I avoided Woody Allen’s films prior to Annie Hall when they were first being released. They seemed sophomoric and stupid. I did go to see Love And Death when it came out and I found it sophomoric and smart. Woody Allen was not for me. I got the Borscht Belt humor, I got the nebbish shtick. It all just seemed dopey.
In the fall of 1976 I left for Germany to do my Senior year abroad. Kids studying abroad today don’t have withdrawal for things and people back home like we did. Email, Facebook and Skype have changed that. One never feels disconnected from one’s ‘real’ life. During that year the high point of my day would be the when the mail was delivered to the dorm, followed immediately by the low point of the day when the manager of the dorm would sadistically say to me, ‘Heute nicht, Herr Brown’ (Not today, Mr. Brown), creating a crush of disappointment lasting until the next hopeful mail delivery the next day.
When the year was up in July and I got home, I was severely disoriented. Suddenly, I was able to understand everything that was happening around me and not just what my level of German allowed me to understand. I could now read every sign, get every joke and understand every overheard conversation. All the mysteries and difficulties of my year in Germany were suddenly gone. I was back to where I was before I left for college – in my parents’ house in deepest Brooklyn. I was told by a friend that I really needed to see the new Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall. It was hilarious, she told me, quoting the line about the only cultural advantage LA has over New York is that you can make a right turn on red. I thought “ More dumb Woody Allen humor”. Well, Annie Hall happened to be playing at the Canarsie Theater, our neighborhood third run movie house. So, I went. And I was transfigured.
From the face-on opening monologue, right through the wistful ending, the movie showered down on me everything I had been deprived of over the past year: Brooklyn of my childhood and the Brooklyn that came before me, Yiddishkeit, the glory of New York City, crazy older Jewish relatives – everything I had missed. Woody Allen was speaking directly to me, saying: ‘This is what you have been starving for! And you weren’t wrong to long for it! It’s the really great stuff’. I wandered out of the Canarsie Theater dazzled.
I must have seen Annie Hall at least five times that summer. Besides the very personal ‘welcome home’ message, I was thrilled watching a film by a director firing on all cylinders. Everything flowed, there wasn’t a false note – I never once doubted the voice of the director. I knew that Allen was obsessively Jewish and an evangelical New Yorker and recognized those characteristics in the film. But even if it had been made by Rossellini, the work itself had such integrity that I was swept up in it from beginning to end. The social observations, the triste romance and, not least, the performance of Diane Keaton make it compulsively watchable in the way that All About Eve and The Shop Around The Corner are compulsively watchable. It was the film of a great, wholly integrated artist and not just a Woody Allen movie.
I remember the general reaction to Interiors, which followed Annie Hall, as being respectful. This is a new Woody Allen, we told ourselves, he is stretching himself as an artist and if he wants to venture into Ingmar Bergman family drama, God bless him.
Luckily, Manhattan followed. By that time I was a devoted reader of Andrew Sarris’ weekly column in the Village Voice. His review for Manhattan was titled something like ‘Woody, You’re The Top’. With that echo of the bygone sophistication of Cole Porter’s New York City of the 30s, for me the review was Allen’s official installation into the highest echelon of Sarris’ Pantheon (see his book The American Cinema).
To be living in New York at the time that each new Woody Allen film came out was pretty heady stuff for me. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy pleased me with its homage to Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Stardust Memories pleased me with its homage to Fellini’s 8 ½. Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig and Radio Days pleased me with their great wit and heart. The arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters seemed to solidify Allen’s place in the cinematic firmament for me.
Then Crimes and Misdemeanors happened. I never bought the existential questions of this movie. The big probing moral issues raised never involved me. In fact, I found the whole enterprise quite smarmy – and this was to be a feature of Allen films to come. Granted, this is only my reaction. A lot of people consider this among Allen’s best.
What was missing for me was the sure-footedness of the preceding films. It wasn’t so much that I needed the schlemiel persona of Allen to make a film. What I did need to feel is that there was a steady hand guiding the enterprise.
Allen embarked on an extraordinarily prolific period at that time which lasts until today. His films are astounding for the amazing talent he assembles in front of and behind the camera. His acting ensembles invariably feature leading actors of the day as well as future stars. One of Meryl Streep’s first roles was a cameo part in Manhattan as the protagonist’s angry now-lesbian ex-wife. In retrospect the role is a bit of a cliché but still, it’s swell to see Streep at the beginning of her glorious career. He even got Max Von Sydow, Bergman’s chess playing knight, and Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer, to be part of his projects.
I understand that being prolific is good that the artist can work through themes and stylistic interests, but the danger is that a lot of inferior work can be the result. Ingmar Bergman himself, Allen’s greatest idol, was also extraordinarily prolific and it is fascinating to watch what Bergman does with many of the same themes and actors over time. It can also get tedious when the work is less than polished and the mark is missed.
I began skipping the new Allen releases especially after seeing Mighty Aphrodite which I found sordid. Watching his earlier films again was shocking, as well. I always want to hold the author’s life story at arm’s length when considering the work, unless it is an author who is unapologetically biographical and doesn’t want you to ignore the personal aspects of the work. So, I tried to ignore the salacious stories about Allen’s private life. However, I did find it hard to watch Manhattan again and view the protagonist’s relationship with the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character through the same romantic filter I did back in 1979. The ickiness factor prevailed. However, if that were the only problem, I could have still loved it the way I did when it was released.
For me, that easiness and sure-handedness of Annie Hall is gone. I go back to see his new films when they get public and popular acclaim, which is why I went to see Midnight In Paris. I hoped that all I was hearing about it would bode well. Alas. I was amazed at the woodenness of the characters and the pretentiousness of the plot. What could have been a delightful fantasy devolved into a dull name-dropping exercise. “Hello old chap, the name’s Fitzgerald, Scott Fitzgerald and this is my wife Zelda. We’re all going to a party at Gertrude Stein’s. You must join us.’ These are not exact quotes, but they convey the hollowness of the thing. I found it so curious. I couldn’t figure out who the film was intended for. I felt that the audience members who knew who all these historical figures were would feel cheated by the shallowness of the treatment, and the audience members who didn’t know who they were wouldn’t care about the whole thing.
I had great hope for Blue Jasmine. The acclaim for Cate Blanchett’s performance made it sound like Eleanora Duse had returned from the dead. What I actually encountered was an overplayed but less interesting version of Blanche DuBois. As Streetcar Named Desire parallels became more apparent, I really got angry. It all seemed like intellectual laziness in the guise of a big statement about …..what? That being rich makes you shallow? That can’t be it since he lovingly depicts every detail of Blanchett’s super-rich New York life with voyeuristic delight. We are hard-pressed to find a note of criticism in how she is portrayed. Yes, she is nasty and condescending to lesser mortals, but wow that apartment and wow those clothes! There is no question that you would rather live her ‘shallow’ Manhattan existence than live her sister Sally Hawkins’ squalid life as a Stella Kowalski stand-in with her Stanley played by Bobby Cannavale. We get signals that we should think that Cannavale and Hawkins are ‘salt of the earth’ and the people we should care about, but whole dichotomy of the good Hawkins San Francisco world versus the bad Blanchett New York world collapses for lack of support. Ironically the Hawkins world is so ugly, even though it is located in San Francisco, ostensibly the most beautiful city in the country! Another anti-California jab? I might also mention that Cannavale’s character made me recall other caricatures of Italians that appear at least as early as Annie Hall. The Italians in his films are almost invariably cartoonish, stupid and shown in a border-line racist way. I suppose one could say the same about his portrayal of the older Jewish characters, but they are from the inside out, and because of that, there seems to be more kindness and depth to the portrayal.
All of these plot problems coupled with a dull visual style really made me despair that I would ever love a Woody Allen movie again. He has become lost in pretensions and insincerities that blocks out what was original and pure in Annie Hall. I will be hopeful, though, and continue to go to the new ones as they come out. You see, I need the eggs.