Dan Schneider: This is Dan Schneider, and this is the first Dan Schneider Video Interview. My guest is Alex Sheremet, a writer, poet, and film critic. We will be discussing his latest book on the film career of Woody Allen. Before we get into that, I just want to give a little word on the nature of the Dan Schneider interviews. Those familiar with Cosmoetica know that I’d done several dozen interviews in a written format. One of the things that I’ve found out in this day and age is that a lot of people don’t have the time, and a lot of people simply are not good enough with words to do interviews. So I’m trying now to put Cosmoetica and the interview series online on YouTube and this is the first of those interviews.
Anyone who has ever saw the old television show Open End by David Susskind in the 1960s, this will sort of follow that format. Some interviews might be 40 or 45 minutes, others are an hour and a half, and others might run 2 or 3 hours depending on the subject matter and the interviewee. If you’ve ever watched the interviews at the Archive Of American Television, with television stars, we’ll follow that format. Basically, I’ll ask questions of the interviewee, who you will see on your screen before you. This is, again, Alex Sheremet, and this is being recorded on September 27th, a Saturday, 2014.
Alex is a poet, a writer, and a film critic. He has a new book coming out from a new press, and is about the filmic career of Woody Allen. Alex, what is the name of the book, and what is the name of the press?
DS: The book Woody Allen: Reel To Real…that suggests you may be doing more than just talking about the man’s filmic life. What is general thrust of the book, in just a few minutes?
AS: I think what you originally said was right. You first said the life and career of Woody Allen, and then you corrected yourself and said the filmic career of Woody Allen. And this is really what it is. I cover every single film that Woody Allen has ever appeared in, or otherwise written or directed. It covers every film in minute detail specifically addressing the art. So, if you want to talk about the thrust of the book, the thrust is really an evaluation. I go from film to film, evaluating each film as a work of art, because one thing I noticed when I would read a couple of dozen or so books on Woody Allen, there’s so much written about him online, there’s so many books, there’s so much academic writing, but there’s been remarkably little about the thing that is ostensibly his life, which is his film art. There’s very little on his film art, and I want to offer a corrective to that. There’s been too much written about him that does not address the thing that he is most responsible for, and what he’ll be remembered for, and this is really what it is. I want to get into the art, and I want to say why it works, and in the rare cases it does not work, I want to say why not. That’s really the general outline, and that’s where I go with it.
DS: And that brings up the idea of what criticism is or isn’t, and we can get into that in a moment. But before we to that, tell me about Reel To Real. It is currently now just an e-book incarnation and part of a start-up press. Tell me a little bit about the press, tell me about the founder, and how it came to be that you were offered to do this book.
AS: I first heard about this press sometime September or August of last year. So John Pruzanski, who is the owner of the press… He decided to make this startup that would strictly be an e-book business. So at least at the beginning, it’s film books, and it’s attempting to re-print a lot of the materials you could find online. These are articles, blog posts, professional reviews, whatever they may be. And John is simply reprinting this material. The first filmic release was on Steven Spielberg, and he has another book in the works, also about Woody Allen, called the Woody Allen Guide. It features, last that I remember, maybe about 400 or so essays from others, and originally, I was supposed to be the editor of this book. I was supposed to go through each of these essays, I was supposed to compile them in a kind of logical order, and I was supposed to respond to each essay, putting everything into a narrative, craft a response to it, about all the material that’s been out regarding Woody Allen…
But in the process of doing this I went far beyond. So instead of crafting my own narrative, I really had my own book. I had about 150,000 words on everything from the specifics of criticism to all the little details on every single film. That’s not what John Purzanski wanted, so the editorship went to someone else, and he decided to give me my own book. It is called a DigiDialogue, which is basically a conversation between the writer and reader. So 90-95% of the book is my own words, my narrative, and everything that I’ve said about Woody Allen, and the remainder will be the responses that will be available about this book. So it’s going to be conversations with Jonathan Rosenbaum, it’s gonna be conversations with you, anybody that’s reviewing it, anybody that’s got comments on the website. I’m going to take all this material and I’m eventually going to craft an addendum essay, putting all of this stuff together and responding to any critiques, responding to any praise, whatever it may be. And because it is an e-book, I can do this perpetually. So every single time there is a new movie, or a new critic that decides he wants to respond to something I’ve written, I’m going to also write another essay and this is going to sync with the e-book automatically.
As far as how I got the book, this is really how publishing goes. You recommended me for this book as an editor, and therefore, because of this professional contact with Cosmoetica, I had the chance to work on this book. I’ve written other essays, books, but because of this professional contact, I have this opportunity. It’s really about who you know, and not necessarily talent. I get the feeling that in the future, people will be interested in this sort of platform publishing, very different from even any independent publishers out there.
DS: Now let me ask you, say, 3 or 4 years down the line, Woody Allen has another 3 or 4 films come out. So, if I purchased the book upon its release in mid-November – and I think November 13 is still the target date, correct? – so, let’s say, in November 2017, another 4 years have gone by, will the people who have bought the book, say, in the first 6 months or so – will they automatically get an update, or be allowed to download information in subsequent copies as you have these DigiDialogues with readers and critics?
AS: Yes, this is going to be free material. So, again, part of the reason for this is the following. Too often, writers and publishers, they have this idea that they want to make an ‘immediate splash’. They have a product. Usually, it’s a very sub-par product, but they have a product, and they want to somehow be controversial or do SOMETHING that’s gonna cause a splash. And while this might work in the short term, or might cause some sales, or a spike in discussion for about 4 months, really, the best way to do long-term publishing is when you have material that you’ll release over time, you enter into a genuine dialogue with your readership, you are actually engaging and you wish to discuss things substantively and at length, and this is what I’m gonna do.
The bulk of the book will be released now, people that want to see my argument, people that want to see the meat of everything, they’re gonna have to make the initial purchase, obviously. But, later on, as more movies come out, as people are speaking, I’m there to engage with them. I’m not going to release a book and go hide somewhere. People see my face right now, people will see interviews all the time, people will see reviews, and I’ll be there and I’ll be responding to these things. I’ve tried to solicit many, many writers and many critics to take a look at this book and I was shocked at how many of them don’t even have an e-mail or some other form of contact on their websites. That’s because they simply want to sit there and release whatever it is they want to release, and they’re perfectly content with having a readership but not necessarily talking with them or engaging with them.
An example of that is Jonathan Rosenbaum. Supposedly he was reading my essay before I contacted him, and when I finally did contact him, he seemed to have an interest in talking with me, then, after a couple of e-mails, he basically said, No, not interested! And that’s a real shame because I’m positive he has many fans, I’m sure there are many people wondering: what does Rosenbaum think of Alex Sheremet’s critique of his work on Woody Allen? But there’s no response to that, because he chooses to not have a response, and that’s sort of how most people function.
DS: Let us get back to that when we talk about the critics. In this segment, let’s talk about the e-book format…What advantages do you see in the e-book format over, say, self-publishing in the print format, or also in big New York City publishers? In 20 or 30 years, do you think e-books are the way of the future, and what are your views in that regard versus Random House, Simon & Schuster, and so on?
AS: Well, to start with the more minor points first. The more obvious advantage to the e-book is the fact that because it’s a digital ‘thing,’ a publisher can interact with it right away. There doesn’t have to be any kind of process to update it, you don’t have to push things through any printers, you don’t have to ship anything. When I say I want to have an addendum to this book, I will be able to make these changes right away, and I’m gonna be able to schedule things very quickly. There’s a lot of time that’s saved, a lot of money that’s saved, and things are very immediate in this regard. And, in a sense, interacting with the book will be similar to interacting with me. So, in a way, it removes a step from the reader and also the writer, there’s fewer intermediaries, and I’m right there.
I guess that’s the more minor point. As far as the future goes, it’s pretty obvious, at least to anyone who’s carefully thinking about such things, that although books might have their advantages in the short-term, it’s not really a technology that’s gonna stick it out for a long time. Perhaps in 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, there might be books that have a physical advantage in being printed. Perhaps large, glossy pages, maybe things that have some sort of tactile sensation that has a more substantive impact on the reading of a book, but for the most part, people will have readers. Not Kindles, not all of these readers that are out right now, which is very primitive technology compared to what’s gonna be out there in the future. But people will have readers that will be very convenient, very fast, it’s gonna be very easy to take notes, very easy to put this material that you’re doing in the e-book on the Internet. There’s really no reason why books will continue to have some sort of longevity. They really won’t, and eventually, when people get really fed up with the kind of publications that big publishing houses are pushing, self-publishing will become a much bigger deal than it is, and it will probably have instead of, say, a few large publishers, and a dozens and dozens of big independent publishers, you’re probably gonna have hundreds of much smaller publishers that push things both to a niche audience, as well as in a more general sense. That’s really what the model is gonna be like a couple of decades from now. So, no, I don’t think print books have too much longevity left.
DS: Ok, let’s end this segment, and when we get into the next segment, we’ll took about Woody Allen’s films and career.
Ok, Alex, let’s talk of your actual book. It is a long book, I believe it’s 300,000 words?
AS: [Inaudible, but, it’s 150,000 words.]
DS: It is separated into a handful of chapters, mostly divided by the films, but you also took about the critics of Woody Allen as well as his life and career outside of film, I believe. So tell me why you structured the book in certain ways, what the titles of the sections are, and how that relates to the content the structure involves?
AS: As you said, the book is organized very logically. I had a very particular thing in mind when I decided to order things in the way that I did. My biggest reason for separating his movies into time periods and categories is because, too often, when you read critics and film criticism, specifically about Woody Allen, a lot of ‘stuff’ gets conflated. So many people, for example, might assume that a comedy he did in the early 1970s or the late 60s would be equal to a great drama from the 80s, or something else from the 90s, and that’s not really the way that I view things.
When it came time to look at his films, there is a very neat breakdown that begins with his early work. He started out as a filmmaker when he was very young, but started doing serious stuff only in his 40s which is pretty late in life compared to artists in general. But he starts with comedies, so the first chapter deals with that. It deals with all of the material he did up until Annie Hall. And this is because although these are really great comedies, as far as comedies go, and I’d consider them probably the apex of comedy even when compared to, I guess, more classical stuff, by Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. I really consider Woody Allen to be at the apex of this form, and he’s probably the latest and best manifestation of comedy in the last few decades.
However, that said, drama and other genres that are more mixed, his dramas really take the medium to a completely different level. We no longer have movies that are merely gag-driven, that are dependent upon jokes, that are dependent upon little intonations in the voices to make somebody laugh. These are films that do very, very serious things. Woody Allen might not agree with this, but, when you look at a film like Manhattan, or a film like Stardust Memories or Another Woman, these are things that are completely at the top of their respective genres.
There’s been very few films like Stardust Memories, there’s been very few films that could combine multiple genres in so many ways, that can both be so allusive as well as very much building upon those allusions in ways that earlier filmmakers could not have even conceptualized. Then there’s pure dramas like Another Woman that are also at the top of the genre, and to me, this period probably ended with 1992’s Husbands and Wives. And after Husbands and Wives, being probably his last truly, truly, truly great film, there’s a period of experimentation. There’s things that Woody Allen did from the 90s and into the early 2000s, that, even when they’re not always 100% successful, they did very interesting things very differently from other filmmakers, and, more importantly, very differently from the way Woody Allen has done these things earlier. So, he revisited a lot of comedies in this time but he did it in a way that was very different from the 1960s or 70s, and whatnot. He’s somebody that, when you look at his entire body of work, he’s always willing to challenge himself, and he wants to grow. Very few films were failures in this time period, although it’s very common to say that films like Deconstructing Harry are terrible, or Celebrity is a bad film. I don’t think this is true, as even his worst films have a number of really wonderful moments that probably should be talked about.
DS: Well, Alex, let’s talk about his films in a bit. Other than the sections that divide his films up chronologically into periods, what are the other sections of the book other than the film sections?
AS: So, besides the films section, I have a pretty long section on 6 critics that have in some way engaged with Woody Allen. The 6 are Roger Ebert, I have James Berardinelli, I have you, I have Pauline Kael, I have Jonathan Rosenbaum, and, finally, I have Ray Carney.
DS: And you basically have them divided into pro and con with Ebert, Berardinelli, and me as the ‘pro’ Woody faction, and the other 3 as the sort of ‘con’ Woody faction, right?
AS: Yeah, except that, if I say pro or con, I think the con side it’s very clear that are very, very against Woody Allen, but the pro side, though, because the positions are far more nuanced, you can’t simply talk about things in that sense. So, James Berardinelli, for example, has a number of reviews that I very much agree with, I think he makes a number of really good points, but there are also reviews that I completely disagree with, such as his review of Celebrity. And then there’s Roger Ebert who kind of oscillates between really great writing about Woody Allen that is both insightful and critically sound, and stuff that could be well-written, but is not necessarily very insightful critically, repeating, as he does, many of the same mistakes that critics both before and after him pretty much end up doing. So the first 3 critics, they are ‘pro’ in the sense that they recognize Woody Allen as a great filmmaker, and they’re willing to say what works and what doesn’t. It’s not merely a bunch of people ass-kissing Woody Allen, it’s people that are taking his stuff seriously and responding to it in that way.
On the other side, however, you have critics like Pauline Kael who have almost exclusively taken negative views of Woody Allen, very often by not—not ‘very often,’ but always not ever really engaging with the films in question. So, in her reviews, for example, of Stardust Memories or Interiors, she gets so caught up on Woody Allen’s Jewish identity, or whatever else that she might think up in her head, and she very rarely starts to talk about the films themselves. Sometimes, she spends paragraphs and paragraphs diddling away at something that is completely irrelevant before she even begins to talk about the film in question. So that separation, I consider it much more of a qualitative one, rather than one that’s simply ‘pro’ or ‘con’ because one thing I’v e always said is, it’s great to have people that agree with you, it’s great to be validated, but by far the more interesting and meaningful thing is to have someone who is able to express their views in an intelligent way. So, agreement is nice, but it’s much better to have a unique view, even if it’s wrong, as long as it’s presented in a way that’s meaningful, that’s intelligent, and that makes you think about things. That’s really the bottom line, that’s how the world works, and that’s how things progress.
DS: Let us get back to the critics in a moment. Other than the critics and the film section, what are the other sections in the book?
AS: The final section of the book is basically a look at Woody Allen’s biography and his views on life and art and his philosophy based on various things. Now, I put this chapter at the very end of the book for a very good reason. Most people, when they approach criticism, when they approach art, they think, Ah!, so, here’s a writer, here’s an artist, here’s a filmmaker. The main way I’m going to engage with his work is if I get to know his biography, if I get to know his personal viewpoint on things. And that’s clearly the wrong way to approach things because, very often, artists are very wrong not only about their own work, but also about the works of others. Their biographies often have very little to do with what really ends up on screen because content does not necessarily imply quality, quality does not necessarily imply content. So for a very specific reason, knowing that it might confuse people a little bit, I decided to put this chapter at the very end when I engage with Woody Allen. And it shows that, despite the fact that I consider his films to be really, really great material, and despite the fact that very often, I think he has a very mature outlook on things, he’s definitely said things about his art and others’ art that is either untrue or silly or just beyond any reason I can think of why someone might possibly say such a thing. So that chapter’s at the end for a very specific reason, and I think that the more criticism goes into this kind of direction, and away from context, and more towards zooming in on the work itself, the better that art will be in the long run because people won’t be as confused about what makes art ‘art,’ and what makes everything else ‘everything else’. It’s a separate entity, and that’s what it is.
DS: What we’ll do is, we’ll talk about film criticism in our next segment, specifically, and also some of the film critics, and then we’ll also go into your opinions on some of Woody Allen’s films.
I just wanted to apologize that earlier in the interview there was a slight little bump here. This is the first interview I’m doing, so there will be slight problems. But, anyway, Alex, let’s talk about what film criticism and what criticism in general is. I know that in my own writing I’ve often stressed objectivity vs. subjectivity, and people often take the idea in saying that there are things that are objective about art, or things that you can look at critically, somehow means that opinions are not valid, or that thinking you are correct on everything, whereas, for me, I’m saying that things are objectively great. For example, if I say that Walt Whitman is an objectively greater poet than Maya Angelou, you can argue that, but I don’t think you can reasonably argue that, or that anybody reasonably believes, that their opinion is the best possible one. It’s just that they don’t really understand what objectivity and subjectivity really are. So let’s talk about your views on criticism, and talk to me about Jonathan Rosenbaum because you’ve had some e-mail exchanges with him.
AS: When it comes to criticism, I would generally agree with what you’ve said just now. There is an immanent reality to things that goes beyond what WE might say about it. So, irrespective of me, Alex Sheremet, sitting here, writing this book about Woody Allen, saying this, this, or that about the film, the films DO have their own reality, they exist in a very specific context, they do work and not work in very specific ways. It does not take me actually saying these things for them to be true. It’s true that there are people out there who can articulate such things better than others, but the articulation itself does not change the reality of the works. And I think that this is a thing that a lot of people have difficulty with. There’s a reality outside of what you might say, outside of what exists in your head, and criticism is merely a way of respecting this and trying to get to the bottom of that, as far as such a thing is possible.
As far as subjectivity in criticism, yes, there will always be opinions, yes, there will always be disagreements about things, but just like with anything in life, there’s room for legitimate disagreement, and then there’s completely illegitimate agreement or disagreement. So, in the example that you gave, it’s a legitimate claim to make that Walt Whitman is a greater poet than Maya Angelou. There’s very few people, maybe not today but perhaps 50 years from now, that would ever argue otherwise. That said, if you, for example, take the best 20 or 30 poems of Walt Whitman, and then you try to decide which one of his individual poems is the best, that’s where opinion comes in. Opinion is really a matter of deciding between things that at least have SOME level of similarity. It is not deciding between two things that are so polar that agreement on such a thing becomes completely immaterial, that completely contradicts reality. This is really the realm of opinion, it’s when you take things that are alike in some sense, it’s when you can get to the bottom of them in ways that really follow evidence and logic and argument and everything else that people so frequently use in their real lives, but seem to generally shut off when it comes to art as if art is divorced from reality in such a profound way that you can’t use the same tools of logic in these sorts of applications. You can.
DS: Yeah, and it’s sort of like when people look at, say, Ed Wood-like bad films. And yes, most people would say Ed Wood was obviously a bad filmmaker, but a lot of people will do that because Ed Wood has been glorified as a bad filmmaker. But if I were to say that Steven Spielberg is a bad filmmaker, maybe not technically or in the inept way that Ed Wood was, but in the overindulgence of cliches – look at Saving Private Ryan, with every ethnic cliché out there, or look at Schindler’s List with all the cliches about Nazis, or the red coat’s heavy-handed symbolism – that is just terrible art. I mean, it’s just bad. You can say, yes, it was well-shot, or the framing of it was good, but the red coat of that little girl in that otherwise black and white film is just so over-the-top mawkish that it’s not good. And we can talk about writers in the same way.
But this brings up another point, though. We’ve talked about, lots of times, the idea of like vs. dislike, vs. good, vs. bad, and how people conflate those things…
AS: Before we get to that, I was just reminded of something. I think this whole idea of art being subjective and beyond notions of good or bad, it’s really an outgrowth of the idea that reality is somehow subjective. I’ve always found that argument to be very, very disingenuous, not in the sense that the people making it are somehow being malicious, or that they’re trying to lie to everybody around them. But, there’s a confusion about what they, themselves, think about such things in the first place.
So, for example, if you have a certain thing you need to accomplish throughout the day, if you have a need to go the store, or you have writing you need to get done, or you need to go teach a class. All of these things, they follow a logical progression of steps. You know that if you do something, reality will respond, and that, if you don’t do something, reality will likewise not respond. And this applies to pretty much every single instance of human conduct, it applies to 99.9+% of everybody’s existence. But the second someone is now asked the philosophical question of ‘reality,’ everybody suddenly seems to get very confused and say there is no objectivity, despite the fact that for their entire existence otherwise, prior to this question being posed, they are acting as if reality IS objective. Why? Because it is, and this is what experience tells you, this is what reality tells you.
So, with that out of the way, to get into the realm of ‘like’ and ‘dislike,’ the example that I always use for myself is Arnold Schwarzenegger and the film Total Recall. Now, when we get to my biography, I will mention that I came here from Belarus, I did not know any English when I came to America, and one of the ways that I remember learning English was actually watching Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Probably my favorite film of his is Total Recall, and I have probably seen it maybe 50 or 60 times in my life, from the time I was 7 or 8 years old, up until a month or two ago, and this is a film that I very much like, or love even, but it would be completely ridiculous, wow, isn’t this such great fucking acting? Isn’t this such great scripting? Isn’t this such a great shot? It’s really not. It’s something that I enjoy. It’s something that has a place in my memory. It’s something that is very much a nostalgia piece for me. It’s something that was, oddly enough, important for my linguistic development and my development in general, but at the same time, at a certain point people need to mature, people need to grow up, and they need to be able to make distinctions between things that have affected them, things that they have loved throughout their lives, and things that have quality and things that do not have quality. That kind of recognition is rare, that kind of differentiation is rare, but it’s absolutely necessary in many things in life that even go well beyond art, that go into the nitty-gritty of personal existence. Applying it to art is simply the next logical step. But doing it is important. It’s important for art, it’s important for criticism, and that’s that. You can like something that’s great, you can hate something that’s great. I’m not a fan of Bergman films, but what can I say? He’s a great filmmaker. And that applies to many, many things outside of art, as well.
DS: Yeah, and I know what’s puzzling is how people don’t see it. I think a lot of people just want to kowtow to an authority figure, because if you really think about it, I’m a heterosexual male, so are you, and I can think of many females that I knew personally, and I can think of celebrity females that are my type physically, that I find physically attractive. And then there are women that are clearly physically attractive that there’s something that just doesn’t do it for me. I’ll give you an example. The celebrity actress Brooke Shields was a model when she was young. There’s no way I can deny that she’s a beautiful woman. She was a beautiful young woman, and now I think she’s a few months younger than me, and is still a beautiful middle-aged woman. But there’s always just been something about her perfect plastic Barbie looks that just doesn’t do it for me. There’s a difference between objective beauty, say, and personal attraction. In the same way, I don’t love Bergman films, his film Persona, for example, I find to be almost pretentious and a little too arty, but on the other hand, he does it so brilliantly you can’t really deny the technical aspects, you can’t deny the writing, you can’t deny the crafting of the characters. And this is just so obvious, but people just kowtow, and they always say ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and I think it just gives them an out. That’s just my personal opinion. And when we do our next segment, we’ll talk about the critics specifically that you mentioned, or 3, specifically: Kael, Rosenbaum, and Carney, and we’ll talk about what you think their negatives are.
Ok, back with Alex Sheremet. Let us talk about the specific film critics that have been mentioned that were not too high on the films of Woody Allen, being Pauline Kael – the late Pauline Kael – Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Ray Carney. Just a couple of comments from me before we start. I had actually wanted to interview Carney for my Dan Schneider written interviews, and he had my questions for about a year or so, but then he sort of flaked out and said he didn’t consider himself a film critic any more. So I don’t know what his story is with that. But let’s talk of Rosenbaum and Kael, because to me they’re both very similar critics. Both of them, I’d say, they both write these 4 or 5 paragraph reviews, sometimes even shorter than that. They tend to be snarky. They tend to put their own biases into something, whether it’s political or religious or whatnot, with Woody Allen or otherwise.
I remember there was a website I read that collected all of Kael’s reviews, and they were generally abysmal. But the thing with them is that they remind me of the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, who in writing about the poetry of Donald Hall, literally gave a 1 word dismissal back in the early 50s when he was reviewing a Sylvia Plath book as well. He said “Donald Hall: why?” And it was something like that: 1 word or 1 sentence, and it was pithy, it was a great snarky, dismissal, and Donald Hall was one of poetry’s most dull and bad poets of the last half-century, but it was really unfair to Hall, too, because if you really rip a guy you’re gonna have to really sink your teeth in him. And I think Kael and Rosenbaum practiced that Randall Jarrell kind of snark. So tell me about these 2 critics, their similarities, any slight dissimilarities Rosenbaum and Kael have, and your opinions on them.
AS: When it came to the critics chapter, those that I would put on the qualitatively bad side of criticism, Pauline Kael kicked things off. Now, she doesn’t only have 4 or 5 paragraph reviews, and a lot of her reviews of Woody Allen films are just very, very long, and the problem is, unlike with Rosenbaum, not just the length, but the fact that there’s just so much immaterial material in her reviews. And it’s not merely applying to Woody Allen, but applying to many other filmmakers as well. So, for example, one of her most celebrated reviews, is this review of the film Shoeshine, and I thought: Well, perhaps, when she got older in life, she just fell off, and wrote poorly. So I decided to look this review up, as well as many others from this time period, and to my shock, in this review, she merely does a kind of proto-blog post, where she talks about going to this movie theater, where she talks about crying, where she talks about her personal relationship issues with, I guess, some guy she must have broken up with or whatever, and never does she discuss the film at all. Maybe there’s 3 or 4 sentences in that 2-page review ABOUT the film, but for these 2 pages, she’s discussing her own feelings, she’s discussing the reactions of other members of the audience, and it’s like: if you’re going to be PAID to be a professional reviewer, and if you really believe that these films are so great, as she claimed Shoeshine was, then you owe it, at the very least, to be able to say why. Not only to yourself, out of respect for yourself and respect for your own opinions, being able to say that, ‘hey, I’m actually able to back up what I say,’ but also respect for your audience. She did not show that in that review, and she certainly does not show that either to Woody Allen, or her readership in her subsequent reviews on Woody Allen.
I remember when, for example, in her review of The Purple Rose Of Cairo, her negative critiques was that [the film] was so brown, and so drab, and it was so orangey, and it was so this, and so that, when in fact the reality, the colors the Great Depression, if you look, I guess, table-tops, or shower curtains, they were really checkered, they were really bright, they were really orange, they were really all these things that the film wasn’t… And yes, factually, she may be correct in her assertion, but this has remarkably little to do with the film. Because if you look at a film like Purple Rose Of Cairo, Woody Allen is taking the mythology of the Great Depression as it exists in the imagination of pretty much every living human being, except, perhaps, in Pauline Kael. Perhaps the table-cloths WERE checkered, in the 1920s and the 30s and the 40s and the 50s, but it’s completely irrelevant to the fact that this is NOT the way that this reality is being interpreted. So here’s a mythology that he’s using for his own ends, and he goes deeper than that. And the fact that, instead of merely focusing on those kinds of issues, she would really decide to go for such a minute little thing, it just shows a mind that’s caught up on too many geeky little details, and trying to sound smart. Because I’m sure to many people it’s impressive to learn that, hey, the 20s and 30s and 40s were ‘really kind of bright!’ But the deeper point is that it’s completely irrelevant to the film.
DS: Let me just add this in. You’d mentioned the film Shoeshine. For those who don’t know, Shoeshine was an Italian Neo-Realist film from I think 1945 or 46, from Vittorio De Sica, whose most famous film was The Bicycle Thieves. So I just wanted to add that in there for people wondering about the film that you briefly mentioned.
Now let’s flip the switch over to Rosenbaum. How is Rosenbaum similar in a negative sense to Kael and how is he different?
AS: I guess the main difference between them is really a stylistic one. So, Kael she tends to go on longer than not in some of her longer pieces. Rosenbaum’s reviews will often devolve to a mere 4 or 5 sentence dismissal or 4 or 5 sentence praise, whatever it may be. His style is very academic, he uses a lot of jargon…
DS: Big-word-throwing-arounding, as I call it.
AS: Lots of big words, lots of, just, academic talk. Kael, on the other hand, at least tries to have a style, she tries to be pithy, she tries to be creative in her word choices. It really falls flat, she’s really terrible at it, but there’s still this ambition. For Rosenbaum, though, the main ambition is to appear a certain way, it’s to have a certain relationship to other academic types, and people that are drawn to such a thing. As far as their insights into things, they are very little different.
DS: Do you think Rosenbaum is a sort of descendent of the Cahiers du Cinema French criticism crowd of Godard, and those people from the French New Wave?
AS: He would be for many different reasons. One of the commonalities between the two is that, like Kael, he doesn’t respond to the film in question, so he has a certain ideology, he has a certain political belief, he has a certain philosophical belief, he has different assertions that he must make, he has an ethical system that he must satisfy, and because of these things, if a film does not necessarily fit into this worldview, it gets dismissed. Now, to me, he denied this to me, but if you look at his reviews, this is very clear, I pointed this out in my book and I’m not gonna go into detail about that. But he’s very much a descendant of this style of film criticism and, unsurprisingly, he’s a very big fan of the critics and the filmmakers associated with that period. I mean, he goes on at length I remember praising the film King Lear, or he praises a film like Breathless, and, again, it’s very little to do with the work itself, but he IS a fan, he wants us to know this, it fits into whatever system that he has set up, and that’s that.
DS: Having said that, one of the differences I would say on the positive side in Rosenbaum’s favor… I’ve listened to a few, I think he’s done a handful of DVD commentaries, and I think Rosenbaum is a pretty good film historian as far as knowing the behind-the-scenes kind of stuff. He can fill in the blanks about how a film was produced and whatnot. His criticism… like you said, I don’t think you could even fairly call him a critic, as we know criticism. In one of the e-mail exchanges that you had, I think he quotes Manny Farber… we’ll talk about that in a second. To me, Rosenbaum though at least has an understanding of film and a genuine like, while Kael seemed to really disdain film, as almost beneath her, so on Rosenbaum’s favor I’d put that. I mentioned the Manny Farber quote. What was the quote that Rosenbaum had taken from his filmic critical hero, Farber? Do you remember that?
AS: Yeah, it was something along the lines of that… so, on the one hand, Farber was saying something like, ‘Criticism needs to stop simply being evaluative.’ But then, Farber goes on to say that he doesn’t want to hear what a critic likes or dislikes. So, immediately, there’s this conflation with, on the one hand, evaluation, and ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ on the other. It’s a very poor conflation, and establishes a straw-man of what the argument really ought to be. ‘Like’ and ‘dislike’ is a completely different realm from evaluation. Evaluation is being able to look at something, and discuss it for what it is. A ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ is a personal reaction to some elements within, or perhaps a totality that is not necessarily evaluative at all. So right away this favorite quote from Manny Farber, it sets up the same kind of conflation that, not ironically, is going throughout most of Rosenbaum’s criticism.
And I actually agree with what you said as far as him being a film historian. In my book, I start out basically praising for his depth of technical knowledge. I mean, he’s been responsible for, at least in some capacity, helping to restore a number of great films. And he has a lot of technical knowledge as far as that sort of thing goes. But if we’re talking about criticism, which is what we started talking about, the criticism is a completely different issue, he’s not good at that, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, he confuses himself, he says things in one place, and contradicts himself completely in another space, sometimes he might do it within the very same sentence. So, he’s technically sound as far as that goes, but as far as my book, though, I’m focusing on the criticism. He bills himself as a critic, he’s known as a critic…
DS: Alex, we’ll talk in our next segment just briefly on Ray Carney, the third of those critics. It reminds me…I think of Rosenbaum, he’s one of these people when we talk about ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity,’ that will doggedly argue for subjectivity, but if you really think about it, if everything is subjective, then arguing FOR subjectivity is a pointless endeavor because it doesn’t matter. And so you get into this sort of logical loop de loop that is self-defeating. We’ll come and we’ll talk about Ray Carney in the next segment.
AS: Just one more thing. What you just said is very true. He, on the one hand, is arguing for not really being evaluative, but in every single review of his that I’ve seen, there IS an evaluation, there is a bottom line that says ‘this is good, this is bad,’ and sometimes, sometimes, SOMETIMES, he offers a reason. If that wasn’t the case, then why be so snarky? He could have such a snarky dismissal of Woody Allen, or some other filmmaker, but if, really, what you’re saying is not valid, and cannot be good or bad, then why have such an emotional attachment to it that you become snarky about it? So that’s a contradiction, and it’s something that he doesn’t really recognize. I asked him about it, and he said he didn’t want to respond. So we’ll leave it at that.
DS: Here we are again with Alex Sheremet to talk about the final critic, Ray Carney, on the ‘con’ side, and I guess I’ll end up short-shrifting the ‘pro’ people: Ebert, Berardinelli, and me. But, Ray Carney is an interesting case. I mentioned I was gonna interview him, but he sort of bailed on me, flaked out on me, as he no longer considered himself a film critic. And, speaking of film historians, he’s had issues with John Cassavetes’s widow, Gena Rowlands, about, I forget which film….
AS: I think it’s Shadows.
DS: Yeah, Shadows, he has a non-copyrighted version of it. But tell me your opinion in brief about Carney and how Carney is different or similar to both Kael and Rosenbaum.
AS: I think with Carney, compared to Kael and Rosenbaum — he’s definitely done a lot more positive. He’s been responsible, partly, for the popularity of John Cassavetes. He’s done some sound technical work. And I think his book of interviews with John Cassavetes: this is something that has probably taken hundreds and hundreds of hours just to compile the material. He has a very good scholarly approach when it comes to the details of film, probably even better than Rosenbaum and Kael — I mean, she’s not even an academic in that sense. Carney has done some positive things and he’s also had some good intelligent attacks on the Hollywood machine. He’s said some interesting things about how films are made and the kind of cliches that they’re forced through, the problems with Hollywood, as a whole, and there’s very little to argue with that.
On the one hand, those are the positives, on the negative, beyond being a mere film scholar, which is what he’s best at, he’s also a film CRITIC. And although he’s criticized many other critics for using jargon or for having ugly, bad language, even his critical books on John Cassavetes are often filled with sentences that are no different than any other academic writing that I have ever come across. I remember coming across one paragraph in his criticism of John Cassavates, in which I had to re-read it 10 times because I just thought: ‘How can somebody possibly write something that sounds so ugly, so unmusicked, so lacking in rhythm, and so forth, so I think he’s guilty of the same errors that he sees in others.
Now, the reason he appears in the book is he’s also been a detractor of Woody Allen. I believe his essay [Modernism For The Millions] only covers Woody Allen films into the early or late 90s, so I’m not sure of his opinions of Woody’s later work, but he’s been dismissive of almost everything that Woody Allen has done, and he’s done it in a way that, although he’s trying to say something new, he’s merely recapping what others have written or thought of the films. So, for example, he looks at a film like Manhattan, and he very much takes that at face value. He sees there’s no black people, he sees there’s no trash in the streets, he sees a superficially romantic ending, he sees the romance of the city, and he very much takes that at face value. He doesn’t see that there’s a pretty strong critique that Woody Allen is making of all the characters, within. The Isaac character: he’s not some ‘hero’. In many ways, he’s just a piece of shit. But to not see that and just see the romance means that you’re stuck on the same illusions that most viewers have really swallowed, and the illusions that Woody Allen’s criticizing. And I think that speaks to a lack of a critical ability on his part.
DS: It reminds me of when I used to run a poetry group in the Twin Cities where I used to live, for about a dozen years, The Uptown Poetry Group. When I would criticize a poem, I would never try to ‘Schneiderize’ it, I would never try to put my biases. If someone brought in a poem, let’s say, I’m not religious, but if someone brought in a poem in praise of Jesus Christ and God and redemption and whatnot, I would try to make that the best poem whether it’s in a John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins kind of way, whereas a lot of critics like the 3 we mentioned, will find anything that’s, say, pro-Christian, [to be] negative. I’ve always said that if some Klaus Barbie Nazi was a great sonneteer, that would not affect my opinion of his sonnets. It does not mean that I’d be endorsing Nazism, but you have to be able to separate these things. In the same way I’ve known people who are Marxists, who are feminists and whatnot, and any poem that does not support the proletariat is a bad poem – even if it’s technically wonderful. If politics comes before art, then it’s a bumper sticker. That’s my opinion, and I think you pretty much share that opinion. I think that’s generally the thing we’re getting at here.
AS: And here’s the thing, when it comes to some of these critics, I very much agree with their politics. As far as politics go, I am very far on the radical left. Not in the way that many people on the radical left are, but I would consider myself somewhere on that spectrum. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m going to endorse bad art simply because it agrees with my worldview. That’s just such a petty, self-absorbed way of approaching the world. I’d much rather be friends with a very intelligent and interesting Christian fundamentalist than an atheist that might have the same opinions that I do, but does not know the proper way of actually reaching those conclusions…
DS: When I think of a great poet like Kenneth Patchen, who wrote some of the greatest monologues of the 20th century, poetically, he was a die-hard leftist, but I can appreciate that, in the same way that I might appreciate Countee Cullen’s pro-Christian poems. I’d sooner break bread with a religious Countee Cullen than some bad Beatnik Marxist, and vice versa. I’d rather break bread with Kenneth Patchen, have a dialogue with him, than some person who’s shared more of my political or aesthetic beliefs, that was bad. Anyway, let’s wrap up with the critics here, and in our next section, we’ll talk more on Woody Allen’s films specifically.
AS: Let me just mention… Countee Cullen, that actually resonates with me, because I first became interested in the arts through Countee Cullen. I remember when I was 16, and at that point I had already become an atheist. I came across a book of poems from the Harlem Renaissance, and Countee Cullen’s Heritage was there. And despite the fact that, at that point, I was very hostile to religion, and in fact almost wore it like a slogan all over my body and my words and my demeanor. But I remember reading that poem and just feeling how absolutely moved I was, and how, in a sense, there was no turning back after reading such a thing. And this is despite the fact that I might have disagreements with his argument. It’s just completely irrelevant. Things move beyond issues of agreement and it takes some level of maturity to get beyond this kind of very silly dichotomy. Again, it’s not done often enough, but this is how the world moves, and this is what the world needs.
DS: Ok, now, Alex, I mentioned earlier the structure of the book, and you had broken up Woody Allen’s career into several sections. Let’s go chronologically from the beginning, through each chapter, each section, and give me a film or two, pro or con, that represents the best or worst of Woody Allen, and let’s talk about how he evolved over the course of his films in 40+ years. So what is the first chapter that deals with the films, and what years does it encompass?
AS: It’s called ‘The Early, Funny Ones’…
DS: The Stardust Memories quote…
AS: Oh, yeah, yeah… It goes from 1965 to 1974 or so. It’s pre-Annie Hall, basically. And I consider these comedies to be the apex of the genre. You can make arguments for It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, or look at the Marx Brothers and Chaplin, but as far as the really mature comedy, Woody Allen pretty much took it to a new level and a new direction. Of this time period I’d say, probably the most successful one is gonna be a toss-up between Sleeper and Love And Death. I’d probably go more towards Love And Death. The thing that makes Love And Death so good is the way he re-uses so much of the classical tropes, a lot of classical literature, and these are things and materials he is very much a fan of. Woody Allen has often talked about how much he was influenced by Dostoyevsky and other Russian writers, but he’s able to step back from this, and very much make fun of it. It’s loose in the sense that his other comedies are, but as far as the number of jokes, it probably has the greatest number if you’re gonna time it and go minute by minute. It probably has the greatest number. I wouldn’t say that his comedies are so deep that you can extract all of this rich philosophy from it. But he does enough of making fun of older society and contemporary society, he takes ideas that other people would really value and he is unafraid to skewer them. This is really the essence of some of the best comedy, and he does it remarkably well with this film. I’d probably put it at the top of the list in that time period.
DS: Now let me ask you, do you put in ‘The Early, Funny Ones,’ some of the other non-directed films like Casino Royale or What’s New Pussycat? Are they in there, or in separate sections?
AS: Well, because he was responsible for a good portion of films like What’s New Pussycat?, I decided to put some of those in the first chapter. But as far as director-only efforts, I’m gonna accept the film. If I were to be asked the worst film he was in from that period, that might be it, but as far as the director-only films, maybe it’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask), probably because it’s so loose that, after a while, some of the sketches, they mesh but they mesh in a way that different sketches are at pretty different levels of quality. So, maybe…[inaudible], it’s kind of this control unit where a man is trying to have sex with a woman. That’s probably the best sketch. Others might be funny, they might make you laugh, but they don’t necessarily do as good of a job as having something a little bit deeper, or having the same number of laughs.
DS: Ok, let us move on to what I’ve always term as Woody’s Golden Age. I forget what your title is in the book. And I want to talk about some of the films from the 1977 to 1992, 16 year period, that I think of have been, basically, under-appreciated. The first one is 1980’s Stardust Memories, the second one is, I believe, 86 or 87, Radio Days, and 1988’s Another Woman. Those 3 films are not as famous, not as well known, not as lauded as Annie Hall, as Manhattan, as Crimes And Misdemeanors, and maybe not even as lauded as The Purple Rose Of Cairo, so let’s focus on those 3 films. Stardust Memories, tell me about that film historically or what works and what doesn’t work.
AS: Stardust Memories was a film that upon release, I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily critically panned, but there were many, many critics that came out, and they assumed that Woody Allen was talking about his own critics and his own fans through Sandy Bates. It was assumed that Sandy Bates was a mere stand-in. In general, [it was said that] this was Woody Allen’s way of being a snark. My interpretation of such a thing is, even if that were true, even if Sandy Bates was a mere stand-in for Woody Allen, even if Sandy Bates is snarky and immature and all those things that they say, it still doesn’t deal with the film itself. One can say that, oh, isn’t that not nice of Woody Allen to do this to his audience? Fine. Isn’t it so bad of him to treat his critics and fans in such a way? Fine. But, again, that doesn’t deal with the film itself, and how it works on an artistic level, or how it fails on an artistic level, and too much criticism has devolved to the discussion of these things exactly. Things that are extraneous to the film, things that have no bearing on the kind of stuff that needs to be talked about.
As far what does this need to be talked about, it’s this: Stardust Memories is, most likely, one of the two or three best films that Woody Allen has made, and is one of the best films of the 1980s, period. If you really look at it, from beginning to end, and you look at it without any of the biases that critics have added in later on, you will probably reach very similar conclusions to what we’re seeing now on the Internet. There’s many people growing up now who are getting into Woody Allen, or perhaps have gotten into Woody Allen over the past 4, 5, 10 years ago, and they don’t have the kinds of biases, and the kind of baggage that has come from reading Pauline Kael or whatever from that time period. And it’s become very much a liked and critically praised film IF you look at the right sources, if you look at a younger generation of viewers. And this is really how things work. Things of quality eventually get recognized, and things that were panned before that needed to be panned just sort of fall away.
DS: Let me just interject. Speak of Stardust Memories always being compared to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, because similarly, Radio Days was compared to Fellini’s Amarcord, Another Woman harkens back to Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and Interiors from this time period, too, his first drama, has been called very Bergmanian, and Woody Allen has often been thought of as not a plagiarist as much as a copycat, and a lesser version. Let’s start with Stardust Memories. I know that I consider that, and I think that you do, too, that it takes what 8 1/2 is doing and expands upon it, makes it better. Speak to that, please.
AS: So, from the very beginning, you have this opening scene in Stardust Memories that recalls the opening scene of 8 ½. Now in 8 ½, you have the character of Guido who is stuck in traffic, he is clearly going through something psychologically, there are a number of things that occur that might have symbolic relation to his own thoughts, his own feelings. But, if you look at Woody Allen’s film, something similar is done, yes. The premise is the same, and even a couple of the elements are the same – he’s still also stuck in traffic, you hear the honking of a horn – at the same time, he does what Fellini does, and he expands upon it. This is obvious if you do just a minute by minute comparison of the two opening scenes. In Fellini’s film, you simply have this kind of movement in the mind of somebody that’s breaking down, that’s feeling very rattled by things, and eventually has this symbolic ascension into heaven. It’s kind of almost a too-overt level of symbolism. On the other hand, if you look at Woody Allen’s film, the opening might be similar, but you have a number of elements that he couldn’t have even conceptualized in that time. Such as, you have Woody Allen’s character stuck in the train, you see little things that have symbolic value, but is much more subtle: a suitcase full of sand that is emptying, you have this supposed train crash where people are almost making this pilgrimage, and they don’t exactly know where. You have Sandy Bates trying to scream and tell the conductor that he’s on the wrong train, and his voice and his mannerisms and everything else about him is obscured by the whistle of the train. These are such small little details that they’re just put in almost like throwaway things, but relate to the film in even deeper ways, and although it’s only 90 or 92 minutes or whatever, it takes similar symbolism and does so in a far more structured, in a far tighter narrative, and does things beyond what’s in Guido’s mind. Because I feel like in 8 1/2, it is very much stuck in the mind of a narcissist. It’s stuck in the mind of a potential sociopath. And if you simply have a film for 2 1/2 hours long, and is so interior, it’s simply not going to compare to something that is far more structured, and does a similar sort of thing but expands upon it from within in a way that 8 1/2 simply does not.
DS: Yeah, I know…the Woody film, I always look at 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, because La Dolce Vita is as close to, maybe, the greatest film. There’s a musical, a drama, a comedy, a social commentary, the acting, the writing, et cetera…it’s probably, to me, one of the greatest if not the greatest film. 8 1/2 falls short of that film, but Woody’s film is even shorter, and it actually does a lot. For example, if you look at the relationship with women – and this isn’t from a political perspective – but the relationship with women is just so over-the-top silly, and Fellini beats it do death with the fat woman and the beach and the women he tries to bed with the whips and the togas, whereas if you look at the Sandy Bates character, he has the French woman, then he has Dorrie, that nutjob, then you have that brilliant scene where she’s stagger-cut when he visits her at the asylum, there’s the younger girl that he meets, who’s like the lesbian or the bisexual he’s with. So it’s a far tighter film, a far tighter film, a far deeper film, yet people get so stuck on the superficial things he took from it, and fail to see where he went beyond it.
Now, let’s talk about Radio Days. To me, Radio Days is his best overall pure comedy, and is his deepest and richest one. But that also harkens back to a Fellini film. Can you also talk about Radio Days as it relates to Fellini’s Amarcord?
AS: These are two films that… I don’t really remember the length of Amarcord, but it’s not too far from the length of Radio Days. Both are similar in structure. They go through a series of memories that are sort of combined over time, they kind of build this sketch, and in Amarcord it’s partly based on Fellini’s life, Radio Days could be said to be partly based on Woody Allen’s life… I’d say of these two, they’re probably more similar to each other qualitatively than 8 1/2 is to Stardust Memories, and that’s because the tightness is one thing that’s a pro for Amarcord, and Radio Days. But Radio Days does eventually pretty much have a significant departure, and this is a far deeper use of music. I think at one point you’ve said that it’s the best use of music in any Woody Allen film, and that’s probably true. It establishes a context in a way that, although watching it, it’s not REALLY how things were, but it really does end up mimicking how memory functions. Things get colored and get re-colored, nostalgia comes into play, and it’s pretty realistic as far as how such things go. You have things that clearly could not have happened either to Woody Allen or things that the Woody Allen character may have seen in his earlier manifestation. But, nonetheless, they’re there, and it very much shows a childhood in bloom, it shows everybody else around him being interpreted from this very young mentality, and ultimately it makes a deeper comment on things that go beyond the film. It has a comment on art, it has a comment on longevity, it has a comment on how time functions within the psyche and in the long term, I guess, within history. I’d say it’s a little deeper than Amarcord, I wouldn’t say it’s such a significant leap as it is with the other two films, but it’s a similar premise in the sense that he takes a blueprint and expands upon it in a way that Fellini probably at that point could not have conceptualized. That’s really how in the long term art works. You have blueprints. You have prototypes. And, eventually, you those that take these blueprints and expand upon them. And that’s how things go.
DS: Let’s take a little pause here, then get back to Another Woman. And for those of you who might be thinking that we’re short-shrifting some of the other Woody films from this era, you can read Alex’s book that’s coming out shortly in about a month or so. These are some great films, but I wanted to focus on some of the less appreciated films, and when we get back, we’ll focus on one that I think is probably the least appreciated.
Now, let us focus on Another Woman. This is a 1988 film and one of Woody Allen’s most overlooked films. We talked about Stardust Memories and that got a lot of vitriol, so that’s fairly well-known for that reason. And another film, 1977’s Interiors, is overlooked because it was Woody Allen’s first drama. But that also got pretty much critically panned. Another Woman was the third full drama that Woody Allen did, and starred Gena Rowlands as a philosophy professor, with her crumbling marriage and crumbling state of affairs. And we mentioned John Cassavetes earlier, and Gena Rowlands is the widow of John Cassavetes, the great American filmmaker, but I think her best role is in this film, and not any of her roles with her husband. She did do some great stuff. Opening Night is great, and she’s most lauded for…
AS: A Woman Under The Influence.
DS: Yeah. I think this blows it away, and I think 88 minutes, it’s a tight drama, it’s soul-searching, it’s poetic, it uses actual poetry, Rilke’s poetry. But before we get into it, one of the little controversies about the film is the opening music introducing the film, the piano Gymnopedies of Erik Satie. Now, the film itself says the third Gymnopedie, you’ve said the first, I’ve seen online that some people have said it’s the first, others have said the third. It’s amazing to me that Woody would have screwed up something so badly in which Gymnopedie it was since he’s so particular about music. Is there any story behind that? Because it was also used in the great 1980 film by Louis Malle, My Dinner With Andre.
AS: Yeah, I heard that it was #3, but I remember in my own listening, I distinctly remember what #1 vs. #3 sounded like, so you pull up these recordings, it’s clearly #1 that’s used. I don’t think the film uses the piano work, I forget what he uses, exactly, in Another Woman…
DS: I think it’s a clavichord recording. My Satie CD says #1, too, but I’ve seen online people have uploaded it as #1 or #3. It’s just an odd little thing that Woody would make an error like that. But let’s talk about the film in general and Gena Rowlands’s performance, and just give your opinion on that film.
AS: Along with Stardust Memories, I’d say that it ties with Woody’s best films. Stardust Memories would be #1, Another Woman would be tied or #2, and I think that watching Another Woman is instructive because there have been so many people that have critiqued Woody Allen and dismissed him as a ‘merely’ literary filmmaker as opposed to a visual one. But I think people that do that are completely missing the actual visual cues. They may not be so overt as in things like Stardust Memories, or perhaps other filmmakers that are so much more dependent upon visuals for establishing meaning. But, if you look carefully at the films, and especially at Another Woman, you see so many details and visual cues that very much do contribute to a totality. If you consider, for example, Gena Rowlands’s character of Marion, and how she’s this cold, off-putting philosophy professor, eventually now hitting some sort of crisis, and entering these sort of odd dream states… You see her walking down the street, and you see this darkness coming over her, whatever part of the city that she’s in. And it’s almost as if she’s entering her own interiors. She’s entering her own mind. And, at some point, there is a breakdown, and she ends up meeting up with her old friend, and her husband, you sort of see exactly how the visuals of just a few seconds prior really play into the hands of the following scene.
Now, I’m sure this is something that’s easily missed by most viewers, but to call it non-visual is simply because most people do not understand it or do not see it, it’s too dismissive, and it’s simply incorrect as far as what’s happening on screen. It’s very well-scripted, as you’ve said, it’s very well-acted, and even the other things that people have taken issue with such as Allen’s over-use of Rilke’s poetry or the paintings of Klimt… if you really look at what’s happening, you have, maybe, just a few minutes at most of these literary and artistic allusions, but they tie in such a relevant way to what’s happening on screen, that to simply say this is merely ‘masturbatory’ or that this is somehow unrealistic, is just ridiculous. We’re dealing with a class of intellectuals, we’re dealing with characters that are almost all strictly intellectuals, it’s expected that they’re gonna be moved by a poem or two, it’s expected they’re gonna be moved by a painting. Getting this in is merely a way of further establishing character, and, as you’ve said, some of these elements are very poetic. So the use of the panther, or the use of [Rilke’s] Archaic Torso Of Apollo…these are very poetic leaps that go beyond characterization, and into deeper issues of structure of the film itself, and issues much harder to articulate, and much more easily seen and felt.
DS: Yeah, and I think a lot of the critics who use things like this… I mean, I grew up, my family was working class and we’d go visit relatives out in Long Island. They were called Long Island Republicans, or Nixon Republicans in the 1970s and 60s. These people were like that! And there are WASPs that are like that. And the thing about Woody Allen is that he doesn’t really judge these people, he just puts them out there as they are in a film like that. And it’s not just the visuals of the poetics of the panther or the Klimt or the Mia Farrow character being pregnant. It’s also little moments like in the scene where Gena Rowlands’s character is flagging down a taxi and her sister-in-law comes, and she’s not even looking at her sister. Her eyes are away. You get these little visual cues. But then you see the focus in her eyes when she’s flirting with her friend’s husband, or how she looks away from her own husband. Or how she looks over her brother, until the very end. And it’s these little things…they’re not only these film-school techniques, but they’re really human little moments. And this is all in his best films that he does that. He’s had a lot of good cinematographers, like Sven Nykvist, or Gordon Willis that might have suggested some of that… I find a lot of that [critique] kind of flimsy. Let me just give you the final word here. Just give me a brief summation of why you think it’s a great film.
AS: It’s a great film precisely for what we’ve already talked about. It has great acting, it has great, little human moments. There’s a small but very great use of music through Satie. Sometimes, you can look at the music and say that it’s a lesser art, but when it’s incorporated into something even more substantive, you really see how it can truly deepen a thing. So, great scripting, great acting, great visuals, if – again, IF – you were paying attention… And, again, in about 90, 95 minutes, it’s a great exploration of adult relationships in a mature way, this is really what many people are like. It doesn’t matter that people say, No, there are no human beings like this. The fact is, there ARE… I’ve met, you’ve met them, you see them all over the place, you go to the Upper East Side, and see that, too. It’s simply a very human treatment of a subject that ordinarily gets ignored because there’s just not enough mature adult cinema out there, and this is a film that does it really, really well. When I’ve shown it to people that are not really into film, and therefore do not know the critical discussion surrounding it, they all uniformly came away thinking, ‘Wow, what a great fucking film.’ Then, afterwards, when I inform them that it’s been critically panned, they wonder what the hell could possibly be said about it in the negative. So, essentially, if you look at this thing without biases, if you approach it anew, if you approach it as every art should be, which is from the ground up, you’ll see it for what it is, and I think that, in general, people will come away with something better now, and just like with the earlier films, they might have been ignored, but if you look at the discussions from fans of the film, today, they are NOT looking at these old criticisms, they are NOT looking at history 30+ years ago. They are looking at what is happening now, and then, all they have now, are their own interpretations.
DS: Ok, let’s end it there, and when we get back, let’s talk about the last couple of decades of Woody’s films…
– via Cosmoetica…