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