[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]
* * *
What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen
Critic #2: Dan Schneider
It makes sense to pair Roger Ebert alongside Dan Schneider, for while the former is a good writer and primarily emotional, Dan Schneider is a great writer and above all cerebral. In fact, the two critics’ reviews were compared at length on Roger Ebert’s own blog, in a feature that has garnered over 1400 comments to date. This includes an involved look at Stardust Memories vis-a-vis Ebert’s original review, with many commentators ultimately dissenting from Ebert after having read Schneider’s own piece, as it’s been partly responsible for the film’s revitalization among ‘lay’ viewers. Yet one of the more interesting things to come out of the exchange is Ebert’s class compared to other ‘name’ critics before him (such as the inflammatory Pauline Kael), not only in Ebert’s willingness to champion a writer he believed in, but his ability to take criticism from a source he considered quite “fair”, even as his own views remained unchanged. Indeed, for while Ebert concluded that Dan Schneider is an “ideal” critic that “keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments”, he merely reiterated the value of emotion — at least for himself — and the judgments he’s made over the years. Yes, it would have been good to see Ebert respond to specific comments he apparently respected, but implicit in the man’s words is that some things, such as one’s leanings and emotions, are immanent, and perhaps even immutable. Perhaps biases (such as Ebert’s self-admitted ones) are ever-present, and aim to nullify what might otherwise be objective in one’s views. But if that is true, Dan Schneider’s work is a corrective, and asks a far more relevant question. Sure, biases are real, and quite dangerous for the arts, to boot, but what if a critic learns to be aware of them, and exercises control over their effects? What if ART is the critic’s main focus? Or communication?
Prior to going any further, I must confess that I’ve known Dan Schneider for several years now, have contributed pieces for his website, Cosmoetica, and give and receive feedback on our respective works. I have also been more influenced by his criticism, poetry, and fiction than any other writer I can think of, and even when I’ve disagreed with him on politics, art, or other subjects (for example, on the strength of Manhattan’s ending; that Ben is one of Crimes’s “losers”; Hannah’s “happy” denouement), the important thing — as Ebert once declared — is that the man is fair, and that his claims are well-argued, diverse, and incredibly consistent. This is evident in his essays on everything from conspiracist mythology (wherein the JFK “conspiracy” is upheld, and alien abductions rejected), to William F. Buckley (wherein Schneider, a working-class Centrist, praises the man’s intelligence and wit, even as he disagrees with most of his positions), his defense of It’s a Wonderful Life on purely artistic grounds, all the while combining such with personal memoir, a take-down of poetic ‘meter’ (vis-a-vis poetic music), a poem-by-poem comparison between Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens(down to a rating for every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets), and a “Great Films” list, a la Roger Ebert, that avoids the needless obscurity and one-upmanship of many ‘alternative’ lists, but keeps things — films, too! — to a minimum. In short, great works are rare, are statistical aberrations, and should be treated as such, not inducted in such enumerations willy-nilly from a mere aesthetic, political, or emotional bias. And it is this list that’s particularly congenial to my essay, as it includes thirteen films from Woody Allen that have made the cut, including a few surprises with the much-malignedStardust Memories and critically ignored Sweet and Lowdown, among others. Yet what is interesting is how much can be learned even from Schneider’s reviews of minor films like Scoop, or ‘seemingly’ minor ones like Cassandra’s Dream and Radio Days, and how essays purportedly about one thing (“Woody, Women, And Film”) dovetail into far more expansive discussions on the medium, thereby expanding both, and deepening one another.
Let us tackle the longest essay of the bunch, “Woody, Women, & Film”, written in 2001, before most of Schneider’s reviews were online, and which rates every Woody Allen film up to The Curse of the Jade Scorpion on a scale of 1 to 100. The latter makes for an interesting decision, as Schneider’s essay is not purely evaluative, but a dissection — you guessed it — of Allen’s female characters and actresses, as well as a commentary on the director’s supposed misogyny. It begins with a claim that is especially relevant, now, given the ‘renewal’ not only of the sex abuse allegations re: Dylan Farrow, but of the (many) guesses once made and being made into Allen’s own psyche. “A lot of seemingly intelligent people cannot separate the man from the artist- they refuse to even watch his films”, Schneider writes. “But I have never had any problems with the man because I do not know him so his personal life is irrelevant to my liking his art.” This is a good point, and while most fans do not wish to tackle the man’s real-life issues, there’s plenty of reason for this, not the least of which is the fact that, given the many accusations, on both sides, it is clear that the Allen/Farrow ‘clan’ (I use the term quite loosely) is a mere hornet’s nest all around. Yet Knut Hamsun was a Nazi, John Berryman was quite dislikable, and Hitler, himself, has been termed a “great man” (as in the Ebert piece, above) for reasons that are quite apart from his personal loathsomeness. In short, the point is that one’s art (or other accomplishments, good and bad) and one’s personal life are not the same, and the conflation — ranging from simple-minded, knee-jerk reactions, to more ‘sophisticated’ arguments, as in Pauline Kael’s reviews (upcoming) — very much a tired one. The fact that Schneider sees this is refreshing, even as it ought to be quite obvious. That said, I do agree with Schneider’s assertion that, for all the positives of how Allen depicts women, there is something ‘odd’ about even some of the more casual films, wherein the ‘Woody’ persona is at turns reviled by women, then just as suddenly loved (Sleeper, Love and Death, Everybody Says I Love You), or that women, in a Woody Allen film, can be some of the most insidious creations in cinematic history. There is, for instance, the “cancer” (to use Schneider’s word) that is Diane Keaton in Manhattan, or the horrific Judy in Husbands and Wives, whose hyper-realism as a selfish, manipulative nag makes her all the more frightening. Yet in the earlier Film Guide, I tallied up the number of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ depictions of women across his films, and have found them to be more or less equal, and somewhat on par with Allen’s depictions of men. Thus, Allen’s misogynistic veneer is exactly that: a veneer, and one that should not distract from the highly complex portraits of female characters that he has done, which Schneider both discusses, and provides ample evidence for.
Fortunately, Schneider does not dwell on Allen’s psychology for too long, as it can’t be more than guesswork, but dips in just enough to ‘hook’ the reader before delivering the essay proper. This is simply good writing, for it is all too easy to have the thing devolve to mere tabloid (as Pauline Kael often does), which banks on the reader’s worst instincts and assumes stupidity, and just as easy to swing to the other extreme and pretend there is nothing of value to be written of such things, either. In short, one must really straddle a fine line, and not cross into less appropriate territory. Take, for instance, Schneider’s view of Annie Hall, and Annie, in particular. “Annie is both a ’70s feminist icon & nightmare,” he writes. Why? Because despite all of her good qualities, she has plenty of bad, too, and one may argue — as I’ve done before — that her ultimate decision of moving out to California, going to parties, and possibly doing lines of coke is not exactly ennobling. Yet it’s just as correct to say that she is “better off” for having left Alvy:
Think of how many previous films in Hollywood history- from Westerns to musicals to drama- this is not true. Either the girl lands her man & all is well, or she doesn’t & pays some consequences. At the end of this film, however, Annie is a better person, herself, & a better person than Woody. This is a trope that recurs over & over in later Woody films. Its starkness contrasts with the Hollywood ideal that has buoyed the careers of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, & many other contemporary actresses.
Other films get similarly rich treatment. The much-ignored Interiors is praised, for “this underrated & great film so utterly captures the essence of rich WASP New York self-indulgence that it should be sealed in a time capsule”, and that criticisms of its “phoniness” either come from people who don’t know ‘that’ type, or — as I’ve suspected — from those that know it only all too well, and simply don’t like the implications. Just as important to Allen’s film is the existence of Joey, who crops up in Schneider’s essays over and over again as a symbol (or rather, a manifestation) of the basically good, intelligent, but wannabe artist who is perpetually lost, not only due to her own immaturity, but also her rich father’s enabling of such behavior. But while Allen has been quite vocal about Joey’s problems and real-life analogues, few ever stop to consider the woman’s import not only to the film, but to Woody Allen’s work, as a whole. The word ‘Joey’ is not really an insult, but what’s implicit in Schneider’s comment is that she is a kind of proto-wannabe, before such things could ever settle in the popular imagination. Yes, we all know of these ‘types’, today, whether it’s through college, work, or simply being at some ‘art’ cafe, but this was the first time that such as a person was so well-sketched, and given real humanity underneath her crisis. This is key to Schneider’s argument, as Joey is complex, and driven in believable ways despite her problems. In fact, had the film been more popular, she would have entered into the cultural lexicon in the same way one might call a drama Shakespearean, or a situation Kafkaesque.
Manhattan (as with Ebert and James Berardinelli) is treated carefully, with the film’s chief manipulators taken to task, and none of the shallow stuff about the film being a “love letter” to New York. In short, it really isn’t, for as Schneider argues, Isaac exploits Tracy for her youth, and — as I’ve argued elsewhere — refuses to nix the relationship when he ought to, since he’s not as ‘good’ and ‘idealistic’ as has been claimed. In fact, that only only a handful of essays exist correctly arguing what is in the film (as opposed to what isn’t) is stunning, especially since Ebert, himself, had written one of the definitive takes a few decades ago. Further, Schneider’s analysis of The Purple Rose of Cairo belies what’s been written of the film’s ending — that Cecilia must simply go back to her abuser — with a kind of suggestiveness that forced me to rewatch the film multiple times, for Cecilia is not really smiling at the images in front of her (which really ought to make cry harder), but at whatever ‘click’ that must have went off in her brain after years of self-sacrifice and bad treatment at the hands of Monk. Meanwhile, Hannah’s oldest sister is skewered, but Schneider is perceptive enough to not merely give into the film’s disparate evidence of her character, pro or con. Yes, she is “tight-assed”, to use Schneider’s phrase, but it’s never too clear who’s at fault for what, and although Holly’s resentments are clearly borne out of insecurity, Lee’s — as Schneider points out — are never explained, implying there is a darkness to the three sisters’ relationship that is being tackled at its ‘lighter’ moments now, even if one interprets Lee’s betrayal with Elliot to be a kind of revenge. Then, there is Schneider’s praise for Sweet and Lowdown, a wonderful little film that casts Samantha Morton as “a strong Woody woman cloaked as a weak Woody woman.” Indeed, for one of the film’s best inversions is how we’re made to feel empathy for Sean Penn’s character, who — despite being a womanizer, manipulator, and all-around fool — is FAR worse off than Hattie, both at film’s start, and at film’s end. Yes, it is easy to feel empathy for Hattie, as well, but the trick is that she only rarely takes Sean Penn seriously (as when she interrupts his monologues with her own actions or requests) and knows his flaws in a way that he, himself, does not. Schneider’s ratings at the essay’s end are also quite in line with the detailed reviews he’d go on to give of each film, ranking Stardust Memories as Allen’s very best work (as Allen, himself, has often done), putting Radio Days into the upper echelons of comedy (and I’d argue the highest that a ‘pure’ comedy has ever gone), the much-lauded Crimes as one of Woody’s best dramas. Yet it is the ‘how’ of such things that really matters, but is rarely tackled in depth, or with enough evidence to make such claims transcend mere fiat.
Note, for instance, Schneider’s comment on Stardust Memories in 2001: that while “it’s been tarred as a rip-off of Federico Fellini’s 8½…I’ve never seen that film so I take Woody’s film for itself.” This soon changed, but what’s notable this is that he’s wise enough to understand such things cannot truly impact a differentiated work of art, ‘influenced’ or not. The historical examples are many (The Odysseyvis-a-vis Lucan’s Civil War; Godard’s technical innovations, vis-a-vis those that’d actually put them to good use), but it’s interesting to see how a mere seven years after writing “Woody, Women, & Film”, Schneider’s updated comments on the film are, at their core, remarkably similar, despite having now seen and reviewed Allen’s alleged ‘source material’. Schneider credits Stardust’s power to the artist’s “fear of failure”, a fact that Woody, himself, has said of his own work. In short,
That is what holds the outer film (and its reality into the world) together, although the fear of success is also an integral part of the film’s inner world. Let me explain. The fear of failure is one of the most important things any artist, especially the great, can have. Why? Because it kills the ego, and spurs the artist to innovate and try new techniques to keep their art ahead of the curve. Without such a fear, artists grow fat and sassy, and lose the demiurge to create, or at least to challenge themselves and their audiences. Need proof? Just think of the vast majority of aging artists, but most especially those who were once great. How many aging musicians and rock groups have never been able to equal their greatest early hits? How many writers have penned bloated egotistical tomes that are pallid reflections of an earlier work? How many visual artists have bled dry the one nugget or –ism they made their name on? And one need only look at the dozen or more films that Allen, himself, has made since his Golden Era ended- mostly lesser reworks of themes his greater films tackled better.
Now, here is a review that begins with a bottom-line that ‘hooks’ the reader (“One of the interesting things about a great work of art is how, upon re-experience, it a) holds up and/or b) deepens and filigrees into something even better”), builds its claims, then develops them into an essay-wide argument re: art and artistic failure in a way that not only controls the essay, itself, but applies to things outside of it, as well. This is the definition of the word “expansive”, and while one may say good things for Ebert’s writing ability, or Ray Carney’s scholarship, few critics ever go from a bird’s-eye view of things, then into a work, then back out, with fresh and cogent insights on the medium — and beyond — as consistently as Schneider. Nor does his philosophical posit merely hover over the essay, but is introduced into the film, as well (“The lead characters are all obsessed with failing. Some try to grow and are slapped down by the powers that be. Some give in to their own fears. Some are so timid they do nothing at all, and some try to change, only to make asses of themselves”), tied into the film’s savaging upon release (“[It is] this inner examination of the fear of failure that provoked such a hostile reaction from almost all critics upon the film’s release nearly three decades ago”), and finally, to the tackling of Roger Ebert’s own negative review. Thus, at a taut three paragraphs in, we already get an original lens through which to see the film, fresh insights into the film’s characters, a detailed comparison betweenStardust and 8½, and an original response to the critical thinking that surrounds the film, with nary a moment lost.
Indeed, if one only compares this to Pauline Kael’s ad hominem, ad hoc review from 1980 (upcoming), the differences are stark — not the least of which is due to the fact that one learns so little of the film from her own review, but a lot from Schneider, and even from Roger Ebert, who, while quite wrong, nonetheless keeps the film itself in mind, instead of merely focusing on Allen. Yet Schneider dispatches even what seems ‘obvious’ to most, for while both 8½ and Stardust have been billed as an artist’s plaints, “Allen’s film is nothing like that”. In short, while 8½ “ends resignedly, with life never being able to equal art, Allen’s film ends utterly positively, portraying the total triumph of art over life, in its ability to supplement and better it.” This is not only true, in the ‘big’ and totalizing sense, but supporting details emerge as well, further taking the film away from Fellini’s, such as in the fact that Guido is “unwhole”, while Allen’s leeches are after him precisely for what he can offer beyond his own fame, and that Stardust acts as a “subversion” of the earlier film, whose bloated length (138 minutes), too-tight focus on one character, and repetitiousness make it seem, by contrast, a “prototype” to a better and deeper film, “a sort of Protoceratops to Allen’s ferocious Triceratops.”
Stardust’s great opening scene, as limned by Dan Schneider:
Yet, for all that, a review would not be a review without an examination of the film, itself, and Schneider has much to say for the film’s style, poesy, characters, and their interrelationships that has not been written elsewhere. Indeed, for while Pauline Kael focuses on ad hominem, and Allen’s supposed Jewish self-loathing, Roger Ebert on the film’s “bitching”, Jonathan Rosenbaum for the film’s “courage”, and Ray Carney on the film’s use of “grotesques” (thus 100% mirroring Kael, even as he criticizes her elsewhere), Schneider engages the film’s art, and fully stays there. Dorrie is treated for what she is: a multivalent character, whose most “brilliant and devastating scene” comes at a mental ward, as Allen “jump cuts her greetings (twitchy and laden with tics), seductions (‘There’s a doctor here who thinks I’m beautiful.’), spurnings (‘You look thin.’), and speech in several second interviews, to show the fragmentation of her mind.” Right off the bat, then, we have claim, scene, and evidence, and thus do not wonder why Schneider thinks what he does, as the thinking’s already revealed. Sandy’s mind is similarly treated, not only in the obvious ways, such as via the murals in his apartment working as de facto mood pieces, but ‘small’, seemingly throwaway moments, too, such as the recycling of Sharon Stone’s character at the beginning of the film, wherein she blows a kiss in the railroad car, to the same act at the UFO site. In short, “The very use of the same actress in different scenes, in different ways, shows that Bates, within the film, is thinking of multiple levels of reality, even as Allen- the real filmmaker adds a final level when he has Bates or himself close the exterior film as revealing the whole prior film was just a ‘film within a film.’” Other recycled cameos are noted, too, that fulfill similar functions, more notes on the film’s ‘mood murals’ (including one on newspaper clippings re: incest, that most viewers miss), and even the use of other filmmakers we normally don’t hear being associated with Stardust Memories: “Also, with all the constant references to Fellini and Bergman, little noticed is a throwaway reference to Roman Polanski’s film black and white 1965 horror film, Repulsion, wherein Bates’ personal cook ruins a rabbit dinner, and we see the dead animal on a plate- signaling the possible deterioration of his mind like that of the lead character in Repulsion.”
Moreover, Schneider’s claims for the film’s ‘getting at’ reality (as opposed to mere realism) belie what’s been written of Stardust’s alleged caricatures, such as when Isobel makes silly faces in the midst of Allen’s marriage proposal, and Allen’s posthumous speech wherein he describes “the one moment that almost made life worth living”. Later on, this scene is criticized by Ray Carney as a “self-absorbed soliloquy” rather than “an interaction between characters”, but Schneider reveals where he goes wrong, for the interaction is very much between two people, as Dorrie “looks up and sees him eyeing her, and smiles, all the while displaying a wide plenum of emotions without a word spoken, which perfectly matches Bates’ description of what he sensed.” Indeed, for while Carney does offer up some evidence for his views — quotations, and the like — Schneider does one better by actually getting at the dialogue’s (and scene’s) root meaning. Is the moment mere soliloquy, cut off from the film’s deeper narrative? I’d argue not, for as Schneider notes, there is music, there are facial exchanges, and memorable visuals that serve as proof of Sandy’s words, which, to Carney, merely seem unrealistic and contrived. Yet it is really Schneider’s ending that captures not only the film, but its deeper meanings and applications that not only prove his claims re: Stardust, but show critical writing as its best, as it forces the reader to re-think certain scenes, and notice deeper moments and minutiae in a completely new light. This is obvious not only in Schneider’s re-use of the bird’s-eye technique (“intellectual” vs. “emotional” art), but his command of the film’s specifics, and their deeper powers of relation:
Stardust Memories succeeds on both counts, as one of the most intellectually challenging films ever made, yet also one of the most humorously entertaining, as it deals with the nonsense that all humans deal with, and slough off, and also as it asks deep questions, such as when Sandy Bates is approached by an old pal he played stickball with, and who is envious of him. Bates replies that their fortunes were largely determined by luck, which is a fearful thing, for it means the utter lack of control in life. Yet, Bates delivers this shiv of knowledge so thoughtfully and empathetically, that his old pal seems relieved, even happy, even though Bates and we, the audience, know that that character is doomed to an utterly meaningless existence.
Next up is Radio Days, and while Roger Ebert’s review was quite praising, and even went as far as giving it a well-deserved four stars, this was not the line others had taken with the film. Yes, it is well-loved, but generally in the way that his lesser films are well-loved — for being a ‘fun’ kind of diversion, rather than a true work of art. Despite not being part of Ebert’s “Great Movies”, however, it is one of Schneider’s, and the reasons are many. It evokes memory and childhood in ways that few films ever do, both in its romanticization (sometimes to the point is irreality), as well as its more ‘logical’ points, such as the way small characters, such as a fishmonger, are given realism, or scenes that are slight by themselves — such as when neighbors and family start to sing — are given life by being part of a richly interrelated milieu, rather than the limits of one film. Yes, this seems quite obvious to me, now, for I’ve been raised on the movie in a way that simply never gave me the chance to be biased against it. Yet Schneider, who was coming of age at the film’s release, deals with what’s been written of it for two decades:
The worst critical untruth about Radio Days, however, often has come from its champions, like Roger Ebert, who echo the nonsense I stated at the start- that the film lacks a plot. In fact, it has a dense, multi-floriate plot. All art has narrative. The narrative may be as simple as ‘a dot on a sheet of paper,’ but that’s still a narrative. Not a good one, and the artist should be roundly railed against for the attempt to gull, but it is a narrative, however vapid. When bad critics often label something non-narrative or plotless, what they are really doing is defining the limits of their own critical abilities in being able to discern a narrative. The same is also true when critics call something non-representational, because they cannot understand what is represented…
Indeed, for when one considers all of the characters, plot points, and recurring images, it is clear, as Schneider argues, that “there is not a scene in Allen’s film that is wasted, and almost every character with a few lines gets some sort of closure.” This is true of Mia Farrow, who becomes a well-known radio star, to the loveless aunt, who must deal with reality in a way that others’ words and ‘support’ merely shroud, to Wallace Shawn, who’s shown as both larger-than-life, and not, and to Joe’s own family, who at turns quarrel, then long for things they, themselves, cannot define, but ultimately settle into their own lives in an arc that is all too real, capturing, as it does, the desires and anxieties of so many people whose patterns still exist (and entrap!) today. He goes on to write that these characters “are all dependent upon growth and tidbits hinted at earlier”, as the film’s narrative — while it exists — is that of a “web” rather than a purely “linear” force. It is for this reason that Schneider criticizes Mike Pinsky, who is quoted in his review: “You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene,” Pinsky writes, “and it would still make about as much sense.” Yet if one were to try and do exactly that, what is really left, except for the vignettes that Pinsky alludes to, but none of the narrative and deeper resolutions that Schneider explicates?
Note Radio Days’s beautiful open, its wonderful characterizations, its deft establishment of a milieu, right from the get-go, that will serve as a controlling metaphor for the rest of the film:
Again, it is interesting to see these sorts of claims vis-a-vis my own viewings of Allen’s films, for I’d approached them without the handicap of others’ words, and did not have to be biased in the way that Pinsky was — not even by Schneider, who only covers a handful of Allen’s films in his own reviews. Nor is Schneider’s review limited to the world of Radio Days, but as with his take on Stardust Memories before it, gives the reader a system from which to work (that is, notions of narrative, as well as the meaning of the word ‘influence’, via Amarcord), applies it to the film at hand, and backs out yet again to have these distillations work upon art, as a whole, and not merely in this film’s universe. And while Pauline Kael’s writing is often autobiographical to a fault, as it engages Kael far more than the work, itself, both Roger Ebert and Dan Schneider prove that autobiography is possible, and can enrich a critique with a literary ‘twist’ that nonetheless speaks to the review’s central posits without cheapening or evading them. Note how at the end of Schneider’s review, wherein the film’s claims for greatness are made in the ‘general’ sense, there is a poetic denouement that truly amplifies what such greatness means to the culture, as a whole, even as it’s ‘tweaked’ a bit for its irreality:
Let me end by stating that, having demonstrated this film’s objective greatness, I alsosubjectively love it; for so much of this material resonates with me, born in 1965, because I had Great Depression era parents who schooled me in the culture of decades earlier to such a point that I often feel I was born three decades earlier- in Allen’s birth year. Regardless of that, Radio Days stands as a great comic invitation to an American past which sort of existed. Finding out the edges of that ‘sort,’ however, has rarely been as joyful.
Thus, three essays in, and we already have a means of understanding film as an art-form in a way that not only applies to the films under review, but can be extrapolated to others just as well. Thus, althoughCrimes and Misdemeanors is in some ways a very different film from everything Allen had done up to that point, the careful reader should not have any ‘unwelcome’ surprises from Schneider — although surprises do exist. The first is Schneider’s off-the-bat ‘literary’ approach, which both hooks the reader, as well as characterizes the film’s lead in a way that previous reviews have not:
He’s out there. Yes he is. And he’s far scarier than Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, Anton Chigurh, or any of the other cartoonish murderers served up by American cinema over the last three decades or so since slasher and serial killer films came into vogue. The reason is because he is far realer. There are more of him out there, in real life. He is not some freakish killer who hides in the corner of society, doing ghoulish things and masturbating over it. No. He is in the mainstream, and for every person, in real life, that is killed in the Hollywood style depicted in films that star the above named ghouls, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of human beings killed in the very way that he killed. They are murdered, as a way of doing business, as a seeming necessity for someone to retain their privilege. There is no indulgence in the passions and perversions that the gory monster sort of killers in cinema indulge in. No, they are strictly business-like. Efficient, emotionless. Professional. They are all exemplified in perhaps the most realistic embodiment of murderous evil put on to the silver screen. That character is Judah Rosenthal, as portrayed by Martin Landau, in Woody Allen’s masterful 1989 film, Crimes And Misdemeanors– a work that far supersedes the work of art it is almost always compared to, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, and provides a glorious capstone to Allen’s greatest decade in film, one which opened with his phenomenal 1980 masterpiece, Stardust Memories.
Thus, let us consider what transpires in the opening paragraph. Judah is given life through a series of contrasts to typical Hollywood fare — slasher films, ‘horror’ movies, and the like — while his abject realism is amplified by sheer numbers, and the apt yet too-limited comparisons re: Crime and Punishment are taken for what they are: an example of a mere prototype (as with Schneider’s take on8½ vis-a-vis Stardust) being bettered, and transcended. The review, therefore, already sets up some fresh claims, and while the film’s influences are invoked, they are never dwelled upon, for it is a review of an original and unique film, first, and must remain with its territory.
As the review goes on, Schneider’s offers some critical insights in his synopsis that are easily missed upon the first couple of viewings of the film. Judah’s wife, for instance, is never ‘truly’ seen, and thus the viewer cannot judge how accurate the man’s impressions of Miriam really are — the film’s “lone minor flaw”; Dolores “harasses, stalks” and downright “demands” things, compared to the far softer tone most reviewers’ take with her character; Judah “feigns shock” at Jack’s suggestion of murder, when in fact he uses Jack’s suggestion as a means of clearing his own conscience; that Jack and Ben suggest he come clean to Miriam, while it is Judah, himself, who refuses this common-sense advice, perhaps making him even more ‘driven’ to crime than his brother; the film’s Jewish intellectual helps invalidate (or not, depending on what is believed) his own “seductive message” via suicide, a la La Dolce Vita; that Wendy is “unmoved” by Cliff’s story re: his victimized sister, serving both a comic and dramatic purpose wherein she is tied, at least emotionally, with the film’s two killers, even as she is contrasted with her brothers; the “callow and deluded” Ben dances in a “temporal bubble of joy” at his daughter’s wedding, “oblivious” to the evils all around him; and that “morality” is separate from “ethics”, wherein the former is alien to human beings, and based upon religion, and the latter immanent, and immutable, with Judah not even engaging “in an ethic in his quandaries over the Dolores situation,” for “even his well scripted dream conversations with his father and aunt are arguments over ‘morality’” (emphasis mine). Yet these are all observations of things more typically glossed over than engaged, even as — in a very real sense — they are what give the film its depth, and justify its reputation.
Just as important, however, is Schneider’s bird’s-eye view of the film’s machinations, as he turns to far bigger notions of art that expand within the film, then without, in the film’s use of intellectual props. In short, Crimes and Misdemeanors “is almost a perfect example of why intellectual excellence is a necessity for great art, whereas emotional power is not. Emotions like joy and love are far too transient and subjective to base any deep art upon, whereas vision, insight, and intelligence are both fodder and tools for art.” Going further, Schneider argues that while people can react to things like color, drama, and sound on a purely emotional level, such a response is therefore animalistic, as in, part of a more ‘common’ basis for reacting to things that virtually every person and creature has access to. Yet art that uses well-executed ideas, first, with emotion serving as a mere thrust to make them accessible, “viewers react in essentially human ways- with their curiosity stirred.” In short, passion is easy, but thought is not, even as thought and depth creates “an easy path” into emotion, which is why Crimes such great emotional resonance despite its many villains. Schneider then ends this aside on immediately comprehensible analogy to tie it all together: “If one can run a mile swiftly,” he writes of intellectual depth, “a hundred yards is nothing. The reverse is not true.”
Dan Schneider’s review of Crimes And Misdemeanors also alerted me to something I’d not noticed before: the frighteningly realistic manipulations by Judah, directed towards a supposedly more ‘base’ character who, in fact, is not so different from Judah:
As Schneider’s review wraps up in a way that’s reminiscent of Ebert’s best writing, it should be obvious by now that he’s resisted Ebert’s chief flaw while capitalizing on his predecessor’s greatest strengths, a trend that will repeat itself somewhat in James Berardinelli. Yet this is Schneider on some of Woody’s best films, not the mere retreads, or the clunkers. Going with this essay’s theme of ‘extrapolation’, how can one tackle Allen’s lesser works, but remain fair, and still manage to say something of interest? To the lay viewer, I’d make this suggestion: simply look at others’ reviews afteryou’ve watched a film, that is, after you’ve given it some independent thought. Looking at the reviews of 2006’s Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for instance, one would think Allen has either hit a new low for his career, or very much a new high, depending on what film one reads about, and who is ultimately believed. Indeed, for while Scoop has received some pretty bad reviews, Schneider disagrees with the consensus, and for good reason. He correctly notes that Scarlett Johansson is a much better comic than dramatic actress due to her dress, comedic timing, and utter realism of facial expression, mannerisms, and personal ‘tics’. In fact, it is she who becomes the true ‘Woody’ persona in the film (as critics have pointed out), while Allen, himself, is allowed “to let his aging magician be merely a parody of the character” (which the critics have not been able to see). In short, Allen’s persona is a “burlesque” of that persona, and given how many of Allen’s former selves are thrown in (nebbish, magician, cynic, and bad comic) the evidence is very much in Schneider’s favor. Thus, the film’s two chief criticisms — Johansson’s acting and Allen’s persona — are quickly dispatched, with plenty of counter-claims for the film’s success being made. One is the film’s cinematography, with some of the shots of London evoking “scenes of the city architecture of Hannah and Her Sisters and Another Woman” (especially when the killer is followed on the eve of the film’s last murder, and it gets dark). Yet the film’s biggest selling point is its writing, which ranges from Scoop’s self-parody, to its genre inversions, and even its memorable uses of genre ‘stock’, such as the scene where Sondra supposedly drowns, and is made all the more believable by the amount of time between Sondra’s original deception, and now. As Schneider argues, then, one wonders of the killer’s ability to “get away with murder” at precisely the ‘right’ (yet absolutely wrong!) moment — a fact that is missed by most viewers, even as they deride the screenplay for lacking the very things they do not see. No, it is not a deep film, and is practically the ‘lite’ version of Manhattan Murder Mystery, but Schneider goes over enough original material within the film to make a case for the film’s worth.
Thus, while Scoop has been derided, and Schneider praises it, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has been almost universally praised, but — as Schneider reveals — for all the wrong reasons, given how much of the film works in places that the critics haven’t really cared to look. One notes, for instance, praise showered upon the actors (especially Bardem and Penelope Cruz) and while it is not completely undue, what is missed is Rebecca Hall’s good acting, Johansson’s unfortunate return to Match Point’s ‘sexpot’ characterization, and the deepest point of all: how utterly trite most of the film’s personages are, especially the two ‘hot’ Spaniards who are nothing but unabashed stereotypes — down to their bad, derivative art, and out-of-control fighting. Few discuss the film in these terms, however, but merely repeat other critics’ judgments, or how else could such abject stereotypes be routinely upheld as good writing? Yet such ‘frills’ are not missed by Schneider, who, even in a lesser film such as this, goes on to make observations that few have thought to: that Hall is “a drone seeking a useless degree” (Catalan Studies, anyone?); Johansson plays “a terminal ‘Joey’, someone with a desire to express their feelings but no intellect nor talent to do so”; Hall’s fiancee is the “prototypical yuppie scum” for whom the viewer can feel no empathy, and is only there to chug things along; and Bardem’s father is a “Spanish bum” who refuses to publish his own poetry for the trite reason that “humans have not learnt to love” — probably the film’s worst line. Yet how much of this is mere stereotype or outright castigation of such on Allen’s part is impossible to tell, for — unlike in most of his other films — he gives no evidence either way, with the viewer expected to take at least some of these interactions at face value. Moreover, as the film goes on, Schneider claims that “Vicky is the drudge and Cristina the free spirit” — another bad touch, for it ultimately simplifies the film’s two main characters down to dichotomies, even as, at film’s end, it works to slightly undermine them. “Having said that,” Schneider writes, “the lightness (style over substance) of the film actually aids it through its 96 minutes. Compared to an earlier Allen film on young love, like Anything Else, this film at least has its stereotypes utter banalities that are believable for them to think and say.” The anticlimactic ending, too, is praised, “wherein all the characters return to where they were.” In short, “If only the rest of the film were as spare and poetic, then Vicky Cristina Barcelona would have been a film that could be argued for greatness.” Now, this is an interesting reversal, and ‘unpredictable’ in the best sense of the word: a judgment one does not necessarily expect, but is borne out by the evidence, simply because the evidence hasn’t been looked at too heavily. Indeed, for while most (if not all) of the characters are out-and-out stereotypes, at some point, Allen does start to skewer them, and even flesh them out a bit, such as when Cristina realizes ‘that life’ is not for her, and Vicky, after getting shot by Maria Elena, realizes the two Spaniards merely stuck in a pattern that will be with them forever. Yet Schneider has more to say on this, and they are words that ought to be applied to the medium as a whole. In short, this is how characterization works, as Schneider explains why so many good-intentioned films fail:
People cannot change…The overall message of the film is one that is, for the most part, true, but there is a gnawing dissatisfaction that this reality was sculpted using such dislikable and predictable characters. In many respects, the aforementioned La Dolce Vitahas a very similar message in it. The difference is that that film has a handful of major themes and this one only one, as well as the fact that the few main characters in the Fellini film are multivalent in their sketchings and the film presents incidents that the viewer can relate to and suffer through with the characters. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the viewer is gazing at the characters. We are at a human zoo. This is satisfactory enough an approach for a work of science, perhaps, but not for a work of art. Art that satisfies just the heart dissipates, because it almost never has enough substance to titillate the brain. But, art that strikes at the brain first almost always has enough to seep down and affect the emotions. Allen’s film fails both scores- it is too lightweight intellectually and too cold emotionally.
Yet note how, even for a ‘light’ film such as this, Schneider is neither striking a pose, nor deriding a well-regarded film for the hell of it. Indeed, he is more ambivalent than falling into extremes, provides a rich discussion of character, replete with evidence (both pro and con), as well insights into the film’s other highs and lows — which is simply part of the deal in most of Woody’s later films. This is especially true in light of the fact these films are approaching a kind of ‘consensus’ that gets more and more undifferentiated with the prevalence of Internet reviews, and critics being able to plagiarize one another all the more easily. It is with this in mind that Schneider approaches Allen’s next film, and ultimately ‘freshens’ it with things rarely seen.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not a great film, but it has the seeds of something better, such as in the utter destructiveness of its characters, and their inability to think through their own selves:
Cassandra’s Dream is presently reviled, but why? I’ve already tackled the film and some reviews in an earlier chapter, but there is still no satisfying answer — not even if one accepts Schneider’s (correct) assertion that it has been unconsciously abused for not being a masterpiece in line with Allen’s Golden Age films. This is because so many of the reviews don’t even make the obvious comparison toCrimes, but fault the film for its ‘predictability’, or one-dimensional characters. Yet if one goes through the film scene by scene, one will see layers that have not been uncovered by most critics, nor explained. Thus, Schneider’s review of Cassandra’s Dream opens with a clincher, wherein the two leads’ ‘playing’ at the docks is seen for its ominous quality: “The imagery is very important, because in the two grown men we see a child-like abandon that foreshadows the immaturity both brothers will display later in the film.” Implicit in Schneider’s claim, however, is that the film must be seen more than once for its imagery to penetrate. Right away, then, this is an argument for the film’s greatness, for great films’ deeper machinations only become apparent on second and third viewings, as more layers come undone. After praising the film’s cinematography, he goes on to write that the film’s script is what really ‘makes’ Cassandra’s Dream. In fact, “the film is so rich with great moments that detail character and plot…that the screenplay could be used as an aid in screenwriting classes”, such as when Ian dumps his first girlfriend, yet ignores her presence — barely seen — in an offhand way as he prattles about Angela’s good qualities; or the film’s ending, which first “settles into a groove that seems predictable, only to pull out the rug from under the viewers’ expectations”; or when Angela puts Ian in his place during their car ride, wherein his presumptions offend. As Schneider writes, “it’s a small moment that shows that, while vain and egocentric, she does have a delineated ethical compass, and a penchant for giving as good as she gets- something many more one dimensional Allen sexpots lack.” Nor is the “small moment” limited to Angela, as the exchange illuminates Ian’s own insecurities, and reveals him as a social-climbing fraud, a la Match Point, and allows the viewer to glimpse into the ‘other’ parts of Ian’s psyche, which is otherwise controlled by his more pressing issues.
There are other interesting claims made, often obviating what’s been written of the film, such as the idea that Howard would never ask two boys for this sort of ‘favor’ in real life, as he’d probably have other people to take care of such affairs. Yet, as Schneider points out, Howard’s “fumbling delivery” of the request, as well as his “digressions on why he won’t consider a professional contract”, give the scene realism, since a rich man does not necessarily imply a murderous one, while his nervousness reveals that this is probably his first foray into such. That most critics merely go by what appears to them as simple logic, rather than the scene’s deeper implications re: narrative and character, shows that Schneider is more totalizing in what he sees, and can communicate this. Nor does Schneider merely leave the review as a ‘review’, but — just like in other essays — gives a bird’s-eye view of things that can be applied elsewhere. In short, given that the film’s criticisms do not hold up, what can they be blamed on? As with Scoop before it, Schneider blames it on viewers’ heightened expectations, because, while it is a film with good visuals, pathos, depth, and well-written character arcs, it is not Crimes and Misdemeanors, or other Allen masterpieces. Yet that should not detract from what this film is, especially since, as Schneider points out, the critics who “dissed this film are the same folk who dissed the same earlier great Allen films when they came out, but who now hold them up as exemplars, only exemplifying [their] utter lack of critical acumen…” Nor should this be surprising, as it is a kind of prequel to what the reader will find in my overview of Pauline Kael who, unable to formulate a real position on things, couldn’t stick to a single judgment, but would shift and metamorphize within the span of a single essay. And yet, if one knows what to look for, the sort of indiscretions that Schneider describes would simply never happen.
Too often, ‘vindication’ is felt only when one’s right. This is unfortunate, as in between right and wrong, there is the even more important task of cogitation, and the search for novel ideas. In fact, it is this suggestiveness that often leads to great discovery (accidental, or not). Yet it is the views, themselves, that need some sort of consistency, an umbrella, as it were, beyond mere ‘correctness’, to corral them into something bigger and more profound. This is precisely what Schneider does, and why his expansiveness works over the course of so many reviews. Yes, readers have praised the “unpredictable” nature of, say, Kael’s writing, but as I’ll go on to argue in her essay, this is not really a strength, but a minus. No one wants to be rote in the purely mechanistic sense, but one ought to have a view of things that is self-sustaining, rather than based on a few slipshod whims. By contrast, true“spontaneity” — that is, in the best sense of the word — involves fresh insights, a willingness to experiment with an essay’s narrative, and oscillation between the objective and the personal (as Schneider and Ebert have done), and a truly expansive view of art that, while applicable to individual works, says much of others just as well, and will therefore crop up unexpectedly within them. This is, perhaps, the reason why Roger Ebert decided to write an essay on Schneider’s work, and why some of Ebert’s own readers ultimately dissented from the critical consensus re: Stardust Memories. And although such things are only part of the picture, the (many) discussions of that film prove that Schneider is becoming right — or rather, is finally being perceived as such — no matter how slow such processes go. Indeed, for while something that is lauded for no good reason will become quite declasse in time, the converse is just as true, and equally inevitable. Today, younger cinephiles are growing up without having to be biased against this or that film, and will thus ‘get it’ in a way that the older folks do not, even as — and just as predictably — they will go on to criticize the great works of their own time, which future generations will have to correct and re-asses. This is not truly a misfortune. The more cogent point is that it’s simply what we’re wired for. It is not, then, merely about Schneider, or his being a great critic, but what such words really mean, and how they will ultimately be used.