Wednesday 7 September 2011

So you want to go to Hollywood?

This questionnaire is something I read on Bruce Campbell's website 10 years ago. I found it so thought-provoking that it has stayed with me all this time.

I recently wanted to show it to a friend but was dismayed to discover it was no longer to be found on the internet. Thankfully, after some jiggery-pokery involving The Wayback Machine (a website hosted over at, I was able to retrieve a copy.

I think it deserves to be preserved and, if you've ever entertained notions of working in the dream factory known as Hollywood, contemplated.

I hope you find it as interesting and provocative as I did.

Top tip: There's no wrong answers, so be honest with yourself.

Visit Bruce Campbell at: Also, buy his books!

To all good people contemplating a leap into the frigid waters of the entertainment industry, please read the attached questionnaire. I consider this to be a kind of litmus test for those of you with grand aspirations. Read, ponder, act...


Bruce "Mr. Know-It-All" Campbell

I aspire for a career in the film/television industry because:

    a) I need a quick million.
    b) I have personal problems and being rich and famous will solve them.
    c) I failed as a Clinical Psychologist.
    d) I've got show biz in my blood.

My ultimate goal(s) is(are):

    a) To win an Academy Award © or:
    ___1) An Emmy.
    ___2) A Star on Hollywood Blvd.
    ___3) A trip to Disneyland.

    b) To be famous. I will be famous when:
    ___1) I win a Peoples Choice Award.
    ___2) I get recognized at my high school reunion.
    ___3) Everyone on the planet knows and loves me.

    c) To be stinkin' rich. I will be rich when:
    ___1) My phone stops getting cut off.
    ___2) I can buy medicine for little Billy.
    ___3) I can do a leveraged buyout of MCA and cast myself in anything I want.

    d) Both b and c.

    e) To be gainfully employed doing what I enjoy.

My main cultural influences are:

    a) Films where things blow up a lot.
    b) Nick at Nite.
    c) Literature.
    d) Life.

I hope to become involved in this type of project:

    a) Story-driven.
    b) Genre-driven.
    c) Forget it, Mom will drive.

I know I am talented because:

    a) Um, because my friends and loved ones say so?
    b) I know it in my heart.
    c) I received the "Ken and Barbie" award in high school.
    d) I have an extensive resume.

I define talent as:

    a) The ability to do one thing, really well.
    b) The ability to be mediocre at lots and lots of things.
    c) The ability to suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.
    d) The ability to make my friends think I'm cool.

My unique talent lies:

    a) In front of the camera - I want to act.
    b) Behind the camera - I want to direct...oh yeah, and write too...
    c) In front and behind the camera - I want to be a hyphenated person.
    d) Behind the Auto Parts store.

I define the success of a film by:

    a) How well it does at the Box Office.
    b) How well it is received by the critics.
    c) How hard everyone worked on it.
    d) How many good-looking women/men I met on the crew.

I will be successful when:

    a) I meet the right people.
    b) My new Hummer arrives.
    c) I own my own island.
    d) I get that tummy tuck for Christmas.
    e) Hell freezes over.
    f) Nonsense, I am successful now.

I will fail if:

    a) I don't meet the right people.
    b) Failure is not an option.
    c) Enough people tell me I will.
    d) The odds are too great.

The market price of my soul is:
(hint: you will need to know this at some point)

    a) $1,000,000 in tax-free Municipal Bonds.
    b) 3 magic beans.
    c) I cannot be bought! My self-esteem is priceless!

* Take this test before you ride the rails west.
Hint: There are no right or wrong answers.

Thursday 28 July 2011

My Woody Allen-athon: Part 3 (1981 - 1987)

Part three of my experiences watching every Woody Allen movie in chronological order

The most exciting blog series on the internet.

You can find part one here (along with an explanation as to why I decided to embark on this project): Woody Allen-althon: Part 1

As my project progressed I ended up reading more and more interviews with Allen in order to get a different perspective of his work for my "Afterthoughts" on each film, but I tried not to read anything about a film I hadn't watched yet.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

This is Allen's second period film, this time set in turn of the century America, and it looks beautiful. After the stunning imagery of Manhattan I probably shouldn't be surprised, but this is the first time that beauty like this has been shown in colour in any Allen film, and from how it looks, I can only say that I believe he's truly mastered the technical aspects of film-making at this point in his career.

Sure, there's still plenty of his trademark "static camera with people walking in and out of frame", but thankfully not too much (I'm definitely finding myself getting fatigued at this particular technique at trying to make dialogue scenes 'quirky' and 'interesting', surely he has more tricks up his inventive sleeve?), but there's some gorgeous scenes here. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if putting his dialogue heavy scenes in some visually interesting places (like a dense forest with a perfectly empty spot for a character's face -- a wonderful shot in this movie) was something that inspired him to choose this setting.

Despite the Shakespeare connection, the title made me think of a frivolous 60's sex comedy, but the film itself was actually very warm, thoughtful and charming, and doesn't go for laughs a minute. I was quite surprised by this, but really only because of the title (I feel it mis-sells and cheapens the film a bit).

The philosophical musings and period setting reminded me of Love & Death, but it was a bit more of a "grounded" (if that's the right word) comedy. (There was only a bit of "zaniness", and what was there was worked very well.) The main theme of the film was harsh rationalism versus whimsical hopes and dreams, and Allen comes down on the side of the latter, in a very amusing way.

The plot of the film (three couples spend a weekend together in a big house, and everyone has their eye on someone else) helps pull you through the slower moments: Hilarious misunderstanding and wacky sex-antics must be just around the corner, you believe, but really the film comes out as quite subdued, but in a very warm and romantic way.

Ultimately a very enjoyable and well-crafted treat from an auteur who's still finding new and interesting things to do.

According to Allen, this movie was just something he wrote in two weeks while getting ready to make Zelig (see below). He wanted to create something "light", so he wrote it and shot it before the aforementioned film (although they actually overlapped for a bit).

Apparently no-one came to see it and it was considered a financial failure (just like September, Allen noted in 1994).

I still have fond memories of this film, and would definitely watch it again if I was in the mood for something sophisticated but light.

ZELIG (1983)
wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Zelig is a phenomenal change of pace for Allen and surely his most ambitious film so far (if only technically). The entire film is a 'documentary', like Take the Money and Run, but this time done with much more seriousness and attention to detail: The film never breaks out of 'character', as it were, and always feels like a real documentary. As a result the film is narrated, in the usual documentary way, with modern-day talking-heads intermixed with 'archive' footage (the latter of which features Allen).

Although Zelig is, as noted, very technically impressive with incredible attention to detail (the older footage looks incredibly real, which is wonderful), its documentary style does keep the audience at an emotionally cold distance, even though there is a strong story, which is well told. This hollow feeling is sometimes hard to ignore, and in some ways the film feels as vacuous as the titular character.

The ultimate message of the film is "be yourself", and it feels a little weak. In spite of the film's flaws, I cannot be too harsh, though. Allen is adept at spinning a good story from his characters and the film keeps you interested, knowing how to pull you along.

In all, Zelig is definitely an entertaining and very clever film. Allen is still pushing himself into new territory and is, I'm happy to discover, still finding new ground to break. It's just a shame that I didn't connect with the film as much as I would have hoped.

Interestingly, the character of Zelig never talks directly to camera (unlike other main characters), and I wonder if this artistic choice is the reason why I felt so distanced.

Quotes from Allen about fascism

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Broadway Danny Rose is another light-hearted comedy from Allen. It's a bit of a 'caper', in precisely the way I usually dislike comedies (I think it's very hard to do a 'caper' well, and even Allen struggles a bit to keep the pace up) but it's still a wonderfully constructed movie with a very warm touch.

The story is deftly told and Allen has created an interesting character for himself to play -- even if he's probably not the best person for the role, and falls into his 'neurotic' routine a lot of the time. Thinking back, this is probably the film's weakest aspect: This character, ageing Broadway producer Danny Rose, despite looking very different, felt exactly like the same character Allen has played many times in the past.

The other characters, however, are much more rounded (Mia Farrow really shows off her versatility too, she's barely recognisable). The other main character is good, too, although the actor playing him (Nick Apollo Forte) has a few sub-par moments (not that surprising giving he was a real-life cabaret singer, with limited experience in acting).

The film is light-hearted and fun, with silly bad guys and funny situations, in fact there isn't a mean-spirited bone in its filmic body. The only real let-down is, as I said, Allen falling back on one-liners during moments of duress (and really, aside from the oversized glasses, excessive hand-gestures, and saying things like "darling", it really is the same character we've seen him play many times before).

This problem is a little surprising considering how writing strong characters has been one of Allen's strengths in the past, and while everything else in the film shows real skill, it's undeniable that his own character is a bit stunted.

The ageing comedians who bookend the film, and who "narrate" the story, are a great touch, but as a result if feels like we never really "meet" Danny Rose. Like Zelig, he's just someone we hear about from others.

Anyways, the film is shot in black and white and it feels very "right" for the story, and ultimately I really enjoyed watching it. Once again Allen shows talent for a well-crafted and solid story, while doing something very different. Even with the problems with Allen's character, there doesn't feel like there's anything stale here, and I'm really looking forward to the next film.

Allen apparently contradicts himself in two interviews... Very confusing.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Wow, what a great film. A perfectly constructed piece of fiction, even if I'm not totally over-the-moon with how it ended. Hard to believe that this is from the same mind that created Manhattan -- this film revels in its fiction.

I think this is easily Allen's most successful mix of fantasy and drama so far. I really liked Broadway Danny Rose, but looking back this feels leagues beyond it. I was very swept up in the story and the film kept that difficult 'hyper-real'/drama balance perfect throughout. (Something I more used to seeing failing rather than succeeding.)

It was also, shockingly, a very nice change of pace to watch an Allen film without Allen appearing in it. I think by keeping himself behind the camera it really allowed the film to go places it couldn't have gone otherwise. (I think it's really getting difficult to see Allen in any other character than the one he's famous for -- and even his style of delivery, as most clearly heard through Mia Farrow's character in this film, is now getting clichéd.)

The cinematography is refreshingly different here, too. The static-camera 'half-joke', so long ago worn out its welcome from when it first appeared in Annie Hall, is now completely missing. The camera had some nice dramatic movement, too.

The casting was great, the film never lulled, it was perfectly constructed and very entertaining. I imagine, rightly or wrongly, that the ending may have been controversial. I did foresee the betrayal (I was thinking two scenes prior that that's what I'd do if I were writing it -- although I still had a happy ending in mind), but I didn't enjoy how it ended, despite its realism. A film so fictional shouldn't end like that, I think. It felt far too serious, and almost a cheap-shot/sucker-punch to the audience.

I have to admit though, that despite finding it somewhat odd/hard to believe that Farrow's character could so easily "escape" again, so soon (which makes her seem very shallow), the ending did play well. To be fair, I'm not sure how Allen could have ended the film with a happy ending (don't tell me that was a happy ending) without dipping from the quality of the previous 80 minutes.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the look/cinematography of the "30s movie" was really spot on. The acting was, too (except maybe Jeff Daniels's, which stuck out a bit). The storyline of this fake film, however, seemed hideously poor, even for a jokey pastiche. Still, that was probably deliberate pandering to modern-day audiences (or possibly even a reference to some terrible 30's films I've never seen).

I fully expect Allen to return to realism for his next film. I feel we've had far too much fiction lately for his tastes -- and possibly mine: Give me something contemporary, Mr. Allen, and make it good!

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Carlo Di Palma, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

A wonderful emotional drama! What comedy was there (Allen's characters searching through religions, etc.) wasn't even needed -- this is Interiors done right (ok, maybe that's controversial, but aspects of it, definitely); they're both dramas, both modern day, both centering around the lives of three sisters.. but Hannah wasn't nearly as self-important. It took me on an emotional roller-coaster without me even being aware of it, until it was over and it hit me.

It's interesting because the drama was done so well (it really didn't labour under the weight of its own pretensions) that I found the comedic moments to be the weakest. It's not that they weren't funny, it's just that they weren't needed -- the drama was just wonderfully effective by itself.

I related to many parts of the story -- Michael Caine's character's relationship problems (feeling the need to look after someone, but finding himself with a wife who was actually very self-sufficient). Diane Wiest's lack of confidence (with Mia Farrow's character dampening her enthusiasm). Woody Allen's character's desire to find reasons to live in a meaningless and Godless universe.

The pains were all there, and I imagine lots of people were able to relate to them, but only Allen's character's troubles were totally resolved at the end of the film. Caine had an affair and realised he loved his wife -- but they never dealt with the actual problem: That he didn't feel like he could look after Mia Farrow (did they talk and resolve it? It would be hard work and probably wouldn't work in the long run). Weist's pain was not resolved in any way other than finding someone who appreciated her work (although her family were shown to enjoy it, too) - nothing was 'fixed' - if they weren't enthusiastic she'd still be hurt. It's an interesting thing to note, because despite all this, the ending feels very upbeat and emotionally satisfying. In fact, you could very well describe Hannah as a 'feel good' movie.

Casting was superb, direction was great, Farrow is someone else once again. The cinematography, the first collaboration between Allen and Carlo Di Palma, wasn't beautiful, but the film has its own look, and told the story well. The static camera gag was all gone -- phew!

Interesting to note: If this film was as successful as I think it should have been, then I imagine Allen should feel a lot more confident doing drama in the future. Will we see a lot more of it? Will he move on after his next film Radio Days (which I'm aware is a comedy) to doing drama until he has a dramatic failure? Time will tell!

In all I have to say that this really was a wonderful film. The perfect tone of the drama elements is what Interiors should have had (well, in a way -- they are different films). Intelligent, provoking, warm, optimistic, funny (in places) and entirely effective at what it set out to do. Allen is still very vital and his work is a real joy to watch. I think Hannah and Her Sisters might stick out as one of his most successful, along with Annie Hall.

Random notes:
After the fallout from Stardust Memories (see part two of this series) it's surprising that Allen would put Mia Farrow in a role where she is, essentially, herself: She loves being a mother, she has adopted kids, and talks about wanting to live in Connecticut. Very surprising! Anyone could easily read all kinds of relationship problems into the movie -- she's too self-sufficient, he respects her, but doesn't love her. It feels like he settled for her (in the way Allen's character did at the end of Stardust Memories!). Maybe it's all hindsight, and shouldn't be read into, but after the furore with people getting confusing Allen with his character in Stardust Memories, it's a surprising choice -- they even use her real kids and her real mother in the film! So strange.

Although Allen was playing the same sort of character he usually plays, he felt very different for a lot of it, here. He actually had a very strong character that wasn't diluted by the inevitable humour. Having a different main male lead (Caine) was great, too. Another thing to note is the oddness at how late Allen's character was introduced so late into the film, because he becomes a major character afterwards, even though he's separate from the other stories.

Lots of surprisingly great small roles were here, too: Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern (back from Stardust Memories), and even a young Julia Louise Dreyfuss.

Almost exactly the same three sister dynamic from Interiors is seen here: Central "strong" one, insecure/artistic one, lost one. Is Hannah's lighter tone less realistic than Interiors, I wonder? Not sure, but I prefer it.

As I stated, the ending feels genuinely upbeat and leaves the audience on a high. A very difficult thing to do convincingly in a drama, but Allen really pulled it off, despite the fact that many of the characters don't have a satisfying resolution (a strange dichotomy that's probably worth examining!). Unfortunately, Allen saw the same holes in the resolutions as I did and says that he didn't consider the ending to be upbeat at all. "Vaguely hopeful" is how he describes it, which kind of kills one of the film's main successes... the 'happy' ending. Once again Allen is at odds with his audience.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Carlo Di Palma, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Radio Days felt like Allen's love letter to the 1940s, particularly its music. That's really what I take away now that it's finished. It's very nostalgic and is beautiful in many ways, but I felt some barrier preventing me from totally getting sucked into its world -- possibly it's hyper-real moments, or maybe its unusual structure. Jumping from character to character allowed for some great moments (some hilarious) but it also maybe stopped me from connecting on a deeper level to any of them. Or, possibly more accurately, the film wanted me to connect with the nostalgia, but I couldn't (for some reason).

None of this is to say that structure/jumping around was flawed, if anything it shows Allen's mastery of storytelling that something so discombobulated should feel so cohesive. It is, as ever for Woody Allen movies, entertaining, enjoyable and by no means lacking -- I just didn't love it.

It's strange to think back to a Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy and see how much Allen has changed and progressed in that short time. It's hard to believe that that filmmaker would end up making a film about his own childhood.

One thing that might have kept from me from falling in love with the nostalgia was the film's look -- it just wasn't very pretty. In fact in places it looked TV ugly -- quite surprising, but perhaps due to what must have been a demanding shoot (so many period details, locations, extras, etc.). Production wise, the attention to detail was phenomenal, above and beyond what I'd expect from a Woody Allen film. I have to wonder if they had a larger budget on this one.

This film tries very hard, and very nearly succeeds, in capturing what I imagine it must have felt like living in the 40s. Growing up with your family around you all the time, learning and living through the radio. The outbreak of war, welcoming in 1944, the little girl trapped in the well. Some great moments, but I found myself pulling back and not feeling totally immersed in this world.

The cast was excellent, if a little too star-studded (Diane Keaton, Tony Robbins, Jeff Daniels all have cameos - as if he called in every favour), but some other were unintentional, Seth Green, William H. Macy, etc. The only weak link was Mia Farrow who grated the high-pitched Sally White (although she was great as the sophisticated version of her character). It felt like a throw back to Singing in the Rain, but didn't work nearly as successfully.

In all, a solid film, filled with sweetness and nostalgia, but one that I felt failed at thoroughly engaging me.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

My Woody Allen-athon: Part 2 (1977 - 1980)

The second part of my experiences watching every Woody Allen movie in chronological order*

* Excitement still not guaranteed.

This is part two
You can find part one here (along with an explanation as to why I decided to embark on this project): Woody Allen-althon: Part 1

As my project progressed I ended up reading more and more interviews with Allen in order to get a different perspective of his work for my "Afterthoughts" on each film, but I tried not to read anything about a film I hadn't watched yet.

I hope you enjoy this series of posts.

"I've always tried to dissuade people and tell them my films are not all autobiographical, but they don't want to hear it. I don't know what else to do. It doesn't hurt me or anything, I don't really care. ... But just for the record, it really isn't so..."
- Woody Allen, talking in 1996 (DGA Magazine)

w: Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman, d: Woody Allen, e: Wendy Greene Bricmont and Ralph Rosenblum, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Annie Hall is either considered to be Allen's best work or one of his best. It was certainly the film that put him on the map as a filmmaker, enjoying lots of commercial and critical popularity. Not only was the film a hit, it also ended up winning four major Oscars: Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Script, Best Director, and Best Film. Woody Allen had arrived.

Unlike Allen's previous directorial efforts, Annie Hall mixes a lot of drama in with its comedy, telling the story of an idiosyncratic couple's turbulent relationship.

My thoughts (as I wrote them): Wow. What an incredible film. I thought Play It Again, Sam was good, but this was something else. So different than his previous films, it's almost a drama, but it's highly amusing, too. Heart-breaking.

The tone is far more mature and thoughtful than anything Allen has done before. I was really blown away by it - such a leap from Love and Death. It's hard to imagine how winning Best Picture at the Oscars must have felt to Allen a mere two years after he was dressed as a cheerleader on a 19th century Russian battlefield. An incredible leap, even more than I could have guessed.

There are moments of silliness, but they never belittle the weight of the drama. Quite a feat. Allen's satirical view of Los Angeles is probably the most successful lampoon of the city I've ever seen, too.

After this meteoric rise in quality, what will Interiors have in store for me?

It's interesting to note that Allen's most successful films so far in his career have been the result of collaborations, either with a writer or director. Whatever you make of that, there's no getting away from the fact that Allen had truly become a seriously talented film-maker with Annie Hall.

As for Allen's reaction to his Oscar wins, see below...

wd: Woody Allen, e: Ralph Rosenblum, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

To follow up Annie Hall, Allen decided to create a serious drama in the mould of his hero, Ingmar Bergman. Interiors tells the story of three sisters, their problematic personal lives, and their rocky relationship with their overbearing mother.

This sudden change in tone was likely as much of a shock to people in 1978 as it was to me. Saying that, the film still received five Oscar nominations, including Best Script and Best Director.

My thoughts (as I wrote them): A dramatic change, with "dramatic" being the operative word; this was not a comedy. I went into the film with the knowledge that Interiors was not his most highly regarded film, and it's true that there's things that make it difficult to enjoy, but it gave me plenty of things to chew over, not least of which was trying to decide if I enjoyed it or not.

A lot of the film worked very well, but on the whole I think it left a bad taste in my mouth.

The film's themes resonated with me, probably because I'm in my early 30s and the film was about 30-something angst, but it also felt forced, heavy-handed, and, as a result, occasionally very pretentious.

The characters and situations felt real and free from cliché, which was good, but it the film was also very melodramatic.

I connected with the frustration and confusion of the characters, especially with the mourning mother who couldn't let go/father who wanted to move on, and with the better sides of the sisters' characters, but not their snobby, selfish sides. Some of the conversations felt very real, and, as I said, the motivations didn't fall into storytelling cliché -- except for the end, maybe, which could be seen coming, but still brought a tear.

While I did feel connected to what was going on, there were also a lot of problems with the film. There were moments that were unintentionally funny, for a start, thanks to overly serious delivery of bad dialogue, especially from Diane Keaton.

I guess it goes to show how difficult it is to do serious drama well. Sometimes, like here, it can fall under the weight of its own self-importance. (I guess that's what makes something pretentious: Something that considers itself more profound than it actually is. A bit like what sentimentality is to emotion.)

The overall message/theme is of giving up control in order to live and function to the fullest and happiest you can. The title seems to refer to the mother's obsession with keeping everything in order: Literally manifested, rather heavy handedly, through her obsession with interior design. The idea being we can retreat "inside" and make everything just how we want it, but the chaotic, uncontrollable forces outside our windows will never go away. So when the mother lost control her domain (her husband leaves), she couldn't handle it and ultimately walked outside into the raging chaotic sea.

Talk about square on the nose, but I guess after winning Best Picture the previous year, Allen felt it was time to really try and create something meaningful and didn't hold himself back.

The film seems to leave you with the following questions: Did Allen have a domineering mother? Did he relate to Jody?

Bottom line: For all its intentions, it's still a bad film. It's not emotionally satisfying, it's got wooden dialogue, some melodramatic acting, bad direction, and it takes itself too seriously. It just doesn't work.

I have no problems with Allen not being funny, but this was just bad.

AfterthoughtsThis is where reading Woody Allen on Woody Allen really changed my view of the film, and of Allen himself. A lot of my assumptions were really off the mark and Allen seems to be happy to be the first to admit that Interiors was an experiment that didn't necessarily work out as well as it could have. For example, he acknowledges in that he'd probably written the dialogue too much like literature, and even talked about wanting to remake it in order to do it better (something I would actually like to see).

He revealed that, if anything, he related to the mother character (but agreed with Renata's observations), and that he felt Jody was the least messed up of the sisters and had the most chance of redemption. Talking about if he were to do it again, he said he would make the father's new wife much more flamboyant, and make it clearer that in many ways she was right. He also revealed something which was not told very well in the film, but definitely would have put a better spin on the end if it had: Jody was saved by her new mother, possibly indicating the beginning of a new, healthier relationship with a different maternal figure. (In the film, I just expected her to be disgusted with being saved by the woman she despised, and I found it odd that her partner didn't try to help.)

In all, I now find Interiors to be a fascinating experiment and, even though I felt it failed more than it succeeded, I find it interesting that I wrote more about it than any of Allen's previous work, and struggled with it more, too. Allen was striving for something different, and for that, I find myself applauding him.

It turns out that my theory about Allen feeling validated by his previous film winning four Oscars at the 1978 Academy Awards (two for Allen himself) couldn't have been further from reality.

In a 1977 interview taken before the release of Annie Hall, Allen had already decided that his next film was going to be a straight drama. As he told Gary Arnold in the Washington Post, "Very few people can write amusing comedy, but I don't value it because it's rare and hard to do. What I hope to do next is a straight dramatic film. If the script works out, it would be a very serious no-laughs psychological drama without a part for me."

He continued, "I would really like to move in a more serious direction. I realize it may be a total mistake, and if I fail, I'll come back to comedy and resign myself to the fact that I may be limited to it. But... if I were to succeed at a dramatic film, I think I'd find it far more satisfying". So he'd already made up his mind to try a serious drama before the film had even been reviewed, let alone awarded.

As for letting his Oscar wins go to his head, not only did Allen not attend the ceremony that year, but he didn't even watch them. Talking in 1982 he said, "I went to Michael's Pub [in New York], where I play on Monday nights ... I was there and played jazz and went home at twelve o'clock ... Then I took my phone off the hook in my bedroom and went up to sleep and had no idea what happened."

The next morning, when Allen read his copy of the New York Times and saw "Annie Hall Sweeps Oscars", he claims he thought nothing more than, "great, that's so nice". As of 1982 he still hadn't collected his statuettes, or any other award, for that matter. (A 2004 Total Film interview revealed that the Academy had mailed them to him, and he'd passed them on to his parents.)

In 1992 he expanded further on his opinions of awards in general: "It's hard to imagine competition between books or films or works of art. Who's to say which is better? I think it would be better if the film industry met each year and in a dignified way just said, 'These our are favourite films of the year!' ... Not the best film ... There isn't any Best Film of the year. There is no integrity to credibility."

When it comes to putting his films in competition in foreign film festivals, he's also not interested, saying "[My films] are not made for competition, they're just made for people to enjoy or not".

I was really shocked by all this, but also very pleased. Allen was clearly all about his work, his attempts at art, not about waiting to see what others thought about it before trying something new. He was most interested in pushing himself, and attempting something different, even if they might be a failure. He certainly didn't start believing his own hype after winning the critic's adoration, after all.

This is when my opinion of Woody Allen began to change to one of admiration, and when he and his work took on a new light.

w: Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman, d: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

After Interiors Allen took a step back towards more familiar territory, the romantic comedy, reuniting him with Marshall Brickman, his co-writer on Annie Hall.

Manhattan tells the story of a lonely New Yorker, played by Allen, and his various attempts at finding love. It was the first Allen film to be shot in black and white, and Panavision (i.e. very wide screen). It was nominated for two Oscars; Supporting Actress and Best Script.

My thoughts (as I wrote them): Excellent move. It seems Allen wasn't put off by the failures of Interiors, and is still attempting new things (even if this is "safer" than Interiors was). It's probably his most successful attempt at being "mature", so far. There are almost no "zany" moments at all, and even though it tucks its drama neatly alongside its comedy, like Annie Hall did, I think there scales are tipped slightly more towards drama.

Instead of waiting for the next laugh (a like traditional comedy) you're pulled along by the strength of the ongoing drama, and the humour is, by comparison, very subtle.

Visually the film is extremely accomplished, and Allen, rather than regress, has moved forwards from Interiors. The same static wide-shots are frequent, and rather than worrying about being called pretentious (as I'm sure he was for his previous film), Manhattan is filmed in black and white Panavision! A pretty unusual choice for a romantic comedy.

It's funny, romantic, beautiful and successfully emotional, but I found that the visuals and the accompanying music made up half the film's success for me.

This is easily his most mature and accomplished film to date, although I'm not entirely sure I prefer it to Annie Hall - it seemed to lack something compared to that film. Warmth, perhaps? Was it too cerebral? Too austere?

As an aside, it's interesting to note that the film shows Allen's 42 year old character falling for an 18 year old girl. 22 years later Allen would have a similarly large age gap with the woman in his life (but more on that later). If he made the film now, I suspect it would be seen as an attempt to justify that relationship.

wd: Woody Allen, e: Susan E. Morse, dp: Gordon Willis, p: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Pushing the boundaries again, Stardust Memories was like nothing Allen had attempted before.

Stardust Memories portrays a film director (famous for his comedies) suffering an existential crisis, while at the same time battling studio executives and his fans for his right to make more "serious" films. While this is going on, Allen's character also struggles to come to terms with two women in his life; One who provokes a strong reaction in him but is incredibly volatile, and another who is much more stable, but perhaps less exciting to him.

My thoughts (as I wrote them): This one felt like maybe the third chapter in Allen's career - from his "early, funny ones" to the "more mature ones" to this: "self reflection". Time will tell if this pattern holds. [It didn't.]

Stardust Memories was an extremely self-reflective piece, even ultimately asking the audience to think about themselves sitting in the theatre. The film is hyper-real and playful (if not 'fun') and feels like an attempt to side-step all criticism of his work (and maybe him as a person) by turning a mirror on the audience. But everyone is played to extremes, Allen's character is a caricature of the public's opinion of him, and the audience (who adore him) are freaks.

There are uncomfortable moments, however, when the film feels like an outright attack against anyone who enjoys Allen's work, or anyone who has ever dared criticise it.

There's a lot of philosophy about the meaning of life, too. The conclusion that, well, there isn't one, and that life is just about occassional "good moments" (the time when you're listening to your favourite records with a girl you love, on a warm sunny day), feels unearned and lacking in weight. When Allen's character finally settles down with his "better match" (i.e. the woman who isn't in a mental institution) -- the supposed emotional high of the film - it feels fake and hollow. He doesn't love her. In fact, he has to justify their relationship to himself (it's such an odd ending to the film).

After that we're reminded that we're all just players in life, and that it will end. We're all looking for meaning, so we should try to remain aware of that, and make the best choices we can in order to enjoy we've got. But this message of "hope" feels... hopeless. Defeatist, depressive, narrow. Faulty philosophy perhaps, but it doesn't really work, either way.

Interesting note: The phrase "his early, funny ones" is used in the film. This phrase would become synonymous with Allen, and it's unclear to me if it originated here (in which case it's unfairly used against him) or if Allen was referring to existing slight against his films.

There's also mention of Allen's character not liking kissing, except his leading ladies, which is again something that follows Allen around. I would love to know the history of these two things.

Also notable to me were two odd moments. Allen's character teases his girlfriend about flirting with her father (and apparently enjoys the idea), and in another scene a newspaper clipping about fatheral incest can be seen on the wall behind Woody. Both stuck out to me and made me wonder if they were a reference to something else from the time. [Apparently not, I couldn't find anything.] If not, then they were just very odd, and unpleasant moments. [I wonder if they stood out to me because of Allen's later problems.]

The film was also shot in black and white, for no reason I can understand. (Was Allen poking fun at himself?) The cinematography (a static camera with characters constantly moving in and out of frame) got very tiresome and was overused, which made me wonder if it was a joke at his critics' expense. [Apparently not, Allen continued to use this gimmick (which originated in Annie Hall) for many years to come.]

Such an odd film, but, as ever, it was an enjoyable watch - even if it didn't leave a great taste in my mouth.

Even after I thought I had learned a lot about Woody Allen from watching Interiors and reading his thoughts on the film, Stardust Memories made me realise that I still didn't understand the man, or his approach to his work at all.

But before I get to that, let me talk about some specifics about the film itself, which Allen revealed to Stig Bjorkman in 1992, and then I'll return to my overall reaction. The first thing that leapt out at me was something which I don't think was clear to the audience at all; the entire weekend was part of the character's breakdown.

As Allen explains: "This character who is seemingly rich and chauffeured around and successful and all that ... he is in his apartment in the beginning of the movie, and his housekeeper brings in this dead rabbit. And he looks at this dead thing and it reminds him of his own mortality. And the rest of the film takes place in his mind. All of a sudden he's away at this weekend that reviews his life, and you get to know his character, his life, his girlfriends, his sister, his parents, his predicaments."

This explains a lot about the hyper-reality of Allen's character's experiences during the weekend, and also why his fans are so insane: They're nightmarish caricatures of the people his character is afraid he might meet at such an event. This is also why so many different people from different areas in his life suddenly appear to talk to him while he's there.

He also explains that the reason the images on the wall in Allen's character's apartment change is because they're reflections of the character's mental state at various points in his life. "His apartment is really a state of mind for him. And so depending on what phase of life he's in, you can see it reflected in the mural."

When asked if the character's complaints about being pigeon-holed as comedic director reflected any personal issues, Allen says, "that [feeling] was important for the character in the movie. But that was not me. I didn't feel that way personally. I felt that I wanted to make comedies, but occasionally I wanted to make a more serious film. But the audience thought, 'he doesn't want to make any more comedies'. You know, they took everything literally in the film." This comment leads nicely back into my overall reaction of the film itself, and what I thought it was attempting to say...

It turns out that my reaction, feeling that the film was hostile towards both Allen's critics and audience, was a very common one, but it was also totally unfounded. In June 1981 in an interview with Gene Siskel, he responded to this negative response to the film, and summed up his original intentions for it with absolute clarity, "I thought [Stardust Memories] was, by my own standards, a very good picture," he said. "My feeling is that many people took it wrong.

"I felt what I wanted to make was a movie about a completely fictitious character, a film director. And I only chose a film director 'cause I know that area so well; I mean I couldn't choose a nuclear physicist 'cause I'd never have any of the nuances of it.

"I so I chose a film director, and I wanted to show a guy who was very successful in his work and had to a middle-age part of his life, and despite all the adulation and success, he was on the verge of a breakdown, because he couldn't cope with the fact that he was getting older and eventually was going to die like his friend who had passed away.

"The love relationships in his life weren't working. And the so-called material gains of his life and even the artistic gains of his life - even the awards and adulation - were still not enough to make his life worthwhile. He found himself in a position most people would dream of, but for him he could only see himself heading for the junkyard along with everybody else.

"So he was at a depressed part of his life. But finally, through the course of searching his own soul, at the end of the film - this is what I hoped to show - he came to the conclusion that there are just some moments in life - that's all you have in life are moment, not your artistic achievements, no your material goods, not your fame or money - just some moments, maybe with another person, that are wonderful moments. Moments you can think back to and say, 'Gee, I was sitting here in my living room with whatever, with Diane Keaton, and we were listening to Mozart, and I remember I had dinner that night, and it was so wonderful.' That's all you have - those little moments are wonderful.

"Now a lot of people, took that film to mean, 'Oh, so this is what Woody Allen thinks of us. We've liked his films and we like him, and he's ticked off because we want an autograph'. Or, 'He's got a Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur and he's not happy'.

"But first of all, the director in the film isn't me. I don't experience that depression at all, and I haven't had anywhere near the problems that guy has. But a lot of people felt it was an expression of my own irritation with them, and so they came away, not just disliking the film but damn angry, angry with me and outraged.

"So I feel they misunderstood it. And I only feel that way because there was a portion of people - critics and people who have written to me, some renowned people and also many fans - who didn't understand it and who loved it.

"But to be completely fair about it, it's possible I hoped to convey one thing and through lack of sufficient skill conveyed another. On a technical level, though, I thought the film was very, very full of ideas and flamboyance and some of my best direction.

"So if only it could have been taken without confusing the director with me, the reaction might have been different. But I knew the problem going in. I had spoken to friends about it, and they said, 'Everybody's going to think it's you. They thought that about Annie Hall. They thought that about Manhattan.'

"And I guess that's what happened. And I don't know what to say about that. We live in an era where over the last 10 or 12 years there's been a great emergence of gossip as a current - magazines like Us and People. And that sort of thing - what's he really like? - becomes very titillating to people. But I can only say that I was trying to make a completely fictional story that I thought was interesting."

To add weight to this argument is a comment from Allen discussing his next film, before it was even released, in a 1980 interview with Robert F. Moss for the Saturday Review. Answering a general question on how autobiographical his films are, Allen mentioned that "people will regard Stardust Memories as very autobiographical because it's about a filmmaker/comedian ... overcome with depression. This is not me, but it will be perceived as me."

Twenty years later, talking with Stig Bjorkman for Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen restates these thoughts, and points out something quite logical, "If I did [have disdain for critics and my audience], which I don't, I would be smart enough not to say it in a movie."

So yet another pleasant surprise, and something which allowed me to think about the film (and Allen) in entirely different light. Great, but it was upon reading all these interviews that I began to get a deeper understanding of the man himself and, more importantly, his relationship to his work.

For example, in the same 1981 Gene Siskel article quoted above, Allen talks about how he feels about criticism of his work, "The only time I feel hurt or annoyed is when I'm accused of things I don't feel guilty of. Then I don't think it's fair." And on how he sees himself and his work, "I feel that I have done honest work. I haven't been exploitative or commercial, in the sense of being for hire to the highest bidder for any piece of hack work." Again, not what I expected, but very pleasant to read.

Talking to Tomm Carroll for DGA Magazine in 1996, Allen elaborated further on the where his priorities lie in regards to his work. When asked if box office successes were much of a consideration he responded, "No, none whatsoever. I never, ever think about that. My films have not done particularly well in the US for years at the box office, although they do very well in Europe. But I've never had any interest in it one way or the another. I will do a certain amount of promotion so that the parent company doesn't think I'm a real terrible person that won't co-operate at all.

"Even if I did have interest in the box office, there's not much I could do about it anyhow. I make the films I make and if people come to see them, they see them, and if they don't, I go on and make the next one. I've never wanted to get into that terrible rat race... There are two things I've always wanted to avoid. First was the concept of trying to make a hit, because it meant nothing to me, and second was trying to make my movies into an event where every two or four years I come out with a film and try and promote it into a big event. I just wanted to grind them out all the time so that they were not events. I've been very happy that way. "

These same ideals are elaborated upon in Woody Allen on Woody Allen, in what has become my favourite of all Allen's quotes:

"I make so many films, that I don't care about individual successes and failures. I made Interiors and I made Stardust Memories, and before they came out I was working on something else. The film could be a big hit like Manhattan or Hannah [and Her Sisters], to me it doesn't matter. I've tried very hard to make my films into a non-event. I just want to work, that's all. Just put the film out for people to see, just keep grinding them out.

"I hope I'll have a long and healthy life, that I can keep working all the time, and that I can look back in old age and say, 'I've made fifty movies and some of them were excellent and some of them were not so good and some were funny...' I just don't want to get into that situation that so many of my contemporaries are in, where they make one film every few years and it's a Big Event. That's why I've always admired Bergman. He'd be working quietly on the island and would make a little tiny film and put it out, and then he'd be working on the next one.

"You know, the work was important. Not the eventual success or failure, the money or the critical reception. What's important is that your work is part of your daily life and you can live decently. You can, as in my case, do the other things I want to do at the same time. I like to play music, I like to see my children, I like to go to restaurants, I like to take walks and watch sports and things. When you're working at the same time, you have a nice, integrated life.

"This is exactly what I'd like to achieve with my life and work. It's such a balanced point of view. I just want to enjoy life, continue to create and keep busy. I'll always have ideas to work on and projects underway - there is no need to subject myself to the ups and downs of the outside world. Some people will love my films others will not - what's important is that I keep working and find enjoyment in the process."

And with that final quote my understanding of Woody Allen feels complete, rightly or wrongly. His ideals centre around creating good work, not being famous. That is why he doesn't like doing interviews (even though he's very honest and down-to-earth when he does), that is why he doesn't attend award ceremonies, and, most interestingly to me, is why he makes a film every year. He doesn't want his films to be seen as "big events", he just wants to keep working and hopes that people enjoy what he's created.

Woody Allen is an auteur, first and foremost, but not one in the way the West is used to seeing one. He just wants to work, and work honestly, and not get caught up in the showbiz bullshit of being a celebrity. He doesn't care what people think about him (unless it's unfair), he doesn't care if they like or dislike his movies (unless it's for the wrong reasons), and he doesn't want to be an idolised icon. He doesn't live or die on reviews, or box office successes, or public reaction; he'll keep trying to push himself and create something different every year. He really is an artist in the truest and best sense of the word, and for me, it's an important reminder of all the extra fluff that surround cinema these days.

So all this is quite far away from what I was expecting when I started this project. The neurotic, bumbling Woody Allen is nothing more than a character, behind that is a self-effacing, intelligent, thoughtful, down-to-earth man. So ignore what's going on behind the curtain, for once it really doesn't matter, and genuinely isn't interesting, just know what you're watching comes from a place of honesty, not ego.

I can't imagine I will have this much to learn again. So onwards to A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy...

Continued in Part 3 

Thursday 26 May 2011

My Woody Allen-athon: Part 1 (1969 - 1975)

An account of my experiences watching every Woody Allen movie in chronological order*

* Excitement not guaranteed.

Why would anyone do this?

Well, for a start, I love film, and Woody Allen is one of its most iconic figures. I'd seen about three or four of his movies when I started this project, but I was aware that he'd been making a film a year (more or less) since 1969. That was a huge body of work about which I was almost entirely ignorant, and I decided I wanted to know more.

Also in my mind, was something that Quentin Tarantino said when I saw him talk here in London. When asked about watching the (arthouse) "greats" of cinema, like Fellini and Bergman, he was very candid about how difficult he'd found it to enjoy their work. He went on to explain that he'd learned not to jump into the "classics", but instead had found that the best way to appreciate a director's work was to start at the beginning, with the director's earliest film, and work your way forward. In his mind it was a mistake to immediately jump to a director's "best" work, because it was generally very difficult to appreciate without context.

He argued that by watching films in the order they were produced, you would watch the director progress, and so learn about what they were trying to achieve. That way, when you got to their most revered pieces, you would actually be better able to appreciate what they had accomplished.

I found this argument compelling, and so I decided to do follow this way of thinking with Woody Allen and his huge body of work. Of course, unlike Bergman or Fellini, I think just about everyone in the Western hemisphere is already pretty aware of who Woody Allen is, even as a filmmaker, and so can jump in, more or less, anywhere they like, but I was interested in discovering what he had been up to all these years, and watching his progression.

What on earth could a man have to say after ten, twenty, thirty, even forty films that he hadn't said before? What was driving him? Was he genuinely progressing as an artist, or just treading water? Had he, as many people seem to suggest, gotten more serious and dour? Had he forgotten how to be funny? Was all his best work behind him?

Whatever I thought I might find in answer to those questions, I wasn't prepared for how much I'd learn. Not only about his work, but about him as a person.

These are my experiences as they happened. I hope you enjoy them.

PART ONE - "The early, funny ones..."

"[Take the Money and Run is] really where I feel my career in films began. Before that it was all reasons not to go into cinema."
- Woody Allen, talking in 1992 (Woody Allen on Woody Allen)

w: Woody Allen & Mickey Rose, d: Woody Allen, e: Paul Jordan and Ron Kalish, dp: Lester Schorr, p: Charles H. Joffe

Ok, so here we are at the beginning. Take the Money and Run was the first time Allen had written and directed a film. I was aware of how unaware I was of this movie, so I wasn't expecting too much (surely if it was a classic, it would have been mentioned more in popular culture, right?).

The film's premise is simple: Allen is an inept criminal and this is a "documentary" of his life, complete with interviews with his parents, ex-girlfriends, etc. Alongside these documentary-style interviews is the main narrative, which is told using regular techniques (i.e. like a regular fictional film). Oddly enough, these two styles don't clash as much as they might sound.

My initial reaction (as I wrote it):
This was a good film, and a solid comedy. Sure, some of the jokes fall flat, and the film's first third drags a bit, but if I'd written and directed this film, I'd be immensely proud of it. It's actually (somewhat) emotionally satisfying and Allen's character is solid and consistent (something I see as a sign of a good writer).

It's quite a fantastic start to a career really, but it also shows just how good films actually have to be before they reach genuine classic status; Sure, you can buy Take the Money and Run on DVD, so it's not totally forgotten, but it's certainly not a film with much status now.

If I'd made this film, especially at the start of my career, I think I'd have been so proud of its quality that my only concern would be to try and keep my future films from being worse! Obviously there was room for improvement (this isn't the greatest comedy ever made, after all), but already an insight into Allen's character that he recognised this, and wanted to keep growing as an artist, pushing himself. The fact that Allen attempted to make more challenging films, rather than just regurgitate a successful formula, is possibly one of the most interesting things I shall take from this film.

Afterthoughts (further thoughts after I had let it digest, and read about the film):
According to some random bit of trivia I read online, this was the first ever attempt at a "mockumentary". According to Allen in 1992, he didn't find the making of this movie particularly difficult, and said he knew pretty much what he wanted from the beginning.

In all, this is a funny comedy, but it's unlikely to be your new favourite film.

BANANAS (1970)
w: Woody Allen & Mickey Rose, d: Woody Allen, e: Ron Kalish and Ralph Rosenblum, dp: Andrew M. Costikyan, p: Jack Grossberg

Allen's second film would focus more on being an outright "screwball" comedy. The idea here seems for Allen to get as many laughs as he can, with his bumbling New York character inadvertently becoming the leader of a South American country.

My initial reaction (as I wrote it): A much funnier, and leaner [only 70 mins(!), compared with 85 for Take the Money and Run] follow-up with the same co-writer (Mickey Rose). This time there's less filler and more on-the-mark stuff. I really enjoyed this one. It's a zany, screwball comedy, and there's a lot more physical comedy this time around (very slapstick in places) and it really works. I'm surprised at how talented Allen is at physical comedy, a real Harpo Marx. There's a good balance between satirical humour and outright stupidity, too (the satire never gets too much). I laughed out loud a lot more times than with his previous movie.

Thinking about it from Allen's point of view, I would have been unsure where to go from here in terms of my career: Do another high-energy screwball comedy (even higher energy/even more screwier?), or attempt something with more dramatic weight instead? [I'd seen Annie Hall, so I was aware of where he'd be eventually heading, but this was still a question Allen must have asked himself.]

This is a movie I would recommend to anyone, especially those who are unfamiliar with Allen's work. Sure, it's a rough around the edges, but it's still very funny and so lean that it goes by with ease. I also really enjoyed the satirical parts, which still hold up today. I also remember thinking how Louise Lasser's performance and character were a particular joy.

w: Woody Allen, d: Herbert Ross, e: Marion Rothman, dp: Owen Roizman, p: Arthur P. Jacobs

Play It Again, Sam arguably might not fall under the umbrella of being a "Woody Allen film". Although written by and starring Allen (and based on his own 1969 Broadway play), it was directed by Herbert Ross.

This may seem like a small detail, but there's no escaping the fact that this film sticks out from Allen's work so far (and even that which would follow it). In many ways it's far more accomplished, both directorially and script wise.

A surprisingly different movie from Bananas, I'm guessing this was a side of Allen that most people hadn't seen before (at least those who hadn't seen his plays). The story revolves around Allen's character, a neurotic New Yorker, getting over a bad relationship. The hook in this case is that his character is obsessed with Bogart (hence the title's play on the famous line from Casablanca), and this movie legend often appears to offer advice, and give the audience a chance to hear Allen's internal dialogue.

My initial thoughts (as I wrote them): Play It Again, Sam starts off exhibiting "zany" comedy traits, but it doesn't really work on that level and thankfully, as the film progresses, it becomes more dramatically serious and, as a result, much more rewarding.

The comedy helps tell the story, and the film's message, while a cliché, is effectively told. This is definitely a highlight of his career so far -- but possibly a very different experience from what contemporary audiences were expecting(?).

Interestingly this film was based on Allen's second Broadway play, which he wrote and performed in before making his first film. It's strange because this story feels maturer and more crafted than his previous two films (and the following two, for that matter), and yet it was written before them. I don't know if he polished the story when he wrote the screenplay, or if he was just attempting something different with the films he was directing, or if there was outside influence. Whatever the reason, this is a very different Allen movie at this point in his career, but it's also very successful.

According to Allen in 1992, when it came to directing Play It Again, Sam, he apparently wasn't interested, saying he wanted to focus on something new. Considering the somewhat amateur look of his previous films, it's not inconceivable that Paramount (the company that owned the rights to the film and produced it) might have had some serious reservations about letting him direct. Who knows what the truth is, but whatever the case, the "new" thing turned out to be...

w: Woody Allen (book: Dr. D. Reuben), d: Woody Allen, e: Eric Albertson, dp: David M. Walsh, p: Charles H. Joffe

This is more of a direct follow-up to Bananas, but certainly not as successful. I'm guessing that in the public's eye Allen was seen as a crazy cross between Harpo Marx and Grouch Marx, and the idea of him tackling a serious (potentially "taboo") subject was thus surely going to have hilarious consequences...

The film is based on the best-selling self-help book of the same name. Allen took random questions from the book, and wrote his own unique answers, and because of this basic structure, the film is literally a series of prolonged and unrelated sketches, each prefaced with a question from the book (e.g. "Do Aphrodisiacs Work?").

My initial thoughts (as I wrote them): This just didn't work, in my opinion. The comedy is neurotic when it should be light and playful, and light and playful when it should have been considered. The production seems to have had some difficulty too, as it looks very amateurish in places (although it's unclear if this is Allen's inexperience as a director, or technical problems).

The budget is clearly bigger than Allen had before, but despite this, the whole experience, including its production value, is wildly uneven. On the upside, Gene Wilder is great, and the final sketch (with Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall) is quite amusing.

I would consider this to be Allen's least successful film so far in his career.

In Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen reveals that he decided to make this film after seeing an advert for the book on TV one night. "And I thought to myself, 'Gee, that would make a funny movie.' To get the rights to that book and make little short things. Questions and then a little sketch or something. Just purely for fun." Allen apparently took real questions from the book and then wrote this own answers to them.

He went on to say, "I know that the doctor who wrote the book hated the movie. I don't know why. I guess he thought it was trivial or foolish or silly. But, you know, this book was silly also, and if he had really cared about it, he wouldn't have sold it to the movies." According to Allen, the book "presumed that nobody knew anything about sex".

In my own mind I don't quite see Allen's problem with the book, and I do think that a lot of people grow up being terribly ignorant about sex. So, for my part, I do see merit in Dr. Reuben's book and I can understand why he didn't like Allen's adaptation, however unique it tried to be.

SLEEPER (1973)
wd: Woody Allen, e: O. Nicholas Brown, Ron Kalish and Ralph Rosenblum, dp: David M. Walsh, p: Jack Grossberg

Sleeper is often listed amongst many people's favourite Allen films, so I was expecting a return to form.

The basic outline is that a neurotic New Yorker (played by Allen) gets frozen and wakes up in a future he doesn't understand. He eventually becomes reluctantly involved with some freedom fighters and their attempt to overthrow an oppressive government.

My initial thoughts (as I wrote them): I couldn't help but find this so-called "classic" a bit over-rated. The comedy is very uneven, Allen's slapstick, while good, is not on par with his earlier films, and the satire feels weak. Allen's character is especially confusing, starting off as a meek hypochondriac and ending up as a cynical, angry man. The best moments in the film come at the end in the form of the bitter interplay between Allen and Diane Keaton - two people who apparently hate one another, and blame the other for any problems, but are actually equally inept.

Some bits really don't work (like Allen using bleu cheese to knock out a guard) and it's mainly a collection of odd set-pieces, but with a bigger budget than Allen's earlier work. Quite disappointing, especially considering how revered I'd heard it was. It was nowhere near the quality of Play It Again, Sam.

Interestingly the final lines of the film are (from Allen's cynical character): "The only two things I believe in are sex and death...".

w: Woody Allen (apparently uncredited work by: Mildred Cram, Donald Ogden Stewart), d: Woody Allen, e: Ron Kalish and Ralph Rosenblum, dp: Ghislain Cloquet, p: Charles H. Joffe

Allen's fifth time in writer/director shoes is another attempt at a light comedy, but this time with slightly loftier aspirations. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it light-heartedly mixes philosophy and zany comedy in random quantities. I had no idea what to expect as I'd never even heard of it.

My initial thoughts (as I wrote them): This fitted my mood perfectly, so my experience of it might be biased, but it seemed like Allen's attempt to build on his successful rapport with Diane Keaton, and to also attempt what he did in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex: Take a well seriously regarded work and subvert it in some way. This time it was Russian literature (even the title is reminiscent of "War and Peace"), and I really enjoyed the results.

The strongest element of Sleeper (the aforementioned bickering between Allen and Keaton) was put to great use here. The production values were really good, too; This is definitely Allen's most beautiful film so far.

The bulk of the story was Allen's character's philosophical musings, and I really enjoyed them, even if the questions and insights were somewhat... self absorbed(?) it was still really funny.

The same problem that plagued Sleeper is present here, however: The unnecessary injection of "zaniness" (for example, contemporary cheerleaders on a 19th century Russian battlefield). These moments still don't work and I'm looking forward to them disappearing from Allen's future films. [I knew they eventually would.] Hardly any of Harpo's influence could be seen here, but there were still things that reminded me of Groucho.

Love and Death made me think of the type of humour I've seen in Allen's written work [such as "Without Feathers"], but whereas I've always struggled to appreciate that, here I really "got it". [I would later find Allen's written work more enjoyable, possibly as a result of experiences like this.]

There's no getting away from the fact that Allen's own directed work is still some ways away from the balanced drama/comedy success of Play It Again, Sam, but whatever flaws Love and Death has, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it.

I still have very fond memories of this film and would definitely watch it again. I much preferred it to his last two films.

Continued in Part 2