Today marks the release of Woody Allen: Reel To Real, which is, as of this writing, the most comprehensive book on Woody Allen ever published. Poet and critic Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica fame, has called it a “seminal” and “revolutionary” book, a book that ought to change the way people talk and think about film. I hope that you’ll agree, if not with some of my interpretations, then at least with the tools Reel To Real provides — tools that can be applied to the art world as a whole, for greatness (as Schneider has argued) is its own company, and what works or fails in one place can be extrapolated into another, from film to film, art-work to art-work, and to the kinds of stories people like to tell.
In short, the book covers every movie that Woody Allen has ever written, directed, or otherwise acted in, with preference given to the material from Annie Hall onward, and especially to neglected masterpieces such as Stardust Memories, Interiors, and Another Woman. Thus, I take a film-first approach, with detailed analyses and 100s of references spread across ~160,000 words on art-centered writing. Yet the book also features a dialogue between the writer and reader, a huge chapter dissecting 6 major critics of Woody Allen (read it here, in full), a fiery exchange between me and Jonathan Rosenbaum, perpetual updates to the e-book via a ‘sync’ system whenever a new Woody film is released, and a final chapter wherein — after much praise, from me! — I finally take Woody Allen to task on his influences, opinions, and general philosophy. In short, no one gets off easy, because, just as Judah is told in Crimes And Misdemeanors, ‘the truth will out.’ Except, in this case, it’s not mere naïveté, and I’ve got the hammer.
Anyway, to celebrate the release of Woody Allen: Reel To Real, I’ve decided to compile a list of Woody Allen’s top 10 films, and explain my reasons in depth. Note that while there are some films, below, that can legitimately be knocked up or down a few spots, they all have at least SOME claim to artistic greatness, if not being indisputably so. So, despite Jonathan Rosenbaum’s claims, to me, a 40-minute fluff-piece like Oedipus Wrecks simply does not belong here. And, conversely — and critical negligence aside! — a well-written, well-filmed, and well-scored opus like Another Woman does. And now that at least some of my reasoning is clear, let us begin with the list proper!
Woody Allen’s Top 10 Films
I respect the reader, and so won’t waste time by forcing anyone to scroll to the very bottom of this page to see my top Woody pick. It’s not merely annoying, but would occlude a great film, a film that deserves the #1 spot, and needs to be watched without blinders, and understood without the silly imbuements into Woody Allen’s person that it’s been subjected to for the last 3 decades. No, Stardust Memories is not about Woody’s anger with his fame; it’s not about his Jewish self-hatred, as the remarkably dense Pauline Kael had argued; it’s not a homage to, nor a rip-off of, Federico Fellini’s excellent but inferior 8½, and it’s certainly NOT a mess without narrative, for it is rich, dense, brimming with wonderful character flourishes, and always refers back to itself — both to Allen’s film, in toto, and Sandy Bates’s film within a film, which recapitulates some of the wisest and most ennobling things that have ever been said of and within art, in any medium.
Unlike most Woody Allen films, Stardust Memories utterly defies capsule, much less a temporal breakdown, due to its use of flashback, dream, fiction, metafiction, and many other techniques. No, the film doesn’t really have a plot in terms of temporal sequence marked by ‘big events,’ but it has something far more important: narrative, which is how all the important features of an art-work — emotion, ideas, music, scripting, visuals, characterization, and so on — fuse into a coherent whole, while both tuning in and seemingly turning away from it. In Manhattan, for instance, the soap operatics are given heft by the strength of characterizations (tuning in — in fact, a laser-like focus, as on Isaac), while being undermined by the visuals (turning away). Yet, a statement emerges, nonetheless, as it does in Stardust. But while the earlier film did a great job of excoriating relationships and the personages that seemingly destroy them, Stardust Memories is focused on even higher things: art, the artist, dream, identity, and the ‘big’ questions of meaning and existence, as well as those questions’ utter pointlessness and futility. Too many have decried the film as “bleak” in this regard — even Roger Ebert, who often gets it right with Woody — without taking the time to even examine the answers the film actually provides.
One of Stardust’s greatest scenes, wherein so much is given, so much exchanged in mere glances, and shows an entire arc of Dorrie’s character. Interestingly, you know EXACTLY what Sandy’s expression must look like, despite not seeing it:
The opening shot of filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) shows him stuck in a train full of unhappy people — or, perhaps more accurately, ‘losers’ — with another train full of upbeat, successful types blowing kisses at him. Realizing this, Sandy shows his ticket to the attendant, but while he speaks, as if explaining why he belongs on the other train, the whistle obscures even his voice, thus ‘blotting’ him out, not merely trapping him. As he tries to escape, there is a suitcase full of sand that slowly drips its contents to the floor, a wonderful little symbol of time and futility, which all ends with the train’s passengers on a beach, walking, as if making a pilgrimage, to a trash heap — perhaps of the bodies and belongings on the other train? This, too, might say something of ‘success’ and its perception, as Sandy is forced to confront his desires, and where they end. Woody has been accused of ‘stealing’ Fellini’s opening in 8½ of a filmmaker trapped in a car, but while without a doubt that is the clear antecedent, Woody not only changes the scene’s terms, but absolutely betters them. Fellini’s scene works on one or two symbolic levels, while Woody’s has multiple, with lots of touches — the whistling, sand, pilgrimage, gulls, confrontation — that comment on completely different things altogether (i.e., ‘turning away,’ instead of Fellini’s merely ‘tuning in’). In fact, if one closely analyzes other scenes, similar discrepancies turn up, and not only of the scenes themselves, but of character, even down to the very different reasons why Sandy and Guido have so many flatterers. In the sequence that directly follows this, a bunch of critics are blabbering about the film that was shown (for it’s Sandy Bates’s ‘film within a film’), complaining of its pretentiousness and grimness, similar to the dense comments others make about Guido’s artistic choices. They are inane, but even Woody (or Sandy?) allows one critic to slip in a great, pertinent comment about “the gift of laughter” and Sandy’s alleged inability to appreciate it, thus allowing even a clear ‘type’ — i.e., a bad critic — to rise above his self-made station. This is the set-up, then, for much of Stardust Memories: Sandy tries something new, only to get shot down by producers and studio execs who relentlessly tamper, while Sandy (and Woody) zip in and out of film, dream, fantasy, and reality, which allows both men to delve more deeply into the issues that exist outside of the more basic conflicts that have routinely been taken for the film’s core, rather than its excuse to probe even further.
Another great ‘Dorrie’ scene, prompted Sandy’s visit to a mental hospital, wherein Dorrie is at turns crying, then laughing, flirting, and manipulating him, with all of her comments cut up by time lapses, her words distorted and re-arranged, so one not only gets their essence without having to really hear them, but also the snapshot of an ill and fractured mind:
Given the film’s look at celebrity, it is easy, then, to see why the Sandy persona has been so conflated with the real-life Woody Allen, but it’s just not so, for the two are clearly different. In the film, Sandy Bates is not only flawed, but responds to an irony and authority that Woody (not Sandy) creates, even if Sandy’s meta-film includes much of this wisdom already. Yes, Woody is critical ‘in real life,’ and Sandy is as well, but Sandy’s conflict is really the nature of all artistic misrepresentation, where critics read into or even openly destroy perfectly good works, a reality that is unique to neither Woody nor Sandy. To go a step further, nowhere in his biography, interviews, or real-life anecdotes can we deduce that Woody is bitter about anything, or angry at producers and studio execs, for one of Sandy’s main issues (an artistic one) is others’ tampering, which Woody barely experienced, as well as others’ demands on his person (and not merely his fame), which most critics (Allen included) simply ascribe to existential angst. Yet Sandy is neither destructive, as is claimed, weak, nor even the all-loathing “whiner” Roger Ebert says he is, but is, on the whole, a well put-together human being who ultimately sees farther and deeper than everyone else around him, continuing to make valuable work despite others’ great hostility and manipulation; the very antithesis of the word “whiner.” If he really is, for example, making a film within a film, then Sandy Bates, the film-maker, is at the very least a great talent, which makes ‘Sandy Bates,’ the character playing a filmmaker, the creation of — well, two minds, really, even if there is only one brain behind it. This comes out in one stunning scene in particular, where Sandy meets some extraterrestrials, and conducts an exchange which deserves to be quoted in full:
Sandy: Don’t go! I’ve got some questions!
Alien: We can’t breathe your air!
Sandy: Yeah, at the rate we’re going, we’re not going to be able to either. You guys have to tell me, why is there so much human suffering?
Alien: This is unanswerable!
Sandy: Is there a God?
Alien: These are the wrong questions!
Sandy: Look, here’s my point. If nothing lasts, why am I bothering to make films, or do anything for that matter?
Alien: We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones.
Sandy: But the human condition is so discouraging…
Alien: There’s some nice moments too.
Sandy: Yeah, with Dorrie…
Alien: That’s right. And Isobel. Be honest!
Sandy: You prefer Isobel?
Alien: There’s no comparison. She’s a mature woman!
Sandy: Mature woman?! What are you, my rabbi?
Alien: Hey look, I’m a super-intelligent being. By Earth’s standards, I have an IQ of 1600, and I can’t even understand what you expected from that relationship with Dorrie!
Sandy: I loved her…
Alien: Yeah, I know, and two days a month she was the most exciting woman in the world. But the rest of the time, she was a basket-case! On the other hand, Isobel is someone that you can count on.
Sandy: But shouldn’t I stop making movies and do something that counts, like, helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?
Alien: Let me tell you. You’re not the missionary type. You’d never last. And, incidentally, you’re also not Superman. You’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes!
Sandy: Yeah, but I gotta find meaning!
This is Woody Allen — not the ‘masochist’ or the hypercritical being who sees his sycophants as nigh-monstrosities, nor the obsessiveness personified through Sandy Bates, but the artist who wrote the exchange above, which not only makes fun of the things that engender the character’s way of thinking, but also offer some truly great wisdom. Although the scene lasts only a couple of minutes, a lot is tackled: the nature of meaning, existence, God (or rather, the irrelevant feelings God engenders) and what to do with one’s life. Yes, relationships are touched upon as well, but they are treated as extensions of Sandy’s basic problem, and thus enlarge to bigger, deeper things. Consider, for example, the alien’s response to the question of “meaning.” It is “unanswerable” precisely because it is a loaded question, with the assumption prioritized above the answer, itself. People might not see this, but an extraterrestrial who has long transcended such petty, all-too-human concerns will. Or consider the advice that Sandy Bates (and by extension, everybody) should stick to what he is best at, rather than fixate on things beyond his nature, and beyond his purpose. As Dan Schneider writes in his review of the film, this is something that more people ought to do, for it’ll bar angst and put human ‘wandering’ in its place: as a phase of self-consolidation, rather than one’s perpetual identity. That so much can be deduced from an exchange that seems superficially comic says much of the film’s leanness, and its ability to communicate so much with so little waste.
The great extraterrestrial scene in Stardust Memories:
Yet even more important than trying to figure out where Woody Allen himself fits in the film, is the alien’s probable retort that it, too, is simply “the wrong question.” The fact is, Sandy Bates — whether real or fiction, wholly or in part — nonetheless exists as a character within a specific film, with certain views, interactions, and relationships, and it is far more important to evaluate those, within the film’s universe, than trying to extrapolate biography from its sum. At its core, the film is an examination of art and its pitfalls (beautifully reproduced, I might add, in the real-life critics’ misrepresentations, as if part of some meta meta-film, whose architect is still a mystery), what it can do, and cannot do, and where human identity fits within this nexus. Art, for instance, is not Sandy’s ‘savior’ (as it isn’t for Renata in Interiors), although, as the critic at the beginning of the film points out, it is very much a “gift” — and larger, in fact, than any of the possible alternatives. Thus, it is not at all a bleak film, but a wholly optimistic one, for even if art cannot save the flatterers, critics, the needy, nor even Bates, himself, it is simply because they do not see its magnetism, hung up, as they are, on themselves, and are treating the thing in a purely selfish manner: the critics, producers, etc., as wanting to get a piece of the action by manipulating the finished product, or Sandy, as a means to get some answer for himself, rather than for the whole of humanity, which is really at the level that the best art functions.
The ‘real’ Bates (not to mention Woody, himself) seems to know better, however, as the creator of the ‘inner’ film. At the ‘inner’ film’s end, the characters that appeared within are seen to be talking about it, and in fact, even seem to have been bettered by the experience, as thinking, sentient beings in the face of something stimulating and rich. Are they mere characters, then, in Sandy’s film, or memories from Sandy’s life, bubbling up, now, as if in a dream? Again, the answer, itself, does not seem to matter too much, for they have existed and transpired — context be damned!
“Fifty. I didn’t think anything turning thirty. Everybody said I would. Then they said I’d be crushed turning forty. But they were wrong. I didn’t give it a second thought. Then they said I’d be traumatized turning fifty. And they were right. “
– Marion in Another Woman
If September, from the year prior, was only a mild success, then Another Woman was Woody’s highest accomplishment in the genre, and one of the greatest ‘pure’ dramas ever made. I’ve seen it many times, from my very first watching, wherein I’d interpret the film’s title in the most superficial of senses, i.e., infidelity and other wan thoughts, to ritual re-viewings once or twice a year, getting a bit more out of it each time, to my more mature years now, where my mind feels like it’s finally coming into its own, and is able to handle poetry, narrative, and their composites precisely in the way the film imparts. And although I am not of the view that art is a service to anyone, the best art, I am learning, tracks you through the years, exposes your biases (both petty and not), refines your sense for patterns, and denudes your very shortcomings — the very kind, in fact, one sees on full display when so many critics attempt to talk ‘about’ this film, but can only talk around it, for they seem to want a conversation without wishing to first define its terms. I won’t dwell on these issues here, for the film is really its own best answer.
Now, since I give a scene-by-scene — in fact, almost minute-by-minute! — breakdown of this film in Woody Allen: Reel To Real, I won’t do this now, but focus, instead, on what others have written of it, given how much the film has been savaged over time. In short, going over things scene by scene, in this way, I am reminded why I consider the film to be among the very best in cinema, whether one looks in the scoring, the acting, the scripting, the great, symbolic visuals and shots, the rich poetic narrative, or the tiny details that become obvious only upon multiple viewings, which both help drive the film, as well as condense it to a mere 82 minutes in which nothing is lost, and everything seems to have a place. I am aware, as with Stardust Memories, this is not the critical consensus, but it’s also true that, as with the other film, Another Woman has not been properly watched, as evidenced by the critics’ poorly thought-out dismissals. Indeed, as Nick Davis points out, the film was both “commercially ignored” and “critically unheralded” despite being a “sensitive, accomplished, and ambitious picture,” qualities that I’ve already substantiated. So, what’s the issue, exactly? Vincent Canby, for instance, felt the characters don’t seem “real,” and that the world of the film, itself, is not “real,” but merely contrived, thus mirroring his own views on Interiors — one clue as to its hatred from all the WASP types who populate Marion’s (Gena Rowlands) world. Yet the only evidence provided is characters’ “stilted” dialogue, which is both utterly common in that world, and only half-true, for while there are formalisms, which appear as needed for character realism, they are balanced out by near-perfect acting and snatches of dialogue that not only capture what the characters feel, but describe reality in a way both accurate and poetic, the very opposite of “stilted.”
And here’s the evidence for such, as Marion re-dreams her own illusions through some of the film’s richest, most direct and affecting dialogue. This is why Another Woman is not merely one of Woody Allen’s top 10 films, but one of the greatest films ever made, period:
Suffice to say that this is like complaining of Mr. Stevens’s ‘manner’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for while accurate, such a criticism misses the entire point of why it’s being enacted in the first place. Canby also says the characters more often “announce” what they’re feeling rather than truly “experience” such (see the film clip, above), yet one must wonder, then, if he’d caught Marion’s hurry upon meeting her sister-in-law, the supernal expressions she gives off when confronted by others’ eyes, as with Claire, or her perfectly-timed pause before delivering “I think of you more than sometimes” to Larry (Gene Hackman); masterly acting, all, and the absolute pinnacle of ‘show, don’t tell,’ for those that feel they need their films to follow this sort of trite advice. — even as the film so often tells, too, and magnificently, at that. At end, Canby even claims that Mia’s gloomy feelings are more easily explained by her pregnancy (!), wondering why it is not more readily acknowledged by the film, and that the characters are more or less stand-ins for Woody’s own neuroses, missing the fact that Woody wrote the analyst’s lines as well, as a kind of ‘over-voice’ that judges, not suckles, the issues and hang-ups within.
In short, it is a tired conflation, and an inaccurate one, at that. One further wonders of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s take, which says little of the film, itself, and provides even less evidence for what it does say. How could it, when Rosenbaum writes a mere four sentences filled with things too vague to even argue (“self-flagellation”), or manifestly inaccurate (“glitzy, suicidal chic”)? One may disagree with Bill Thompson’s review, for example, in which he criticizes the film for lacking an emotional core, but he provides evidence for claims, and takes a ‘personal’ approach regarding his own emotive response to the film, which obviates any kind of objective critique, anyway, rather than hiding behind its pretense.
Critics often point out the film’s many borrowings from Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and while the connection is there, this observation (which is more often than not a charge) ignores the far more obvious differences between the two films. Perhaps the biggest surface-level similarity is the films’ openings: that of a professor whose familial details are revealed via photographs and a voice-over. This sequence (short as it is) was clearly borrowed by Allen, not only due to the set-up, but the way the credits begin after this sequence; a departure for Allen, whose films typically begin with credits first and narrative later. More telling, however, is that the two professors are forced into self-discovery via dream and flashback, often coming to terms with others’ perceptions of them in a way that challenges their own self-awareness. But while Isak’s tale (Wild Strawberries) is that of a grump who, despite others’ comments, — still treats people fairly, and even has a strong emotional core that many viewers deny, Marion is truly self-deluding, and suppresses the emotions Isak so clearly acts upon in virtually every scene of his film. In short, Marion must come to terms with others’ perceptions and change her life accordingly. Isak, by contrast, must come to terms with others’ perceptions and sadly internalize them, despite the viewer knowing how untrue these perceptions often are, and how far apart they remain from the ‘real’ Isak Borg. This is not a subtle difference, but a large one, as Isak remains kind, whimsical, and given to the sort of reveries that are utterly foreign to Marion, thus creating a light film masquerading in darkness to Allen’s far more brooding work.
Marion comes to an understanding — an understanding that Isak (Wild Strawberries) would merely dismiss out of hand, for the two are NOT alike:
Still others have called Another Woman intellectually masturbatory, singling out Marion’s references to Rilke, Gustav Klimt, and others, as false and pretentious. Yet the film revolves around intellectuals, including a poetry-minded philosopher, so to have a few references to the very things that might stimulate such people is not exactly unwarranted. Also, there are, maybe, two very short references to Rilke, and one to Klimt. In an 82 minute film, that takes up virtually zero screen time, but adds, in just those few seconds, a whole lot. Critics have complained that using Rilke does nothing to move the “plot” (thus once again confusing plot with narrative), but I wonder if they’d even read the poems in question, or thought for a second of their implications. Archaic Torso of Apollo ends — after a magisterial look at the power of art — with an intuitive leap, to ‘change one’s life,’ the very dilemma that Marion entertains, and eventually resolves. The animal in The Panther, sixteen year-old Marion concludes, must be looking out into the image of death, wherein we see a several-second shot of a caged animal, with a drama mask lying on the floor — the same mask through which Marion kisses Sam (Philip Bosco), who commits suicide, well before we even learn of her abortion. To say this is irrelevant or does nothing for plot (much less narrative) is both unfounded and ridiculous, for it only takes a second’s thought to see the import. In fact, one might even be more justified for (incorrectly) stating that the references are too obvious — incorrect because there are too many rich details (the mask, Rilke’s line on ‘seeing’ which hearkens back to the ghost-like eyes suddenly upon Marion) that involve themselves in more subtle, insinuating ways. Sure, most viewers will not see this, but that professional, literary-minded critics play ignorant is either disingenuous, or absurd.
But perhaps there is a simpler explanation, too. Perhaps the film, as I’ve said, has not really been watched, nor its terms ever defined. And if not, how could a conversation ever be held, and be more than mere posturing — the very posturing the film’s routinely accused of, yet seems to point out so well in others who dismiss it out of hand?
“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 Dostoevesky’s Crime And Punishment, and provides a glorious capstone to Allen’s greatest decade in film…”
– Dan Schneider’s review of Crimes And Misdemeanors
Much good has been written of Crimes And Misdemeanors, but aside from the quote, above, few seem to notice that — on top of the great visuals, the acting, and the wonderful, poetic script — Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal is one of the most hyper-realistic killers that has ever been depicted, in ANY work of art. I mean, simply watch him, as he moves through the film’s world, and knowingly and unknowingly cuts through everything in his way — even through those who, at first glance, ‘seem’ even worse than he is, yet cannot match Judah’s expert manipulation of others, as well as of self. And this is not only due to the film’s ending, wherein evil goes unpunished (as is the case for virtually all evil acts in human history) but also due to all the little moments that reveal a sociopath on the cusp of realizing his own nature before fully embracing it. No, there’s no blood, or screaming, or deformities; only motive. And it is THAT motive, as opposed to mere freakishness, that frightens grown-ups.
Judah waxing poetic on his own ‘needs,’ and decides what must be done:
Aside from Judah, there are other great characters, as well. Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) has often been interpreted as a kind of hero, or at least the film’s force of good, alongside Ben (Sam Waterston), but realistically, even in the ‘comic’ portion of the film, Cliff’s antagonist, the slimy Lester (Alan Alda), is much closer to Cliff than is realized. First off, both are losers, at least in the sense that neither exhibits much talent — not Lester, who pushes mere Lowest Common Denominator crap, nor Cliff, who has artsy pretensions to things that, based on his comments throughout the film, he clearly does not understand.
For evidence, just consider this scene, and its implications. In a screening room, Lester is finally shown Cliff’s video project, which captures Lester perfectly by showing him in the worst possible light, complete with shots of Mussolini, a donkey repeating Lester’s idiotic words, and even Lester in an intimate moment with a young, pretty co-worker, to whom he promises a little ‘getting ahead’ in exchange for getting to know “what’s in here,” as he points to his own chest. It’s a bad, almost extreme film, funny to the audience, no doubt, but strange and offensive to Lester, who immediately fires him. Yet Cliff’s look is of genuine surprise — he really did think that Lester would be all right with this, thus casting doubt on Cliff’s intellect. What’s more, the film, as shown, does not seem to be a very good one, implying that Cliff and Lester are not true opposites, after all. If Lester is a passionless hack, with no ideas nor talent of his own, Cliff is a ‘visionary’ hack, both spineless and forever lost. In a way, then, they are two sides of the same coin, for while one has no ideals and zero integrity, the other has a lot of both, but no means of recognizing them, nor executing what he does have into the ‘real world,’ where it could live and affect others. This, again, is an example of great writing and excellent character development, for neither man is a true symbol of good, bad, phoniness, or integrity. They each have a little bit of both, with Lester even being a bit more intelligent than originally shown.
Yet Cliff, while being quite close to Lester in the deeper sense, is one of life’s losers by happenstance, while everyone else around him prospers. At film’s end, he tells Judah that he’d make his story more ‘tragic’ by forcing the killer to turn himself in, thus placing the killer as arbiter of morality in the absence of God. Yet Judah merely shakes his head and says that we’re dealing with real life, NOT fiction.
And this is a true Woody touch, for it reveals Woody Allen’s desire to not merely show what’s on film, but what’s in real life, too, no matter how stylized, such as the film’s final few shots. Judah departs, and Ben dances with his daughter as music plays and colors swirl, as if he finally is in the “kingdom of God,” apart from the spectators, who can only clap at film’s end. Is Ben a fool, then, merely putting on a performance apart from the rest of the world? Or is he in fact wise, no matter if that wisdom is purely situational, whose ideals have merely been rejected, no matter how right, by people who do not share his basic assumptions? In fact, I’d argue that Ben is a more nuanced figure than typically thought. Yes, he has ‘perfect wisdom.’ but at the same time, is perfectly wrong as well, for the wisdom is not really playing out in the real world, as Judah shows. To be wise and wrong is not a contradiction, either, for the two apply to completely different aspects of human existence: the former to a world of ideals, propped by an assumption that most people share, while the latter to the truth of the assumption itself, and what ought to be done with the knowledge gained.
A flat-out GREAT ending, wherein the two ‘good’ characters are shown for what they are, and Prof. Levy’s narration plays ironically against the various characters’ delusions:
Thus, if Another Woman is a great film that hasn’t yet received its due, then Crimes and Misdemeanors is a widely-praised film whose greatness, while generally acknowledged, is often misunderstood. At its core, the film is not only about a hyper-realistic killer (as opposed to merely a ‘torn,’ freakish, or symbolic one), but also about the winners and losers that surround him, who not only shed light on his import, but on the lives and personalities of millions just like him. In fact, it is one of the film’s seemingly most throwaway lines — “might makes right” — that brings this idea to the fore. To see it in action, one simply needs to look at how the film’s relationships bud and die. Halley (Mia Marrow) rejects Cliff because he’s a loser, and falls for the vapid and loathsome Lester because he’s a success. A stranger humiliates Cliff’s naive, lonely sister merely because he can, and she’s only too willing. Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is not only killed, but her utter shallowness is remembered by Judah, even after her death, wherein she confuses musical composers, or waxes poetic on the eyes being “windows to the soul,” despite us knowing that her own eyes were empty, with neither definition nor identity when she was killed.
Yet, for all that, it is Judah who is at the center of it all, and it’s Judah who, far more than being a mere symbol or plaything, is something far more real. He is just another guy living at home, raising his kids, going to work, and giving to charity, separated only by the style and the frequency of his rationalizations, while the fact that he is ultimately a “winner,” to use Schneider’s word, affirms the Bible’s oft-ignored dictum: for whoever has, more shall be given, but whoever does not have, even that shall be taken away. This is ‘might’ as it begets might, and riches for the Judah Rosenthals, but even as Judah argues at film’s end, no fairy tales, nor happy endings.
Although Hannah And Her Sisters is not a personal favorite of mine, I’d be amiss to not list it among Woody Allen’s 5 or 6 best films, for objective greatness transcends whatever one might ‘feel’ about a thing. After all, there’s much going for the film: a great score, great visuals, some of Woody’s best writing, in ANY film, and a ‘comic’ side — mostly via Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen), in a choice slightly reminiscent of the structure in Crimes And Misdemeanors — that comments upon and expands the deeper stuff, within.
In some ways, Hannah and Her Sisters revisits the same tropes of Interiors, with a seemingly talented artist, Hannah (Mia Farrow), a ‘sore loser’ and drug user, Holly (Dianne Wiest), and a half-lost woman, Lee (Barbara Hershey), who, perhaps out of envy or resentment, starts an affair with Hannah’s husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). In fact, the film begins with Elliot mesmerized by Lee during a Thanksgiving party, an interesting twist that immediately puts the viewer into the mind of a romantic, subverted by the fact that — despite his poeticisms and depth of feeling throughout — he’s quite the creep. Pretty soon, Mickey, a television producer and Hannah’s ex-husband, makes his first appearance as a stressed hypochondriac. He’s subjected to endless medical tests due to his constant worrying, at one point even fantasizing about his own impending death due to a non-existent tumor. This, then, is the film’s make-up, for the main characters’ issues are all played against Mickey’s, whose silliness highlights the silliness of their own self-inflicted problems, even as they evade or obfuscate, and downright magnify them as being deeper than they really are. Yes, it is a borrowing from earlier films like Annie Hall, but goes beyond it as it approaches similar subjects — death, love, and other human relationships — more deeply, probing, as it does, far more than mere romance.
Michael Caine behaving like a child, and never having to deal with the consequences — at least not on-screen:
All 3 sisters have issues with one another, for, as Nick Davis writes, it is the “molecular, push-and-pull connections” that are the story’s focus. But even if one were to argue that there is no main character, it’s really Hannah that’s at the center of it all, or at least seems to be, for Hannah is either a great, well-disciplined and otherwise lucky person, whom her sisters can look up to, or a cold manipulative bitch, depending on how the evidence is interpreted. It’s partly this ambiguity that makes the film so rich, for it is impossible to say with certainty what Hannah is, except that she most likely experiences a change at film’s end. Lee is ‘lost’ and immature, but not self-pitying or self-destructive — save for an early episode of alcoholism, which seems resolved — and uses Elliot as her solid ground, in the same way, perhaps, that she’d once used alcohol to fuel her longing, or Frederick as a kind of anchor. Her new marriage seems to do her a great deal of good, as she’s clearly happy, but we still don’t know what she’s doing for herself, only that her romantic life is now in order. Yet her romantic life with Frederick (Max von Sydow, of The Seventh Seal fame) was acceptable for a while, too, wherein she had no identity but his, and lived off of his money. Does she, for instance, merely jump between relationships in order to stave off loneliness? Yes, her ‘lost’ quality has been replaced with radiance, but it is impossible to tell how long it’ll last, or that her ending is definitively happy; only that the film’s end is happy, which is different but often confused. Holly, too, is similarly lost, albeit in a deeper way, with drugs, slip-shod interests, and a kind of ‘hopping’ quality reminiscent of Joey in Interiors, as well as Joey’s bitterness and anger.
Yet my favorite scene involves Mickey in his quest for ‘meaning,’ as he tries on various new religions, unhappy, as he is, with his lack of faith. After meeting with a priest, Mickey picks up some Catholic doodads and visits his Jewish parents. The conversation that ensues is one of the best, deepest, and funniest parts of the film:
Mother: What! Oh my God!
Mickey: I don’t understand. I thought that you’d be happy?
Father: How could we be happy?
Mickey: Well, because I never thought of God in my life, and now I’m giving it serious thought.
Father: So Catholicism? Why not your own people?
Mickey: Because… I got off on the wrong foot with my own thing, you know, but I need a dramatic change in my life.
Father: You’re gonna believe in Jesus Christ?
Mickey: I know it sounds funny, but I’m gonna try.
Father: But why? We raised you as a Jew.
Mickey: So, just ’cause I was born that way… I’m old enough to make a mature decision.
Father: But why Jesus Christ? Why, for instance, shouldn’t you become a Buddhist?
Mickey: That’s totally alien to me! Look, you’re getting on in years. Aren’t you afraid of dying?
Father: Why should I be afraid?
Mickey: ’Cause you won’t exist!
Mickey: That thought doesn’t terrify you?
Father: Who thinks about such nonsense? Now I’m alive, when I’m dead, I’ll be dead.
Mickey: I don’t understand. Aren’t you frightened?
Father: Of what? I’ll be unconscious.
Mickey: I know, but never to exist again?
Father: How do you know?
Mickey: Well, it certainly doesn’t look promising…
Father: Who knows what I’ll be? I’ll either be unconscious, or I won’t. If not, I’ll deal with it then. I’m not gonna worry now about what’s gonna be when I’m unconscious.
Mickey: Mom, come out!
Mother: Of course there’s a God, you idiot. You don’t believe in God?
Mickey: But if there’s a God, why is there so much evil in the world? Just on a simplistic level, why were there Nazis?
Mother: Tell him, Max.
Father: How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works.
Although wrapped up in comedy, the dialogue is quite revealing, with the father’s matter-of-fact retorts among some of the very best and most concise ever penned on the topic. In short, Mickey is wrong, and his father is right: why should someone punish himself with unanswerable questions when they only lead to depression and confusion? Why be terrified of death, when life is the present condition, and must be gotten through before all else? Yet Mickey does not recognize this, and creates the same kind of problems — albeit more dramatically — as the other characters do, all the while feeling himself ‘justified’ in this or that mode of thinking. Sure, the others are dishonest and manipulative, and Mickey is not, but their basic issues stem from personal immaturity, which is his own problem, too. The difference is that Mickey wraps it up in highfalutin language about God, evil, human suffering, and other existential concerns, as if his own issues are somehow incomparable or more sophisticated. They are not. One can talk oneself into depression as easily as infidelity, for the root problem is the same, with Mickey serving as a semi-comic mirror for the rest of the film’s drama.
Mickey Sachs’s manifold desires, and their ultimate resolution…
The film’s use of music is also reminiscent of Manhattan — not in the song choices, which are quite different, but in the way that they both prop up and undermine the film’s very illusions. It is, alongside Stardust Memories, Allen’s most complex use of music thus far, with certain composers being linked to specific characters (Puccini and David; Mickey and Count Basie; Bach and the Elliot/Lee arc), and the use of classical, which would only grow with stature in his later films. Yet it is really the various manifestations of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered that stand out most for their emotive and narrative drive. On the one hand, Elliot is in love (or thinks he is), as are Hannah’s parents, who sing the song at the first Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, the song’s simplicity captures these emotions — and the title, itself, can be seen as a comment on so much of the film’s behaviors — yet Elliot is also clearly ill-suited for Lee, and his love quite immature, while Hannah’s parents seem to stick around only for the misery they can inflict upon one another. The song’s many reprisals, then, have a complex effect, with its purity being undermined by the reality it’s so often paired with, even as, at film’s end, the idea is that Hannah’s parents have gotten over their issues (not likely), and that Elliot has finally ‘seen the light,’ also not likely, for a man in his forties capable of acting like a perpetual fifteen year-old probably has much deeper issues to fix.
In looking at Woody’s post-Love And Death films, one sees that they aim higher, and simply accomplish more. Interiors is precisely such a work, for it takes a kernel — a family in turmoil — and shows how characters are affected by it, as well as how they, themselves, are the contributors to the dissolution. The film shocked viewers upon release, for it had exactly zero comedic value, and remains one of the heaviest stories that Woody Allen has written to this day. It is also precisely what is so hated in Allen’s work, for he skewers an upper crust family in a way that is both poetic and realistic, thus opening Allen up to criticism because ‘they’ don’t like what they see, or simply do not believe it. And yet, for all the superficial difficulty one might have with getting into it, it is, at its core, a highly complex and well-wrought drama, full of great characters, interesting symbols (the red dress at end; the black, almost cosmic tape during the first suicide attempt), and some really great psychological interplay between three sisters that would not be equaled until Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
Woody Allen analyzes the film, and offers his own synopsis:
Of all the characters, I’d argue that Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is the most complex, and perhaps the most enduring. Yes, Eve (Geraldine Page) is extremely well-acted, and absolutely necessary to the film, yet her presence is that of an apparition: she always stalks their thoughts, and in a way is an extension of themselves, as if the fat, drab, haggard woman is a symbol of their various ills, which her death ultimately cures. One does not see much of Eve when young and triumphant, only the ghost of such, which comes out in little moments such as her re-designing of Joey’s apartment, where, instead of the true talent she might have once had, the viewer only sees obsession and fixation. If Eve is mentally wrecked and spiritually sick, Joey’s ill is that despite being bright and ready to ‘live,’ she simply has no creative talent, no way of expressing her thoughts and feelings in a truly meaningful way. Michael (Sam Waterston) seems to care for her, but as a ‘regular guy’ who likely does not have much talent himself, or any real reason to crave it, he does not know how to handle Joey and her endless moods. On one level, Joey worships Eve because of her talent, but manipulates her because, on a deeper level, she feels that she’s inherited something from her mother, and needs to be wary, for talent (at least to Joey) is probably not worth all the suffering Eve put her family through.
In Woody Allen: Reel To Real, I write that Joey is very much an American, practically as a symbol of excess, because ca. 1978, America was (and is probably more so now) a place of so much freedom for the rich, that the leisure and opportunity could drive a person to functional idleness. In short, ‘everyone’ can be an artist, it is repeated. ‘Everyone’ is encouraged to do everything, no matter how ill suited to the task they are. Every whim is indulged, and no question thought insoluble. As Joey literally hops around, it is all too easy to loathe the self-indulgence she represents, and loathe her, by extension. Yet, this would also miss something important. The Joeys of the world are quite good for the arts, if not downright necessary, for they can be its arbiters, or at least understand the deeper things in a way that quotidian, non-artsy folk cannot. No, they will not be artists, but, basically, artists need someone to communicate to. All throughout the film, Joey is sensitive and has a good read on people, even if her actions (as with Pearl) are repeatedly marred by her own biases. But Joey does represent a bright, sympathetic type, and thus ought to be the kind of audience an artist aims for. Moreover, her inability to replicate such aims herself is irrelevant, for it is outside of her core purpose. Talent is indeed wonderful, but, as Woody Allen has so often argued, it’s also a crapshoot. One either has it, or not. If one does, not cultivating it is an absolute waste. Yet if it’s not there, the most self-destructive thing one could do is to obsess and desire the impossible. Joey, then, is quite real as a Woody, not Bergmanian, creation, and her conflict, which is uniquely Woody, is central to the tropes within the film itself.
Yet for all the good within the film’s chief characters, even the minor roles are quite fleshed out. Flyn (Kristin Griffith), for instance, although a supporting character, at best, is nonetheless an interesting one, for she’s always somewhere in the background, a sister neither of the two seeks out, nor a person who stirs up any real passion in anyone. Despite this, however, she clearly has a very different emotional make-up, a purity that the other two lack, even if she is insipid. And to be fair, we never do hear any stupidity from her — it is all second-hand, as we are expected to take this on faith. But, perhaps this says more of the other characters’ perceptions than about Flyn, herself, for in the few scenes where she does open up to her sisters, she reveals no resentments, no hang-ups, no passive-aggressiveness or ill will towards anyone, but, surprisingly, a good deal of self-awareness. In the scene where she is walking along the beach with Renata, and a camera follows them at a distance behind an undulating fence, Flyn gently rebukes Renata’s compliments, saying that she knows who she ‘actually’ is, that she is a minor television actress, and that if it weren’t for some insipid culture, she’d not even have a job. Flyn says this with some resignation, but not resentment or self-loathing. To Flyn, it just is, and there is no sense in fighting against reality. (If only Joey could agree, or Renata see herself as clearly!) At the funeral, where Joey appears rigid, and Renata only mildly upset, caring, as she does, for Eve only for the first time now, it is Flyn who has the strongest and most emotionally ‘pure’ response, given the fact that she’s had no such personal investment in Eve’s death. To Flyn, it is merely the death of a pitiable mother. To the others, however, there is exoneration and release. This surely makes Flyn less complex than the other two, but no less interesting, and the fact that Woody was able to give this kind of personableness to one of the film’s trivialities flies in the face of everything that’s been written of its supposed lack of realism.
Allen was very critical of the response to Interiors, calling it “a shame.” In fact, he’s quite critical of the entire ‘dramatic’ genre in America, saying that soap operatics, rather than solemnity, is what’s typically preferred. Perhaps, for this (along with the false assertions of ripping off Bergman) is the only reason why the film seems to have been so savaged — that is, for its dead seriousness. Of all the bad that’s been written of the film, however, it is Vincent Canby, perhaps, who requires the most attention for his critiques. After describing, accurately and precisely, what Interiors is about, he goes on to say that he “hasn’t any real idea what the film is up to,” and that Woody “set out to make someone else’s movie,” a “Brooklyn Jewish boy’s fantasy about middle-class American Protestantism.” To this, I can only ask: Huh? Did Canby ever meet these types and their infinite variations in the lower classes, and beyond? And, even if Woody had ‘inaccurately’ captured a certain slice of the population, they are still real characters that inhabit his created universe, play out a narrative in complex ways, and say something of substance and worth, whether or not Canby is willing to recognize this as such, and are therefore real, consistent, and in need of NO justification, other than what’s on the screen.
Eve, now recognizing where things stand, regresses into her own ‘interiors’…
As it stands, however, Woody left the typical “Brooklyn Jewish boy’s” life in his early 20’s, and more or less subsisted on the WASPy Upper East Side ever since, drawing on experiences that were true-to-life as can be, with the added benefit of distance that only a transplant could provide. If that wasn’t enough, Canby goes on to deride Keaton’s role, as it’s “impossible” to write a successful poet’s character. (What?) He ponders what success even means — publication, awards, disheveled hair. Canby, who was no artist, thus foists up the very artistic stereotypes he, himself, does not understand, and thus cannot appreciate how the film attacks and deconstructs. A real poet is not disheveled; he merely writes real poems. All else is accoutrement, and as varied as people vary. To Canby, Diane Keaton is too busy looking out of the window, thinking “sensitive, poet-type thoughts.” Yet, this is the Diane Keaton of his invention, not Renata, who exists in a real universe of people, who do complex things, and are not defined by merely one part of their existence. With Eve, her fate was exactly that, and this is why her reality went hollow.
Although Manhattan is one of Woody’s best and most-loved films, it also among the most misunderstood. This is probably because there is such a disconnect between the film’s stunning and romantic imagery, and the way the characters actually behave on-screen. Often, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, or what’s worse, a “love poem,” but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and the projection of his ideals, which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush. It is quite an effective device, for it makes the film seem to be about one thing, yet completely undermines the genre tropes that other superficially similar works are so dependent on, even as the black and white cinematography of the great Gordon Willis seems to ‘pretend’ otherwise.
Woody’s duplicitous opening, which has ensnared a many critic into swallowing its illusions:
Not wasting any time, Woody makes this apparent from the very first shot, in which Isaac is busy at his book. Yes, it’s a ‘romantic’ trope, in the sense that Isaac is a man in love with his city, and trying to write, but is marred by the fact that he simply cannot express one well-articulated thought. At end, he settles on this line: “‘He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.’ I love this. ‘New York was his town and it always would be.’” This is not exactly good writing, and flies in the face of a later scene where he up and quits his job so he could stop writing crap television, and work on something “serious” and worthwhile instead. Clearly it is not, and despite being one of the most-quoted parts of the film, there is an irony, a futility, here, that most viewers do not catch. The stunning visuals of fireworks are celebratory, but of what? Probably of Isaac’s feelings and ideals, which are repeatedly shown to have little to do with reality, not only of the outside world, but of his internal life, as well, which is as false and self-congratulatory as anything he critiques. This gives Manhattan a special place in cinema, even as, thirty-five years later, it continues to outshine films that, while inspired by Woody’s, are restricted by the genre conventions he absolutely defies.
Interestingly, the film’s last 10 minutes or so are often loved for their ‘romance,’ but I just don’t see this — most likely because it’s not really there! Isaac, after all, runs to Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) only when Mary (Diane Keaton) leaves him. Yes, he seems to surprise even himself when he says her name into the tape recorder, but did the name come up organically, or was it borne merely out of his recent loss, and thus loneliness? The film does not answer this question, and leaves much else open-ended, but if anything, the alleged ‘love-letter’ imagery of the film must be seen in this light, for Isaac does not truly learn, and while he grows, he does so inward, deepening into his own irreality while remaining perfectly aware of this fact.
In short, Yale (Michael Murphy) will now have to deal with a broken marriage. Twelve years, in his estimation, is a long time. He will have to adapt to Mary’s neuroses. The technicians at Isaac’s old TV studio will continue smoking angel dust, but the city will go on being loved by them. At the end, then, Isaac has all the advantage: he keeps the sense of ‘romance’ all the while undermining it, he has his overwhelming self-deluded moral sense, a seemingly bad novel that a big publisher nonetheless loves, and, quite possibly, an eighteen year old girlfriend waiting for him when he wants her, no matter how temporary, one-sided, and immature their relationship will be. Isaac, then, is ultimately a winner, for all the reasons that winners are so often hated. It does not concern him, however. He is not Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and is not evil. He is merely good at small, intoxicating delusions, and while they don’t wreck lives, they bite at them — his own, included. Yet it is simply never bad enough to stop. And what images, what pictures along the way; what romance, and its ideation, for Isaac to fall back on, when the going gets tough! I suppose, then, this is the way that most people view Manhattan, especially if they are its true-life residents. But, do they ever see what’s underneath?
Tracy bullshitting Isaac — albeit unknowingly — for the viewer KNOWS she is too good, too smart to ever end up with such a con:
Matt Ford points out that Manhattan has a “soap-opera plotline,” yet it succeeds anyway, for the unique way it is treated. This is true, as well as inviting comparisons to the similar Annie Hall. Yet I’d argue that Manhattan is an even better film, for while the core is more or less the same — a dissection of people’s flaws and the effect upon relationships, often moved by jokes and wit — this film has deeper situations, deeper dialogue, better and more daring visuals, and fuller characters. Compare, for instance, the car scene in Annie Hall to the one here. In the earlier film, Annie is merely shown to be a bad driver, and the entire sequence is subjugated towards ‘the joke.’ It is funny, it is good, but it is more reminiscent of Woody’s earlier work than his mature drama. In Manhattan, however, there is a car scene in which Emily and Yale are simply driving, and the camera stays a good ten to fifteen feet away, as if someone is eavesdropping on Yale, or following him, in the midst of his lying. It is a paranoia that at once undermines the lush visuals, as well as more deeply characterizes Yale by showing his unease, a multi-layered technique that Woody Allen probably could not have thought of a mere two or three years before. There are deeper things Woody says about art — “talent is luck” and the like — and a more complex look at manipulation within a wider, more diverse range of characters, with a large number of poetic moments interspersed, compared to Annie Hall’s more strict treatment of ‘the relationship’ and one man’s relation to it. Then there are the visuals: the bridge scene, the blinds obscuring Isaac, the few stunning minutes at the planetarium, fireworks, the final panorama… In short, if Annie Hall was a great early work, slightly rough around the edges, Manhattan is a more developed one, complete with a deeper — and, apparently, more bewildering — notion of itself that, to this day, still tricks viewers into accepting its illusions.
As the title implies, the film is ‘about’ America’s fascination with radio in the 1930s and 40s, and all that entailed. More accurately, however, it is any family’s milieu, and how its characters respond not only to one another, but also to the images and longings that radio brings out of them. People zip in and out, develop, regress; generation-defining incidents, such as German subs, a fictionalized account of Kathy Fiscus falling into a well, and Orson Welles’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds scratch at the film’s interiors; music — both real, and the film’s specific scoring — drives the various, complex emotions; and the narrator, Joe (Woody Allen), feels his entire childhood well up as he stands before the beach, lost in his memories.
The film’s structure is deceptively loose, for while scenes appear haphazard, they in fact create a very real beginning, middle, and end, for not only the characters, themselves, but the ideas and emotions they impart. Even seemingly ‘isolated’ scenes, such as at the beginning, when two burglars break into a house at night only to wind up being called by a radio show and win prizes, do much to propel the film’s narrative and set up its atmosphere. Other snippets, such as Joe’s discovery of his dad’s profession, deepen both, and shed light on the family’s desires and insecurities, while the side-plots involving various radio stars poke holes in the very magic the film props up, mostly by giving these larger-than-life personalities a human quality most listeners probably missed. In that way, Radio Days does something tough: it gives off the aura of effortlessness, of taking a full look at a boy’s sense of self as if by merely running through a few memories, but in fact has a reason for its choices, with scenes losing their punch if ever rearranged, or their sense of closure if ever altered.
Although it’s often said that the film lacks plot, this criticism misses the fundamental difference between the words ‘narrative’ and ‘plot’, and how they apply to art. Plot is merely the happenings, not even how one gets from one point to the other, but the fact of getting there. It is, in other words, an excuse to dig at deeper things, and not the main attraction. Narrative, on the other hand, is how all things in a given art-work cohere, whether that be music, scripting, acting, image, or the mere smash-up of events, which may or may not include a rich plot. To give an example, one reads a trashy romance novel for its plot-line (a device that may devolve to simple entertainment), but Moby-Dick for its narrative drive, and deeper meditations within, which themselves further drive the narrative. So, does the film have such ‘narrative’? Well, let’s see: a beautiful opening shot of a glum, overcast Rockaway Beach that, according to Dan Schneider’s review, is “somehow gorgeous,” is narrated by the adult Joe, which leads to remembrances of his childhood, and the personages within it. One sees his family and their typical, New York bickering; their ‘bad Jew’ neighbors, who are in fact Communists; the fat fish-eater; the n’er lucky aunt who fails in love (slightly based on Woody’s real-life family), even bringing home, one time, a pretty-looking man who turns out to be gay; the seeming hatred and bitterness they all feel towards one another, only to be undermined many times over, but also in a particularly thoughtful scene, where Joe, who’s about to get beaten, sees his father’s hand stop mid-ass, interrupted by a radio broadcast of a girl who fell into a well, and how, in the next shot, the father’s hand is tenderly coaxing down Joe’s hair.
This is New York to a ‘T,’ in the 1950s; hell, it is my own immigrant family in the 80s and 90s, showing how universal the depictions really are. In short, the details do not matter; only the spirit does, which is the only thing that is ever stayed. Then, there is the plenum of stars in radio; not only The Masked Avenger, who drives some of the child-like, magical quality of the film, as well as beautifully framing its end — his tag-line shouted, as it is, into the night; not only Mia Farrow, who brilliantly acts a dumb girl stuck in her Brooklynese, only to become a big star after some diction lessons; not only the affairs and under-goings of the celebrities, whose flaws absolutely kybosh the narrator’s sense of childhood ‘perfection,’ even as they unwittingly enhance it, too; but the adult radio stars, as well, whose chi-chi breakfasts and seemingly happy marriages are a parallax to the longings of Joe’s own family, and how ironic, how illusionary such things really are. They all get their individual plotlines, from radio to real life, and they all get their ends, whether happy or sad, growing or stalled, or something in between, where life really springs. Sure, I could see why the film might be ‘hard to like,’ for not everyone wants to follow so many characters and events, but to charge it as ‘loose,’ rather than tightly constructed, or ‘meandering,’ when it clearly isn’t, are observations not based on fact, and judgments not based on reason.
Diane Keaton’s rendition of You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, in one of the film’s most affecting scenes:
The film’s fleshed out by music, and oft-poetic narration framed by great visuals, such as the end narration, where Joe notes how much “dimmer” those voices seem to grow with time, as the club’s lit-up top-hat bobs up and down above the roof. There is even the classic song by Diane Keaton, above, at the same night-club, whose voice lingers through the house via radio, as the camera finds each family member stuck in their own lives, happy or disillusioned. Indeed, of all Woody’s films, Radio Days is perhaps the best scored, down to the fact that music appears in virtually every scene to evoke something of the narrative, whether this is basic humor, or more complex thrusts, such as with Keaton’s singing. In fact, the song does not so much capture what the family members are doing, exactly, but more importantly, captures their longing (for what?), implied only by looks and gestures one gets more and more attached to with each viewing, for the characters are real, they have true-life analogues, part of a “web” that extends through almost any childhood, to be crystallized only by the highest art — which Radio Days is, for the reasons listed.
This is Woody Allen’s last unequivocally great work — although I accept that a case can be made for Sweet And Lowdown, below — and one of the richest examinations of marriage (or rather, the patterned ways in which people think and act) ever put to art. In some ways, then, Husbands and Wives is the most pure look at ‘Woody’ relationships, and one of the more intimate and best films of his career. Thus, if Annie Hall was a kind of grown-up ‘first’ for Woody as well as Alvy Singer, and Manhattan too odd — it dealt with a grown man and a seventeen year-old girl, after all — or Hannah and her Sisters too marred by the ‘big problems’ of infidelity, familial conflict, and the like, to really get at the core of romance itself, this film merely examines the inner workings of two marriages, and what the interactions in one say of the events in the other, and vice-versa. It is, then, the most vanilla of the aforementioned films, but while there are no truly arresting visuals, no haunting metaphors, nor moments of perfect poetry or scoring, this in no way detracts from what the film actually does. It is hyper-realistic, down to the documentary style, complete with questions and answers that shed light (and not) on those involved, and the quick edits and ‘jagged’ handheld camera that gets into the actors’ faces, showing not only why their marriages disintegrate, but also how the characters themselves are part of a self-imposed pattern they do not understand.
There are only four main characters to deal with: Gabe (Woody Allen) and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow), Jack (Sydney Pollack) and his wife Sally (Judy Davis), two couples that Tom Ryan correctly labels “a distorted emotional mirror of the other”. The caliber of the four performances is obvious from the very first scene, wherein Jack and Sally come over to their best friends’ apartment to deliver the big news: that after twenty-some years of marriage, the two are getting a separation. Although it may be a blow to them, it certainly doesn’t seem like it, for they handle it well — “too well,” as Larry might say in Another Woman — and upon re-watch, one sees the nervousness and tics (such as the pointless laughter) the other couple might not. Gabe is surprised, but understanding, while Judy is the most crushed of all, practically cursing at them and running into her bedroom. The film’s edits zip in and out, allowing time-lapses and dramatized expressions, which propel the rest of the film, giving it a ‘fractured’ quality that parallels the kinds of thoughts and feelings characters share, and, even more important, don’t.
The great opening in Husbands And Wives, wherein the film’s camera style and dramatic conflicts are at the fore:
Interestingly, the film was finished after the Woody Allen/Soon-Yi scandal came to light, and before Woody and Mia were ready to split. Given that Judy is presented in such a harsh light, one wonders if, in fact, there was either an attack on the real-life Mia Farrow, or their own personal feelings somehow enhancing the very real, very difficult on-screen conflict. But while this is often discussed, it should not take away from the reality of the film itself, and what it accomplishes on its own terms, thus obviating any real claims to autobiography. A lot has been made of the film’s jump cuts as well, with Tom Ryan going so far as suggesting it obscures parts of the narrative. Yet even this is an overstatement, for the film has plenty of scenes filmed ‘conventionally,’ with long takes and allowing things to come to a conclusion. In fact, the best of these harsh edits drives the narrative, rather than supplants it, such as the last true conversation between Judy and Gabe, wherein they are at turns yelling, or quietly sitting, then yelling again, with the edits very much showing ‘slices’ of what real arguments between two incompatible people look like, down to their very arcs and denouement. It is narrative within narrative, and the relative accessibility of the film obscures some of these deeper points. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for his part, notes “Allen’s conception of character is as banal and shallow as ever,” but, as always, refuses to provide any kind of evidence, argumentation, or example — likely because, had he taken literally any of the couple of dozen great ‘moments’ in the film, the objective viewer could only see great writing, fine narrative arcs, and characters that are utterly real in their behaviors and beliefs. By contrast, Shubhajit notes the strength of the script (even Juliette Lewis’s Rain, a supporting character, has some great lines — as do other supporting actors), for Husbands and Wives remains one of the best-received Woody Allen films, right alongside Manhattan and Annie Hall before it.
In the book, I praise both Play It Again, Sam (1972) and The Front (1976) as examples of good early Woody drama, but it’s really Annie Hall that kicks off Allen’s Golden Age, for it’s the beginning of his best characterizations, best visuals, deepest narratives, and the overall sense that he had ‘made it’ as a filmmaker of ability and substance. This is because Annie Hall takes many of his now-classic preoccupations with sex, death, relationships, inevitability, and intellectual posturing (including his own!), and creates a genuine narrative out of it, not by force or gags, but simply by dropping some great characters into a landscape, and seeing how a narrative unfolds out of them. There is also a seeming simplicity, here, in Allen’s ‘Alvy’ persona, that absolutely misleads viewers into sympathizing with Alvy, rather than Annie (Diane Keaton). In short, it is Alvy that constantly spouts self-deprecating gems and rich but down-to-earth posits that aggrandize him as both an Everyman, and as a kind of ‘hero,’ who’s gone through it, and gotten over it, too — “it” being ‘confusing’ relationships, a lack of self-assurance, or whatever else that might be imbued into the film, yet isn’t really there. The film starts with direct exposition, as Alvy Singer tells the audience of his two key metaphors for life:
There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions!” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness — and it’s all over much too quickly. The other important joke for me…goes something like this: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women.
In effect, Woody posits both his knack to torpedo the good things, as well as his getting stuck on the worst parts of life, all the while fearing to lose even that. In the end, he reassures the audience that he’s “not the morose type,” thus kicking things off with a little white lie that gives him an air of reason, even as he’d gently go on to manipulate the various people that he’s with, then alternately bemoan the outcome, or merely offer up the wisdom that he, himself, can’t ever take. This is not to say that he’s a bad guy. He isn’t. Alvy is merely tempted by the same indiscretions that might plague anyone, and this makes him both believable and easy to relate to, even if the viewer is, like Alvy, engaging in a bit of self-deception whenever they align.
Annie Hall moves in flashbacks and symbolic events, with an early scene showing Alvy as a redheaded boy, getting reprimanded by his teachers for kissing a girl on the cheek. The adult Alvy tries to intercede, and appear reasonable, and few men, recalling their own childhoods, could fail to appreciate this. No, Annie Hall does not always have the visual greatness of some later films, but it’s full of subtle touches, nonetheless, such as Alvy’s admission of having trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality (paired with a quick shot of Marilyn Monroe running down the Coney Island boardwalk by the boy’s side), or showing his classmates as if they’re already grown up, thus casting doubt on the ‘innocence’ trope, or his claim of having lived too close to a rollercoaster, wherein he’s seen drinking tea, as his house shakes — precisely how a child would interpret things, no matter how silly or extreme.
Alvy Singer re-imagines his life, serving up a kind of trope for most middle-aged men. Just note how well the roller-coaster scene captures childhood exaggerations. I’d argue this as one of Woody Allen’s top 10 films, but realize that Annie Hall can be switched out with a number of other films, with very little lost:
So, given that Annie Hall is primarily character-driven, what does the film make of Alvy Singer? I’d argue, as before, that he’s more or less a regular guy, as far as his emotions are concerned. Yes, he is clearly more intelligent than pretty much anyone else on-screen (take, for example, Rob, who’s just as successful, but quite insipid), but emotionally, he is often dishonest and weak. In fact, as Roger Ebert points out, Alvy understands this quite well, and is not “a victim of forces beyond his control, but their author.” Take any scene, whether it’s Alvy as a child, pointlessly bemoaning the universe, or his torpedoing of what seems to be an excellent relationship with the levelheaded Allison for reasons he himself does not quite see. But while Robert Hatch calls Alvy “a man of ingratiating vulnerability” — and although this is technically correct — he misses the deeper point, for Alvy is also smarter than Annie, knows this, and uses the fact to his personal advantage, even if it ultimately backfires, and Annie comes out the better (and happier) person. In short, while life may not have the most ‘noble’ of ambitions — filled, as it is, with drugs, partying, and immature ‘experimentation’ — but it certainly fits her and her needs, a fact that Alvy simply cannot fathom until he lets her go, and gets some distance and objectivity. And this is it, really. He wants ‘something else.’ Annie is not that. She is simple, and thus resists. It is Alvy, at end, who must live with his choices, and the film’s central issues which are utterly dependent upon how he is wired, internally, and his inability to untie that knot.
Annie Hall is often considered to be Woody Allen’s best film, and given the kind of discussion it gives rise to, it is not hard to see why. Yes, it only barely makes it into my own top 10 films — despite it being one of my 4 or 5 favorites, which is a separate category altogether — but one only needs to look at the new (and old) reviews to understand why it’s so high in other critics’ lists. Robert Hatch (above) calls the film “astute,” with the greatest “shiksa goddess that Woody Allen created,” Jaime N. Christley considers it a “peculiar type of classic.” And Joel Bocko says it’s “the high point of his career,”, alongside the three other films that followed it. But although I’d consider it Allen’s first great film, and one of his very best comedies, it’s not his best overall, for reasons that should be obvious when seen alongside his later work.
Essentially, Annie Hall is a comedic look at relationships and the people behind them, with some great characterizations — so much so, in fact, that viewers may empathize with the ‘wrong’ character, or miss this or that motive, buried as they are in angst or neurosis or relatability. Yet given its very nature, and its lightness in parts, it has a ceiling by which later films were not handicapped. Husbands And Wives (1992), for example, captures two broken marriages with more depth, and less dependence on jokes, while Another Woman (1988) hoists up what is, perhaps, Allen’s greatest fictive creation via Marion, who is likewise dealing with a bad marriage, but using that as a stepping-stone for much deeper existential issues of identity and sacrifice, rather than simple relationship concerns or small personal neuroses, as in Annie Hall. Still others, like Stardust Memories (1980), seem to be taking on nigh-unconquerable issues with a kind of poetry that, to be perfectly frank, was simply not in Allen’s power just yet, given his very recent foray into drama. This, and this trajectory, is really how art works, for most artists, and Woody Allen was no different in this regard.
Yes, Woody Allen has a number of underrated films, but I’d argue that Sweet And Lowdown is his most underrated since Another Woman, given, as it is, to being called a mere ‘quirk’ or ‘curio’ by those uninterested in what makes the film really tick: its characters, and how they relate to their milieu, and to each other.
The film’s structure is reminiscent of other Woody mockumentaries, with a primary narrative enhanced by the existence of a voice-over and a number of talking heads, thus lending mythos to the man at its center: the fictional Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a 1930s guitarist “second only to Django Reinhardt,” a reality Emmet not only admits, but is deeply affected by. In fact, one of the film’s chief successes is how it manages to make Sean Penn’s comic, exaggerated, and downright dislikable character into a thing of sympathy, by giving him an emotional core that the viewer can relate to. After all, Emmet is not at all a good guy, as evidenced by his treatment of Hattie (Samantha Morton), his cowardice, and all-around irresponsibility. And yet, he is not a true villain, either, as he is naive, child-like, and utterly clueless of the world around him, given that he has little to no sense of self. In this way, Hattie — poor, mute, talentless, and superficially weak — is very much his foil in these regards, in not only what she lacks, but also in what she has in light of his own failings. This is evident at the film’s start, wherein Woody Allen (who appears as a talking head) calls him “pathetic,” as we hear stories of Emmet’s fainting when coming face-to-face with Django Reinhardt, pimping out women, drinking, and getting stuck in debt. Yet his music has a strong emotional component and sounds quite unlike his exterior personality, implying an inner depth that the viewer wishes to see.
Sean Penn ‘plays’ guitar in Sweet And Lowdown, sounding almost exactly like this one Gypsy, over in France…
It’s a manipulation, no doubt, but a good one, for it subverts character in a way reminiscent of Alex’s ‘turn’ in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where the villain likewise becomes the film’s hero. No, it’s not as deep, here, but is the sort of clever touch from which a deeper narrative will unfold. Then, in some of the film’s running gags, Emmet is seen stealing a worthless ashtray, “shooting rats” (literally), or “watching trains” (again, literally), activities that are for some reason important to him, as he truly gets into such, but can never explain why when pressed. This further characterizes him as child-like, for despite not seeming to get much benefit from these hobbies (women, especially, hate “shooting rats”), he is ‘pulled’ by them, regardless, for reasons that are simply beyond his understanding. Although some might dismiss these as throwaway details, they in fact help characterize Emmet as a real human being whose boorish nature becomes quite secondary to the viewer’s sense of his true self.
There’s lots of little moments, within, that propel the film’s narrative, whether it’s Blanche (Uma Thurman) acting precisely like a proto-Guilty White Liberal (replete with her desire to be a prostitute for a year, ‘just to see’), and destroying herself over it, or Sean Penn’s permanently fixed eyebrows, which give him a clown-like sadness that undermines his unlikeability, or even the way Emmet lucks out with counterfeit money — the only way, in fact, for him to make money, given, as he is, to such immature behavior. Yet I’d submit the film’s ending, in particular, as defining of the film, and the way Woody plays with his influences (this time, via Fellini’s La Strada). Near the end, after realizing his bad choices, Emmet makes his way back to Hattie, who is seen walking to the same boardwalk bench after their first fight. It seems a couple of years have passed, if not more, yet she still has the same paper bag, it is still rainy, and she still eats the same sandwich, for little has changed of Hattie’s essence, even as she’s exchanged lovers and passed the time. After her initial shock at seeing him, the camera stays on Emmet, who’s been emotionally reserved until now, and although he still is, in a way, he simply cannot hide his disappointment when he asks her to go on tour, but is only given a note: that she’s married now, with kids, and happily at that. He asks whether it’s a boy or girl, and learns the answer, although we don’t.
In reality, we don’t need to, for that is irrelevant to what Emmet is feeling, as he goes back to his hotel room, gets drunk by himself, takes a girl out to “watch trains” and play guitar. In the film’s powerful ending, he tangentially and without prodding yells about having “made a mistake,” wrecks his instrument, and sobs, while the talking-heads come back and reveal that after this emotional outpouring, he was finally able to record music that equaled Django Reinhardt’s. It is a comment on art, on the one hand, but also on Emmet, himself, who is said to have “disappeared” at some point, as the camera zooms out from the scene of destruction, thus visually recapitulating the idea that he has “faded away” into oblivion. And this, to be sure, is the difference between a creation that strictly moves through idea (philosophy), and one whose ideas move through the creation itself (art), taking characters, narrative, poesy, and everything else with it, too, into a unified whole that is not only of reality, but responds ‘to’ this reality, as well. How else could Hattie be so real, and so believable? Why else would a sane viewer, after watching Emmet weave a path of selfishness and destruction, still feel empathy for the ‘bad’ man, and wish him well despite all that’s witnessed? It is a narrative and denouement only possible in art, as it’s tight, neat, and orderly, with a clear beginning, middle, and end that moves according to the demands of character, and not merely the filmmaker’s whims.
The film’s ending. Although similar to La Strada, Fellini’s film is of a (mostly) un-nuanced villain, whose ultimate end is hard to empathize with due to his brutality. Here, however, it’s merely devastating, due to the viewer’s long-term rapport with Emmet:
As something of a jazz film, Sweet and Lowdown’s music ought to be touched upon as well. Many viewers have wondered whether Sean Penn is really playing the guitar throughout, and whose recordings are being played. In fact, Penn is only miming (Howard Alden is responsible for the actual music), and the recordings are both original compositions made to sound like Django Reinhardt, as well as a couple of pieces from Reinhardt himself. These are all fairly minor points, however, as the key thing to recognize about a film’s music is how it’s used to further narrative, set a tone, or otherwise play off of the deeper elements within. Anything else, really, is mere footnote, and more akin to showing off than expressing wisdom. In short, Emmet’s guitar playing has a strong effect upon the viewer not merely because it’s ‘pretty,’ but because we’re constantly bombarded with images of Emmet being an asshole. Yet the fact that Emmet has talent and a pretty sound implies a personal depth such ill behavior can only hint at, and even at the film’s end, the guitar serves as a substitute for the sort of verbal communication that Emmet refuses. Allen’s musical choices also put Emmet into a milieu as he slowly gets mythologized by the film’s surrounds, and while Emmet himself seems to have some idea of this, he doesn’t really get what any of it means beyond the specifics of a single moment — such as when Sidney Bechet’s Viper Mad plays as he takes drugs at a club, or Allen’s use of a Dick Hyman song that clarifies things for Emmet about Blanche’s infidelity, in a way that ordinary talking would not. At its core, then, the film’s music helps separate the man from the artist (a typical Allen theme), even as it helps skewer that man as somebody who does not truly get the ‘what’ of his own life, or why he’d go on to do the kinds of things he has such compulsion for.
These are some of the film’s accomplishments, and they’ve been generally well-regarded, boasting a solid 78% on the RottenTomatoes website, with lots of recent, even more positive discussions and reviews online. Nick Davis, however, is not so enthusiastic about all this, calling the film full of “overweening cruelty” marred by “narrative laziness” — the former claim, in a sense, confusing things with Bergman’s La Strada. He goes on to call it a “pastiche” of ideas, rather than fully formed, as the mockumentary portion is only sometimes at play, thus arguing it is slapped on almost as an after-thought to make up for the central character’s “weak” story. Yet this is clearly untrue as evidenced by some of the details, above, and a simple understanding of what the film is and isn’t.
Yes, the central character is “cruel” in some ways, but that is as irrelevant as Alex’s cruelty in A Clockwork Orange, for the point is how a seemingly dislikable man can be forced onto a viewer’s good side, which was done here in the ways already described. It also makes little sense to call the central character “compelling,” then complain the mockumentary style was not prominent enough, for a great character like Emmet obviates the very need for this. Sure, Zelig’s complete irreality and rather thin story greatly benefited from the film’s structure, but Sweet and Lowdown, for the most part, is linear precisely because the characters are so strong, with the narrative merely flowing out of them. Put, say, Hattie into a room with an agitated Emmet, give her a present she’s wrapped for Emmet’s birthday, and simply maintain their character quirks and emotions, and you’ll naturally have your story right there — or rather, a chunk of it, via one of the film’s best scenes, supported by other chunks in consistent, dependent, and self-referential ways. This is all that’s needed, for narrative, in most films, comes from characters first, and how they interact with things and with each other, an idea Sweet and Lowdown understands and fully runs with.
So, is it one of Woody Allen’s top 10 films? Sure, if one understands that, at THIS level of art, some things can get a bit…blurry. I could have easily substituted Sweet And Lowdown with Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, or even Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and — despite being lesser works — Celebrity, Bullets Over Broadway, and Manhattan Murder Mystery, for different reasons. Yet they’d still have a common bottom line: good to great visuals, scoring, scripting, realism, for even in Woody’s smaller works, there’s usually something worthwhile.
Agree? Disagree? Do you have your own list of Woody Allen’s top 10 films? Please leave some of your comments, below, and they could make it into the next edition of Woody Allen: Reel To Real!