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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. It covers the late Roger Ebert, spans several decades’ of material, and is part of a much longer essay, which can be read in full on the book’s website.]
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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen
Critic #1: Roger Ebert
At a time when the Cahiers du Cinema critical style was still in vogue, Roger Ebert approached films in a way that merely ‘stuck to the facts’. Narrative, character, visual poesy, and dialogue were once again paramount — respectable, too — and all else was left to become mere trivia. Thus, from 1967 on, an interesting thing began to happen. On the one hand, Roger Ebert slowly became America’s (if not the world’s) most well-known film critic, replete with a popular column at a major newspaper, television shows, books, interviews, and a distinct cultural presence. Yet his success was often resented, too, by the film-school ‘types’ as this was only further evidence, in their view, of how utterly vacuous popular notions of film really are. Yes, it is intriguing to read of this today, but Ebert, now cushioned by celebrity, acceptance, and death, is a much safer bet than he once was, even as other critics have come and gone by way of fads and cycles. Indeed, for the real problem was not Ebert’s alleged vacuity, but his utter lack of a political or aesthetic ax to grind — a good thing, in fact, for a writer’s longevity, despite what is often claimed. In short, Ebert did not prefer happy or sad movies, democratic or supposedly fascistic ones, films shot via hand-held camera, or ‘plain’ editing as opposed to jump-cuts, and the like. He merely wished that films communicate something of worth through character, narrative, and visuals, which is — oddly enough — the way that most people view film, when they’re not afflicted by the sorts of blinders the more theoretical critics so proudly don. He was, therefore, never part of ‘the club’ (extreme minority though they were), but merely relegated to second-tier status by the very people that had so little idea of art, and none of his writing ability.
So, is Roger Ebert’s struggle with acceptance a David and Goliath story, wherein good trumps evil, and all is finally seen aright? Perhaps, but such a simplistic view obscures not only the facts, as they are, but what makes Ebert’s own views — even some of the wrong-headed views — so unique. On the ‘plus’ side, Ebert could be a wonderful writer, as his great ending to Taxi Driver shows, for he was capable of a poesy, insight, and economy that few critics ever have. There are a number of ‘critical’ hits, as well, such as his reviews (and reassessments) of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Interiors, as he not only got those films in a way that most simply did not, but really communicated what he knew, and thus made such knowledge accessible. On the ‘minus’ side, however, he’d deride clear masterstrokes such as Stardust Memories, while praising schlock (Schindler’s List), merely well-wrought stylizations (Pulp Fiction), and effused over films that, while good, really don’t deserve to be considered “Great Films” in league with the rest of his list. In short, while Roger Ebert was worlds above most critics, partly due to his writing talent, and partly due to the fact that he merely focused on what was essential and deep — ideology be damned — there was often a disconnect between what he considered to be essential, versus what truly was, as he was primarily an emotional critic, and a self-admitted one, at that. Yet as Dan Schneider writes in his retrospective of the man’s work, this is merely recapitulative of normal, human fallibility, especially since (unlike most critics) Ebert was quite open about his own biases, and did not try to hide behind some veneer of ‘holiness’ — moated off, as he was, from the rest of the world by his talent, and, perhaps even more importantly, his great fame, as well.
As for Woody? Well, let’s put it this way. Whenever Roger Ebert got him right, he got him damn right, down to the poesy that’d explain a film, and get at its ‘essence’ in a way that a more prosaic reading never could. But, if Ebert was wrong, he was wrong with the sort of gusto that only a fine wordsmith could have, wherein the writing might partly save an otherwise ill thought-out review, and leave it quite readable. The former quality is most visible, perhaps, in his reviews of Allen’s first three ‘big’ films, as Ebert cuts through the very misconceptions that — despite his great influence — have now become quite mainstream. Indeed, for Ebert’s own review of Annie Hall does not ‘side’ with Alvy (at least, not exactly), but comments on his many flaws, and on why he is still so well-liked today:
Allen plays Alvy Singer, stand-up comic and incurable combination of neurotic and romantic. He’s self-consciously a New Yorker, a liberal, a Jew, an intellectual, a seeker after the unattainable, and an expert at making it unattainable. One of Alvy Singer’s problems is that he understands this all so well. He’s not a victim of forces beyond his control, but their author.
Note how much, on a purely literary level, this tiny, three-sentence paragraph says. It captures Alvy Singer, to a ‘T’, explains, subliminally, why he is likeable, and ultimately subverts the notion that he is ‘merely’ some regular guy. In short, here is a strong literary arc that captures and recapitulates the work of the film, itself, and expands upon it in a way that most criticisms have not. The review only gets better, as Alvy is accused of treating women vis-a-vis his own life stages and preferences at the time. “His only trouble,” Ebert writes, “is that women are people, not stages.” No, Ebert does not go into the film’s flaws (of which there are a couple), but on one level, he didn’t really need to. After all, this was written a year after the film’s release, which came on the heels of Love and Death, Sleeper, and other small comic gems. Annie Hall was a shock, then, to most of Woody’s fans, and one that Ebert wrote more deeply of in his re-evaluation a quarter-century later, which upped the rating to 4 (from 3½ stars) and went into more specifics as to why the film works. Yet while his effusiveness was excusable in 1977, it seems a bit off in 2002, given how — at that point — Allen had released a number of masterpieces that simply went beyond his first attempt at drama, a fact that, judging by his other reviews, Ebert seems to have been aware of, but does not come out and say. It wasn’t ‘important’, then, to make such a distinction, but what does a critic do, really, but make distinctions and deductions, especially in the face of one film’s great popularity — seemingly at the exclusion of better, yet lesser known works? In short, Ebert is more emotional than cerebral, knows what he is moved by (even if not always why), and closes the film’s reassessment from a kind of bubble, wherein he speaks of love and his own responses to such — and ably, at that — but without feeling the need to make it much bigger than himself.
Unlike most critics, Roger Ebert quickly realized why Annie Hall (1977) is an excellent, and it had remarkably little to do with the purported ‘identification’ with Alvy Singer. Ebert, rightly, saw Alvy “not a victim of forces beyond his control, but their author.”
In 1978, however, Roger Ebert was more firmly rooted in the ‘core’ of things, as his well-argued review of Interiors shows. Thus, by ignoring the fact that most characters are not ‘likeable’, anticipating the tiring and presumptuous comparisons to Ingmar Bergman, and focusing on the drama, itself, Ebert was able to construct a review that not only got at the heart of the film, but, as with his take on Annie Hall, did so with style and economy. His comparison to Eugene O’Neill (as opposed to Bergman) is apt, for Interiors truly is American, rather than Scandinavian, down to the ultra-WASPy characters (Eve) and Allen’s symbols of typical, leisurely excess (Joey), who, like Alvy Singer before them, are the “author” of their own existential ills. But while critics would go on to complain of the characters — in fact, the film’s strong point — Ebert saw through this, as, in his view, the film “becomes serious by intently observing complex adults as they fend and cope, blame and justify.” In short, the film is about adults, and for adults, in a way that most films never are, but is, ironically, the very thing it gets derided for, no matter how unconscious those reasons are.
Yet, for all that, time was especially rough on Ebert, not so much for his original review — which was spot-on — but what he did and didn’t do with it in the interim. His “Great Films” list came about as a way to collate what is most essential in cinema, and, perhaps, what has garnered the most complex discussion, yet despite the fact that he awarded Annie Hall a mere 3½ stars compared to Interiors’ 4, he neither did a re-evaluation of Interiors, nor included it in his list. But why? It seems that, twenty-five years after the fact, he’s found Annie Hall more enjoyable, and perhaps even more important. And, on a strictly numerical basis, this is undeniable. Quite simply, it has influenced more, been imitated more, and has been watched with far more frequency, and is thus part of the cultural lexicon even for those who know little of Allen’s other work. But a critic’s job is to cut through the hype, and look at quality, which is immanent, and not mere importance, which is quite often circumstantial. And given that Ebert was well aware of the thrashing that Interiors had received, it would have been more interesting to see him comment on this, in particular, and perhaps even speculate as to why. After all, Annie Hall tops so many ‘Great Films’ lists that it really does not need the intellectual support. Interiors, if all was fair, would not need it, either. This is not the case, however, and that Ebert went the more predictable route is yet more evidence of the role his emotions played in so many of his critical decisions.
That said, Ebert’s string of quality reviews would only continue with Manhattan, a great film that, while almost universally accepted as great, is labeled as such for all the wrong reasons, and therefore misunderstood. Too often, it is called a “love poem” to the city, but such trite phrasings ignore the manipulations and ‘small’ evils committed by almost everyone within, thus defanging Allen’s excoriation of his characters by conflating it with mere romance. Ebert, however, does not fall into this trap, nor for the film’s many illusions that are so often taken at face value, as the film is full of “people who are at odds with their own visions of themselves.” This is not only true, in a purely logical sense, but what ultimately drives the film forward, parallaxed, as it is, against the film’s romantic imagery, thus giving Manhattan some heft that mere romance could not. Ebert even goes on to tweak Isaac’s character a bit re: Isaac’s writing ability, for while most critics have taken the film’s opening cliches as somehow wonderful or evocative, they merely show a guy at odds with his own perceptions, for he is simply unable to construct a good novel, no matter how much he wants to. The film, then, is not merely about relationships, but “what people say during relationships — or, to put it more bluntly, it’s about how people lie by technically telling the truth.” There are lots of examples of this, such as Isaac’s refusal to nix his fling with Tracy, or Yale deluding himself by interpreting Isaac as somehow being ‘too perfect’, for the viewer gets the sense that, despite their being best friends, Yale is never truly let into Isaac’s life, and is thus hidden from the man’s flaws.
Manhattan is another film that Ebert got right. He’d understand the scene, below, not as a burgeoning romance, but the interactions between a deluded man falling for a human cancer — no matter how well-idealized, at least on the outside.
But, for everything that Ebert gets right, his review is nonetheless marred by the fact that he doesn’t supply many examples for his claims, as he’s merely comfortable with generalities (correct as they often are). In fact, when Ebert decides to get specific, he even starts to flounder a bit. For instance, he derides the later scenes involving Yale, noting that they are there mostly for “comic” effect. Yes, comedy is definitely a part of this sequence, but far more important is Allen’s use of Yale to downright skewer Isaac, who, despite being best friends with him, has revealed so little of his true nature, which is really an attack on them both: Isaac for being manipulative and selfish, and Yale for being a naive fool. Yale, then, is more or less a cipher, and seems to exist for Isaac, which is telling in and of itself given the man’s ostensible role, and how much of the film seems to take Isaac’s own perspective over that of others. The ending, too, is derided, for “Allen hasn’t found the line between the irony the scene needs and the sentiment he wants his character to feel.” But the sentiment, like much of the film, is mere illusion, as Ebert already knew, and therefore immaterial. What matters is the fact that Isaac runs back to Tracy only after he gets dumped, demands she give up on her current plans (oddly prescient of Harry’s words to Elisabeth Shue in Deconstructing Harry), yet knows she ultimately won’t stay with a manipulator like him, despite the film’s famous ambiguity on this point. Thus, while Ebert closes his review by saying that Annie Hall is a better film, it is really Manhattan that is superior — however slightly — for precisely the reasons Ebert unwittingly states, yet fails to follow up on.
Thus, we already have three good and well-written reviews (especially that of Interiors), which is more than most critics ever do. But what of Ebert’s misses? What do they say about the man as critic? Well, in his take on the great Stardust Memories, for instance, Ebert simply dismisses the film, and while his reasons are well-written, they are all quite wrong, as Dan Schneider carefully shows. In short, the review begins with a comparison to Fellini’s 8½, but does not describe the differences; complains that the film is a mere recapitulation of Allen’s own complaints; and that the narrative, itself, has little depth, and only expresses “impotence”, with no saving grace. I’ve already dealt with these charges at length, but suffice to say that the film is far more than a rehash of 8½ and betters it in almost every way, that Sandy Bates is not Woody Allen, and is in fact skewered by Allen in many scenes, such as his dialogue with the aliens, and that — far from “impotence” — Bates is quite whole, and ends up creating a film of not only lasting value, but one that, in the ‘outer’ film (that is, of Allen’s rather than Sandy’s own making), allows the viewer to completely re-interpret the film’s characters in a way that deepens them upon multiple viewings. Indeed, for while 8½ posits the self, and the self’s memories as the be-all, end-all, Stardust Memories is more about transcendence, including of the very thoughts the lead character has (or seems to have), only for them to be quite undermined by ‘bigger’ things. By contrast, 8½ ends on a far grimmer note, and one that ultimately returns to Guido’s seeming lack of purpose — hardly expansive, and certainly much smaller (even if very well-done) than Allen’s own ambitions and success. Ebert’s review ends on a sour note, that the film needs something “larger” to make light of all the “bitching and moaning”. Yet, in a real sense, it is the critics’ own bitching that Allen anticipates, even as he throws so much to gnaw on, with few — Ebert included — who’d ever know what to do with it all. In short, emotion trumps reason yet again, and the art is quite poorer for it.
Given the above, it is not surprising, then, that Ebert is little different from the critics who took a negative approach towards Cassandra’s Dream. His review ends, quite rightly, on a great, poetic line (“Remember how that ring falls at the end? What is fiction for, if not to manipulate the possible?”), but for a film rated at a mere two stars, there is surprisingly little justification in the review itself. It pretty much recapitulates the film’s plot, with only the most minor of analysis in between, offers a few backhanded compliments, and criticizes an ending that, to Ebert, is “completely possible but highly unsatisfactory”. But why? No one knows, as the ‘why’ is never communicated, merely given via fiat. I won’t pretend to probe into Ebert’s mind, here, but the reason is, as before, likely an emotional one. Two brothers are stuck in a bad situation, and one accidentally kills the other, just after the first reneges on a wholly new murder plot, then kills himself out of guilt. No, this does not satisfy the emotion, for it is quite dark without a ‘clear message’ (a message, by the way, that Ebert praises in Match Point) but, on a deeper level — that is, on the level of pure artistry — it works, as it completely subverts the viewer’s expectation of character in a way that is both “plausible” (Ebert’s word), and poetic, recapitulating the brothers’ deeper issues all the while expanding upon them, too. Yet, to Ebert, this didn’t seem to matter, for there were other issues at hand, which, while revealing things of Ebert, say little of the film, itself. At the end of his review, Ebert speaks of fiction’s ability “to manipulate the possible”. This is spot-on, but Ebert was a critic, whose job is quite different: to illuminate what is, and not merely his own preferences of “the possible”.
Roger Ebert tries to rip the excellent Cassandra’s Dream, but fails. Perhaps he’d merely see the scene, below, as a minor recapitulation of the ‘discussion’ in Crimes And Misdemeanors. Yet despite the fact that the film is lesser, it’s well-acted, well-scripted, and well-shot, and even supporting characters, like Howard (below), are hyper-realistic. Just notice how he goes from being the prim and aloof businessman, to utterly psyhotic in his voice and gestures, almost as if this was always inside him, now finally at the fore.
As for the rest? Ebert’s take on Another Woman is quite right, even as the four-star rating (as withInteriors a decade before) was not enough to put it into his “Great Films” list; The Front is derided, as Ebert states his own bias from the start for a political film, almost solely based around the film’s marketing failures rather than what it was ultimately was; Deconstructing Harry is given a positive review, but one that, unfortunately, makes the all-too-common mistake of conflating Woody with the ‘Woody’ persona; Match Point is praised, but the mediocre Midnight in Paris is rated over the excellent Celebrity, again for emotional reasons; and Husbands and Wives, while great, is praised for all the wrong reasons, as it’s not ‘really’ a tale about love and love’s imperfections, but far deeper issues of self-destructive patterns, for which love is merely the vehicle and exemplar. Indeed, Judy does not innocently wonder if there’s anything “more” out there vis-a-vis her marriage to Gabe, as Ebert claims, but in fact manipulates and ensnares every man around her, and shows quite clearly that she belongs with nobody at all. This film could have really been ‘about’ anything, and yet this basic theme of human patterns and self-destructiveness would remain the same. Nor does it help Ebert that he ends his review with some cliches re: love, and the duration of imperfections, either, for even if Ebert is often wrong, he is seldom a bad writer — a fact that’s given him some longevity. Yet when bad writing is coupled with lackluster insights from a critic who could do much better, one only sees how slipshod most writing on the arts really is.
Now, it may sound ‘nitpicky’ to critique a review whose basic conclusion — that it is a well-wrought film — I very much agree with, but there is a deeper point to be made. It is not enough to agree or disagree in life, but to really understand why such agreement or dissent occurs in the first place, for this is the only way to replicate a thought in new situations, and therefore show it is no mere dart-toss. Yet Ebert, for his many pluses, and his willingness to take on film for what it was, rather than what it wasn’t a la Cinema du Cahiers, was often guilty of the same thing, albeit in ways neither Ebert nor his envious and deluded critics could imagine. For all that, however, I’d quickly side with Ebert and his own desire for “the possible” in art over that of most critics. One simply does not give a damn, but pretends to. The other cares, but can’t always deliver, through no fault of his own. I’ll point this out, but there won’t be much derision, here. That’ll come later, and it’ll be directed where it is well-earned.