did its predecessor, the Take 2 guide on Steven Spielberg), Alex had immediately followed up with another e-book for the same publisher, Woody Allen: Reel to Real. In this work, the author guides the reader through every single one of Allen’s films, his work as an actor, and also the critical engagement with his work as represented – or misrepresented – by six critics: Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Ray Carney, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose subsequent exchange with Alex concludes this section). Alex wanted to discuss the book with me, and I agreed, but the book is long (627 pages according to Amazon), I had some major projects and so the conversation kept getting postponed. He was very patient, and when I was finally able to tackle the work I discovered it was worth the wait: despite its length, I read the entire text in a few days, glued to the screen by the author’s passion and rigor. (My review of Reel to Real has just been posted on Amazon, where you can purchase a Kindle version.)

Throughout the book, Alex keeps his eye on both the particular – the specific Allen film in question – and the general – not just Allen’s entire body of work, but the operation of art and criticism as a whole. I found myself both frustrated and fascinated by Alex’s assertions of objectivity, his frequently casual dismissals of celebrated works by other artists, and his implicit (and, by the end of the book, explicit) privileging of intellectual over intuitive appreciation. I agreed with a great many of his conclusions, possibly the majority, yet often questioned his overarching philosophy. As such, I couldn’t wait to talk with him. The following conversation was conducted via email, and actually represents only half of our correspondence. The other half centered around meta-issues of criticism and art, featured much longer individual responses from each of us, and will be presented in an upcoming update of Alex’s book (in its “DigiDialogue” capacity, the e-book is continually revised as new readers engage with the … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN Is Not What You Think It Is

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Mariel Hemingway sits next to Woody Allen in Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Although Woody Allen’s Manhattan is one of cinema’s best and most-loved films, it also among the most misunderstood. This is probably because there is such a disconnect between the film’s stunning and romantic imagery, and the way the characters actually behave on-screen. Often, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, or what’s worse, a “love poem,” but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and the projection of his ideals, which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush. It is quite an effective device, for it makes the film seem to be about one thing, yet completely undermines the genre tropes that other superficially similar works are so dependent on, even as the black and white cinematography of the great Gordon Willis seems to ‘pretend’ otherwise. Not wasting any time, Woody makes this apparent from the very first shot, in which Isaac is busy at his book. Yes, it’s a ‘romantic’ trope, in the sense that Isaac is a man in love with his city, and trying to write, but is marred by the fact that he simply cannot express one well-articulated thought. At end, he settles on this line: “‘He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.’ I love this. ‘New York was his town and it always would be.’” This is not exactly good writing, and flies in the face of a later scene where he up and quits his job so he could stop writing crap television, and work on something “serious” and worthwhile instead. Clearly it is not, and despite being one of the most-quoted parts of the film, there is an irony, a futility, here, that most viewers do not catch. The stunning visuals of fireworks are celebratory, but of what? Probably of Isaac’s feelings and ideals, which are repeatedly shown to have little to do with reality, not only of the outside world, but of his internal life, as well, which is as false and self-congratulatory as anything he critiques. This gives Manhattan a special place in cinema, even as, thirty-five years later, it continues to outshine films that, while inspired by Woody’s, are restricted by the genre conventions he absolutely defies.

After the great opening, the forty-something Isaac is shown, at a jazz club with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), his seventeen year-old girlfriend, his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), and Yale’s wife Emily. Isaac reveals that his ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), now living with a woman, is writing a book about their marriage, and pretentiously smokes a cigarette — a nice little touch, given what’s already known about his talent. He fusses about Tracy, as if ‘exasperated’ with her age, but is really showing the fact off, and basks within. On a walk around the city, Yale reveals to Isaac that he’s having an affair, and Isaac is critical, even going as far as making fun of the mistress’s qualities, despite … Continue reading →

NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC (2014) Is Bad For Hip-Hop

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Nas and others in photo from Time Is Illmatic.Nas? Twenty years later? It is, perhaps, an odd way for me to begin an essay these days. Later than what, you might ask? Yet there isn’t much- alack!- one could really add here, although I can certainly try. To be sure: those that know, know, and those that don’t will have a hard time understanding any of this. Does this conveniently seal my argument from critique? Maybe, but with the added stipulation that this argument is NOT what you think it is, and less (or more, depending on your perspective) than what so many in the rap world wish it might be. It is strange, then, to watch a film that deals with the artifacts of my childhood, in part because it reminds me that while I have grown, and thus re-created myself, the culture to which they still belong has not. If anything, hip-hop has become, if not more self-obsessed, then at least more arrogant and complacent about its place the musical hierarchy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice to say that it is the culture’s deep-seated territoriality which has made it so unwilling to address its own structural failures. This is a shame, really, since rap has always emphasized the need to push boundaries, even though it has also shut its most cherished precepts into a kind of echo chamber where so much that ought to be debated and up for grabs is treated as a foregone conclusion. One can find evidence of this pretty much anywhere, from lectures, to online message boards, to failed rappers opining on one another, but perhaps the most symbolic instance of this stagnation is One9’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which tackles hip-hop’s most revered album in a way that neither explains the music it ostensibly admires, nor presents any thoughts on moving forward, save for the same platitudes fans have been swallowing for over two decades, now.

Before I can properly analyze the film, however, I need to do something that- ironically- is almost heretical in the rap world, and pick apart the album, itself. And before I can do that, I must explain my premises in depth, lest I am accused of bad faith and questionable motives. But while I understand hip-hop’s resistance to perceived ‘outsiders’, it is also true that listening to Nas’s Illmatic, as a child, was one of the four or five most important turning points in my life, ranking among Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, and, later, the discovery of Dan Schneider’s essays on Cosmoetica, as these pivots laid the intellectual groundwork for so much of what I do today. Yet even as I have rejected some of my earlier influences, I can’t deny that their core fundamentals have stuck, and that rap music especially, and Illmatic, specifically, … Continue reading →

“What The Health” (2017) Is Dangerous Propaganda

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Kip Andersen ("What The Health") looking over San Francisco.

A few months ago, I put on Kip Andersen’s pro-vegan agitprop, What The Health, and although it was supposed to be mere muzak- I was making dinner at the time- I had to turn it off after the first twenty minutes. I forget my breaking point, but perhaps it was Kip’s implication that deli meats are as carcinogenic as plutonium, with the WHO- rather ballsily, I may add!- cited for this ‘fact’. Perhaps it was the director’s badgering of security guards and receptionists with inane medical questions, then feigning disbelief when they could not easily answer. Or maybe it was the eerie (and duly transparent) cinematography meant to instill a sense of dread every time I’d glance over at the screen for confirmation that, Yes, I had indeed heard yet another bit of piffle which most viewers would inevitably swallow out of fear. The reality is, one can stop the film pretty much anywhere and find something to cringe over or debate- but only if one is already knowledgeable on the topic. The result? It may be short on data, but What The Health is still a fine piece of propaganda, and a testament to not only the ease with which one can rile up the masses by alleging that they are under attack, but also the fickle nature of trust and distrust, as viewers run from one authority figure to the next in the hope for answers that are probably not there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the film employs no novel techniques, no interesting framing, no great dialogue, and no real information, but so what? It is really how it all unfolds that plays on human weakness, and makes it both poor art and an effective bludgeoning device. It begins, for example, on a rather sinister note with Dr. Robert Ratner of the American Diabetes Association going on about America’s diabetes problem, then suddenly refusing to discuss diet- a nice edit, on Kip’s part, since What The Health can now set its misleading agenda from the very beginning. After some brief biographical sketches meant to ingratiate Kip with viewers, he tries to wriggle into their good graces by pretending to be like them – such as in his suggestion that he only recently found out about the dangers of processed foods, and is now on the hunt for ‘the truth’, in real-time, as the documentary unfolds. In this way, the viewer is made to feel as if he is starting at the same point as the film’s underdog, and that its many experts – all of whom start to pile up rather quickly – are really the ones taking him through the process, impartially and systematically, against the backdrop of a corporate greed and hapless government bureaucrats too ignorant and lazy to do a thing about it.

To Kip’s credit, the film’s talking-heads are not mere quacks (at least not in the conventional sense) but actual doctors and doctorate-level researchers who further put the … Continue reading →

Review Of Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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Woody Allen in STARDUST MEMORIES standing with glasses

[The following critique of Stardust Memories is an excerpt from a much longer chapter in my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real.]

Yet if Manhattan is often misunderstood, Stardust Memories feels as if it’s never even been watched, at least not without the blinders that so many critics have willingly put on. It’s been called everything from disjointed to mean-spirited, autobiographical, a “homage”, tribute, rip-off, or blunder that was a big step back, stylistically and qualitatively, from earlier works. But, I’d first watched the film years ago, without any knowledge of its supposed lacks, nor critical context, and so could judge nothing but what was simply on the screen. I’d not, incidentally, even watched Fellini’s , nor Bergman, and so could not be discolored by some irrelevant perception of theft — irrelevant because of how differently Allen treats some similar material, and how better executed it really is when compared to the source material. In fact,  I found the film, even then, rich and multi-layered, with sharp dialogue, wonderful experimentation, intellectual depth, and the kind of poetry and intuitive leaps that few works of art ever achieve. It is not only my personal favorite Woody film, but also probably his best (an important distinction to make), for reasons that become more and more obvious with every re-watch.

Unlike most Woody Allen films, Stardust Memories utterly defies capsule, much less a temporal breakdown, due to its use of flashback, dream, fiction, metafiction, and many other techniques. No, the film doesn’t really have a plot in terms of temporal sequence marked by ‘big events’, but it has something far more important: narrative, which is how all the important features of an art-work — emotion, ideas, music, scripting, visuals, characterization, and so on — fuse into a coherent whole, while both tuning in, as well as seemingly turning away from it, too. In Manhattan, for instance, the soap operatics are given heft by the strength of characterizations (tuning in — in fact, a laser-like focus, as on Isaac), while being undermined by the visuals (turning away). Yet, a statement emerges, nonetheless, as it does in Stardust. But while the earlier film did a great job of excoriating relationships and the personages that seemingly destroy them, Stardust Memories is focused on even higher things: art, the artist, dream, identity, and the ‘big’ questions of meaning and existence, as well as those questions’ utter pointlessness and futility. Too many have decried the film as “bleak”, in this regard — even Roger Ebert, who often gets it right with Woody — without taking the time to even examine the answers the film actually provides. They are not, at any rate, found in some serialization. If the film is too difficult to break down scene-by-scene, it is better, then, to highlight some important scenes, and what they say of such questions, of critics, as well as of the film and its characters, which respects narrative without dumbing it … Continue reading →