For those who missed it, I was- in 2015- interviewed by critic and filmmaker Joel Bocko for his website, Lost in the Movies. The topic was my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real, and everything that might spring from it. We ended up covering cinema and the arts more broadly, over the course of 15,000 words, with special focus on some of Woody Allen’s more misunderstood or less-known works. Joel recently tweeted it out, thus reminding me of our conversation. I am posting it here again.
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Talkin’ WA … a conversation on art, criticism & Woody Allen w/ Alex Sheremet, author of Woody Allen: Reel to Real
A year ago, writer and critic Alex Sheremet contacted me about his newest project. After editing the Take 2 guide to Woody Allen’s work, which included some of my reviews (as did its predecessor, the Take 2 guide on Steven Spielberg), Alex had immediately followed up with another e-book for the same publisher, Woody Allen: Reel to Real. In this work, the author guides the reader through every single one of Allen’s films, his work as an actor, and also the critical engagement with his work as represented – or misrepresented – by six critics: Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Ray Carney, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose subsequent exchange with Alex concludes this section). Alex wanted to discuss the book with me, and I agreed, but the book is long (627 pages according to Amazon), I had some major projects and so the conversation kept getting postponed. He was very patient, and when I was finally able to tackle the work I discovered it was worth the wait: despite its length, I read the entire text in a few days, glued to the screen by the author’s passion and rigor. (My review of Reel to Real has just been posted on Amazon, where you can purchase a Kindle version.)
Throughout the book, Alex keeps his eye on both the particular – the specific Allen film in question – and the general – not just Allen’s entire body of work, but the operation of art and criticism as a whole. I found myself both frustrated and fascinated by Alex’s assertions of objectivity, his frequently casual dismissals of celebrated works by other artists, and his implicit (and, by the end of the book, explicit) privileging of intellectual over intuitive appreciation. I agreed with a great many of his conclusions, possibly the majority, yet often questioned his overarching philosophy. As such, I couldn’t wait to talk with him. The following conversation was conducted via email, and actually represents only half of our correspondence. The other half centered around meta-issues of criticism and art, featured much longer individual responses from each of us, and will be presented in an upcoming update of Alex’s book (in its “DigiDialogue” capacity, the e-book is continually revised as new readers engage with the text and its author over the years; if you buy it now, future updates will be free). To engage with Alex’s work yourself, or read the surrounding discussions, you can visit his website. Although Woody Allen’s work provides our premise, the resulting conversation wanders far afield…something the prodigious and eclectic auteur would, himself, undoubtedly appreciate.
Before we begin, for the sake of readers can you introduce yourself, your interest in Allen, and the reasons behind your outlook and approach to this book?
I am a poet, critic, and novelist living in New York City. I have a variety of interests- hence my desire to do film criticism from a wide “art-first” approach, where issues of character, writing, narrative, imagery, music, and their summation(s) matter. More than anything, however, I wanted Woody Allen: Reel To Real to be a kind of blueprint for critiquing art as a whole. It covers dozens of films at great depth so that, over time, the reader knows what to look for, and can extrapolate some of these ideas to the art-world at large. In an important sense, this book isn’t merely ‘about’ Woody’s art. It is about ART, with Woody serving merely as a convenient specimen.
For this reason, I don’t necessarily state my premises outright- I don’t give readers a ‘list’ of what to look for in a good film, as that’s the quickest way to formulaic thinking (which is counter to art) and a way of avoiding the exceptions that utterly DEFINE so much of art. For instance: to many viewers, John Cassavetes’s best films might ‘go on too long,’ or Walt Whitman’s great poems have too much ‘stuff’ within. Yet a careful look at either reveals that there is purpose- there is communication- in the excess, even though concision is a good rule of thumb. The point is that any artistic rule immediately calls up sub-categories, exceptions, sub-exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions… save for one. And it is this: whatever ends up on the screen, page, or frame, it must be purposeful- it must communicate something of substance, or at least act as a route to substance, of re-framing substance. And the measure of ‘substance’ is Man at his apex. I am not communicating to school-children, Homo erectus, or the guy down the street who has no knowledge of these things whatsoever. I am communicating to those who are interested, open-minded, and willing to put in a little work. I assume my audience is smart. I assume we are, at least on some level, equals. No, I cannot prove it, but if I act like it, write like it, and think like it, something valuable starts to happen that goes beyond the both of us.
My hope is that, after seeing my reactions to so many films, an implicit (rather than explicit) system will emerge in the reader’s mind. I can’t, for instance, praise a well-executed film (say, Manhattan) for its visual and intellectual depths, then go on to deride Husbands And Wives merely because I disagree with some of its conclusions. There needs to be a consistent response, even though- for instance- a flaw in one film might be a strength in another, thus leading to some surprising conclusions. Over time, the careful reader will take on these surprises, and will turn them inward- make them part of his own thinking. And by not making the films about me, I hope that the reader won’t make them about himself either. The point is to go further- to go beyond one’s opinions, one’s limits, one’s preferences and likes, and see the object for what it is rather than the desires commonly imposed on it. As Confucius wrote 2500 years ago: ‘Rare is the man who can love and see the defects, or hate and see the excellence of an object.’ For whatever reason, this style of thinking is still not the norm.
Yes- Woody Allen: Reel To Real is the biggest book on Woody’s film art ever written, and will continue to grow every year. But it’s above all a tool. This is its long-term value, and its value to those that aren’t even necessarily fans of Woody’s films but wish to better understand art. I could have done this book on Ingmar Bergman, Wallace Stevens, Caravaggio, Bosch, Ovid, John Steinbeck… In a very real sense, it would have turned out to be the same exact book. Sure, the details would have to be different, but the approach would be the same- the patterns would be the same, for art has the same underpinnings everywhere. Once these underpinnings are understood, adding a new artist- from ANY discipline- to one’s sense of things is no longer so daunting, merely a challenge to see where such things fit. It’s different for everyone, of course; this is why artistic ‘rules’ are so inane. Yet to therefore assume that there are NO patterns one could work with is an extreme that simply defies human experience. We need to get at these patterns and understand them, not merely spell them out.
As for Woody, himself? I don’t think criticism has been very fair to him. Excepting Roger Ebert’s review, for instance, the general reason why Manhattan is praised is 100% counter to the film’s reality, and why the film works as a film. This is not mere nitpicking. I think it’s great that a wonderful film like Manhattan is understood to be a classic, but if this is informed by the wrong reasons, it means that, if you put a similarly great film in front of those same people, they might not be able to recognize it, for they’d be reacting- as with Manhattan- to something they think they see, as opposed to what’s there. In a very real sense, they’d be reacting to themselves, their own drives, their own needs, their own desires. This is dangerous to the arts. Same goes for other films- Stardust Memories is great but neglected; Another Woman is similarly ignored; counter to the odd mythology, the 90s were actually a pretty good period for Woody, overall. And many ‘name’ critics- Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Vincent Canby, Ray Carney- have gotten the individual films so wrong, even on the seemingly minor details, that it’s shocking there hasn’t been a comprehensive response to their errors and crude lapses in judgment.
Still, this happens to many great artists. Woody isn’t special in this regard. He simply happens to be more useful to this sort of book because he’s made so many films and has withered so many responses to his work- positive, negative, and/or simply dumb. In this way, I can approach things from multiple angles, and have many opportunities to finally get things right even if I might fail in others. This might be harder to do with other artists- especially those far removed from our own time, since they’ve long settled into a glow of general acceptance. People are much more willing to praise you- and to be fair to you- when you’re dead. The dead are harmless. The dead don’t threaten the insecure. And the insecure don’t wish they were dead. Primate thinking, I guess- or some bullshit.
The book takes a very cerebral approach to Allen’s work, skeptical of emotion’s utility for analysis. Is this due to the subject or is it an approach you would take to any subject?
If I’m ever asked to write another book on film, I’d likely write one on John Cassavetes, but in a very different way. Yes, I’d discuss all the films, in depth, in an objective way, but I’d also likely include personal anecdotes, connect them to larger, philosophical themes, throw in some ‘fiction’ here and there, and essentially turn the thing into a hybrid work- not pure film criticism. I’m MUCH more drawn to this kind of style than pure, cerebral criticism. Yet this was simply out of bounds for THIS project, published, as it is, with a new publisher. Even so, I’d argue that criticism has been too biased- too based on personal likes and dislikes- too EMOTIONAL, and there needed to be something highly cerebral (as Woody Allen: Reel To Real definitely is) as a kind of corrective. A friend of mine told me that, knowing the way I am, and my diverse interests, that it must have been ‘torture’ writing a book so careful and methodical. I wouldn’t it term ‘torture,’ exactly, but it’s not my first preference.
How did the idea of Woody’s different periods formulate as you wrote the book (or beforehand)?
Were there other critics you considered for the final section, and if so why did you ultimately exclude them?
I included the ones that were either notable for their quality or egregiousness, or those that people referred to often. Roger Ebert was a necessity; Dan Schneider- besides being a great critic- has informed much of my own critical work, so to exclude him would have been dishonest; Ray Carney, I respect for his scholarly work on John Cassavetes, and have always found it interesting how success in one field (scholarly ability) does not translate into others (evaluative judgment). Pauline Kael has been praised for decades, yet I found her writing poor and her judgments needlessly controversial and ill argued. Jonathan Rosenbaum is grating with his flippant, devil-may-care attitude in regards to film criticism, dismissing great works in a mere 4-5 sentences without evidence or explanation, or demanding- almost sanctimoniously- that works of art adhere to his own ideological, political, and ethical positions. This is a kind of me-me-me’ism in life that I simply can’t stand, but it’s much worse when it’s forced into grand, abstract concerns like film. Now you have this recrudescence of selfishness and myopia making its way into the ONLY place in life where human beings (or at least some of them) have learned to be supremely creative- supremely unconcerned with dross and politicking and general stupidity. No other critics came to mind, really; these were- for one reason or another- good to discuss.
Which other films or filmmakers did you watch while writing the book, and did you find any surprises or new perspectives in doing so, either on Allen’s work or on theirs?
No doubt those are all great films, but the point is that they’re not the only ones. Manhattan– to me- is a slightly improved Annie Hall, Interiors is one of his best ‘pure’ dramas, and Stardust Memories is simply a supernal film, touching on issues of art, meaning, and existence at cosmic levels that even the best filmmakers can only dream about. Yet these films were soon followed by Zelig (an excellent experimental work- even if it’s a bit ‘small’), Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Hannah And Her Sisters, Another Woman (one of my 2 or 3 favorite Woody films), Husbands And Wives, and, of course, Radio Days– which is probably the greatest ‘pure’ comedy that I’ve ever seen. These films were not separated by decades from the first 4, or anything like that. They came practically one after the other, meaning, they were still part of the same mindset that created the earlier films- they were part of the same drive. I don’t see this in any of his films after Husbands And Wives, even though a handful do come quite close.As for a mini-era, one could make the argument that Annie Hall– which is a bit rough around the edges- was more or less expected to be slightly unpolished given that Woody had worked on pure comedies up until that point, and needed (if the reports are to be believed) quite a bit of editorial help before we had the present film. Interiors, although a great film, and probably superior to Manhattan, overall, had a couple of moments that were a little too obvious and clunky, which is, again, exactly what you’d expect from a first drama. Manhattan covered similar territory to Annie Hall, thus perfecting its brand of comedy-drama, while Stardust Memories did something else altogether, something that would go on to rival the very best art-works ever created, by any artist, in any medium. I guess one could view these early films as practice, but that denies the reality of what they truly are. In general, it seems more useful to see them as part of a continuum stretching all the way to 1992.
I would agree that there is something about these four films that feels like “practice,” which was probably why I grouped them together in that essay I wrote many years ago. Where I disagree is in seeing this “practice” aspect as a denial of “what they really are.” Rather, I would see that quality as an amplification of what they really are, indeed a crucial aspect of their fundamental nature. Many of the films’ achievements may be inseparable from their flaws, having the same source and being deeply intertwined in their effect.
That is to say if Annie Hall were less rough around the edges, I suspect it would be a lesser film (I’m not sure if the same is true of Interiors, but would be willing to put forward the possibility for the sake of argument). I don’t see a work of art as the totality of an artist’s control over his means but rather as a collaboration between the artist and the world. Oftentimes, the struggle between the artist and his tools or conditions, while creating a certain messiness in the work, also yields startling, profound experiences that would not be achieved if the artist’s control was more total.
Well, this is merely a semantic distinction, but to be fair, the word ‘practice’ implies that you’re still not where you need to be. You’re ‘practicing’ for something- yet many people have argued that Annie Hall and Manhattan are his best films. To most, he already ‘got there’ by the late 1970s. Yet I’m arguing that they’re great, that Stardust Memories is his best (as well as one of the greatest films ever made), and Interiors one of his best dramas. Woody continued to make great films until 1992, and many excellent ones after, but you can’t honestly go that much higher than the 4 films we’ve discussed. Maybe if you interpret the word ‘practice’ to mean reaching some point that has nothing to do with quality, then yes. In other words, the line from Manhattan to Husbands And Wives isn’t a vertical/ascendant, but horizontal. Also, some roughness around the edges doesn’t necessarily imply a lesser work, merely that some parts might be ‘practiced’ away in the future. Interiors is certainly rougher than Husbands in some ways, but I’d argue it’s the superior film as its highs are higher and more frequent, as opposed to Husbands, which has a kind of baseline greatness from beginning to end.
You appear quite frustrated with established professional critics, and indeed one of the purposes of the book is to serve as corrective to the dubious assertions they have established as conventional wisdom. But you seem much more favorable to the world of online criticism. Can you elaborate on the distinction you see between the two realms, and why you prefer the latter? Is it purely a generational matter or is there something inherent in the internet that brings forth a fresher, more nuanced take on Allen, and perhaps cinema in general?
I wouldn’t characterize myself as more favorable to online criticism, as there’s silliness everywhere. The real difference, to me, is that online critics generally have a shorter shelf-life, and tend to be less ossified than their print counterparts, who came of age at a time when there was remarkably little competition. Now, I don’t think much of Film Crit Hulk and other gimmicks, but at least the films, themselves, get touched upon. It may be done badly- it may be done with intellectual laziness, but there’s at least a pretense of engagement and often genuine passion. Other critics are just really straightforward- you, James Berardinelli, Nick Davis, and literally hundreds of others that simply want to discuss films, and do so, with varying degrees of success. The writing may not be as qualitatively good nor poetic as Roger Ebert’s, for instance, but you get the sense that: here’s a film, here is my interpretation, and I will try to do the best that I can with the evidence that I have. I’d argue there’s been too much of a drive to dismantle ego and personality in the last couple of decades- in ALL parts of life- but then again, most online critics don’t have a need to ‘show off’. So they don’t really lie or antagonize or claim to erect some vast ‘theory’ for attention. They simply happen to enjoy films- for good or ill. I tend to focus on the ill because that’s what’s been offered to me for evaluation, but it must be remembered the all things in life fall into a bell curve. Sorry! Every human trait, ability, or mode of being tends towards mediocrity- and film critics are no exception. They are simply doing God’s duty, if such an inert and idiotic phrase may be resuscitated.
But tell me: if Jonathan Rosenbaum were a 21 year old today, competing with thousands of the critics, above, and thousands more with a scholarly and/or ideological bent (which defines Rosenbaum), and literally thousands- tens of thousands, perhaps- academics vying for attention, would he REALLY have become as popular as he did? Probably not, as there are literally a thousand little Rosenbaums all over the place in academic journals and the like, writing in their piss-poor academic-ese, blogging their ideological axes to Tumblr, posting on Reddit, or whatever other circle-jerk they happened to have developed an affinity for. Had he grown up today, I could see his miss-the-forest review of Taxi Driver, for instance, decrying this or that example of bigotry, making its way around the Social Justice blogosphere as ‘smart’ and ‘hip’- then promptly dying off once the next guy comes around. There is literally NOTHING unique about Rosenbaum’s writing- it’s flat, it’s inert, and the only good I can say of it is that it’s informed by a great technical knowledge that most critics (including myself) simply lack. Perhaps he could have fallen into a technical niche, or gotten hired as an operator, film restorer, archivist, or what have you, but there’s simply too much out there — too many copy-cats, too many without a real voice — for him to reasonably compete with all the detritus. And that’s because he’s part of it! I’d argue the same for Pauline Kael, the ‘feel-good’ silliness of Manny Farber, or whoever else that was boosted by a comparatively small print world. They’d simply not SURVIVE today, but it’d have nothing to do with a qualitative shift. It’s just numbers.
The other part is- as you’ve said- generational. If you watch that Woody Allen documentary from 2011, you’ll see so many critics, actors, etc., more or less regurgitating the same critical viewpoints that were current when Woody Allen first came out. The responses to Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, and others were never really updated. Adults are generally content with having the same intellectual opinions they’ve held since they were 17 — even though they usually feel they’ve ‘changed’. To me, it’s almost as if these guys saw the films once or twice, in 1979, read the contemporaneous articles and reviews, and- 30 years later- have nothing more to add, nor any desire to look at the shifts that Woody’s reception has undergone among new film fans. The fact is, the initial response to great art is often lukewarm if not outright negative, and people generally see the superficial aspects of a thing, first. It takes time for ideas and art-works to sort of level out, to (finally) ascend or descend to where they properly belong. It’s not a perfect process- some things slip through the cracks, while others are still heralded for reasons other than the art, itself. But a new generation has the benefit of distance. This is why literally every person I’ve shown Another Woman to thought it was a great film, then were shocked at the negative reception it first received when I told them about it. That’s because, being 25 year olds in 2015, they don’t KNOW about ‘that one piece’ that Vincent Canby wrote in 1988 for the New York Times, or a 4 or 5 line dismissal by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader almost 3 decades ago. So they’ve not been biased like earlier generations. They can rely on their own faculties, then dismiss all of this writing as products from a few old and out-of-touch farts.
Yet I’m not trying to be optimistic here. This cuts both ways. I’m sure that many of the critics and viewers around today will end up doing precisely what this Old Guard did- if they’re not already doing it. They may not be biased by the critical discourse of a quarter-century ago, but they ARE biased by today’s trends: and not just in film criticism. It’s quite possible that they would not be able to recognize a new, great work of art today, and simply dismiss it. Hell — they might even express contempt for it. And 25 years from now, THOSE new critics will look down on TODAY’S ignorance, but continue to treat their own artists with the same sort of negligence and abuse. The Internet does not necessarily provide a way out. It simply gives people the opportunity to explore these historical patterns, and consider the possibility, therefore, that they’re falling into the same patterns, themselves, and how they might avert this. This is what the Internet helped me do so I could avoid some of the mistakes I was making as a kid. But you need to have some sense to even see this.
I think Rosenbaum is a much more complex figure than you credit. While he certainly wears his political convictions on his sleeve, he has also been an acidic critic of academics who “hate art” in the interest in ideology, and his critical ethos – while frustrating when it clashes with a more evenhanded, less personality-driven perception – is not simply reducible to political posturing or personal idiosyncracies. Even in his exchange with you in the book, there is a compelling and complicated clash of ideas and worldviews which I think a truly inferior thinker would not provide.
I think he suffers in the short form – particularly the capsules you cite in your critique – much more than someone like Roger Ebert, for example. But when given room to explore a subject in longer form (such as in his Essential Cinema book) he almost always brings interesting observations to the table. To be honest, and it’s been a while since I read him, I don’t really recall any great technical knowledge informing his work (a better example of that would probably be David Bordwell), but rather a penchant for the historical context of creation that most critics lack.
I disagree with your estimation for reasons I’ve explained in the book. I literally go through every review he’s given on Woody’s films, and pick apart the claims, and go, paragraph by paragraph, through his ‘big’ essay on Woody. Literally every complaint that he has re: Allen’s films is an ideological or aesthetic complaint. Manhattan is too pristine/lacking in black people (thus mirroring Carney’s complaints); Another Woman references intellectuals and artists, which he doesn’t ‘like’ without explaining the artistic issue; calls Interiors ‘derivative’ without much explanation- merely fiat; attacks Crimes And Misdemeanors thru a strange posit re: 1980s crime, then more or less complains that we don’t empathize with Dolores- ignoring that Allen’s inversion of a killer into a mini-hero (in that instance) and a victim into an annoying, selfish dunce is a magisterial feat, mirroring the viewer’s change of sympathies in A Clockwork Orange. He then, tiringly, complains that Allen doesn’t include more Jewish crises/problems in the films, and bemoans Allen’s refusal to be more explicitly political- as if Allen owes the world anything other than great films, in Allen’s own way. I’ve not even mentioned the half-dozen or so ‘reviews’ that he has of individual films, wherein he dismisses them in 4-5 sentence summaries without even so much one piece of evidence. And it’s utterly predictable that Rosenbaum thinks a light comedy such as Oedipus Wrecks is Woody’s best, for it has the sort of Jewish identity issues that he so craves at the expense of, say, everything else that might make a great film, well, a great film. It is simply unfair to Allen, and it is unfair to young people (like me, when I was 16 or 17) who are searching for answers- searching for a way to SEE- and come across Jonathan Rosenbaum and get hoodwinked into accepting such silliness. They will ossify before they’re 20.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, Rosenbaum (unlike, say, Kael) has certainly contributed to the world of cinema by way of his technical knowledge, for very few people could ever have that kind of expertise. So, kudos on that- I could NEVER match him in that regard. Like you said, his knowledge is expansive beyond film. But he’s a critic. He THINKS of himself as a critic rather than a pure scholar. And his evaluative criticism is atrocious, contradictory, and dishonest. His historical context may be interesting sometimes, but it’s also highly misleading- just look at his complaints of American bigotry in Taxi Driver, or his odd need to tie Zelig, of all films, to Warren Beatty’s Reds. I gave him the opportunity to respond to my critique, but he merely hid behind a few pet theories and offered a couple of philosophical jabs instead of dealing with the issues head-on, despite the fact that I was thorough enough to deal with his work as fairly as possible. More fairly, at any rate, than the Internet trolls who bitch and moan about this or that review of his, without being able to articulate WHY.
This is, at any rate, what I meant re: the historical process. We now have ACCESS to it. No one can accuse me of Rosenbaum’s sloppiness. I saw it first-hand, I resented the negligence, and I simply demanded more of myself- as my superiors will inevitably demand more of themselves than I have of myself, a century from now. They will bury and transcend me as we must bury Kael, Carney, Farber, Rosenbaum, etc., today. There is no choice but to round about the inevitable, to complete the circle that the world- in its iron way- has entrusted us with.
I would not argue the value of his criticism of Woody Allen particularly. I don’t recall reading many of his Allen reviews, and the samples you’ve provided generally aren’t very impressive. All I am saying is that I think the sweeping dismissal you make is unfounded in the larger context of his critical work. Essential Cinema, in particular, I found quite thought-provoking. I think he thrived much more in developing extended ruminations than short reviews.
I’ve not read Essential Cinema, but seen dozens of his pieces, both big and small, spanning much of his career. There are, as you’ve pointed out, some nice contexts and technical info, but- unless I’ve somehow managed to only expose myself to total shit- I’ve simply not been impressed by anything at all. He is really not a critic, and only sometimes a scholar. This is why Ray Carney (who’s a poor judge of art) is a more positive force, overall, despite our disagreements: he sticks mostly to his scholarship. But Rosenbaum ventures into places he really has business being in.
Given your frustration with immediate hot takes on a work, do you feel there is also value in contemporaneous criticism, and if so what does it offer that later critiques cannot?
The bottom line is good criticism- that is, proper evidence, and an argument in line with this evidence. I’d argue that Art, as a whole, was generally in a dark age until the Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty. The Renaissance created a foundation, followed by the first truly and consistently great art-works from Bosch and Caravaggio, and then — as if they were a kind of historical tipping point, a bottle-neck — a deluge of great writing, painting, music, and so on, which reached its apex over several centuries in American Modernism. Yet art (for most artists) is- unfortunately- instinctive rather than thoughtful, and the vast majority of artists who’ve written ON art have done so poorly. Nietzsche (a greater writer) had a wonderfully philosophical conception of art in The Birth Of Tragedy, but could do NOTHING to explain its inner machinations, its ‘how’ — and only partly could explain its why, locked, as he was, into his own classical biases. Shelley wrote a number of great poems, but had a childlike, moralizing approach to poetic criticism that literally cuts out ⅘ of all the great works ever written. Samuel Johnson was just atrocious- perhaps the first example of an academic ass who loved the sound of his own quill. Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe did better, for reasons we can’t really deduce, but artistic criticism only improved (however slightly) in the 1900s, literally CENTURIES after great art works started to flood the world. In other words, there so much catching up to do- logic needs to catch up to instinct, for instinct is our primeval base. This is what we privilege.
I don’t think there is that much of a qualitative divide between old, new, and (most likely) future criticism, except that since we have access to history, we can study it, we can learn to avoid certain mistakes. The more important question is how quickly logic will be adopted to criticism, and whether or not people will realize that — for all of the differing opinions on various art works and styles — there has ALWAYS been an implicit set of goals in what history (not individuals; not tastes, likes, or dislikes) has deemed to be great art. Getting to the bottom of what these are, so that people have a common language, is important. Some may take issue with this, but the deeper point is that the world does not care about their disagreement. It will continue to move on as it’s always moved on. It’s important to not opt out of the world.
You say, “Yet art (for most artists) is- unfortunately- instinctive rather than thoughtful…” Do you mean “unfortunately” as it applies to their suitability for criticism, or more generally? In others words, do you think it would be “fortunate” if artists approached their art thoughtfully rather than instinctively?
There needs to be a dual approach. Yes, some great art has come about through the unconscious, but many of these same artists have likewise been responsible for atrocious work. That is because they trusted instinct and ONLY instinct, and therefore, could not see the difference between good and bad during times when it could have benefited them. One has to be wary; art needs an element of personal fear. And I feel that instincts- in ANY field- can be honed. Boxers are instinctive- yet their instincts are ‘better’ (meaning, they correspond more deeply to reality) than a guy’s who doesn’t fight. Good teachers have good instincts- yet great teachers usually practice until their instincts are fine-tuned. This requires logic, trial and error, seeing what works. Same with art. Instinct needs to be there, but likewise the ability to curtail and understand it.
I feel logic has had a pretty good run and that – when it comes to critical analysis – it is instinct which needs to catch up. I suspect, for example, that the critics’ simplistic, lazy reading of Manhattan results less from reliance on misleading emotion than on filtering their emotional responses through an intellectual framework which they have assembled to make the film more digestible. This lends itself to reduction and myopia because it disregards all the sensory data that doesn’t fit within it, in interest of maintaining the correct “line.” This is a common mistake of criticism which privileges categorization over observation. Logic is only as good as the perceptions it works upon – the process is only as good as its raw materials.
In some ways, you’re right. Yet “disregarding all the sensory data that doesn’t fit within it” is a clear logical error. In fact, there is a formal name for it: cherry-picking. The basics of critical discourse is argument, evidence, and some ability to connect the two. I’d argue logic needs to catch up because while pure instinct can create great art (and has), pure instinct cannot make good criticism, for it requires argument, synthesis, antithesis, etc. These are carried out in the intellectual realm, even if instinct might inform them at times.
You mentioned Birth of Tragedy so perhaps this would be the point at which to say I am more drawn to the Dionysian in art, although I certainly don’t reject the Apollonian (it would probably be most accurate to say I value and enjoy both modes of experience, quite independently of one another, but am drawn more frequently to experience, and particularly to discuss, the former). I get the sense that this is an area where we are coming at the same object from fundamentally different premises.
I’m probably more drawn to the Dionysian as well (for example, I really enjoy Fellini’s Satyricon and much of Cassavetes), but I don’t think one could make the case that either one or the other is greater. Wallace Stevens is Apollonian; Sylvia Plath, likely Dionysian- at least in parts. Who is better? Either tradition can be handled poorly, and both have potentially equal lows and highs. Both have pitfalls, both have strategies. Nietzsche was arguing for a personal preference that, however well-written his argument, however interesting, never really went beyond a personal preference.
You definitely seem to have an intellectual (which is not to say visceral) preference for drama over comedy. On a somewhat personal note, then, can you speak to why you are so deeply drawn to Allen, whose dramas – however excellent – are far outnumbered by his comedies?
I first became interested in Woody Allen as a ‘solution’ to relationship problems in my teen years- to see how older, wiser people handled these situations. Of course, most of the characters in his films handle them poorly, and those that do handle them well (such as Annie in Annie Hall) are usually not these films’ heroes. Thus, getting to the bottom of Allen’s films was also figuring out just WHO was getting skewered.
This, of course, was a more personal rather than intellectual reason, but just like Allen said of reading as a teenager: first, it was a kind of defense mechanism against the world’s dangers, but eventually, one sees the value of such things in and of themselves. The important thing here is that Allen’s dramas tend to be really great films. They are poetic, highly imagistic, well-written, well-acted, and do things with artistic influences (Fellini, Bergman) that at times even BETTERS Allen’s predecessors, mostly notably in Allen’s use of Fellini’s 8½ in Stardust Memories. It would be ridiculous to ignore Allen’s dramas, for any reason, as they are great resources for learning about art’s inner workings- especially since they are so accessible to most viewers.
Would it be fair to say then that Allen’s penchant for comedy is essentially irrelevant to the reasons you are drawn to him, both personally and intellectually?
Not necessarily. I do enjoy his comedies quite a bit. I have an intellectual preference for drama, as does Allen. But I do wonder of the long-term trajectory of comedy, and it’s a question of considerable intellectual interest for me. I think (as I’ve already argued) it will become greater and deeper in ways that I am simply too immature to predict right now. It’s just interesting to draw a line between The Marx Brothers and Woody, note the extreme differences, then imagine what the next iteration will look like. I only have inklings of it, nothing more.
You mention that perhaps in time comedy will evolve into a higher form. Can you elaborate on this? And do you mean just in cinema, or in other forms as well (do you think a deeper comedy has emerged, for example, in theater where it has had millennia to percolate)?
If one looks at a comedy like Allen’s Radio Days, wherein- despite its near-purity as a comedy- every character receives some form of closure, situations are filmed hyper-realistically, at times, music becomes almost a narrative force in and of itself, all the while much of the object remains to create pleasure (a base concern available to most animals) as opposed to stimulate intellectually, I imagine comedy honing in on these features into the future, of intensifying them without losing the intellectual thread. I don’t think Allen has been bettered as a comic, but when I look at the sort of shit I’d laugh at on Reddit, on Youtube, etc., I’m noticing that I get further and further afield from ‘regular’ humor compared to even some of the most intelligent people in the world. They don’t necessarily find my humor funny, while older-style jokes have lost their zing to me. The Internet breeds utter conformity, popularity contests, and the like, but I *know* there are intelligent comics out there (perhaps yet to be born) who will ultimately grow up with its peculiar style, and take at least a handful of things from its value system. And it’s not merely an aesthetic difference, as this style necessarily draws on EVERYTHING that’s come before — plus a kind of social humor that is lost on most people under 35.
It’s hard to discuss this in very concrete terms, as this is all very recent, and will ultimately be guesswork. But, to me, there’s such a huge gulf between The Marx Brothers and Allen’s work, qualitatively, aesthetically, etc., that I can imagine a similar leap between Allen and the guy in 2045. To assume that it won’t somehow draw on these new ways of making fun of the world would be an error.
An interesting response, though this wasn’t what I was asking! More simply: if comedy will eventually evolve into a higher form, why hasn’t it already done so in the past 2,500 or so years? Or do you feel that only in the cinema is comedy almost inherently inferior to drama (if I’m correctly construing your point)?
“Higher,” meaning, greater than it is. I think this applies to all art forms. The written comedies and tragedies are simply inferior, on the whole, to the stuff of the 1600s, 1800s, and today. I just think that comedy is a bit harder to chart in some ways, hence my strange curiosity. Comedy is inherently inferior (as I write in my book) ONLY insofar as what’s been done with it. People are at fault, not comedy. It’s simply the best that we have right now. This is like comparing a book from Homer or Lucretius to a book-length poem like Hart Crane’s The Bridge — the latter is on a COMPLETELY different plane of existence intellectually, philosophically, aesthetically, and artistically: a testament to human capabilities. Re: comedy’s status, that won’t be the case forever, and I don’t see why, theoretically, comedy can’t match it. It’s just that such things are difficult to conceptualize right now.
Whatever its flaws, do you think What’s Up Tigerlily? had an influence on Allen’s use of pastiche (or apparent pastiche) for deeper purposes in later works like Annie Hall? Or do you think both works arose out of a similar impulse, rather then one leading to the other?
It’s probably more accurate to say that Tiger Lily is reflective of the way Allen’s mind assembles and disassembles things. For someone who is able to make a film like Tiger Lily, a pastiche in Annie Hall or Zelig is simply the next logical step. I’ve written books before that, as initial attempts, were a stepping-stone to bigger, deeper things. But I’d not say I was ‘influenced’ by my earlier work. The thing you are as an artist — your axiomatic self — doesn’t really change. It’s simply refracted over and over again as you come to learn what this self is.
While handled comically, do you see any link between Luna’s failed attempts at poetry in Sleeper and Joey’s frustrations in Interiors (or, for that matter, other Allen characters who are frustrated creatively)?
I don’t think most viewers notice this, but Woody Allen has a really great handle on bullshit in the arts. Luna is little more than yet another reiteration of the upper middle class dilettante who wants to be ‘deep’ but cannot. Joey is the same, except her situation is not comic but serious. There ARE Joeys out there- especially the serious artists who, in fact, are not artists at all and can never be, no matter how hard they practice their craft. And while this is quite visible in Interiors, there are definitely other iterations of such in his other films.
Out of curiosity, why did you place Sleeper before Bananas in the book despite adhering to chronology elsewhere?
It simply flowed better that way, not in terms of the chronology but in terms of the book’s over-narrative. In this case, I wanted to pick apart Sleeper as a film with greater depth, yet show how Bananas, being lighter, and set right after it in the book, feels necessarily ‘deflated’- that there are fewer critical ‘A-ha!’ moments for the reader, less pleasure when they read about a lesser work. I could opine all I wish about Sleeper being the greater film, yet if I can show, by way of discussion, that there’s simply MORE to say of Sleeper, the argument, implicitly, doesn’t even need to be made. In fact, the book does similar things quite a bit. There’s something to be said for stating your premises outright, but the more subtle approach of letting part of the argument be made FOR you, by implicit means, is important both in art, criticism, and even life. And, in the future, art and criticism will be a hybrid anyway. It matters not if readers generally miss such things. It’s simply there in the book. It matters TO the book.
You say, “And, in the future, art and criticism will be a hybrid anyway.” How so?
Imagine writing a short treatise on, say, the aesthetics (not simply the artistry- which is different) of John Cassavetes. You try to discuss the ‘excesses’ of the dialogue, the off-the-cuff nature of this or that scene or event. It works, obviously, as a descriptor, but then imagine affixing a novella to the treatise, without polemic, without needing to explain yourself, that absolutely GETS at Cassavetes’s aesthetic by BEING and MIMICKING that very style- albeit in a new context, a different format, a different genre. Isn’t that potentially even more lucid- even MORE explanatory? Especially if combined with a clear, logical, to-the-point evaluation of such?
Or imagine a ‘history’ book that is in fact a novel set 300 years into the future, which recounts the history of the world from, say, 1851 to 2015. Naturally, historians writing (or whatever they’ll be doing) a few centuries hence will choose to discuss/not discuss very different items than what we might. The priorities have changed. Our needs are not theirs. Our vanities are not theirs. Yet by choosing, in 2015, what will or will not go into such a book, you are essentially writing history without resorting to common historical traditions, and by engaging in forms- such as fiction- that are normally thought of as separate from history. You don’t have to say that it’s what you’re doing. You don’t even have to state any premises. You just ACT as if you’re right, and watch the rest of the cosmos align around your very will! And it’s engaging- it’s profound- it is different and unique and does things that NO history book can presently do due to the limits of its genre. I tire of people saying ‘a novel has to be….’ or ‘an essay needs to be….’ all the while listing 1 or 2 shackling criteria that is so dull and unimaginative. Let’s do more as a species, eh?
And I can speak of this at length because I am planning these books now. Once I am mature enough to tackle them, I will become their future. Or they will become mine? The longer you do this sort of work, the hazier (and sillier!) such distinctions become. At this point, I don’t even know what I’m choosing. In some cases, I’ve given up control- I go with the instinct- I know it will work. But such things must be honed.
Thanks for the explanation. I think this is true, and I also think criticism will move beyond just being prose (as it already has begun to, particularly with video essays) and overlapping more with filmmaking or music or theater or painting or whathaveyou. As Godard said, the best way to criticize a movie is to make a movie. Best, maybe/maybe not, but certainly an interesting way. And the idea of incorporating the material itself so that the criticism becomes a real-time dialogue with the work fascinates me more than probably any other recent development. We are entering interesting times, indeed.
I don’t think much of Godard, but I’d agree with him that it’s a great way to respond to something intellectually. I also think that it’s part of the future.
How did your very skeptical readings of Alvy [in Annie Hall] and Isaac [in Manhattan] evolve? Was it something immediately apparent to you when you first watched the movies? For many viewers (myself admittedly included) it has often seemed that these characters’ conclusions are mirrored by the films’ even though you very effectively argue otherwise.
It definitely wasn’t apparent right away. You, as a male, and especially as a teenaged male, WANT to root for Alvy. Your romance might be ‘small’ at that point, but you’ve had relationships, and- if you have some sort of core- you’ve likely wondered why things turned out the way they did. And Alvy is explicitly that sort of guy: he wonders, a lot, and therefore he is you even though you’re about a generation apart. Yet what you don’t see as a young viewer is that so many of his issues are self-made, self-perpetuated, and that his bittersweet memories of his relationship are really his own fault. You don’t see it because you are probably the same way, and are using Alvy’s affability as a means of occluding your own flaws. Alvy’s a decent guy, I’d argue, but he’s manipulative and- due to his slightly self-destructive streak- is trying to keep Annie in a relationship that clearly isn’t working for HER, even though it’s resolving their mutual loneliness. But a relationship based on mutual weaknesses (as opposed to mutual strengths) is no relationship, and she realizes this earlier than Alvy does- IF, in fact, he ever does. At the end, for all of Annie’s superficiality, she’s the one who ends up growing emotionally. It may not be objectively in the best direction, but it works for her own limited purpose. And that’s because SHE is a limited person. Alvy is smarter, deeper, and more interesting. Yet he’s also lonelier, and more willing to trick himself into accepting Annie as a great partner despite the fact that she doesn’t even share some basic interests. There’s a wide gulf between personal greatness (talent, ambition, etc.) and being a good person. Alvy’s not great, but he’s certainly closer to the word than Annie. Yet Annie is the superior human being in the lighter sense of such words. I don’t see these kinds of distinctions being made often enough, yet they’re clear if you simply watch the film and look at both characters’ behaviors without self-imposed blinders.
The same applies to Isaac, albeit in slightly different ways. I’ll deal with him when I discuss Manhattan below.
Your points about Interiors not being as Bergmanesque as many make it out to be are well-taken. That said, one thing I have noticed is that some of the characters’ issues – maybe particularly the mother’s, though I need to see it again – seem to stem less from acute emotional pain than from a lack of emotion and a despair over awareness of this lack. I think this relates very deeply to Bergman’s work, in which numerous characters articulate this exact mental state (although then again, a difference emerges in that the mother in Interiors – to my recollection – exhibits rather than articulates this condition, and may not even be aware of it). Do you have any observations about this connection and its presence elsewhere in Allen’s work, alongside more expected portrayals of depression and anxiety?
I think you’re right that, on some level, they don’t really express emotion well or even at all. Yet another issue is that they’re selective about whom they express this emotion towards: Eve towards Renata, partly because Renata does not reciprocate, and Joey towards Eve, because Eve does not reciprocate. You see similar parallels elsewhere, and I’d call it a basic human reality that people are in fact drawn to those who don’t give them the attention that they deserve, but merely dangle it in front of their noses, and keep pulling it further and further away, thus creating a cycle of craving and release. They are broken people emotionally, but also existentially: they have no real purpose. Renata: do we even know if she has talent? Forget the bullshit accolades, the papers, Frederick’s envy- we have no on-screen evidence of her talent, but a lot of immature bitching that’s unbecoming of a great artist. Eve: her ‘talent’ is what, exactly? Knowing where to put a white lamp in a beige room? It seems whatever talent they DO have, it’s not enough to overcome a basic void that they all share, it doesn’t give them purpose, and we’re simply not given enough information to really get at the bottom of what that void really is. There’s just enough to latch on to in an appreciably human way (unlike with Bergman’s mediocre Cries And Whispers). And, of course, that’s perfectly alright. We make do with what these characters try to hide from us. We are capable of deductions.
It’s often missed that Allen’s artists are usually quite unsuccessful. From Manhattan to Deconstructing Harry, these guys are clowns — not serious creators. By far the BEST artist in any of his films is Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories), who is in fact one of Allen’s healthiest characters. Yes, there’s the emotional meltdown- there’s the familiar neuroses. But keep in mind that everyone seems to be demanding something from HIM — and it’s not all about fame or money. He has something, a ‘way’ about him, a wholeness, a strength, that they lack, and that they crave for themselves. Bates is without a doubt the closest Allen character to Woody Allen, himself, but for reasons that are 100% opposite to the childish reasons proferred by the likes of Pauline Kael and others. It is because, for all of his issues, Bates is mature, and, above all, filled with purpose. He’s made a great film- he’ll continue to make great films. He knows that art betters him, others, the world. He knows WHY he exists, despite the occasional doubts. That he doesn’t always know how to navigate this knowledge is beside the point.
As for the connection to Bergman, I think much of drama, for all directors, revolves around a basic human dilemma: that life is simple, but people are unable to navigate this simplicity- to act according to what life IS, as opposed to what they want life to be. Unless you’re dealing with sickness, hunger, poverty, and the like, life is easy. I find it hard to empathize with many Woody or Bergman characters because so many of their issues are self-made: they wreck their marriages, destroy their bodies, and hurt others because they don’t have a handle on the fact that THEY are responsible for creating their own meaning- as well as the fact that life (at least in the short term) follows a fairly rote pattern of cause and effect, thus making problems that are rather predictable. Here are people that have access to the world’s highest accomplishments- art, music, an unprecedented level of physical safety- and none of its nadirs, yet spend so much of their time on other pursuits, on neuroses. They destroy their own advantages. Yet this is pretty much inevitable, and this is where so much of the human drama subsists.
This is related to the question about Alvy and Isaac, but your presentation of the dichotomy in tone in Manhattan (between its romantic view of the city and its acerbic view of the characters) as a strength, rather than a flaw, is compelling and fresh – was this something immediately apparent to you, or did it evolve over multiple viewings and/or reflection? If the latter, what were the key moments or observations for you, in discovering the value of this tension?
It was, as with Annie Hall, something that took a little time. I first saw Manhattan as a 17 year old, and although felt it was well-executed, in a technical sense, found much of it silly- mostly because I took its representations at face value. Look closely, however, and there’s more, and if you DON’T see it, I wonder, really, what the reason is for describing it a “great” film? Look at that opening- Isaac is writing a book about New York City, yet is discussing it in the most cliched way possible. Then he’s unhappy with one cliche, and decides to write another cliche- only to settle on yet another cliche! He leaves his job to work on this piece of shit, then gets upset when he’s challenged over such immature choices? That’s just a minor part of his issues, however. The fact that he can’t write isn’t his fault. But so much else is. He strings Tracy along until he can find someone better, as he’s tired of her incapacities. He comes to accept Mary as a kind of cancer, but wishes to indulge her, anyway, due to his self-destructive streak. He jokes about his ex-wife’s accusation of attempted murder, but then goes on to admit to it in a throwaway line that most viewers usually miss. He whines about the crass stupidity and non-art of his job, but leaves it to make his own brand of non-art pretending that it’s somehow ‘better’. He discovers how much he ‘loves’ Tracy, but only after Mary dumps him, and expects her to drop all of her summer plans (booked plane tickets and all) in order to work through a dead relationship. Unbelievably, most viewers have taken the film’s last few minutes as “hope,” but really: would a smart, beautiful, mature (at least for an 18 year old) girl like Tracy end up staying with an old, manipulative neurotic after she’s actually had a real taste of life and nice boys her own age? Why would she? This is really where Manhattan works as art. The film’s inner reality- manipulation, stupidity, unfairness- is propped against its illusions of beauty and goodness. Yet most viewers just see the goodness and the hope, not the underpinnings of a Fata Morgana.
These are great observations – I had the same objections to the film as you did. But you are quite right that the critiques of Isaac’s perspective are actually deeply embedded in the film itself. This was probably my favorite part of your book, and one of criticism’s most exciting and underused capabilities: to take what is presented on the face of a work – the usual viewer response and/or the critically-established “conventional wisdom” – and USING WHAT IS IN THE WORK ITSELF point us to alternate, subversive readings.
I agree. In fact, I came to these realizations as I was writing the book. I didn’t know HOW I’d discuss Manhattan– I was stuck, since everything I could say about it was a cliche and my instinctive feelings about the film’s greatness were merely that: unhoned instinct, with no way of articulating it. That’s not enough in criticism, however. So I decided to rewatch it, and everything became clear. This was the book’s first great hurdle for me. Yet just think of the number of people who refuse to watch the film because of its subject matter, and are forever cut off from understanding the peculiar kind of aesthetic which you’ve just described, above. It’s a shame- it becomes a personal lack.
Can the ability to “trick viewers into accepting its illusions,” rather than forcing them to confront said illusions, be considered a flaw in an artwork?
The “trick” comes from the fact that most connoisseurs of art- especially the professorly types- are a lot less astute than they think they are. Is this Allen’s fault? The art is clearly playing on their emotions as well as their expectations, and just as Allen skewers his characters, all people, including the film-goer, can become fair game. Yet I was ‘forced’ to confront said illusions- AFTER I’d watched the film multiple times, and really had to consider what was going on underneath it. Should these conclusions have been spoon-fed to me, and confrontation inevitable from the very first viewing? If it were, I’d not have had the useful experience of figuring this out on my own, and knowing how to extrapolate this trick of deception to other works of art. (It happens A LOT; much more so than one might assume). Nor would Manhattan be a great film if it were so easy to crack, if all you needed to ‘get it’ would be to watch it once and file it away. In fact, most people do exactly this, and come away with cliched and palpably incorrect notions about Manhattan being some sort of idealization where love conquers all. But that’s not art- that’s agitprop. And it’s agitprop whether it’s a bumper-sticker for communism, or a bumper-sticker for how wonderful New York City is. Art is not a bumper-sticker. It cannot (and should not) be encapsulated into one little line or articulation. Yet life, I’d argue, is really simple, and requires capsules. Art doesn’t. The deceit is somewhere in this tension. Most are unwilling or unable to see it, and so they merely fall for it.
Not that any of this is necessarily conscious- Allen simply knows how to avoid cliches, and how to subvert these sorts of expectations as a narrative develops and characters grow. In fact, I wonder if his infamous distaste for Manhattan is in any way a feeling that others will not see the illusion as an illusion — a poor barometer of anything, as this should not be Allen’s concern. It is the viewer’s. Fulfill your end of the bargain- making a great work of art- and let the viewer do the rest of the work. And they NEED to work, don’t they? If you, as an artist, do not expect them to, you are simply condescending to them. I’ve never seen a great work of art that didn’t trust the percipient’s intellect.
You observe that one of Zelig‘s themes is the lack of compassion others feel for him; even though the film itself might be seen as cold it is in fact drawing attention to the coldness of the world inside the film. Do you see an anachronistic humanism in Allen’s work, and if so is it hidden (you also mention the subtle ways his films sympathize with rather than dismiss seemingly “weak” characters like Annie or Joey)?
In general, I do think that Allen empathizes with his characters- at least artistically. From interviews re: his personal experiences as a teenager becoming a part of the 1950s artistic scene, he’s said he was shocked at people’s immaturity and transparent behavior. It’s hard to say how much he feels this, personally, as there’s a big difference between personal empathy vs. an artistic one. Yet the Allen of Allen’s films is not Allen the man, but Allen the creator. It is more useful to focus on that.
Does the question of Allen’s humanism (or lack thereof) interest you at all, or do you consider it incidental to his particular achievements as an artist?
Not really. It’s rare that I care about an artist’s philosophical, ethical, or political inclinations. I’d rather be served an INTERESTING perspective that is well-executed than one specific to this or that bent. Especially if it’s poorly executed. I have very strong political, ethical, and philosophical beliefs. I know where I stand and what I am. So I don’t need someone to reiterate them for me. I don’t need to be told what I already know.
You mention that you don’t personally like Hannah and Her Sisters but that it is not relevant to the film’s worth. Perhaps not, but out of curiosity can you expand on what you dislike about it?
Perhaps some of the reason has to do with my response to your question on Bergmanian drama. The characters in Hannah do such a great job of fucking up their lives, and are even proud of it- some to the point of utter glee, at times. To watch a young, naive woman like Lee with an old, overbearing bore like Frederick is more or less watching a train wreck; to see Elliot being an awkward creep, for no real reason other than the fact that he’s never had an honest conversation with his own wife puts me on edge. Then, there’s Holly (just ugh), Hannah’s parents who fight non-stop (grow up!), David- who plays upon these women’s insecurities- and Hannah, herself, who is in some ways the most oblivious of all. You just wanna slap these people into reality.
Yet none of that is really interesting- at least not to me. The FAR more important point is that it’s a great film, a well-constructed film, a beautiful film in many respects, and one of Woody’s best. It needs to be seen and engaged with and understood despite how you might personally feel about it. And if I can write thousands of words in praise of it, despite my personal distaste, you can certainly suck it up and give it a fair look, too. The responsibility in that case is towards yourself. I despise it when people refuse to engage with a great work of art simply because it doesn’t fit their moral, emotional, aesthetic, or ideological beliefs- and especially when they become ‘apologetic’ over the fact, further doing the me-me-me thing in trying to justify their choices and continually referring to themselves as the be-all, end-all agents of such. As I wrote in Woody Allen: Reel To Real, the ‘I’ of criticism needs to be obviated as much as it’s necessary. In that way, the thing can be, well, criticism.
Your take on the conclusion of Hannah reads, to me, as more ambiguous than your take on the ending of Manhattan; that is to say, you seemed less certain that the film was condemning THEIR behavior than you did with Isaac’s. (I think at one point you even mention a rare disagreement with Schneider, who sees the conclusion as explicitly critical of the characters’ flaws.) This is where my own personal frustration with the film came to bear: not that the characters were unlikable – which as you note is not a flaw of the work at all – but that perhaps the film settled too easily for a happy, settled denouement whereas Manhattan‘s at least contained an ambiguity (even when I saw the bulk of the film as less critical of Isaac, I at least noticed this). So does the film look the other way in resolving these characters’ stories or is the “happy ending” ironic? And if it’s the former, does that constitute a fundamental flaw in the work, as you suggest it would for Manhattan?
It’s not 100% clear, to me, that Hannah‘s ending is so happy. It is possible the characters are merely on the cusp of some new ruts. Holly becomes an artistic ‘success’ by essentially writing poorly-scripted soaps (from what we could tell). Her final line in that play which gets so praised is a naked cliche. Sure, it’s possible that she presses on in life, completely talentless yet unaware, and, therefore, with nothing to puncture her bubble. I mean, she’s working, right? She’s making money- and that’s how so many people view art. Then, there’s Elliot, who- troublingly enough- acts like a complete CHILD in what appears to be his mid-40s. That he was capable of such then means he’s capable of it again. Hannah’s parents are singing- they look at each other and appear content. Yet we know that their earlier, vicious fight is one of many vicious fights that they’ve had since forever. Are they stuck in a cycle? Do 60-70 year old couples really change after a lifetime of horrific, mutually destructive habits? So I don’t fully buy that it’s a happy ending, although Woody, himself, does, and even complains about it. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that there’s an equilibrium- a kind of contentment- even as the viewer is subtly told of potential problems down the road.
You note critics’ preference for Hannah and Her Sisters over Interiors despite many similarities between the two. Why do you think they prefer it? Arbitrary as it seems, there must be a reason (albeit probably a deeply faulty one). Likewise with other similar-yet-differently-
Hannah And Her Sisters is definitely preferable to more people (including me). It is, on an unrelated note, a better film than Interiors, but it also has music — in fact, one of Allen’s most memorable uses of music. Interiors lacks even this, while also featuring mental ills, visual darkness, hatred (done without humor), suicide, and just lots and lots of heaviness. Most people, by definition, would prefer a ‘gooier’ Hannah than a rigid Interiors, even though they are qualitatively comparable. There is no real artistic reason for preferring one over the other, merely an aesthetic one. I do not argue over aesthetics. It may come as a surprise to most people, but aesthetics, taste, and beauty are only tangential to art, even though in many cases they have historically informed one another and can continue to do so.
When you state that aesthetics are incidental to art, how do you define “aesthetic” (or which particular definition are you employing here) and what distinguishes it from “artistic”?
Aesthetics has been various defined as ‘the study of beauty’, or ‘taste,’ and the like. Sometimes, it’s the technicality of an art-form- perhaps the use of meter, for example, in a poem. But beauty is certainly not art- Picasso isn’t ‘beautiful,’ although the feeling that is engendered in us by looking at his best paintings might be termed as such. And the only time I’ve ever used the word ‘beautiful’ to refer to an art-work is in describing John Cassavetes’s The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, which is my favorite film of all time. Yet there’s little inherently beautiful about it- the feeling that it creates in me, however, is so strong that I feel compelled to use it. So it needs to be used selectively (if at all) given how different the aims of art and beauty usually are.
As for ‘taste,’ etc., I can’t argue with taste, so I don’t. I have a ‘taste’ for Total Recall– but it’s not a great film. I try to stick to terms and positions that can be debated.
As per the discussion of “happiness” in Celebrity, do you see a tug-of-war between pragmatism and idealism in Allen’s work, and do you think he generally comes down on one side? His characters are often punished for idealism, yet there seems to be a certain nobility or even heroism in their persistance. Then again, that nobility may be part of the “illusion” you speak of in films like Manhattan.
I don’t agree that his characters are punished for their idealism- at least, that’s not really a trend if you look at his films more closely. Yes, in a superficial sense, both Alvy and Isaac are ‘idealists,’ but they’re also self-destructive and manipulative. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they wish to manipulate and twist objects into their sense of idealism both at a cost to themselves as well as others. In short, their idealism is limited to themselves, and how a certain viewpoint or romantic inkling might further this romantic inkling. It simply doesn’t concern others. One can argue that Cliff in Crimes And Misdemeanors is punished while Lester, the hack, prospers, but I’ve long doubted Cliff’s intellectual AND artistic merits vis-a-vis Lester. Yes, Lester is a bad person and a poor artist, but the only bit we see of Cliff’s art is pretty bad too- it simply has a different ideological ax to grind, even if it’s nobler. Ben (the blind rabbi) certainly is not punished. He is merely oblivious from beginning to end, and is even allowed to continue to live within his bubble- in the same way we all, to some degree, co-exist within our own bubbles, axioms, and the like. Sandy Bates is without a doubt an idealist in the DEEPEST sense of the word (despite his outward show), and is rewarded with artistic greatness. Celebrity has fucked up characters all around- Lee is a permanent child, while Robin is a sellout, and even admits as much. Lee’s idealism, again, is centered around himself, while Robin’s idealism turns into an outward kind of cynicism that she can profit from.
Questions of pragmatism/idealism often miss this. How much of this idealism is in fact selfish- a means to personal gain? How much of cynicism is turned inward, to the point of self-destruction, and how much of it successfully turned outward? I don’t see very much ‘pure’ idealism in Woody’s films, except in a few, and sprinkled across a handful of characters. It’s all for the good, however, as characters have more complex motives, things that aren’t necessarily so easy to champion one way or the other. If a film forces you to root for just ONE thing, it is, generally, a failure. One needs to root for a complex in art as well as in life.
In the book you speak of “certain ceilings that, apart from completely changing the very nature of the films, will simply never be breached” (particularly about comedies or experiments like Zelig that, in fulfilling their aims, can only go so far). But would it be impossible/bad to change the very nature of a film either at some point in the narrative or even during the process of creation? In a sense this is what happened to Annie Hallbehind-the-scenes, in which it was formulated as a murder mystery and then evolved into something else. But what if it happened within the finished film somehow?
If one changes the nature of a film at any one point, it means that the film, in its entirety, is changed, and that previous/future scenes need to be viewed in this context. This happens all the time- from Crimes And Misdemeanors, where a hyper-realistic killer seems on the cusp of confessing, thus confirming all that the viewer has been ‘taught’ so far- only to refuse, and in fact prosper from his refusal. This happens in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where a seemingly Buddhist tale is in fact stood on its head, and turned into a Western one- to much artistic benefit. And so on. Yet if a film has ‘a’ certain nature, and it’s unaltered, and it has a ceiling, this will simply remain as is.
I would be really interested in seeing Annie Hall as it first was. The fact is, Woody Allen has not made any outright bad films until much later in his career. Editors, viewers, etc., could have spoken as they wished on the original Annie Hall, but given what I’ve discovered of fans, critics, and even great artists, themselves, there is NO formula for becoming a good judge of artistic matters. You can be a great film scholar but suck at evaluation. You can be a great editor but a terrible writer. And, shockingly, having access to great art doesn’t seem to increase the chances of being able to recognize great art. It simply makes it POSSIBLE. The original Annie Hall can pretty much be anything, really, except- and I say this as a half-jest- what it’s been said to be.
Do you see the role of good criticism as purely defensive/negative – to counteract bad criticism? Would there be a need for good criticism if bad criticism did not exist?
It is both. Good criticism needs to show what truly happens in a work of art. This ability is rare, and if one has it, I’d hope that it would be used to counteract and name, BY name, all the bad criticism out there without pussyfooting around. If bad or mediocre criticism did not exist, I see two possibilities: that there’d be only good criticism, or that the arts are simply not taken seriously enough to be discussed. One of these would be unfortunate, and the other, impossible.
Why do you feel it’s important to single out bad criticism (particularly by name – of the critic, I presume) when offering good criticism?
It is important because most people can’t differentiate good from bad to begin with, and are liable to get confused. If I write Reel To Real, and argue my positions effectively, then someone else reads Kael or Rosenbaum, and says, Ah- more good arguments!- there is a real confusion at the root, for there is virtually NO synthesis that can come of our works. They are literally irreconcilable. If you believe your positions are correct, this does- at least to a strong degree- naturally and logically exclude other positions. I say Woody is a great artist; Rosenbaum calls him a hack. We can’t BOTH be right. I write that Manhattan is clearly an illusory world. Rosenbaum takes the illusions at face value. Again- we can’t both be right. To point out the obvious is useful- to explain error is useful. Yet no one wants to call others out for fear of endangerment, or being thought of as ‘difficult,’ or ‘arrogant,’ or whatever, so they think of all these reasons why a critic sucks, or an artist sucks, but then keep their mouths shut out of cowardice. It’s not about principles with them. It’s about ‘getting along’. Name names! Tell the world like it is! I need to live with principles, mostly because I believe in art, and find that there’s so much damaging it from so many directions. More than anything, I want to make room for the future- I want to be REPLACED. You don’t hear that in criticism, really- you only hear the ego. ‘I think this, I think that.’ But I think what I think and argue what I argue because I want to do BETTER than these other guys, so that the future has an example of something great, something indelible, that THEY could use to build something even greater. As much as I’m unimpressed by Homer, Catullus, Properties, and all these other classics, the fact is, WE needed THEM to become who we are today- to be better, smarter, deeper. I’m sorry, but that’s the way of the world, baby! So let the dunces fall- hell, let even the greats fall, in time, so that the future can BREATHE!
To return to the larger point, you state that “Cries and Whispers is without a doubt one of Bergman’s lesser outings” but a great many critics, perhaps the majority, do doubt this, ranking it as one of his best. At the risk of indulging bad faith (an inherent risk of any criticism-of-criticism) what do you think they are misunderstanding about the work, or rather what are they unfairly adding to it to elevate it so high?
I didn’t realize Cries And Whispers was so highly rated until I started doing research for the book. I can list many flaws in the film, from the melodramatic, hamfisted, too-obvious use of color (red, red, red everywhere- down to even the transitions!), to the way you’re forced into a mess of never-explained hatreds and odd sexuality, which- while this might have been bolstered by some character strengths in a better film- is instead expressed in ways that aren’t even recognizably human. The film’s characters are, for the most part, cardboard cutouts with only a pretense of psychological depth, always hitting against one another, and occasionally drawing blood. Yet they’re cardboard- so why should the viewer even care about the blood? Where’s the deeper connection- to anything, really? In short, there’s nothing really ‘human’ to attach oneself to. The ‘people’ of Cries And Whispers aren’t people, but automatons who go through the motions of cruelty and evil and death, in overly florid manner and speech, with no history of interest, no present of interest, and, therefore, no future of interest. A film without a future is not a film. It is locked purely into itself- it does not refer to the world at large. It is merely reflexive and self-involved. Diddle all you want with the ornate details and endless little puzzles (for they’re there- I’m not denying this), but this isn’t really art. It is merely a sum of technicalities that doesn’t really have much reason to exist except for the act of poring over one masochistic afternoon. There’s no real pay-off. One might as well do a crossword puzzle on local political trivia in 1872 Frankfort.
I have seen Cries and Whispers twice and neither time has it transported me as I expected it to, the way many other Bergman films do. When I trace the source of my reactions, or non-reactions, I come to many of the same conclusions as you. (I admire the film’s precision, but I can’t detect in it the capacity to move). That said, I’m still not sure I understand what other critics are seeing there – either that they are imposing, or that I am missing – which leads them to celebrate it so highly. Is it possible there is an additional layer to the film which you and I are missing, which would “unlock” the movie and clarify its achievement? Are we the children who see that the emperor has no clothes, or inhabitants of the land of the blind, who think that those who claim to see are lying? It’s a fascinating question to me.
Sure, it’s possible we’re not seeing something, but one can draw these hypotheticals about literally anything. The problem is, for all of the vague praise, I haven’t seen a single GOOD argument for why it’s a great film. There’s only, ‘Oh the sisters,’ or ‘Oh the color’ – or ‘Oh, those aging teats…’ Until the critics can come up with something better, I just can’t wallow in insecurity, and assume the fault’s somehow with me. You and I made some pretty good arguments for the film’s lacks. Until they are dismantled, it is illogical to assume that we’re somehow in the wrong, or else what’s an argument for? To be indecisive means, too often, to be inactive- to be unable to commit. And it usually comes from a problem within.
I don’t mean to harp on this particular film at all, I just think it’s an interesting example of a larger phenomenon: where exactly the viewer derives the experience of greatness in a work and to what extent a sober, objective analysis can detect its sources. Also, in the book your criticisms of negative critiques are very effective and detailed, while your criticisms of positive critiques tend to be more diffuse and even admittedly baffled (more than once you ask “Why were the critics praising this when they attacked THAT?” without really being able to provide an answer). Do you think an understanding of critical over-evaluation is possible?
Negative critiques of great works tend to ‘get’ to me more, so perhaps that’s why. Yet, to be fair, if I’m negatively critiquing a film, I usually provide tons of evidence, tons of cliches, tons of loose ends, so that any positive praise, by contrast, just looks ridiculous to most readers. Usually, a positive critique of a terrible film is really vague to begin with, since what the hell are they gonna praise, anyway? The second a critic decides to prop up a terrible line as an example of great dialogue, the argument looks weak, and so the critic ignores it and tries to rationalize his personal taste in some other way. Sometimes, I don’t even know WHERE to begin when dissecting such reviews, for I’m given nothing to even argue against.
Critical over-evaluation is probably best understood as a function of 1) personal taste, which is hard to define/guess at, 2) the milieu. Why is Geoffrey Chaucer still considered a great writer? He’s not- he’s a bore, more or less- but he’s truly important, historically, and was absolutely needed for some of his better descendants. So it’s hard to let him go for reasons that have nothing to do with art. But art is a great rationalization for latching on to something, isn’t it? Art, being an illusion, can be a great way to deceive oneself. I think on some level this is what happens again and again.
To clarify I had in mind Ebert’s review of the film, which is obviously the product of a deep, rapturous engagement with the work (and is written as such, hence as you say it is hard to dispute), akin to something I personally would feel with a work of David Lynch or with Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Or, for that matter, certain viewings of Persona. But I didn’t feel that the two times I watched Cries & Whispers many years ago. I’m fascinated by the question of whether Ebert simply applied his own personal feelings onto a film which hadn’t really done much to earn them or if he detected a unique quality inherent in the work itself. I would not want to dismiss my own responses but I’m also well-aware that such responses have changed over time, and that I’ve been similarly affected by films which other critics didn’t “get.”
Roger Ebert is notorious for imbuing his own emotions into his criticism, sometimes to his detriment. In fact, look at this long piece that Ebert did on Dan Schneider a while back- he admits this.
As for his review of C&W… look at that first line. “Selfless love”- where? He begins with a critique of the film not so different from what we’ve both said, but then posits this ‘selfless love’ as a counterpoint which he never goes on to justify nor explain. He goes on to mention Karin’s cutting, then blood-smearing, as if it’s a boon to the film- yet, again, it is never explained how this odd little scene even works. It is simply done via fiat. He writes that most of the characters are uniformly blase- evil, hurt, suffering, etc., yet passes this off as a positive, again without explanation. He praises the use of color, but ignores how obvious the symbolism is- how badly it simply wants to hit you over the head. He talks of dream sequences, a possible reconciliation, etc., but never really attempts to analyze the characters themselves- he knows there’s nothing there, save for a handful of short scenes. (Look at his comment re: ‘some deep wound’- it is really a blank slate, from beginning to end.) Yes, I’m sure he’s seen the film many times, and engaged with it at length, but this doesn’t really come out in the review. He doesn’t articulate this engagement even if, again, it happens to be a well-written review. Unless someone can really point out where we err, and respond to our specific critiques, I just don’t see a reason to revise my opinion.
Luis Bunuel is another example of this: he is described in terms that suggest the critic is undergoing a disorienting, dreamlike experience but his films seem rather lucid and plain to me. I enjoy them well enough but they don’t affect me on the deep level of Blood of a Poet or Meshes of the Afternoon or Mulholland Drive. I truly believe that one is going to just be scraping the surfaces of those films if they don’t feel anything in response to them, so likewise I’m hesitant to be too dismissive of an artist that people whose honesty and perception I trust have a similar reaction to. When I’ve read vitriolic beside-the-point criticism of, say, Fire Walk With Me – in which the critic has clearly missed the central emotional phenomenon of the movie and thus hasn’t truly engaged with it – it has made me boiling mad. So I try to avoid falling into that trap myself!
I feel the same way about Bunuel. Have you ever seen Belle de Jour? Dan’s review of it really does articulate, quite nicely, why so much of it fails- even as parts of the film may be good. I think this is a good metaphor for Bunuel, as a whole.
My suspicion is that you have good artistic instincts, yet the clear consensus around you makes it difficult to accept them. I know the feeling, since I recall always scratching my head as a teen at poetry journals that would praise this or that bad work, making me feel my judgment was somehow the error- not theirs. But what’s a consensus, anyway? A ‘coming-together’? Yet so is a mob. So is everything else that doesn’t quite belong.
At the same time of course honest criticism owes it to the reader to offer the critic’s own reservations, doubts, and lack of an experience as, if nothing else, another voice in the mix. I just do it with the thought in my head that I may be missing something. This could be applied to all works of art, in theory, but there are certain films where I can detect that possibility much more strongly than in others; it isn’t just a matter of other critics offering a contrary point – usually the work itself clues me in to hidden layers even if I’m not responding to them.
Anyway, this treads more into the territory of avant-garde and/or abstract art. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call him avant-garde and I certainly wouldn’t call him abstract, I would certainly view Cassevetes as closer to these areas of necessary emotional engagement with Allen. So I’d really be keen to read your work on him in the future, and see how you apply a different framework and approach to his oeuvre.
Is there anything else you would like to address, about yourself, Allen, or the book, that hasn’t been covered?
Remember that Woody Allen: Reel To Real is a tool, and Woody Allen is its specimen. Every answer that I gave, above, can be extrapolated to some other artistic question yet still remain consistent. As Dan Schneider says, great artists (of any genre, medium, or time period) have more in common with each other than lesser artists in the same field. If you can truly come to understand what this means, you have a key not only to the arts, but to the cosmos and the sort of patterns it engenders.
Thanks for this interview, Joel. I very much enjoyed the questions.