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