In looking at film criticism and the approaches different critics take, a question inevitably comes up. Just what is a critic job’s, exactly, and why does such a ‘geeky’ thing even matter?
Now, answering the first part of this question is easy. A critic’s job is to elucidate a work of art and to explain why (or why not) it works as art. Given how often criticism does not even engage the work in question -- much less reveal it -- those last two words are especially important. After all, art is art, and therefore not science, history, philosophy, politics, or psychology, even as the best art can draw on these things, and communicate something of and apart from them. Art, then, is communication, and a critic ought to show ‘how’ this is the case without forcing insights that aren’t there, or getting sidetracked by the irrelevant, and the purely contextual. Too much of the former and one risks becoming a comic. Too much of the latter and one risks becoming a scholar. This is valuable work, no doubt, but a scholar is no critic. They are different, and they play different roles, and intersect but rarely. Perhaps the two will fuse someday, but they draw on such different skills that they’ll belong to separate realms for quite a while yet. Is this an unreasonable thing to argue? No, not really, and the six critics within this chapter will demonstrate why not.
The second part of the question is more difficult to answer, especially for those that feel the need to ask it in the first place. Criticism matters precisely because bad criticism exists, whether we like it or not, and thus must be dealt with so that future generations can learn from our errors and hopefully correct them. Naturally, this has some pretty steep implications. Bad (as opposed to ‘negative’) criticism is what kept Moby-Dick from entering public consciousness for almost a century, or Van Gogh and Franz Kafka from influencing human culture sooner. Bad criticism kept Leaves of Grass away from the world, while the best-sellers of its day are now mostly unknown, and probably for good reason. Yes, I suppose that, on some level, the issue is one of justice and fairness, that artists of talent get their due and continue to work in peace. The more pressing thing, however, is what gets to influence us, as a culture, and what will get us to the next stage -- whatever that may be. By necessity, bad art slows things, and bad criticism confuses this slow-down for ‘progress’, hoodwinking otherwise intelligent human beings into accepting its illusions, and biasing them against the best of the world’s offerings. This isn’t right, to put it mildly. It is bad for art, bad for communication, and therefore bad for people. This is why, I suppose, critics have catfights, and consider such things a matter of survival. Is it justified? No, it usually isn’t, as the trite conflicts between one school of thought and another have shown, and will continue to show. Sometimes, however, they do matter, and I’ve worked damn hard for it to matter now, even as I wish for it to involve as little of ‘me’, in the personal sense, as possible.
To be clear, a few of these critics are quite good. Others, however, have issues with formulating arguments, much less sticking to them. Yet all of them are well-known and have something to say, if not about Woody Allen’s work, then at least about the culture that not only produced them, but -- even more importantly -- has allowed them to thrive. I do not, then, wish for the reader to ‘merely’ learn of Woody Allen, or how to approach his films. More than anything, I want you to see what it means to extrapolate, so that when a new artist comes along, you’ll know what to do when I’m not there to say what’s what. Only then will I fulfill my most difficult goal: to cease to matter, and be taken for granted, so that later generations can start the cycle anew.
At a time when the Cahiers du Cinema critical style was still in vogue, Roger Ebert approached films in a way that merely ‘stuck to the facts’. Narrative, character, visual poesy, and dialogue were once again paramount -- respectable, too -- and all else was left to become mere trivia. Thus, from 1967 on, an interesting thing began to happen. On the one hand, Roger Ebert slowly became America’s (if not the world’s) most well-known film critic, replete with a popular column at a major newspaper, television shows, books, interviews, and a distinct cultural presence. Yet his success was often resented, too, by the film-school ‘types’ as this was only further evidence, in their view, of how utterly vacuous popular notions of film really are. Yes, it is intriguing to read of this today, but Ebert, now cushioned by celebrity, acceptance, and death, is a much safer bet than he once was, even as other critics have come and gone by way of fads and cycles. Indeed, for the real problem was not Ebert’s alleged vacuity, but his utter lack of a political or aesthetic ax to grind -- a good thing, in fact, for a writer’s longevity, despite what is often claimed. In short, Ebert did not prefer happy or sad movies, democratic or supposedly fascistic ones, films shot via hand-held camera, or ‘plain’ editing as opposed to jump-cuts, and the like. He merely wished that films communicate something of worth through character, narrative, and visuals, which is -- oddly enough -- the way that most people view film, when they’re not afflicted by the sorts of blinders the more theoretical critics so proudly don. He was, therefore, never part of ‘the club’ (extreme minority though they were), but merely relegated to second-tier status by the very people that had so little idea of art, and none of his writing ability.
So, is Roger Ebert’s struggle with acceptance a David and Goliath story, wherein good trumps evil, and all is finally seen aright? Perhaps, but such a simplistic view obscures not only the facts, as they are, but what makes Ebert’s own views -- even some of the wrong-headed views -- so unique. On the ‘plus’ side, Ebert could be a wonderful writer, as his great ending to Taxi Driver shows, for he was capable of a poesy, insight, and economy that few critics ever have. There are a number of ‘critical’ hits, as well, such as his reviews (and reassessments) of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Interiors, as he not only got those films in a way that most simply did not, but really communicated what he knew, and thus made such knowledge accessible. On the ‘minus’ side, however, he’d deride clear masterstrokes such as Stardust Memories, while praising schlock (Schindler’s List), merely well-wrought stylizations (Pulp Fiction), and effused over films that, while good, really don’t deserve to be considered “Great Films” in league with the rest of his list. In short, while Roger Ebert was worlds above most critics, partly due to his writing talent, and partly due to the fact that he merely focused on what was essential and deep -- ideology be damned -- there was often a disconnect between what he considered to be essential, versus what truly was, as he was primarily an emotional critic, and a self-admitted one, at that. Yet as Dan Schneider writes in his retrospective of the man’s work, this is merely recapitulative of normal, human fallibility, especially since (unlike most critics) Ebert was quite open about his own biases, and did not try to hide behind some veneer of ‘holiness’ -- moated off, as he was, from the rest of the world by his talent, and, perhaps even more importantly, his great fame, as well.
As for Woody? Well, let’s put it this way. Whenever Roger Ebert got him right, he got him damn right, down to the poesy that’d explain a film, and get at its ‘essence’ in a way that a more prosaic reading never could. But, if Ebert was wrong, he was wrong with the sort of gusto that only a fine wordsmith could have, wherein the writing might partly save an otherwise ill thought-out review, and leave it quite readable. The former quality is most visible, perhaps, in his reviews of Allen’s first three ‘big’ films, as Ebert cuts through the very misconceptions that -- despite his great influence -- have now become quite mainstream. Indeed, for Ebert’s own review of Annie Hall does not ‘side’ with Alvy (at least, not exactly), but comments on his many flaws, and on why he is still so well-liked today:
Allen plays Alvy Singer, stand-up comic and incurable combination of neurotic and romantic. He’s self-consciously a New Yorker, a liberal, a Jew, an intellectual, a seeker after the unattainable, and an expert at making it unattainable. One of Alvy Singer’s problems is that he understands this all so well. He’s not a victim of forces beyond his control, but their author.
Note how much, on a purely literary level, this tiny, three-sentence paragraph says. It captures Alvy Singer, to a ‘T’, explains, subliminally, why he is likeable, and ultimately subverts the notion that he is ‘merely’ some regular guy. In short, here is a strong literary arc that captures and recapitulates the work of the film, itself, and expands upon it in a way that most criticisms have not. The review only gets better, as Alvy is accused of treating women vis-a-vis his own life stages and preferences at the time. “His only trouble,” Ebert writes, “is that women are people, not stages.” No, Ebert does not go into the film’s flaws (of which there are a couple), but on one level, he didn’t really need to. After all, this was written a year after the film’s release, which came on the heels of Love and Death, Sleeper, and other small comic gems. Annie Hall was a shock, then, to most of Woody’s fans, and one that Ebert wrote more deeply of in his re-evaluation a quarter-century later, which upped the rating to 4 (from 3½ stars) and went into more specifics as to why the film works. Yet while his effusiveness was excusable in 1977, it seems a bit off in 2002, given how -- at that point -- Allen had released a number of masterpieces that simply went beyond his first attempt at drama, a fact that, judging by his other reviews, Ebert seems to have been aware of, but does not come out and say. It wasn’t ‘important’, then, to make such a distinction, but what does a critic do, really, but make distinctions and deductions, especially in the face of one film’s great popularity -- seemingly at the exclusion of better, yet lesser known works? In short, Ebert is more emotional than cerebral, knows what he is moved by (even if not always why), and closes the film’s reassessment from a kind of bubble, wherein he speaks of love and his own responses to such -- and ably, at that -- but without feeling the need to make it much bigger than himself.
In 1978, however, Roger Ebert was more firmly rooted in the ‘core’ of things, as his well-argued review of Interiors shows. Thus, by ignoring the fact that most characters are not ‘likeable’, anticipating the tiring and presumptuous comparisons to Ingmar Bergman, and focusing on the drama, itself, Ebert was able to construct a review that not only got at the heart of the film, but, as with his take on Annie Hall, did so with style and economy. His comparison to Eugene O’Neill (as opposed to Bergman) is apt, for Interiors truly is American, rather than Scandinavian, down to the ultra-WASPy characters (Eve) and Allen’s symbols of typical, leisurely excess (Joey), who, like Alvy Singer before them, are the “author” of their own existential ills. But while critics would go on to complain of the characters -- in fact, the film’s strong point -- Ebert saw through this, as, in his view, the film “becomes serious by intently observing complex adults as they fend and cope, blame and justify.” In short, the film is about adults, and for adults, in a way that most films never are, but is, ironically, the very thing it gets derided for, no matter how unconscious those reasons are.
Yet, for all that, time was especially rough on Ebert, not so much for his original review -- which was spot-on -- but what he did and didn’t do with it in the interim. His “Great Films” list came about as a way to collate what is most essential in cinema, and, perhaps, what has garnered the most complex discussion, yet despite the fact that he awarded Annie Hall a mere 3½ stars compared to Interiors’ 4, he neither did a re-evaluation of Interiors, nor included it in his list. But why? It seems that, twenty-five years after the fact, he’s found Annie Hall more enjoyable, and perhaps even more important. And, on a strictly numerical basis, this is undeniable. Quite simply, it has influenced more, been imitated more, and has been watched with far more frequency, and is thus part of the cultural lexicon even for those who know little of Allen’s other work. But a critic’s job is to cut through the hype, and look at quality, which is immanent, and not mere importance, which is quite often circumstantial. And given that Ebert was well aware of the thrashing that Interiors had received, it would have been more interesting to see him comment on this, in particular, and perhaps even speculate as to why. After all, Annie Hall tops so many ‘Great Films’ lists that it really does not need the intellectual support. Interiors, if all was fair, would not need it, either. This is not the case, however, and that Ebert went the more predictable route is yet more evidence of the role his emotions played in so many of his critical decisions.
That said, Ebert’s string of quality reviews would only continue with Manhattan, a great film that, while almost universally accepted as great, is labeled as such for all the wrong reasons, and therefore misunderstood. Too often, it is called a “love poem” to the city, but such trite phrasings ignore the manipulations and ‘small’ evils committed by almost everyone within, thus defanging Allen’s excoriation of his characters by conflating it with mere romance. Ebert, however, does not fall into this trap, nor for the film’s many illusions that are so often taken at face value, as the film is full of “people who are at odds with their own visions of themselves.” This is not only true, in a purely logical sense, but what ultimately drives the film forward, parallaxed, as it is, against the film’s romantic imagery, thus giving Manhattan some heft that mere romance could not. Ebert even goes on to tweak Isaac’s character a bit re: Isaac’s writing ability, for while most critics have taken the film’s opening cliches as somehow wonderful or evocative, they merely show a guy at odds with his own perceptions, for he is simply unable to construct a good novel, no matter how much he wants to. The film, then, is not merely about relationships, but “what people say during relationships -- or, to put it more bluntly, it’s about how people lie by technically telling the truth.” There are lots of examples of this, such as Isaac’s refusal to nix his fling with Tracy, or Yale deluding himself by interpreting Isaac as somehow being ‘too perfect’, for the viewer gets the sense that, despite their being best friends, Yale is never truly let into Isaac’s life, and is thus hidden from the man’s flaws.
But, for everything that Ebert gets right, his review is nonetheless marred by the fact that he doesn’t supply many examples for his claims, as he’s merely comfortable with generalities (correct as they often are). In fact, when Ebert decides to get specific, he even starts to flounder a bit. For instance, he derides the later scenes involving Yale, noting that they are there mostly for “comic” effect. Yes, comedy is definitely a part of this sequence, but far more important is Allen’s use of Yale to downright skewer Isaac, who, despite being best friends with him, has revealed so little of his true nature, which is really an attack on them both: Isaac for being manipulative and selfish, and Yale for being a naive fool. Yale, then, is more or less a cipher, and seems to exist for Isaac, which is telling in and of itself given the man’s ostensible role, and how much of the film seems to take Isaac’s own perspective over that of others. The ending, too, is derided, for “Allen hasn’t found the line between the irony the scene needs and the sentiment he wants his character to feel.” But the sentiment, like much of the film, is mere illusion, as Ebert already knew, and therefore immaterial. What matters is the fact that Isaac runs back to Tracy only after he gets dumped, demands she give up on her current plans (oddly prescient of Harry’s words to Elisabeth Shue in Deconstructing Harry), yet knows she ultimately won’t stay with a manipulator like him, despite the film’s famous ambiguity on this point. Thus, while Ebert closes his review by saying that Annie Hall is a better film, it is really Manhattan that is superior -- however slightly -- for precisely the reasons Ebert unwittingly states, yet fails to follow up on.
Thus, we already have three good and well-written reviews (especially that of Interiors), which is more than most critics ever do. But what of Ebert’s misses? What do they say about the man as critic? Well, in his take on the great Stardust Memories, for instance, Ebert simply dismisses the film, and while his reasons are well-written, they are all quite wrong, as Dan Schneider carefully shows. In short, the review begins with a comparison to Fellini’s 8½, but does not describe the differences; complains that the film is a mere recapitulation of Allen’s own complaints; and that the narrative, itself, has little depth, and only expresses “impotence”, with no saving grace. I’ve already dealt with these charges at length, but suffice to say that the film is far more than a rehash of 8½ and betters it in almost every way, that Sandy Bates is not Woody Allen, and is in fact skewered by Allen in many scenes, such as his dialogue with the aliens, and that -- far from “impotence” -- Bates is quite whole, and ends up creating a film of not only lasting value, but one that, in the ‘outer’ film (that is, of Allen’s rather than Sandy’s own making), allows the viewer to completely re-interpret the film’s characters in a way that deepens them upon multiple viewings. Indeed, for while 8½ posits the self, and the self’s memories as the be-all, end-all, Stardust Memories is more about transcendence, including of the very thoughts the lead character has (or seems to have), only for them to be quite undermined by ‘bigger’ things. By contrast, 8½ ends on a far grimmer note, and one that ultimately returns to Guido’s seeming lack of purpose -- hardly expansive, and certainly much smaller (even if very well-done) than Allen’s own ambitions and success. Ebert’s review ends on a sour note, that the film needs something “larger” to make light of all the “bitching and moaning”. Yet, in a real sense, it is the critics’ own bitching that Allen anticipates, even as he throws so much to gnaw on, with few -- Ebert included -- who’d ever know what to do with it all. In short, emotion trumps reason yet again, and the art is quite poorer for it.
Given the above, it is not surprising, then, that Ebert is little different from the critics who took a negative approach towards Cassandra’s Dream. His review ends, quite rightly, on a great, poetic line (“Remember how that ring falls at the end? What is fiction for, if not to manipulate the possible?”), but for a film rated at a mere two stars, there is surprisingly little justification in the review itself. It pretty much recapitulates the film’s plot, with only the most minor of analysis in between, offers a few backhanded compliments, and criticizes an ending that, to Ebert, is “completely possible but highly unsatisfactory”. But why? No one knows, as the ‘why’ is never communicated, merely given via fiat. I won’t pretend to probe into Ebert’s mind, here, but the reason is, as before, likely an emotional one. Two brothers are stuck in a bad situation, and one accidentally kills the other, just after the first reneges on a wholly new murder plot, then kills himself out of guilt. No, this does not satisfy the emotion, for it is quite dark without a ‘clear message’ (a message, by the way, that Ebert praises in Match Point) but, on a deeper level -- that is, on the level of pure artistry -- it works, as it completely subverts the viewer’s expectation of character in a way that is both “plausible” (Ebert’s word), and poetic, recapitulating the brothers’ deeper issues all the while expanding upon them, too. Yet, to Ebert, this didn’t seem to matter, for there were other issues at hand, which, while revealing things of Ebert, say little of the film, itself. At the end of his review, Ebert speaks of fiction’s ability “to manipulate the possible”. This is spot-on, but Ebert was a critic, whose job is quite different: to illuminate what is, and not merely his own preferences of “the possible”.
As for the rest? Ebert’s take on Another Woman is quite right, even as the four-star rating (as with Interiors a decade before) was not enough to put it into his “Great Films” list; The Front is derided, as Ebert states his own bias from the start for a political film, almost solely based around the film’s marketing failures rather than what it was ultimately was; Deconstructing Harry is given a positive review, but one that, unfortunately, makes the all-too-common mistake of conflating Woody with the ‘Woody’ persona; Match Point is praised, but the mediocre Midnight in Paris is rated over the excellent Celebrity, again for emotional reasons; and Husbands and Wives, while great, is praised for all the wrong reasons, as it’s not ‘really’ a tale about love and love’s imperfections, but far deeper issues of self-destructive patterns, for which love is merely the vehicle and exemplar. Indeed, Judy does not innocently wonder if there’s anything “more” out there vis-a-vis her marriage to Gabe, as Ebert claims, but in fact manipulates and ensnares every man around her, and shows quite clearly that she belongs with nobody at all. This film could have really been ‘about’ anything, and yet this basic theme of human patterns and self-destructiveness would remain the same. Nor does it help Ebert that he ends his review with some cliches re: love, and the duration of imperfections, either, for even if Ebert is often wrong, he is seldom a bad writer -- a fact that’s given him some longevity. Yet when bad writing is coupled with lackluster insights from a critic who could do much better, one only sees how slipshod most writing on the arts really is.
Now, it may sound ‘nitpicky’ to critique a review whose basic conclusion -- that it is a well-wrought film -- I very much agree with, but there is a deeper point to be made. It is not enough to agree or disagree in life, but to really understand why such agreement or dissent occurs in the first place, for this is the only way to replicate a thought in new situations, and therefore show it is no mere dart-toss. Yet Ebert, for his many pluses, and his willingness to take on film for what it was, rather than what it wasn’t a la Cinema du Cahiers, was often guilty of the same thing, albeit in ways neither Ebert nor his envious and deluded critics could imagine. For all that, however, I’d quickly side with Ebert and his own desire for “the possible” in art over that of most critics. One simply does not give a damn, but pretends to. The other cares, but can’t always deliver, through no fault of his own. I’ll point this out, but there won’t be much derision, here. That’ll come later, and it’ll be directed where it is well-earned.
It makes sense to pair Roger Ebert alongside Dan Schneider, for while the former is a good writer and primarily emotional, Dan Schneider is a great writer and above all cerebral. In fact, the two critics’ reviews were compared at length on Roger Ebert’s own blog, in a feature that has garnered over 1400 comments to date. This includes an involved look at Stardust Memories vis-a-vis Ebert’s original review, with many commentators ultimately dissenting from Ebert after having read Schneider’s own piece, as it’s been partly responsible for the film’s revitalization among ‘lay’ viewers. Yet one of the more interesting things to come out of the exchange is Ebert’s class compared to other ‘name’ critics before him (such as the inflammatory Pauline Kael), not only in Ebert’s willingness to champion a writer he believed in, but his ability to take criticism from a source he considered quite “fair”, even as his own views remained unchanged. Indeed, for while Ebert concluded that Dan Schneider is an “ideal” critic that “keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments”, he merely reiterated the value of emotion -- at least for himself -- and the judgments he’s made over the years. Yes, it would have been good to see Ebert respond to specific comments he apparently respected, but implicit in the man’s words is that some things, such as one’s leanings and emotions, are immanent, and perhaps even immutable. Perhaps biases (such as Ebert’s self-admitted ones) are ever-present, and aim to nullify what might otherwise be objective in one’s views. But if that is true, Dan Schneider’s work is a corrective, and asks a far more relevant question. Sure, biases are real, and quite dangerous for the arts, to boot, but what if a critic learns to be aware of them, and exercises control over their effects? What if ART is the critic’s main focus? Or communication?
Prior to going any further, I must confess that I’ve known Dan Schneider for several years now, have contributed pieces for his website, Cosmoetica, and give and receive feedback on our respective works. I have also been more influenced by his criticism, poetry, and fiction than any other writer I can think of, and even when I’ve disagreed with him on politics, art, or other subjects (for example, on the strength of Manhattan’s ending; that Ben is one of Crimes’s “losers”; Hannah’s “happy” denouement), the important thing -- as Ebert once declared -- is that the man is fair, and that his claims are well-argued, diverse, and incredibly consistent. This is evident in his essays on everything from conspiracist mythology (wherein the JFK “conspiracy” is upheld, and alien abductions rejected), to William F. Buckley (wherein Schneider, a working-class Centrist, praises the man’s intelligence and wit, even as he disagrees with most of his positions), his defense of It’s a Wonderful Life on purely artistic grounds, all the while combining such with personal memoir, a take-down of poetic ‘meter’ (vis-a-vis poetic music), a poem-by-poem comparison between Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens (down to a rating for every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets), and a “Great Films” list, a la Roger Ebert, that avoids the needless obscurity and one-upmanship of many ‘alternative’ lists, but keeps things -- films, too! -- to a minimum. In short, great works are rare, are statistical aberrations, and should be treated as such, not inducted in such enumerations willy-nilly from a mere aesthetic, political, or emotional bias. And it is this list that’s particularly congenial to my essay, as it includes thirteen films from Woody Allen that have made the cut, including a few surprises with the much-maligned Stardust Memories and critically ignored Sweet and Lowdown, among others. Yet what is interesting is how much can be learned even from Schneider’s reviews of minor films like Scoop, or ‘seemingly’ minor ones like Cassandra’s Dream and Radio Days, and how essays purportedly about one thing (“Woody, Women, And Film”) dovetail into far more expansive discussions on the medium, thereby expanding both, and deepening one another.
Let us tackle the longest essay of the bunch, “Woody, Women, & Film”, written in 2001, before most of Schneider’s reviews were online, and which rates every Woody Allen film up to The Curse of the Jade Scorpion on a scale of 1 to 100. The latter makes for an interesting decision, as Schneider’s essay is not purely evaluative, but a dissection -- you guessed it -- of Allen’s female characters and actresses, as well as a commentary on the director’s supposed misogyny. It begins with a claim that is especially relevant, now, given the ‘renewal’ not only of the sex abuse allegations re: Dylan Farrow, but of the (many) guesses once made and being made into Allen’s own psyche. “A lot of seemingly intelligent people cannot separate the man from the artist- they refuse to even watch his films”, Schneider writes. “But I have never had any problems with the man because I do not know him so his personal life is irrelevant to my liking his art.” This is a good point, and while most fans do not wish to tackle the man’s real-life issues, there’s plenty of reason for this, not the least of which is the fact that, given the many accusations, on both sides, it is clear that the Allen/Farrow ‘clan’ (I use the term quite loosely) is a mere hornet’s nest all around. Yet Knut Hamsun was a Nazi, John Berryman was quite dislikable, and Hitler, himself, has been termed a “great man” (as in the Ebert piece, above) for reasons that are quite apart from his personal loathsomeness. In short, the point is that one’s art (or other accomplishments, good and bad) and one’s personal life are not the same, and the conflation -- ranging from simple-minded, knee-jerk reactions, to more ‘sophisticated’ arguments, as in Pauline Kael’s reviews (upcoming) -- very much a tired one. The fact that Schneider sees this is refreshing, even as it ought to be quite obvious. That said, I do agree with Schneider’s assertion that, for all the positives of how Allen depicts women, there is something ‘odd’ about even some of the more casual films, wherein the ‘Woody’ persona is at turns reviled by women, then just as suddenly loved (Sleeper, Love and Death, Everybody Says I Love You), or that women, in a Woody Allen film, can be some of the most insidious creations in cinematic history. There is, for instance, the “cancer” (to use Schneider’s word) that is Diane Keaton in Manhattan, or the horrific Judy in Husbands and Wives, whose hyper-realism as a selfish, manipulative nag makes her all the more frightening. Yet in the earlier Film Guide, I tallied up the number of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ depictions of women across his films, and have found them to be more or less equal, and somewhat on par with Allen’s depictions of men. Thus, Allen’s misogynistic veneer is exactly that: a veneer, and one that should not distract from the highly complex portraits of female characters that he has done, which Schneider both discusses, and provides ample evidence for.
Fortunately, Schneider does not dwell on Allen’s psychology for too long, as it can’t be more than guesswork, but dips in just enough to ‘hook’ the reader before delivering the essay proper. This is simply good writing, for it is all too easy to have the thing devolve to mere tabloid (as Pauline Kael often does), which banks on the reader’s worst instincts and assumes stupidity, and just as easy to swing to the other extreme and pretend there is nothing of value to be written of such things, either. In short, one must really straddle a fine line, and not cross into less appropriate territory. Take, for instance, Schneider’s view of Annie Hall, and Annie, in particular. “Annie is both a ’70s feminist icon & nightmare,” he writes. Why? Because despite all of her good qualities, she has plenty of bad, too, and one may argue -- as I’ve done before -- that her ultimate decision of moving out to California, going to parties, and possibly doing lines of coke is not exactly ennobling. Yet it’s just as correct to say that she is “better off” for having left Alvy:
Think of how many previous films in Hollywood history- from Westerns to musicals to drama- this is not true. Either the girl lands her man & all is well, or she doesn’t & pays some consequences. At the end of this film, however, Annie is a better person, herself, & a better person than Woody. This is a trope that recurs over & over in later Woody films. Its starkness contrasts with the Hollywood ideal that has buoyed the careers of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, & many other contemporary actresses.
Other films get similarly rich treatment. The much-ignored Interiors is praised, for “this underrated & great film so utterly captures the essence of rich WASP New York self-indulgence that it should be sealed in a time capsule”, and that criticisms of its “phoniness” either come from people who don’t know ‘that’ type, or -- as I’ve suspected -- from those that know it only all too well, and simply don’t like the implications. Just as important to Allen’s film is the existence of Joey, who crops up in Schneider’s essays over and over again as a symbol (or rather, a manifestation) of the basically good, intelligent, but wannabe artist who is perpetually lost, not only due to her own immaturity, but also her rich father’s enabling of such behavior. But while Allen has been quite vocal about Joey’s problems and real-life analogues, few ever stop to consider the woman’s import not only to the film, but to Woody Allen’s work, as a whole. The word ‘Joey’ is not really an insult, but what’s implicit in Schneider’s comment is that she is a kind of proto-wannabe, before such things could ever settle in the popular imagination. Yes, we all know of these ‘types’, today, whether it’s through college, work, or simply being at some ‘art’ cafe, but this was the first time that such as a person was so well-sketched, and given real humanity underneath her crisis. This is key to Schneider’s argument, as Joey is complex, and driven in believable ways despite her problems. In fact, had the film been more popular, she would have entered into the cultural lexicon in the same way one might call a drama Shakespearean, or a situation Kafkaesque.
Manhattan (as with Ebert and James Berardinelli) is treated carefully, with the film’s chief manipulators taken to task, and none of the shallow stuff about the film being a “love letter” to New York. In short, it really isn’t, for as Schneider argues, Isaac exploits Tracy for her youth, and -- as I’ve argued elsewhere -- refuses to nix the relationship when he ought to, since he’s not as ‘good’ and ‘idealistic’ as has been claimed. In fact, that only only a handful of essays exist correctly arguing what is in the film (as opposed to what isn’t) is stunning, especially since Ebert, himself, had written one of the definitive takes a few decades ago. Further, Schneider’s analysis of The Purple Rose of Cairo belies what’s been written of the film’s ending -- that Cecilia must simply go back to her abuser -- with a kind of suggestiveness that forced me to rewatch the film multiple times, for Cecilia is not really smiling at the images in front of her (which really ought to make cry harder), but at whatever ‘click’ that must have went off in her brain after years of self-sacrifice and bad treatment at the hands of Monk. Meanwhile, Hannah’s oldest sister is skewered, but Schneider is perceptive enough to not merely give into the film’s disparate evidence of her character, pro or con. Yes, she is “tight-assed”, to use Schneider’s phrase, but it’s never too clear who’s at fault for what, and although Holly’s resentments are clearly borne out of insecurity, Lee’s -- as Schneider points out -- are never explained, implying there is a darkness to the three sisters’ relationship that is being tackled at its ‘lighter’ moments now, even if one interprets Lee’s betrayal with Elliot to be a kind of revenge. Then, there is Schneider’s praise for Sweet and Lowdown, a wonderful little film that casts Samantha Morton as “a strong Woody woman cloaked as a weak Woody woman.” Indeed, for one of the film’s best inversions is how we’re made to feel empathy for Sean Penn’s character, who -- despite being a womanizer, manipulator, and all-around fool -- is FAR worse off than Hattie, both at film’s start, and at film’s end. Yes, it is easy to feel empathy for Hattie, as well, but the trick is that she only rarely takes Sean Penn seriously (as when she interrupts his monologues with her own actions or requests) and knows his flaws in a way that he, himself, does not. Schneider’s ratings at the essay’s end are also quite in line with the detailed reviews he’d go on to give of each film, ranking Stardust Memories as Allen’s very best work (as Allen, himself, has often done), putting Radio Days into the upper echelons of comedy (and I’d argue the highest that a ‘pure’ comedy has ever gone), the much-lauded Crimes as one of Woody’s best dramas. Yet it is the ‘how’ of such things that really matters, but is rarely tackled in depth, or with enough evidence to make such claims transcend mere fiat.
Note, for instance, Schneider’s comment on Stardust Memories in 2001: that while “it’s been tarred as a rip-off of Federico Fellini’s 8½...I’ve never seen that film so I take Woody’s film for itself.” This soon changed, but what’s notable this is that he’s wise enough to understand such things cannot truly impact a differentiated work of art, ‘influenced’ or not. The historical examples are many (The Odyssey vis-a-vis Lucan’s Civil War; Godard’s technical innovations, vis-a-vis those that’d actually put them to good use), but it’s interesting to see how a mere seven years after writing “Woody, Women, & Film”, Schneider’s updated comments on the film are, at their core, remarkably similar, despite having now seen and reviewed Allen’s alleged ‘source material’. Schneider credits Stardust’s power to the artist’s “fear of failure”, a fact that Woody, himself, has said of his own work. In short,
That is what holds the outer film (and its reality into the world) together, although the fear of success is also an integral part of the film’s inner world. Let me explain. The fear of failure is one of the most important things any artist, especially the great, can have. Why? Because it kills the ego, and spurs the artist to innovate and try new techniques to keep their art ahead of the curve. Without such a fear, artists grow fat and sassy, and lose the demiurge to create, or at least to challenge themselves and their audiences. Need proof? Just think of the vast majority of aging artists, but most especially those who were once great. How many aging musicians and rock groups have never been able to equal their greatest early hits? How many writers have penned bloated egotistical tomes that are pallid reflections of an earlier work? How many visual artists have bled dry the one nugget or –ism they made their name on? And one need only look at the dozen or more films that Allen, himself, has made since his Golden Era ended- mostly lesser reworks of themes his greater films tackled better.
Now, here is a review that begins with a bottom-line that ‘hooks’ the reader (“One of the interesting things about a great work of art is how, upon re-experience, it a) holds up and/or b) deepens and filigrees into something even better”), builds its claims, then develops them into an essay-wide argument re: art and artistic failure in a way that not only controls the essay, itself, but applies to things outside of it, as well. This is the definition of the word “expansive”, and while one may say good things for Ebert’s writing ability, or Ray Carney’s scholarship, few critics ever go from a bird’s-eye view of things, then into a work, then back out, with fresh and cogent insights on the medium -- and beyond -- as consistently as Schneider. Nor does his philosophical posit merely hover over the essay, but is introduced into the film, as well (“The lead characters are all obsessed with failing. Some try to grow and are slapped down by the powers that be. Some give in to their own fears. Some are so timid they do nothing at all, and some try to change, only to make asses of themselves”), tied into the film’s savaging upon release (“[It is] this inner examination of the fear of failure that provoked such a hostile reaction from almost all critics upon the film’s release nearly three decades ago”), and finally, to the tackling of Roger Ebert’s own negative review. Thus, at a taut three paragraphs in, we already get an original lens through which to see the film, fresh insights into the film’s characters, a detailed comparison between Stardust and 8½, and an original response to the critical thinking that surrounds the film, with nary a moment lost.
Indeed, if one only compares this to Pauline Kael’s ad hominem, ad hoc review from 1980 (upcoming), the differences are stark -- not the least of which is due to the fact that one learns so little of the film from her own review, but a lot from Schneider, and even from Roger Ebert, who, while quite wrong, nonetheless keeps the film itself in mind, instead of merely focusing on Allen. Yet Schneider dispatches even what seems ‘obvious’ to most, for while both 8½ and Stardust have been billed as an artist’s plaints, “Allen’s film is nothing like that”. In short, while 8½ “ends resignedly, with life never being able to equal art, Allen’s film ends utterly positively, portraying the total triumph of art over life, in its ability to supplement and better it.” This is not only true, in the ‘big’ and totalizing sense, but supporting details emerge as well, further taking the film away from Fellini’s, such as in the fact that Guido is “unwhole”, while Allen’s leeches are after him precisely for what he can offer beyond his own fame, and that Stardust acts as a “subversion” of the earlier film, whose bloated length (138 minutes), too-tight focus on one character, and repetitiousness make it seem, by contrast, a “prototype” to a better and deeper film, “a sort of Protoceratops to Allen’s ferocious Triceratops.”
Yet, for all that, a review would not be a review without an examination of the film, itself, and Schneider has much to say for the film’s style, poesy, characters, and their interrelationships that has not been written elsewhere. Indeed, for while Pauline Kael focuses on ad hominem, and Allen’s supposed Jewish self-loathing, Roger Ebert on the film’s “bitching”, Jonathan Rosenbaum for the film’s “courage”, and Ray Carney on the film’s use of “grotesques” (thus 100% mirroring Kael, even as he criticizes her elsewhere), Schneider engages the film’s art, and fully stays there. Dorrie is treated for what she is: a multivalent character, whose most “brilliant and devastating scene” comes at a mental ward, as Allen “jump cuts her greetings (twitchy and laden with tics), seductions (‘There’s a doctor here who thinks I’m beautiful.’), spurnings (‘You look thin.’), and speech in several second interviews, to show the fragmentation of her mind.” Right off the bat, then, we have claim, scene, and evidence, and thus do not wonder why Schneider thinks what he does, as the thinking’s already revealed. Sandy’s mind is similarly treated, not only in the obvious ways, such as via the murals in his apartment working as de facto mood pieces, but ‘small’, seemingly throwaway moments, too, such as the recycling of Sharon Stone’s character at the beginning of the film, wherein she blows a kiss in the railroad car, to the same act at the UFO site. In short, “The very use of the same actress in different scenes, in different ways, shows that Bates, within the film, is thinking of multiple levels of reality, even as Allen- the real filmmaker adds a final level when he has Bates or himself close the exterior film as revealing the whole prior film was just a ‘film within a film.’” Other recycled cameos are noted, too, that fulfill similar functions, more notes on the film’s ‘mood murals’ (including one on newspaper clippings re: incest, that most viewers miss), and even the use of other filmmakers we normally don’t hear being associated with Stardust Memories: “Also, with all the constant references to Fellini and Bergman, little noticed is a throwaway reference to Roman Polanski’s film black and white 1965 horror film, Repulsion, wherein Bates’ personal cook ruins a rabbit dinner, and we see the dead animal on a plate- signaling the possible deterioration of his mind like that of the lead character in Repulsion.”
Moreover, Schneider’s claims for the film’s ‘getting at’ reality (as opposed to mere realism) belie what’s been written of Stardust’s alleged caricatures, such as when Isobel makes silly faces in the midst of Allen’s marriage proposal, and Allen’s posthumous speech wherein he describes “the one moment that almost made life worth living”. Later on, this scene is criticized by Ray Carney as a “self-absorbed soliloquy” rather than “an interaction between characters”, but Schneider reveals where he goes wrong, for the interaction is very much between two people, as Dorrie “looks up and sees him eyeing her, and smiles, all the while displaying a wide plenum of emotions without a word spoken, which perfectly matches Bates’ description of what he sensed.” Indeed, for while Carney does offer up some evidence for his views -- quotations, and the like -- Schneider does one better by actually getting at the dialogue’s (and scene’s) root meaning. Is the moment mere soliloquy, cut off from the film’s deeper narrative? I’d argue not, for as Schneider notes, there is music, there are facial exchanges, and memorable visuals that serve as proof of Sandy’s words, which, to Carney, merely seem unrealistic and contrived. Yet it is really Schneider’s ending that captures not only the film, but its deeper meanings and applications that not only prove his claims re: Stardust, but show critical writing as its best, as it forces the reader to re-think certain scenes, and notice deeper moments and minutiae in a completely new light. This is obvious not only in Schneider’s re-use of the bird’s-eye technique (“intellectual” vs. “emotional” art), but his command of the film’s specifics, and their deeper powers of relation:
Stardust Memories succeeds on both counts, as one of the most intellectually challenging films ever made, yet also one of the most humorously entertaining, as it deals with the nonsense that all humans deal with, and slough off, and also as it asks deep questions, such as when Sandy Bates is approached by an old pal he played stickball with, and who is envious of him. Bates replies that their fortunes were largely determined by luck, which is a fearful thing, for it means the utter lack of control in life. Yet, Bates delivers this shiv of knowledge so thoughtfully and empathetically, that his old pal seems relieved, even happy, even though Bates and we, the audience, know that that character is doomed to an utterly meaningless existence.
Next up is Radio Days, and while Roger Ebert’s review was quite praising, and even went as far as giving it a well-deserved four stars, this was not the line others had taken with the film. Yes, it is well-loved, but generally in the way that his lesser films are well-loved -- for being a ‘fun’ kind of diversion, rather than a true work of art. Despite not being part of Ebert’s “Great Movies”, however, it is one of Schneider’s, and the reasons are many. It evokes memory and childhood in ways that few films ever do, both in its romanticization (sometimes to the point is irreality), as well as its more ‘logical’ points, such as the way small characters, such as a fishmonger, are given realism, or scenes that are slight by themselves -- such as when neighbors and family start to sing -- are given life by being part of a richly interrelated milieu, rather than the limits of one film. Yes, this seems quite obvious to me, now, for I’ve been raised on the movie in a way that simply never gave me the chance to be biased against it. Yet Schneider, who was coming of age at the film’s release, deals with what’s been written of it for two decades:
The worst critical untruth about Radio Days, however, often has come from its champions, like Roger Ebert, who echo the nonsense I stated at the start- that the film lacks a plot. In fact, it has a dense, multi-floriate plot. All art has narrative. The narrative may be as simple as ‘a dot on a sheet of paper,’ but that’s still a narrative. Not a good one, and the artist should be roundly railed against for the attempt to gull, but it is a narrative, however vapid. When bad critics often label something non-narrative or plotless, what they are really doing is defining the limits of their own critical abilities in being able to discern a narrative. The same is also true when critics call something non-representational, because they cannot understand what is represented…
Indeed, for when one considers all of the characters, plot points, and recurring images, it is clear, as Schneider argues, that “there is not a scene in Allen’s film that is wasted, and almost every character with a few lines gets some sort of closure.” This is true of Mia Farrow, who becomes a well-known radio star, to the loveless aunt, who must deal with reality in a way that others’ words and ‘support’ merely shroud, to Wallace Shawn, who’s shown as both larger-than-life, and not, and to Joe’s own family, who at turns quarrel, then long for things they, themselves, cannot define, but ultimately settle into their own lives in an arc that is all too real, capturing, as it does, the desires and anxieties of so many people whose patterns still exist (and entrap!) today. He goes on to write that these characters “are all dependent upon growth and tidbits hinted at earlier”, as the film’s narrative -- while it exists -- is that of a “web” rather than a purely “linear” force. It is for this reason that Schneider criticizes Mike Pinsky, who is quoted in his review: “You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene,” Pinsky writes, “and it would still make about as much sense.” Yet if one were to try and do exactly that, what is really left, except for the vignettes that Pinsky alludes to, but none of the narrative and deeper resolutions that Schneider explicates?
Again, it is interesting to see these sorts of claims vis-a-vis my own viewings of Allen’s films, for I’d approached them without the handicap of others’ words, and did not have to be biased in the way that Pinsky was -- not even by Schneider, who only covers a handful of Allen’s films in his own reviews. Nor is Schneider’s review limited to the world of Radio Days, but as with his take on Stardust Memories before it, gives the reader a system from which to work (that is, notions of narrative, as well as the meaning of the word ‘influence’, via Amarcord), applies it to the film at hand, and backs out yet again to have these distillations work upon art, as a whole, and not merely in this film’s universe. And while Pauline Kael’s writing is often autobiographical to a fault, as it engages Kael far more than the work, itself, both Roger Ebert and Dan Schneider prove that autobiography is possible, and can enrich a critique with a literary ‘twist’ that nonetheless speaks to the review’s central posits without cheapening or evading them. Note how at the end of Schneider’s review, wherein the film’s claims for greatness are made in the ‘general’ sense, there is a poetic denouement that truly amplifies what such greatness means to the culture, as a whole, even as it’s ‘tweaked’ a bit for its irreality:
Let me end by stating that, having demonstrated this film’s objective greatness, I also subjectively love it; for so much of this material resonates with me, born in 1965, because I had Great Depression era parents who schooled me in the culture of decades earlier to such a point that I often feel I was born three decades earlier- in Allen’s birth year. Regardless of that, Radio Days stands as a great comic invitation to an American past which sort of existed. Finding out the edges of that ‘sort,’ however, has rarely been as joyful.
Thus, three essays in, and we already have a means of understanding film as an art-form in a way that not only applies to the films under review, but can be extrapolated to others just as well. Thus, although Crimes and Misdemeanors is in some ways a very different film from everything Allen had done up to that point, the careful reader should not have any ‘unwelcome’ surprises from Schneider -- although surprises do exist. The first is Schneider’s off-the-bat ‘literary’ approach, which both hooks the reader, as well as characterizes the film’s lead in a way that previous reviews have not:
He’s out there. Yes he is. And he’s far scarier than Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, Anton Chigurh, or any of the other cartoonish murderers served up by American cinema over the last three decades or so since slasher and serial killer films came into vogue. The reason is because he is far realer. There are more of him out there, in real life. He is not some freakish killer who hides in the corner of society, doing ghoulish things and masturbating over it. No. He is in the mainstream, and for every person, in real life, that is killed in the Hollywood style depicted in films that star the above named ghouls, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of human beings killed in the very way that he killed. They are murdered, as a way of doing business, as a seeming necessity for someone to retain their privilege. There is no indulgence in the passions and perversions that the gory monster sort of killers in cinema indulge in. No, they are strictly business-like. Efficient, emotionless. Professional. They are all exemplified in perhaps the most realistic embodiment of murderous evil put on to the silver screen. That character is Judah Rosenthal, as portrayed by Martin Landau, in Woody Allen’s masterful 1989 film, Crimes And Misdemeanors- a work that far supersedes the work of art it is almost always compared to, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, and provides a glorious capstone to Allen’s greatest decade in film, one which opened with his phenomenal 1980 masterpiece, Stardust Memories.
Thus, let us consider what transpires in the opening paragraph. Judah is given life through a series of contrasts to typical Hollywood fare -- slasher films, ‘horror’ movies, and the like -- while his abject realism is amplified by sheer numbers, and the apt yet too-limited comparisons re: Crime and Punishment are taken for what they are: an example of a mere prototype (as with Schneider’s take on 8½ vis-a-vis Stardust) being bettered, and transcended. The review, therefore, already sets up some fresh claims, and while the film’s influences are invoked, they are never dwelled upon, for it is a review of an original and unique film, first, and must remain with its territory.
As the review goes on, Schneider’s offers some critical insights in his synopsis that are easily missed upon the first couple of viewings of the film. Judah’s wife, for instance, is never ‘truly’ seen, and thus the viewer cannot judge how accurate the man’s impressions of Miriam really are -- the film’s “lone minor flaw”; Dolores “harasses, stalks” and downright “demands” things, compared to the far softer tone most reviewers’ take with her character; Judah “feigns shock” at Jack’s suggestion of murder, when in fact he uses Jack’s suggestion as a means of clearing his own conscience; that Jack and Ben suggest he come clean to Miriam, while it is Judah, himself, who refuses this common-sense advice, perhaps making him even more ‘driven’ to crime than his brother; the film’s Jewish intellectual helps invalidate (or not, depending on what is believed) his own “seductive message” via suicide, a la La Dolce Vita; that Wendy is “unmoved” by Cliff’s story re: his victimized sister, serving both a comic and dramatic purpose wherein she is tied, at least emotionally, with the film’s two killers, even as she is contrasted with her brothers; the “callow and deluded” Ben dances in a “temporal bubble of joy” at his daughter’s wedding, “oblivious” to the evils all around him; and that “morality” is separate from “ethics”, wherein the former is alien to human beings, and based upon religion, and the latter immanent, and immutable, with Judah not even engaging “in an ethic in his quandaries over the Dolores situation,” for “even his well scripted dream conversations with his father and aunt are arguments over ‘morality’” (emphasis mine). Yet these are all observations of things more typically glossed over than engaged, even as -- in a very real sense -- they are what give the film its depth, and justify its reputation.
Just as important, however, is Schneider’s bird’s-eye view of the film’s machinations, as he turns to far bigger notions of art that expand within the film, then without, in the film’s use of intellectual props. In short, Crimes and Misdemeanors “is almost a perfect example of why intellectual excellence is a necessity for great art, whereas emotional power is not. Emotions like joy and love are far too transient and subjective to base any deep art upon, whereas vision, insight, and intelligence are both fodder and tools for art.” Going further, Schneider argues that while people can react to things like color, drama, and sound on a purely emotional level, such a response is therefore animalistic, as in, part of a more ‘common’ basis for reacting to things that virtually every person and creature has access to. Yet art that uses well-executed ideas, first, with emotion serving as a mere thrust to make them accessible, “viewers react in essentially human ways- with their curiosity stirred.” In short, passion is easy, but thought is not, even as thought and depth creates “an easy path” into emotion, which is why Crimes such great emotional resonance despite its many villains. Schneider then ends this aside on immediately comprehensible analogy to tie it all together: “If one can run a mile swiftly,” he writes of intellectual depth, “a hundred yards is nothing. The reverse is not true.”
As Schneider’s review wraps up in a way that’s reminiscent of Ebert’s best writing, it should be obvious by now that he’s resisted Ebert’s chief flaw while capitalizing on his predecessor’s greatest strengths, a trend that will repeat itself somewhat in James Berardinelli. Yet this is Schneider on some of Woody’s best films, not the mere retreads, or the clunkers. Going with this essay’s theme of ‘extrapolation’, how can one tackle Allen’s lesser works, but remain fair, and still manage to say something of interest? To the lay viewer, I’d make this suggestion: simply look at others’ reviews after you’ve watched a film, that is, after you’ve given it some independent thought. Looking at the reviews of 2006’s Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for instance, one would think Allen has either hit a new low for his career, or very much a new high, depending on what film one reads about, and who is ultimately believed. Indeed, for while Scoop has received some pretty bad reviews, Schneider disagrees with the consensus, and for good reason. He correctly notes that Scarlett Johansson is a much better comic than dramatic actress due to her dress, comedic timing, and utter realism of facial expression, mannerisms, and personal ‘tics’. In fact, it is she who becomes the true ‘Woody’ persona in the film (as critics have pointed out), while Allen, himself, is allowed “to let his aging magician be merely a parody of the character” (which the critics have not been able to see). In short, Allen’s persona is a “burlesque” of that persona, and given how many of Allen’s former selves are thrown in (nebbish, magician, cynic, and bad comic) the evidence is very much in Schneider’s favor. Thus, the film’s two chief criticisms -- Johansson’s acting and Allen’s persona -- are quickly dispatched, with plenty of counter-claims for the film’s success being made. One is the film’s cinematography, with some of the shots of London evoking “scenes of the city architecture of Hannah and Her Sisters and Another Woman” (especially when the killer is followed on the eve of the film’s last murder, and it gets dark). Yet the film’s biggest selling point is its writing, which ranges from Scoop’s self-parody, to its genre inversions, and even its memorable uses of genre ‘stock’, such as the scene where Sondra supposedly drowns, and is made all the more believable by the amount of time between Sondra’s original deception, and now. As Schneider argues, then, one wonders of the killer’s ability to “get away with murder” at precisely the ‘right’ (yet absolutely wrong!) moment -- a fact that is missed by most viewers, even as they deride the screenplay for lacking the very things they do not see. No, it is not a deep film, and is practically the ‘lite’ version of Manhattan Murder Mystery, but Schneider goes over enough original material within the film to make a case for the film’s worth.
Thus, while Scoop has been derided, and Schneider praises it, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has been almost universally praised, but -- as Schneider reveals -- for all the wrong reasons, given how much of the film works in places that the critics haven’t really cared to look. One notes, for instance, praise showered upon the actors (especially Bardem and Penelope Cruz) and while it is not completely undue, what is missed is Rebecca Hall’s good acting, Johansson’s unfortunate return to Match Point’s ‘sexpot’ characterization, and the deepest point of all: how utterly trite most of the film’s personages are, especially the two ‘hot’ Spaniards who are nothing but unabashed stereotypes -- down to their bad, derivative art, and out-of-control fighting. Few discuss the film in these terms, however, but merely repeat other critics’ judgments, or how else could such abject stereotypes be routinely upheld as good writing? Yet such ‘frills’ are not missed by Schneider, who, even in a lesser film such as this, goes on to make observations that few have thought to: that Hall is “a drone seeking a useless degree” (Catalan Studies, anyone?); Johansson plays “a terminal ‘Joey’, someone with a desire to express their feelings but no intellect nor talent to do so”; Hall’s fiancee is the “prototypical yuppie scum” for whom the viewer can feel no empathy, and is only there to chug things along; and Bardem’s father is a “Spanish bum” who refuses to publish his own poetry for the trite reason that “humans have not learnt to love” -- probably the film’s worst line. Yet how much of this is mere stereotype or outright castigation of such on Allen’s part is impossible to tell, for -- unlike in most of his other films -- he gives no evidence either way, with the viewer expected to take at least some of these interactions at face value. Moreover, as the film goes on, Schneider claims that “Vicky is the drudge and Cristina the free spirit” -- another bad touch, for it ultimately simplifies the film’s two main characters down to dichotomies, even as, at film’s end, it works to slightly undermine them. “Having said that,” Schneider writes, “the lightness (style over substance) of the film actually aids it through its 96 minutes. Compared to an earlier Allen film on young love, like Anything Else, this film at least has its stereotypes utter banalities that are believable for them to think and say.” The anticlimactic ending, too, is praised, “wherein all the characters return to where they were.” In short, “If only the rest of the film were as spare and poetic, then Vicky Cristina Barcelona would have been a film that could be argued for greatness.” Now, this is an interesting reversal, and ‘unpredictable’ in the best sense of the word: a judgment one does not necessarily expect, but is borne out by the evidence, simply because the evidence hasn’t been looked at too heavily. Indeed, for while most (if not all) of the characters are out-and-out stereotypes, at some point, Allen does start to skewer them, and even flesh them out a bit, such as when Cristina realizes ‘that life’ is not for her, and Vicky, after getting shot by Maria Elena, realizes the two Spaniards merely stuck in a pattern that will be with them forever. Yet Schneider has more to say on this, and they are words that ought to be applied to the medium as a whole. In short, this is how characterization works, as Schneider explains why so many good-intentioned films fail:
People cannot change...The overall message of the film is one that is, for the most part, true, but there is a gnawing dissatisfaction that this reality was sculpted using such dislikable and predictable characters. In many respects, the aforementioned La Dolce Vita has a very similar message in it. The difference is that that film has a handful of major themes and this one only one, as well as the fact that the few main characters in the Fellini film are multivalent in their sketchings and the film presents incidents that the viewer can relate to and suffer through with the characters. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the viewer is gazing at the characters. We are at a human zoo. This is satisfactory enough an approach for a work of science, perhaps, but not for a work of art. Art that satisfies just the heart dissipates, because it almost never has enough substance to titillate the brain. But, art that strikes at the brain first almost always has enough to seep down and affect the emotions. Allen’s film fails both scores- it is too lightweight intellectually and too cold emotionally.
Yet note how, even for a ‘light’ film such as this, Schneider is neither striking a pose, nor deriding a well-regarded film for the hell of it. Indeed, he is more ambivalent than falling into extremes, provides a rich discussion of character, replete with evidence (both pro and con), as well insights into the film’s other highs and lows -- which is simply part of the deal in most of Woody’s later films. This is especially true in light of the fact these films are approaching a kind of ‘consensus’ that gets more and more undifferentiated with the prevalence of Internet reviews, and critics being able to plagiarize one another all the more easily. It is with this in mind that Schneider approaches Allen’s next film, and ultimately ‘freshens’ it with things rarely seen.
Cassandra’s Dream is presently reviled, but why? I’ve already tackled the film and some reviews in an earlier chapter, but there is still no satisfying answer -- not even if one accepts Schneider’s (correct) assertion that it has been unconsciously abused for not being a masterpiece in line with Allen’s Golden Age films. This is because so many of the reviews don’t even make the obvious comparison to Crimes, but fault the film for its ‘predictability’, or one-dimensional characters. Yet if one goes through the film scene by scene, one will see layers that have not been uncovered by most critics, nor explained. Thus, Schneider’s review of Cassandra’s Dream opens with a clincher, wherein the two leads’ ‘playing’ at the docks is seen for its ominous quality: “The imagery is very important, because in the two grown men we see a child-like abandon that foreshadows the immaturity both brothers will display later in the film.” Implicit in Schneider’s claim, however, is that the film must be seen more than once for its imagery to penetrate. Right away, then, this is an argument for the film’s greatness, for great films’ deeper machinations only become apparent on second and third viewings, as more layers come undone. After praising the film’s cinematography, he goes on to write that the film’s script is what really ‘makes’ Cassandra’s Dream. In fact, “the film is so rich with great moments that detail character and plot...that the screenplay could be used as an aid in screenwriting classes”, such as when Ian dumps his first girlfriend, yet ignores her presence -- barely seen -- in an offhand way as he prattles about Angela’s good qualities; or the film’s ending, which first “settles into a groove that seems predictable, only to pull out the rug from under the viewers’ expectations”; or when Angela puts Ian in his place during their car ride, wherein his presumptions offend. As Schneider writes, “it’s a small moment that shows that, while vain and egocentric, she does have a delineated ethical compass, and a penchant for giving as good as she gets- something many more one dimensional Allen sexpots lack.” Nor is the “small moment” limited to Angela, as the exchange illuminates Ian’s own insecurities, and reveals him as a social-climbing fraud, a la Match Point, and allows the viewer to glimpse into the ‘other’ parts of Ian’s psyche, which is otherwise controlled by his more pressing issues.
There are other interesting claims made, often obviating what’s been written of the film, such as the idea that Howard would never ask two boys for this sort of ‘favor’ in real life, as he’d probably have other people to take care of such affairs. Yet, as Schneider points out, Howard’s “fumbling delivery” of the request, as well as his “digressions on why he won’t consider a professional contract”, give the scene realism, since a rich man does not necessarily imply a murderous one, while his nervousness reveals that this is probably his first foray into such. That most critics merely go by what appears to them as simple logic, rather than the scene’s deeper implications re: narrative and character, shows that Schneider is more totalizing in what he sees, and can communicate this. Nor does Schneider merely leave the review as a ‘review’, but -- just like in other essays -- gives a bird’s-eye view of things that can be applied elsewhere. In short, given that the film’s criticisms do not hold up, what can they be blamed on? As with Scoop before it, Schneider blames it on viewers’ heightened expectations, because, while it is a film with good visuals, pathos, depth, and well-written character arcs, it is not Crimes and Misdemeanors, or other Allen masterpieces. Yet that should not detract from what this film is, especially since, as Schneider points out, the critics who “dissed this film are the same folk who dissed the same earlier great Allen films when they came out, but who now hold them up as exemplars, only exemplifying [their] utter lack of critical acumen...” Nor should this be surprising, as it is a kind of prequel to what the reader will find in my overview of Pauline Kael who, unable to formulate a real position on things, couldn’t stick to a single judgment, but would shift and metamorphize within the span of a single essay. And yet, if one knows what to look for, the sort of indiscretions that Schneider describes would simply never happen.
Too often, ‘vindication’ is felt only when one’s right. This is unfortunate, as in between right and wrong, there is the even more important task of cogitation, and the search for novel ideas. In fact, it is this suggestiveness that often leads to great discovery (accidental, or not). Yet it is the views, themselves, that need some sort of consistency, an umbrella, as it were, beyond mere ‘correctness’, to corral them into something bigger and more profound. This is precisely what Schneider does, and why his expansiveness works over the course of so many reviews. Yes, readers have praised the “unpredictable” nature of, say, Kael’s writing, but as I’ll go on to argue in her essay, this is not really a strength, but a minus. No one wants to be rote in the purely mechanistic sense, but one ought to have a view of things that is self-sustaining, rather than based on a few slipshod whims. By contrast, true “spontaneity” -- that is, in the best sense of the word -- involves fresh insights, a willingness to experiment with an essay’s narrative, and oscillation between the objective and the personal (as Schneider and Ebert have done), and a truly expansive view of art that, while applicable to individual works, says much of others just as well, and will therefore crop up unexpectedly within them. This is, perhaps, the reason why Roger Ebert decided to write an essay on Schneider’s work, and why some of Ebert’s own readers ultimately dissented from the critical consensus re: Stardust Memories. And although such things are only part of the picture, the (many) discussions of that film prove that Schneider is becoming right -- or rather, is finally being perceived as such -- no matter how slow such processes go. Indeed, for while something that is lauded for no good reason will become quite declasse in time, the converse is just as true, and equally inevitable. Today, younger cinephiles are growing up without having to be biased against this or that film, and will thus ‘get it’ in a way that the older folks do not, even as -- and just as predictably -- they will go on to criticize the great works of their own time, which future generations will have to correct and re-asses. This is not truly a misfortune. The more cogent point is that it’s simply what we’re wired for. It is not, then, merely about Schneider, or his being a great critic, but what such words really mean, and how they will ultimately be used.
Coming off of Dan Schneider’s cerebral highs, it would be easy to dismiss James Berardinelli as a rather ‘plain’ writer not too different from many online critics. Yet if one is aware of the things that have gone on in film criticism over the last few decades, it is clear that Berardinelli is above and beyond most writers in his ability to get at the core of a film, and stay there. No, he is not a stylist like Roger Ebert, but while Ebert would sometimes get lost in his own reveries, or even fail to tackle a film at sufficient length (see Stardust Memories), Berardinelli has a tendency to -- well, to be right, which is an underrated skill in a world where mere opinion, no matter how poorly argued or wrought, indubitably reigns. It is for this reason that Ebert once championed Berardinelli in the same way that he’d later do for Schneider, even as these two critics were in some ways closer to each other than to Ebert. In an interesting aside, Berardinelli was also the subject of one of the longest (and deepest) interviews ever conducted with a film critic, via the “Dan Schneider Interviews” on Cosmoetica. In it, Berardinelli comes off precisely in the way of his reviews: as a ‘populist’ critic who does not preen or bullshit, but merely writes of a given film, and that film’s art. This helps differentiate him quite a bit from other critics, and of his twenty or so reviews of Allen’s work, most of them are spot-on, and put him squarely in the camp of Allen’s ‘champions’ -- silly and unfortunate as that phrase will sound to future generations parsing these men’s work.
Perhaps the most indicative of the above qualities is Berardinelli’s review of Manhattan. Like Ebert before him, he does not fall prey to most of the cliches surrounding the film, and even when he gets quite close to calling it a ‘love poem’ or ‘letter’ to the city, he saves things somewhat by opting for the word “valentine” instead. No, this is not some great stylistic breakthrough, but it shows that, at the very least, Berardinelli gives a damn about the craft, even in the smaller moments of switching a familiar word for a slightly different one. The film’s cinematography is praised, and Allen’s love for the city duly noted, but such commonplaces merely serve as the critic’s de facto ‘hooks’, for they lull the reader into being more open to Berardinelli’s deeper (and therefore less familiar) comments on the film. Chief among these is that Manhattan has a “darker” quality which belies its “whitewashed, fictionalized” core, that Mary is a perpetual “screw-up” that nonetheless “complements” Isaac’s own issues, that Isaac only thinks he wants Tracy at film’s end, and that Tracy, herself, is the only one at all in touch with her own feelings (shallow as they might be). Indeed, if one were to compare Berardinelli’s review with the typical fluff that is written of Manhattan, it is clear that he is ‘merely’ seeing the film for what it is, as opposed to to forcing his own agenda upon it. He even manages, quite correctly, to note that it is “not as light and airy” as Annie Hall, a fan favorite that, nonetheless, is not as probing as the later film. This is not merely his ‘opinion’ (as Berardinelli might himself argue), but backed up via the sort of analysis he applies here that would simply be impossible for Annie Hall. Thus, as he reveals to Schneider in their interview, it’s clear that he approaches film character-first, while all else flows from this basic reality.
Yet even here there are a few exceptions to Berardinelli’s ability to cut through the noise. I’d disagree, for instance, with his contention that Manhattan is Allen’s best work, but given that the man has about a dozen great films, this would merely be arguing amongst greats, and is therefore not too important, as far as quibbles go. Then, there is Berardinelli’s claim that Manhattan’s ending works because it so goes against most romantic films, as Isaac realizes that he wants “the thing that he has carelessly tossed aside”, which doesn’t really crop up in most ‘romantic’ films. The problem, of course, is that it does, not only in typical genre schlock before Manhattan, but after it, too, as women (and men!) finally see ‘what they’ve missed’, even as it’s usually right under their nose. In fact, Manhattan’s strength is in Berardinelli’s earlier claim, that Isaac only “thinks” he is in love. Yet I’d go a step further and say that he merely goes on to manipulate Tracy just as selfishly as before, thus ending the film on a romantic illusion all the while undermining it. Most glaring of all, however, is his insistence that it is “impossible not to mention” the odd portrayal of a relationship between a middle-aged man and an underage girl, given the revelations surrounding Allen’s personal life, and that the on-screen relationship takes on an “eerie, prescient quality” that was to some extent “substantiated” by his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. Of course, the mention can be avoided quite naturally, as I’ve done in my own review, except for the necessity to speak of Isaac’s selfishness as borne out by such a relationship. Moreover, it is simply incorrect -- troubling, even -- to say that Allen’s marriage in any way substantiates sex abuse allegations against a prepubescent child, for while the former hints at the man’s immaturity, vis-a-vis dating a 19 (or 21, depending on birth records) year-old woman with whom he has so little in common, the latter is an out-and-out sociopathic act. No, these off-the-cuff claims don’t matter much to Berardinelli’s otherwise well thought-out review, but they were made, regardless, and to not address them would be unfair.
His take on Manhattan Murder Mystery fares even better. Despite most viewers (and Allen, himself) considering it a ‘fluff’ film, it is a bit deeper than this, despite the film’s “mystery” more or less revolving around a possible murder. Yet there are other things at play, too, such as its well-done allusions and appropriations of Rear Window, Double Indemnity, and The Lady from Shanghai, sometimes even exceeding those films (Rear Window, especially), and, as Berardinelli argues, “on-target realism” wherein the couple’s marriage “is put under the microscope”. This is certainly borne out in the film’s evidence, as the viewer senses Keaton’s attraction to Alan Alda right away, and the viewer can’t really tell whether the latter merely humors her by offering ‘leads’, or feels that a murder has taken place. Berardinelli’s claim for “on-target realism” is especially apt, such as in scenes where Keaton seems to be having a breakdown, as she might be “obsessed with a macabre fantasy”, or when Keaton, challenged by the ‘new girl’, turns passive-aggressive as she is no longer in the spotlight for Alan Alda, nor her husband. I wish Berardinelli would go into more detail on these claims, for they really don’t appear in most critics’ reviews, but one gets the feeling that -- even when not explicitly argued -- Berardinelli gets things in an intuitive way, which ultimately find their way into his writing.
Yet the most interesting (and well-written) part of Berardinelli’s review is something that I completely disagree with. He writes: “A word has to be said about the annoying cinematography of Carlo Di Palma, who returns after causing audiences motion-sickness with his wobbly, hand-held camerawork in Husbands and Wives.” Carlo Di Palma is, at the very least, an excellent cinematographer (Red Desert; Blow-Up; Radio Days) who knows how to make ‘form’ complement, jar, or simply attune itself to a film’s content. Sure, his work in Husbands and Wives is not ‘elegant’ in the traditional sense, and is lesser than the above-named films, but it’s absolutely fitting regardless, even as it’d get anomic and a tad overdone by the time of Deconstructing Harry. At worst, one may say that he is neutral here in that regard, and at best that he brings out the film’s ‘deeper’ conflicts visually from what it is merely implicit in the script. Consider, however, Berardinelli’s next line: “While the intention is obviously to draw the viewer into the film, it actually has the opposite effect; the camera cannot compensate the way the human eye can.” Again, I disagree, but note how, from a purely technical standpoint, he builds his own writing up with a claim, then delivers pay-off with the last line re: “the human eye”, as it captures his own thinking with a good comparison full of deeper implications. This is simply good writing, for even if one disagrees with his judgment, Berardinelli makes an interesting posit that has relevance to things beyond the film. No, I don’t think the camera’s job is to “compensate”, but offer ‘tricks’ the eye can apprehend, which are then transmuted into something of ideational value in the brain. This is why Gordon Willis’s work in Manhattan is not merely ‘beautiful’, as is typically claimed, but gives the film a dream-like quality that exacerbates its own illusions. Yet Berardinelli’s comment made me stop and think over its meaning, for even if I’d come to reject his conclusions, the point of good criticism is to cause one to think about the item in question, not merely ‘share’ a point of view for the hell of it.
The ‘slight’ and more recent films Midnight in Paris and Whatever Works are treated just as fairly. Probably the most noticeable thing about both reviews is how Berardinelli refuses to simply ‘give in’ to the flood of praise for the former, and the condemnation of the latter. Nor is it the ill-argued ‘contrarian’ viewpoints of a Pauline Kael or Armond White, but fully reasoned, with little to criticize in that regard. Midnight in Paris, for instance, is a “trifle” that is “entertaining”, partly due to its fluffiness, and partly due to Allen’s choice of theme: that of “succumbing to daydreams”, which gives it an emotional core but without the intellect to make it touch the viewer “in more than a fleeting fashion”. Note how the film is not savaged (as Allen’s haters have done), but is not embraced either, due to its “undemanding” nature, lackluster screenplay, and “preachy” elements. Yes, Berardinelli praises the cinematography, but what of it? After having seen the film several times, I can still remember a few interesting shots, and the like, but if a film lacks the essentials, it cannot quite thrive on visuals alone, a fact that Berardinelli realizes. His take on Whatever Works is similarly pointed, with the film praised for its humor, yet criticized for its narrative slack. For instance, while Boris kicks things off pretty well with a speech to the audience, such rants start to lose their bite over time, as the ‘surprise’ becomes expected, and his perceived aggression wanes. The film also “loses steam during an extended segment that focuses on Melodie’s affair with a younger man” -- to which I’d add much of the ‘parental arc’, as well, since it is even fluffier than Boris’s portion of the tale. Again, this is not the outright damning the film has been subjected to, but an attempt to be fair, and apply a corrective that is much-needed at a time when Allen’s late-age worth is either hyper-inflated (Midnight in Paris) or flippantly dismissed (Cassandra’s Dream), even as Berardinelli, himself, can be said to be at fault here, too.
The flaws in Berardinelli’s review of Cassandra’s Dream are less apparent than that of other critics’, but they still exist. The first is the conflation with Match Point, as if Cassandra’s Dream is a re-working of that film rather than drawing from even earlier ones (such as 1989’s Crimes) from which Match Point ultimately derives, as well as Woody’s more immanent dramatic imprint that does not really have a clear-cut source. In fact, even Berardinelli’s claim for the film’s “central theme” (“killing someone is not a deed undertaken lightly because of the scars it can leave”) is quite at odds with that of Match Point, or even Crimes, wherein there are no scars, and ultimately no guilt. Indeed, for while the basic conflict is from 1989, there is plenty of new material in the scoring (Classical and jazz vs. Philip Glass’s ominous sound), character (a strong amoral force vs. two weak, guilted, and manipulated ones), women (Miriam’s non-entity, vs. the three well-sketched ones in Cassandra’s Dream -- Angela, especially), themes (amorality vs. ‘Murder will out’, and to an extent does), symbols, visuals, and dialogue, down to the poesy of specific comments that mark it as quite apart from its predecessors. Berardinelli goes on to write of the film’s “obvious story trajectory”, but where in the film do we ever see evidence that Howard will make his request? Or that Angela will wise up and mature? Or that Ian will die? Sure, the build-up is that Terry will ‘get his’, but how this happens is the real inversion, and what works on a technical, emotional, and intellectual level in a way that reverberates beyond ‘mere’ ending (which, by the way, Berardinelli in fact praises). The film’s romance is called “flat”, but is handled even better than in Match Point, for while Chris and Nola’s scenes of flirting were quite predictable -- down to their stock tropes -- the romance, here, merely flickers, but just enough to sketch Ian vis-a-vis Angela as a clueless social climber with no real confidence. Angela, herself, has a depth that Nola lacks, for while both seem without much talent, Angela develops an emotional maturity that allows for some memorable dialogue that would ill-fit Nola. And while Berardinelli claims that “planning and committing the crime brings Ian to life”, but is ultimately “abandoned”, this is not so, for one sees the slippery-slope Ian is on, his break from the ethical universe (or so it seems), and, ultimately, his ‘return’, for he cannot kill his brother, and is therefore weaker in this regard than Howard, and is a mere ‘loser’ to Howard’s ‘winner’, further mirroring Crimes and Misdemeanors rather than Match Point. Yes, there are murders committed in all three films, but the characters of the first two are clearly built for that ‘other’ world, wherein anything goes. By contrast, the boys in Cassandra’s Dream are not, no matter how much they think they are. Thus, if the first two films are a turning away from Raskolnikov’s delusions of grandeur, which are killed off by mere guilt, Cassandra’s Dream gives into them half-way, if one only remembers that Howard profits, and does not care.
Berardinelli’s take on Celebrity is similarly in line with others’ criticisms, although he defends his claims much better than most writers due to the evidence he provides. Even so, some of the argument is far more emotional than objective, as they reflect a ‘Berardinelli’ aesthetic (however rarely it comes out in most reviews) that has no bearing on the film, itself. For instance, Kenneth Branagh (and by extension, Allen as writer) is taken to task for being a mere Woody imitator, for it is “an odd and disconcerting experience”. Indeed, “All of the Allen mannerisms and vocal inflections, including the stammering and whining, are there. In fact, there are times when, if you close your eyes, you’ll swear that it’s Allen on the screen, not Branagh.” This is true, but if this were another director’s film, would Berardinelli make such a claim? In other words, would it impact the character’s realism, as he exists in the film’s universe? Berardinelli seems to think so (“it’s difficult to accept the actor is a neurotic, sex-obsessed New York Jew”), but a mere glance at the film’s romantic scenes shows that Allen would never have been able to pull this off successfully. For instance, Branagh’s romance with Winona Ryder is not mere farce, as their flirtations over the dinner table are realistic, not comic, as they’d inevitably be with Allen, and Branagh’s strikeouts with various models paint him as a loser who simply couldn’t ‘make it’, whereas Allen would simply be a loser who’d no right to even try. These are not subtle differences, but large ones, and help keep Branagh as a realistic manipulator. Berardinelli also claims that the screenplay “meanders aimlessly, stumbling forward without an apparent destination”. But if a screenplay is written for the characters (and it is), how can it be said to “meander”, when the film’s leads have such rich arcs and resolutions? Branagh, for instance, tries to enter into ‘that’ world via manipulation and foolishness, but fails, ultimately coming to the conclusion that he’s more or less like any one of his freakish, zombie-like school chums, while Judy Davis becomes something ‘better’, in one sense, against her own expectations, yet someone that she admits she really cannot respect. Yes, Allen’s notions of celebrity are not “clear” in the sense of a definitive statement, but what of the interplay between the characters, themselves, and what can be learned of fame and disillusionment from that? In short, the viewer must ask: who is better off? Judy Davis, the apparently happy success who’s changed her life, or Branagh, the loathsome user who’s taken quite the hit? I have my own answer, as do others, but the answer, itself, recapitulates the spectator’s own world-view (I do not think, for example, it is all clear-cut), and thus engages him in a way that is quite uncommon. No, Celebrity may not be one of Allen’s masterpieces, but it’s certainly one of the better Woody films for reasons that Berardinelli seems to miss, even as they’re nestled within the very evidence that he uses to construct a diametric view.
In this vein, Berardinelli’s review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is quite interesting to look at, for while I agree with his general thrust and ultimate conclusions, I disagree with the reasoning, i.e., how he gets there, which is arguably even more important. No, the film is not a “step up” from Cassandra’s Dream, as he claims, but it is good, in parts, and quite stylish to boot. Yet instead of tackling far weightier issues (such as the film’s poor characters), Berardinelli’s first complaint is about the film’s voice-over, which is called a “crutch”, and merely recapitulative of the obvious. But while at times true, it is also true, as Dan Schneider notes, that the voice-over serves some “handy elisions of superfluous moments” -- not ground-breaking, admittedly, but certainly not damning either. This is a minor point, at worst, but James Berardinelli goes on to repeat the trite advice of ‘show, don’t tell’ as “one of the most basic rules of filmmaking”. It is not, and a quick glance at films as diverse as Another Woman, My Dinner with Andre, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly proves that ‘telling’ can lead to greatness just as easily, provided it -- like any artistic technique -- is merely well-handled. Yet the voice-over, itself, takes up virtually no screen time, as most of the tale is ‘shown’, for good or ill. Then, after (correctly) deriding the film’s predictable arcs, he calls the film’s characters “interesting”. I must disagree, however, for the film’s predictability is completely dependent upon the fact that its own characters are little more than stereotypes, even as the two girls attempt to transcend this in the end. And while Berardinelli gets one of the film’s themes -- that of shifting relationships and desires -- he also misses an even deeper issue for all involved: that they are utterly stuck in one mode of being, with Cristina as a perpetual wanderer, Vicky as a mere veneer of self-assurance, and the two Spaniards as self-destructive poseurs to whom the American tourists are simply a new stage in the same old ‘marital’ drama they will probably have to deal with for the rest of their lives. This is really where the film’s poesy shines through (however weakly), and why Berardinelli, perhaps, sees the most in Rebecca Hall’s performance. No, this is not one of his better reviews, but I suspect that, even here, as the words come out, the instinct tries but cannot catch up.
Other reviews are also quite interesting to look at. In Bullets Over Broadway, David is seen as a poseur (“If the common people don’t understand your work, you’re a genius.”), and the film as “toying” with issues of art and integrity -- after all, David’s conflict is self-created, and only applies to real artists, like Cheech -- while skewering “the entertainment industry as a whole”. In fact, David is no tortured genius, at all, and issues with the ‘art world’ (as seen via David, especially) are foisted upon the viewer in a “clever” way. Deconstructing Harry is likewise tread carefully, with Berardinelli refusing to go the ‘tabloid’ route, and instead noting that “if [the film] has an overriding theme, it’s that the man and the artist can be separated”, with examples of Harry’s art “redeeming” him -- even if the redemption is not in this life, for he does not know how to exist in it. Match Point has some focus on an unexpected portion of the film: that of the relationship between Chris and his wife, as Berardinelli argues that the marriage breaks down quite realistically, not through any melodrama (Chris’s affair excepted), but through the barest of words, glances, and physical positionings that imply such. This is an unconventional angle, yet a rather fruitful one. And his review of Blue Jasmine takes the film down from the over-the-top praise it has received, as he chooses to focus on both the good and the bad in a way that most have missed. Jasmine’s central issue, he argues, is its “lapses of focus”, for while the Cate Blanchett’s performance trumps all, Allen’s “restructuring” of Tennessee Williams’s play “considerably reduces the most memorable aspect of Streetcar: the Blanche/Stanley dynamic. Here, with Stanley split in two (Clay is Ginger’s ex-husband and Bobby Cannivale is her current boyfriend), there’s not much juice in that interaction, and no sexual tension whatsoever. By default, this becomes Blanche/Jasmine’s movie and the narrative drifts aimlessly along with her.” Now, I do not think the film is as close to Streetcar is is claimed, but the claim of Stanley being “split” is original, well-argued, and apt, with Berardinelli’s subsequent claims all the easier to accept because of this insight. At the very least, this is more than what other reviewers have done with the comparisons to Tennessee Williams, which tend to be more throwaway than analytical, serving, as they do, the critic’s ego rather than his reader.
Art may not be ‘permanent’, but of all human endeavors thus far, it is the only one with some longevity. Yet in the search for great writers and other stylistic innovators, an equally valuable asset can be lost -- that of contemplation, an ability to think first before writing ever begins. James Berardinelli has this, and sometimes even more of it than Roger Ebert, who serves as Berardinelli’s alter ego in some respects. One only needs to compare his willingness to take a film on for what that film is (even if at times quite wrong) vis-a-vis Cahiers du Cinema, or even the work of the next three critics, to see where the value resides. No, Berardinelli will never be ‘hip’, nor some ‘sensation’, yet that means he will never be a mere fad, either. One is interested in film. The other’s merely preoccupied with it.
If the above three critics are Woody champions, the next three can be thought of as his chief detractors. The first and by far the most influential is Pauline Kael, who, at her peak, was the top film critic at The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, and a well-known writer even before this. She was quite feared for her reviews, much read by the literati, and her mode of attack (often ad hominem, and sometimes explicitly racial) only intensified with time. Yes, Pauline Kael was a celebrity, but unlike, say, Roger Ebert, who’d ultimately champion and supplant her in style and longevity, she was a celebrity for the intelligentsia, and while she has deeply influenced people as diverse as Armond White (in some ways, her successor) and Quentin Tarantino, you’d be hard-pressed to find many young filmgoers who look up to her today, a mere decade and a half after her death. This partly due to The New Yorker’s decision to keep her reviews holed away in a digital archive one must pay to access, while Ebert’s (and others’) are freely available, and partly due to her contrarian views -- often without much explication -- and dated writing style. No one today, for example, wishes to hear of Woody Allen being a self-loathing Jew, as she’s argued, or read reviews (such as that of De Sica’s Shoeshine) that do not even engage the film in question, but serve as proto-blog posts that merely discuss her own life and feelings. Indeed, for while many of the films she’s eviscerated -- La Dolce Vita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Badlands, Dr. Strangelove, Wild Strawberries, Red Desert, Faces, Blow-Up, and others -- have gone on to become undisputed classics, current articles about her are full of comments that, while riding the celebrity gravy-train while she was still ‘hip’, have now, quite predictably, taken on a much harsher tone. No doubt there will be many guesses as to why, but just one should suffice: that for all she’s written, and has been written of her, Pauline Kael was not much of a critic, combining the worst flaws of Roger Ebert (over-reliance on emotion) with none of his writing ability, and a pointless viciousness and personal vindictiveness that -- had it been well-worded -- could have at least been fun. It is not, and as the sudden implosion and inevitable decline of her progeny Armond White shows, it pays more to be right than righteous, a difference few people ever see, and fewer still can ever act on.
Of course, I am not the first to criticize Pauline Kael, for she’s generated quite a few ‘enemies’ throughout her career. In 2004, for instance, Alan Vanneman published a short retrospective of her work that covers her life, her creative troubles from the 50s onward, and her eventual breakthrough as a critic via a published collation of her reviews, which Vanneman quotes quite a bit from without having to offer much in way of explanation. “All her life”, he says, “Kael wrote as a brilliant schoolgirl, straining for ‘insights’ and exulting in ‘nuances’ that no one else noticed (because they weren’t there). She had to be deeper, more profound, and more shocking than anyone else, which led her to the same sort of pretentiousness she ridiculed in others.” Yet in the midst of such straining, she was bound to make mistakes -- social transgressions, even -- ranging from conflicts of interest, such as her reviewing of films that she’d secretly worked on, to downright severing some professional ties with words she’d plainly call “criticism”, but were mere invective, given how little they had to do with the films in question. Likewise, Renata Adler, a New Yorker colleague, slowly went from being a fan to a detractor upon reading a collection of her reviews. This is because, as Adler argues, what might at first seem ‘interesting’ or ‘quaint’ in Kael’s work soon turns into a system of ad hoc, ad hominem attacks that don’t really tackle the films, themselves, but rather what Kael sees (or thinks she does), as opposed to what’s really on the screen. In short, when she wasn’t busy sexualizing actors, writers, and directors (“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat”), coming up with odd, asymmetrical similes (“Coma is like a prophylactic; it’s so cleanly made, with such an impersonal, detached feeling that it looks untouched by human hands”), word-dumps (“The images are simplified, down to their dramatic components, like the diagrams of great artists’ compositions in painting texts, and this, plus the faintly psychedelic Romanesque color, creates a pungent viselike atmosphere”), and outright bullying, she constructed reviews that were, in effect, “paeans to the favored product, diatribes against all other brands”. Such is not, alas, a review, but a mere statement of preferences, which have little to do with art, and everything to do with one’s personality and leanings. It is unsurprising, then, that Adler’s most famous criticism was that Kael’s work, as a whole, is “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” More telling, however, is Adler’s prescient comment that, despite Kael’s fame, “criticism will get over it”, a fact that’s coming to light only now, as it does for most writers, in time. But while Adler is more praising of Kael’s earlier work, I must disagree with even that. In one of Kael’s more celebrated pre-New Yorker reviews, for instance, she bloats a mere two pages on Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine with critical and writerly cliches (“incomprehensible despair”; “lyric study”; “fear the pain of the film”; “painful beauty”; “[a] tragic study of the corruption of innocence [that] is intense, compassionate, and, above all, humane”), and simply says nothing of the film, itself, merely using her already quite-limited space for a kind of autobiography. After having read it, I know of Kael’s “lovers’ quarrel” in 1947, and that she “feels” the film’s feelings, and wishes others could, too, but as to why it is an excellent work of art, re: the acting, scripting, visuals, and music, she is remarkably silent. It seems, then, as early as 1961, Kael had confused the critic’s job description with something more to her own liking. But a critic’s job is not merely to ‘reveal’ oneself (although that can be done well, as Ebert or Dan Schneider often do), but, above all, to explain the thing’s inner workings, and why it works, as art. If such a basic thing is not done, it really can’t be criticism. And if it’s not criticism, what is it, exactly, and what is it doing?
Now, we’ll get to the bottom of these queries -- trust you me -- but we’ll do it via Woody Allen, who’s had an interesting relationship with Pauline Kael over the years. One could still see videos of them together, in the 1970s, and he seems quite tolerant of her, if not respectful. Sometime after this, however, her reviews took a turn for the nasty, not only calling Allen out for his supposed Jewish self-hatred (which seems to be applied to every Jew who’s doing something a little ‘different’) and loathing of his culture, family, and fans, but -- as if needing to one-up all the other misinterpretations of the film -- even asked re: Manhattan: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?”, thus trying to extrapolate the man from the art, and falling into the same critical cliches that abounded then as now. It only got worse with Stardust Memories, which caused a complete break in their relationship for reasons that (as will be shown) went well beyond a mere ‘aesthetic’ disagreement. Yes, one could say she reveals too much of her various political and intellectual axes in her reviews of Allen’s later films, and therefore fails as critic for those biases, but there are issues that appear as early as 1973 with her take on Sleeper, a decidedly apolitical work that Kael -- believe it or not -- assessed more or less correctly. That, of course, is not the concern. It is how she reaches her assessment that is problematic, thus serving as a blueprint for so many of her other reviews.
The first issue (as Renata Adler pointed out) is Pauline Kael’s over-reliance on the words “we” and “us”, both as a means of ‘softening’ her own positions, as well as taking the attention away from her less cogent critiques. For example, just in her review of Sleeper: “we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel”; “we laughed as if he had let out what we couldn’t hold in any longer”; “we enjoy his show of defenselessness, and even the “I-don’t-mean-any-harm ploy, because we see the essential sanity in him”; “we respect that sanity; it’s the base from which he takes flight.” Yes, some of these overly broad musings could have been acceptable (however slightly) if Allen’s early comedies were anything more than films like Take the Money and Run, Sex, or Bananas, but Pauline Kael is trying to ascribe a deep intellectual base to things in a way that’s simply absurd. I mean, who listens to Boris’s monologue on Socrates and homosexuals in Love and Death and thinks of Allen’s “essential sanity”, or laughs at his persona’s failures in Sleeper, then makes Kael’s grand deductions? Beyond this pretentiousness, however, are the odder phrasings and ideas, all hedged by that “we”, that are either too general or quite simply inaccurate for the character in the film (“we, too, are scared…”), or merely reaching (“what we couldn’t hold in any longer”). Yet after this over-long introduction, ‘we’ really don’t know much more of Woody Allen, as artist, and nothing yet of Sleeper, the film purportedly under review. In the next paragraph, she finally tackles the film, correctly says it is the most narrative-driven of his work thus far, pointlessly calls it “surreal” (technically true, but the word as Kael uses it will apply to any dystopia, and any film with slapstick, so why even say it unless one wishes to appear ‘deep’?) and, again correctly, calls it a “small classic” that simply does not reach higher company. She mars her own insight, however, by repeating this same idea in nigh-consecutive lines (“it doesn’t have the loose, manic highs of those others films”; “you come out smiling and happy, but not driven crazy”; “I laughed all the way through, but it wasn’t exhilarating”; “you can be with it all the way, but it doesn’t impose itself on your imagination”; “and yet it’s mild, it doesn’t quite take off”), and by an odd final comment (“Comedy is impossibly mysterious”) that really has no place in a review such as this. In fact, Pauline Kael had already explained both her ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ of the film in fairly straightforward prose, so to ascribe her emotional conflict to comedy’s alleged “mystery” is throwaway, especially since one should then logically make the same deduction about any film one has conflicting views over. I love Total Recall, for instance, but don’t think it is a good movie. Yet to therefore call it “mysterious”? Indeed, something’s quite amiss when one strains to deepen what is already quite obvious to most.
After getting out a cheap shot at Play It Again, Sam, Kael starts making suggestions. “Sleeper could really use a cast”, she argues, but why? Because other comics have had a set cast, while Allen’s “conception of himself keeps him alone”. The smaller error, within, is a further conflation of Allen, the man, and Allen’s on-screen persona. The bigger issue Pauline Kael’s self-contradictions. Yes, she is correct to argue that the film never “quite takes off”, but it’s not due to any casting decisions, but because given the fact that it’s an almost purely slapstick comedy (as she herself points out), it automatically has a ceiling that more ‘serious’ comedies (such as Radio Days or Amarcord) simply lack. This is really in the film’s inner nature, and not a matter of a few tweaks or improvements that would suddenly make it “exhilarating”. Nor is the cast much of an issue, either, for despite Kael’s argument, the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton pairing is one of cinema’s best, of any genre, partly because of their chemistry, on the one hand, and seeming disconnect on the other -- Allen as a bumbling ‘nebbish’, and Keaton as a beautiful ‘classy’ woman that has a clear attraction to him, both on and off screen, that is neither forced, nor played merely for comic effect. Keaton is not simply “there to be Woody’s girl”, as is claimed, but gives a very good foretaste of the upper crust he’d go on to skewer in later and deeper films, not only via Luna’s bad poetry, but also her dulled ethical sense (furthering the film’s setting), her refusals of Woody’s overtures (furthering Woody’s comic persona), and her breaking-in of Allen into the story (furthering -- nay, allowing -- the film’s narrative to actually unfold). To say that Diane Keaton has presence only insofar as Allen is concerned ignores, well, pretty much everything related to the tale, for if Luna were excised, there’d be no real drive, nor any deeper aspirations on Allen’s part.
Yet even more problematic is how Kael, early on, says she won’t reveal much of the film’s narrative in her review, as it’ll “squeeze the freshness out of the jokes”. But one can’t describe slapstick, in the first place, much less ruin it via description, as much of physical comedy eludes words. In fact, Kael’s refusal to even engage the film’s narrative (much less describe it) simply allows her to prattle off some generalities re: the ‘Woody’ persona, with even more overt attempts to psychoanalyze him, via sentences such as: “It’s likely that he sees his function as being all of us, and since he’s all of us, nobody else can be anything.” Yet it is clear, early on, that Allen’s character is pure caricature and comic relief, and while Kael (like Ray Carney after her) is correct in thinking that ‘most’ people are closer to the Woody nebbish than a Charles Bronson, it is a stretch to say that “we” resemble him in any meaningful way. In short, the corrective to one extreme is not yet another extreme, but some sort of middle ground. This is why more people will relate to Alvy Singer (Annie Hall) or an even less glamorous Gabe (Husbands and Wives), rather than to a nebbish or a badass. Yet it’s a stretch Kael has to make given how she traps herself into filling a review with things extraneous to the film. There is, for instance, a “business-like, nine-to-five look” about Sleeper, “a loss of inspiration”, a missing “wild man’s indifference to everything but the joke” (once again contradicting even earlier points she’s made re: slapstick, and its need to “take off”), and “a metaphysical outrageousness”. Yet where, exactly, is any of this in the film? As with her review of Shoeshine, I still know next to nothing of Sleeper, except the names of the two main characters, and that it’s primarily gag driven -- a fact that, in turn, is either a good or a bad thing, depending on what comments of hers I choose to latch on to. There are no scenes to speak of; there is no music to praise or deride (except, of course, the non-evaluative, and non-critical: “How could a man who really trusted the the free and messy take up the clarinet, an instrument that appeals to controlled, precise people?”), no dialogue that stands out as good or bad, no visuals, no poesy or lack thereof -- merely a whole lot of Pauline Kael, and what she values. This might mean something, if she’d, in fact, even attempt to tackle the film, present some tangible evidence for her claims, and thus express her values there. Instead, the proverbial ‘we’ returns, and Kael makes yet another suggestion: that Woody Allen learn to think (or un-think) with his “unconscious”. Yet art is, in fact, the product of sheer control, not chaos, as she’s arguing, for even the veneer of ‘effortlessness’ (John Cassavetes; Martin Scorsese) takes much effort and planning. This is as true as of the aforementioned classics as it is of lesser gems like Sleeper, for it is not the “unconscious” that Allen needed, but deeper and more expansive themes for the waking mind to corral.
Pauline Kael’s review of Interiors is full of the same holes, but goes a step further in the way it reverts to her classic brand of ad hominem, faulting Woody Allen for his supposed Jewish (or non-Jewish?) undertones in a way that simply has nothing to do with the film, itself. It begins with the typical word-dumps (“Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman”), moves to strain for insight (“has such a super-banal metaphysical theme [of] death versus life”), and rounds things out by trying to make connections to Allen’s earlier films, re: the character of Alvy Singer (“a compulsive, judgmental spoilsport”), who is again conflated with Allen, himself. Kael complains of the lack of ‘eroticism’, but the film that Interiors has been compared most to is Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a flamboyant little work wherein the sex is full of overt, clunky symbolism, and merely exists as a stylistic device amidst the narrative slack, thus damaging both. The complaint, then, seeks to turn the film into what it’s not, merely for the sake of personal preference, recalling Adler’s comment that Kael’s reviews are “paeans to the favored product, and diatribes against all other brands”. Then, there is the contention that “death versus life” is somehow “super-banal”, when in fact there is no such thing as a banal theme, merely one that is handled in a banal way. I mean, think: how many classic books, plays, and films develop this idea (among others) to great effect? And how many wannabe classics attempt the same, but fail? It is the failure, then, rather than the attempt that’s the issue, a fact that simply eluded Pauline Kael for much of her writing career. Then, the film’s Eve -- a profoundly sick, cold, and lifeless woman that slowly destroys everyone around her -- is compared to Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), whose worst sin is his utter immaturity. One wonders why such a connection is even made, unless, of course, Kael is merely ‘painting by numbers’ in her reviews, knows that connections between films must be made, for this is how reviews go, and therefore strains to do so, no matter how improbable in the specifics really are. She then ends her de facto introduction with a question that comes literally out of nowhere: “Are we expected to ask ourselves who in the movie is Jewish and who is Gentile?” Well, I don’t know, for almost everyone in the film is a well-sketched WASP, and it’d therefore make about as much sense if Allen were a former Hindu, and the film’s conflict propped up as a matter of Sikh vs. Mohammedan. Yet the fact that Interiors has as little to do with either as it does with the “Jewish” question would, apparently, be just as elusive, and immaterial.
Kael presses on, however, in exactly this direction. The characters are “sterilized of background germs” (Ok, but how? Can we have a scene, a snatch of dialogue for proof? And what import does this have re: cinematic appraisal?), the family’s issues are rooted in their “Jewish fear of poverty and persecution” (in fact, it revolves around an incredibly sick and nutty woman, and three selfish ones with metaphysical, not material, concerns), and that Woody Allen, himself, has no “joy” in cinema, for “as he made clear in Annie Hall, he can’t have that joy” -- yet another trite conflation of the persona and the man. Eight paragraphs in, however, Pauline Kael finally starts to discuss the film proper, and she makes a good point re: the film’s symbolism: it can be heavy-handed, at times, to its detriment. Yet this is not seen in the example she herself proffers (that of a broken vase), but earlier on, at the film’s start, wherein the three women are putting their hands on the windows, as if to ‘break free’, sort of like the cage Jack Nicholson looks to be trapped in at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger. In short, while Kael argues that it seems obvious Pearl will end up breaking a vase, this is not only not obvious, but irrelevant, too, since the arc -- predictable or not -- is well-done throughout. If anything, it is surprising, even, given that it occurs when Pearl is dancing and having fun, with most watching her with approving smiles -- hardly a lead-in to something ‘bad’. Nor does Kael mention the great parallel between Joey’s explosion at Pearl, and Eve’s own explosion at Joey (“Stop breathing so hard!”) when Arthur first announces the separation, probably because there is no opportunity -- alas! -- to notice such ‘frills’ in Kael’s infamous refusal to watch any film twice. Nor is Eve a symbol of the Jewish mother’s “spiritual perfection”, as she claims, since spirituality implies openness and warmth, but of a contrived, static, and purely aesthetic (not ‘artistic’) one. No, Pauline Kael does not ‘like’ Allen’s symbols, but her solution is to therefore invent a few new ones, not only vis-a-vis the characters, themselves, but even through Allen’s off-screen choices. She notes, for example, that Allen would return the film’s print to be washed after every screening. But what does she make of that? Not much, apparently, for it “makes this the ultimate Jewish movie. Woody Allen does not show you any blood.” The last line, especially, is the kind of non sequitur she was routinely praised for writing, but one that -- being a non sequitur, and an offensive one, at that -- makes exactly zero sense. Indeed, it is the kind of “surface” Kael accuses Allen of, but one that she, herself, unwittingly flails upon.
Kael ultimately reveals her feelings (and her biases) about the film when she discusses the two mother-figures. She correctly points out that no one would want Eve for a mother, but errs when she throws Pearl into the same category as “an embarrassment of yielding flesh and middle-class worldliness”. But she is “embarrassing” how? That she is not smart enough to pick up on the symbolism of a play, or that she has a fun time dancing when almost everyone approves? (“Yielding flesh” is simply inaccurate, for there is no evidence of such in the film, merely a desire to further bolster Kael’s own argument.) Pearl is a better human being than most here, and is nurturing, supportive, and warm -- the very meaning of the word ‘mother’, and a type that most people simply do not have. To suggest otherwise is Kael’s own new-found “worldliness”, as she’s merely butting heads with her past -- if I’m allowed to psychoanalyze in the manner of Pauline Kael! -- and does not like what she sees. More real-world conflation follows (“If the two [mothers] are warring for control of Woody Allen...”), alongside a howler that shows how much a second viewing would have helped. Although she starts with a good point re: each daughter representing a “side” of Eve’s neurosis, she derails a potentially rich examination by a tangent of her own making: that the “youngest” daughter, Joey, represents Woody Allen, since “in plays, the youngest is generally the one who represents the author”. (Ok, let’s try this: Cordelia is Shakespeare; the childlike Irina is Anton Chekhov; and the rapist Chaerea is...Terence?) Allen, therefore, is a “glumly serious postulant” and “dresses down” to piss people off in the midst of self-expression, just like Joey, herself. Yet what Pauline Kael doesn’t realize is that Joey is the middle sister, NOT the youngest one, which obviates her perceived need for the two whole paragraphs in which she argues exactly that, and shows how willing she is to detour and ‘nose around’ for meanings that aren’t really there, all the while missing what is.
The entire review, in fact, devolves to these sorts of attacks on Woody Allen, the man, even when the evidence is quite lacking. This is because -- as with Sleeper and Shoeshine -- she refuses to engage any real particulars, except the occasional prosaic line that fills in some plot details, but says nothing of the film qualitatively. Sam Waterston’s role, for example, is “unformed”, but Pauline Kael confuses her pejorative with the word “minor”. In fact, Sam Waterston is pure ‘sanity’, wherein the good-hearted guy is simply unable to deal with Joey’s deeply-rooted immaturity, which is, in turn, all the more fleshed out by his very presence, and Joey’s inability to appreciate it. If anything, he is the film’s least selfish character, and serves as a corrective (albeit an impotent one) to everything around him. Geraldine Page’s performance “seems abhorrent”, but while Kael criticizes the (infrequent) close-ups, did she watch Page’s tics during Arthur’s revelation? Or her sudden, hyper-realistic knocking-over of the candles in the church? Or -- perhaps best of all -- the nigh-ritualistic manner in which she prepares for a kind of ‘cosmic funeral’, replete with the black and white tape that mirrors her own dress, aesthetician, as she is, all the way to the grave? No? No, as such insights would have inevitably made it into Kael’s review. Her sarcastic attacks on Diane Keaton’s appearance (“She does something very courageous for a rising star…”) are irrelevant and petty, while Allen’s view of Jews -- according to the words she puts into Allen’s mouth -- is that they are “fundamentally undignified”, “conforming”, as he does, “to the [Gentiles’] idea of what a Jew should be”, even as Kael spends much of her own essay arguing the exact opposite: that Judaism is openness and laughter, and therefore ill-fitting a “Jew” like the one Allen unconsciously depicts. I mean, can one seriously read such horribly dated ‘insights’ today with a straight face? It seems that Kael, by being a Jew, herself, was as ‘free’ to be as tribal and narrow-minded as she damn well pleased, provided, of course, the object of her invective was a Jew, as well. A ‘bad’ Jew, she would argue in self-justification; a Jew that needed to break out his own self-stereotyping, yet when he does exactly that, she pouts, for it is not the way she’d do it, herself.
If Kael’s review of Interiors was poorly thought-out, and downright offensive, at times, what can be said of her take on Stardust Memories? It starts off rather trite: Sandy Bates is conflated with Woody Allen, yet again, and the film derided as a “dupe of a dupe” (that is, of 8½). Kael discusses the magisterial opening, but instead of focusing on some wonderful touches -- the suitcase filled with sand, the way the train whistle blows, thus making Sandy’s words irrelevant, the enigmatic ‘pilgrimage’ the passengers must take -- she simply makes the expected comparison to Fellini. As her essay goes on, the Allen/Bates conflation is only deepened, as Allen merely “degrades the people who respond to his work and presents himself as their victim.” Now, I’ve already gone over this in explicit detail, in three separate essays within this book, alone, and won’t spend too much time on it now. Suffice to say that Sandy is not Allen, and the closest characters to Allen are the over-voice represented by the extraterrestrials (similar, in many ways, to the conversation between Mickey Sachs and his parents in Hannah), and Sandy Bates as he appears in the film’s last few shots, as the ‘inner’ film closes, and the characters and “grotesques” (to use Kael’s word) are given a very different sort of meaning. She then tackles the murals that appear on Sandy’s wall, wondering if they are “evidence of his morbidity”, or mere “proof” that “he’s politically and socially with it?” Well, the answer’s neither, as Kael’s own words indicate that the murals are like “mood music” that changes according not only to Sandy’s feelings, but the film’s narrative points, as well, such as when there are newspaper clippings of a child molestation after Dorrie accuses Bates of “flirting” with her kid cousin. Kael’s rhetorical question is thus irrelevant, as she already knew what’s what, but played dumb, anyway, as it didn’t quite fit her argument. But while Allen keeps on getting criticized for being ‘bad’ towards his fans, what is ultimately missed is how badly Bates, himself, gets skewered, not only in the extraterrestrial scene, but in the way he treats his own persona. “Woody Allen has often been cruel to himself in physical terms,” she quips. “Now he’s doing it to his fans.” Ok, but what of the way Sandy Bates is turned into a kind of Frankenstein, in one scene, building the ‘perfect woman’ who, in fact, merely recapitulates his own flaws? Or the way that Tony Roberts, a supposedly ‘vapid’ playboy Sandy makes fun of, nonetheless knows Sandy’s issues all too well, and therefore avoids them in his own life? Or the way that Sandy ignores what’s right for himself by following a few ridiculous passions? Not a peep on this, for Kael either does not see this -- after all, she only needs to watch a film once to “get everything” -- or refuses to, given how she already had a pre-cut argument, and only needed to find a way to stick to it. Indeed, for the film to work, Sandy “would have to be the butt of the comedy”, she writes. But he is precisely that -- or rather, he is enough of such to help the film pour over into the realm of drama, as Stardust Memories is not, as Kael seems to think, merely a series of gags and making-fun, but multi-layered, and exploratory.
Kael’s review once again takes a turn for the offensive when Allen’s Judaism is brought back into the picture. After going on about Allen’s “hostility” towards his ‘tribe’, family, and fans, she claims that he is “trying to stake out his claim to be an artist like Fellini or Bergman” (100% true, by the way, as all artists of some talent should at least make the attempt), but goes on to write that, in his desire to be a “Gentile”, “he sees his public as Jews trying to shove him back back into the Jewish clowns’ club.” If one ever doubted Kael’s nastiness, not only as a writer, but a human being, as well, here is the evidence -- replete with the intolerance and tribalism that made her see the world in black-and-white, thus resuscitating the stereotypes she only pretends to wish to combat. “Great artists’ admirers are supposed to keep their distance”, she presses on, putting words in Allen’s mouth without evidence. “His admirers feel they know him and can approach him; they feel he belongs to them…” But is the next sentence a poetic inversion? A logical corollary? A ‘key’ to everything that’s been writ and disemboweled? No: “And he sees them as his murderers.” This is yet another non sequitur, and although she has the chance to redeem herself, she does not take it, for one can’t merely ‘turn around’ -- no matter how untenable the positions have become -- after going so far in. In fact, she needs to go further, and quite often does. Scenes, for example, are “opaque”, such as when a former actress (after much cosmetic surgery) from Sandy’s films introduces herself as his mother. But while this is merely “cruel”, in Kael’s eyes, and nothing more, it obviously has a purpose. She enters the scene almost as an apparition (Kael’s word is “silhouette”), and given that we don’t know whether or not his mother is alive, but get comic glimpses of her before and after this scene, the effect -- after Sandy’s near-breakdown -- is that of yet another being clawing from his past. Yet it is more poetic than the “grotesques”, and has multiple layers of meaning and emotion that play upon the viewer, and thus engage him in a way that the simpler and more comic images do not.
But much of Kael’s argument devolves to precisely this: that the film is full of “grotesques”, and that this is both unfunny, and “trivializing”. Yet grotesques (as I mention elsewhere) make up a fairly small part of the film, given the number of extremely well-wrought and hyper-realistic characters, and while Kael complains of Allen’s “trivializing” their “ugliness”, what does this accusation even mean? Ugliness merely is, and while beauty is certainly better, in one sense, it is generally meaningless by itself -- a fact that Kael ought to know quite well, given her petty attacks on Keaton’s hairstyle, skin tone, and overall appearance in Interiors. It is also irrelevant what Allen’s intentions were in Stardust, and whether or not he loathes these people, as is claimed, or is merely a fearful Jew (as is also claimed). The characters are what they are, regardless, and fulfill a function that eludes Kael, for while she complains that the images have no “power”, one must ask: power over what? To think that the film’s lighter parts must be privileged over its much deeper examinations is ridiculous, but Kael spends more than half of her essay unwittingly arguing exactly that. There is a reference to the “grotesques” and “Judaism” in nearly every paragraph, but little else is ever said, as if that’s all that matters. Nor do her attempts to ‘go beyond’ get very far. Writing of the film’s three women, for instance, she claims that “they don’t have enough independent existence for us to be sure what they’re supposed to represent”, but this is only true insofar as they are not mere symbols, and therefore cannot represent ‘one’ thing. In fact, their “independent existence” is brought out in their utterly human and believable behaviors: Dorrie’s jealousy, breakdown, and possible sex abuse as a child (never dwelled upon, by the way), Daisy’s downward spiral into drugs (also touched upon, rather than made predictable and trite), and Isobel’s far better nature, which is ignored in favor of the others’ abusiveness due to Sandy’s own immaturity. And the women have plenty of ‘tics’ and mannerisms that mark them as real, whether it is Dorrie’s fractionation at the mental ward, or Isobel’s silly ‘exercises’ in the midst of Sandy’s marriage proposal. In short, this is how people behave in real life, and why the film -- despite being so fantasy-driven, in parts -- is a simulacrum of the real, rather than weirdness for weirdness sake. Thus, Dorrie is not “merely used for her physiognomy”, as Kael argues, but because her various psychoses are what attract Sandy to her in the first place, and make him stay when they finally start to peak. It is also telling that, despite not being a “grotesque”, but beautiful, she is likely the film’s most cancerous being -- even if she cannot quite help it. The same can be said for Daisy re: Sandy’s attraction, and is also the reason why he rejects Isobel. In fact, had Kael seen the movie more than once, she would have actually noticed the scene where Bates attempts to create the “perfect woman”, and fails because the beautiful one does not have the bitchy, self-destructive personality he so craves. This characterizes not only the women, but Sandy, as well, and belies the claim that the three don’t have a life of their own.
If that wasn’t enough for Kael, she writes of how Woody Allen displays his Jewish “self-hatred” in Stardust Memories, but that at least in other films, these “betrayals” were more subdued. Kael points out, for example, that his romantic rival in Annie Hall was the tiny Paul Simon, and the comical Wallace Shawn in Manhattan. This, to her, is evidence of the fact that he simply loathes his appearance (and therefore himself), and tries to force his rivals to be even lesser men that he could actually handle. Yet she never stops to ask the far more obvious question as to whether Allen is merely being realistic about himself, with no hang-ups whatsoever. Indeed, for while Allen has been called a “creep”, “narcissistic”, and “misogynistic” for casting himself alongside a Diane Keaton or Mariel Hemingway, he has in fact dated both ‘types’ (and Keaton, herself) in real life, as the bigger issues of one’s existence are not, as Kael would have it, merely skin-deep, or related to one’s height. Despite this, however, he is now to be derided for making fun of this asymmetry, as he is no longer a “creep” or a “narcissist”, but a self-loathing Jew too aware of his own shortcomings. Nor does it help that, despite Kael manipulatively positing Wallace Shawn as Isaac’s “rival”, this literally spans a few seconds in the film, and is never touched upon again. Far more ‘dangerous’ to Isaac is Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy), who is taller and far more handsome, and plays a major character whom Kael simply ignores. But why? Isn’t he the more obvious rival, who actually takes Isaac’s girl away from him? Shouldn’t he, therefore, have been Kael’s focus? Yet such evidence simply does not fit the argument, and is thus never considered. Then, just as quickly, Kael goes on to write that while Allen tended to shy away from the camera, at first, using his face as a “caricature” in his early works, this film looks at it quite closely, and without too many frills -- hardly the behavior of someone who is self-loathing, or wishes to hide from the Gentile gaze. Yet Kael is strangely unaware of how deeply such words obviate her earlier comments. In fact, she goes from being absolutely sure of this, to not, and back to certainty at essay’s end (nay, the same paragraph, even) -- the pendulum, no doubt, of a critic that cannot stick to her own positions. And yet, Allen still gets flak: “What’s apparent in all his movies is that for him Jewishness means his own schlumpiness, awkwardness, hesitancy. For Woody Allen, being Jewish is like being a fish on a hook.” But could it be that Allen is merely playing the ‘nebbish’, who just happens to be a Jew? Or does the tribe always come first in Kael’s self-limiting universe? “[In Annie Hall,] his own family quarrels and shouts hysterically,” since “as almost everywhere else in Woody Allen’s films, Jews have no dignity.” Could it be that he’s merely showing what so many families are like -- my own included? Or do only flattering depictions of Jews (or anyone else, for that matter) imply reality? On Manhattan: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” Could it be that those values were simply false, which Pauline Kael at once admits, then suddenly denies when her original point no longer fits a new ‘insight’? Or must a film -- all evidence be damned! -- be taken at face value? Perhaps it is the latter for Kael, for while she goes off on a number of hateful, downright racist detours, she returns full circle to her original conflations: “If Woody Allen finds success very upsetting and wishes the public would go away, this picture should help him stop worrying.” And yet, the public has not gone away, and Allen -- paradoxically -- worries even less. Why is that? Probably because he had few worries in the first place, and which had nothing to do with Kael’s own posits. I mean, Allen is a great artist. Allen knew this. Kael did not. Allen has only gained in stature. Kael, by contrast, has dwindled, and her progeny -- i.e., Armond White -- is on the same self-destructive binge. Again, why is that? I don’t know, but the deeper point is that fewer still even care.
I’ve now covered three film reviews (four if you count Shoeshine), and of these three, I still don’t see how my knowledge of film art has expanded. If anything, it’s been confused, because -- as Renata Adler argues -- Pauline Kael brings in a number of irrelevant issues, tangents, and arcs that do little but make trouble. Yet these three films were big, and covered big, complex themes. What of Allen’s smaller works, and Kael’s responses to those? First up is Broadway Danny Rose, and just as before, Kael begins with allusions to Woody Allen’s “sexual insecurities”, among other things, and notes how there’s been an influx of Allen-like entertainers who might overtake his popularity in the 1980s. Yet it’s interesting to see how utterly dated Pauline Kael’s predictions were a mere decade later, and even less relevant now. For instance, she names John Belushi, Richard Pryor, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Tom Cruise as possible contenders to Allen’s ‘throne’, but besides one or two of those names, who’s gone on to do anything of lasting note -- especially of their own accord? Yes, Tom Cruise will be forever remembered as ‘the lead’ in Eyes Wide Shut, but that is mostly through Kubrick’s great writing and directing, and while the other names (especially Pryor) have been responsible for some laughs, it is odd to compare them to a director like Allen, who is interested in far more expansive work, and was already quite ubiquitous by the time Danny Rose hit theaters. No, the name-dropping isn’t as bad as with Jonathan Rosenbaum (upcoming), but it is yet another foible within Pauline Kael’s writing, especially since it takes her two paragraphs of such before she even attempts to tackle the film.
Kael’s first complaint is that Allen’s Danny Rose is busy “condemning what he views as the scurviness of our time”, all the while “spinning a tale without having any particular involvement with it”. Two issues are immediately obvious here. The first is that the film has little to do with “our time”, especially re: ‘moral’ questions, and everything to do with a lost milieu. This is why the film begins with a gathering of comedians who are forced into reminiscence about the good ol’ days, as things have clearly changed for them, and people, after twenty-plus years, are no longer laughing at their jokes. For this reason, to call this of “our time” is merely an attempt to sound relevant, which is doubly strange, as the way the film tackles loss is timeless, and therefore always relevant, without the need for the stretches and props that Kael so desperately seeks. The second issue is that Danny is very much part of the film precisely for the reasons Kael herself states: the whole tale is engendered by others’ reminiscence, Danny’s function is that of the milieu’s ‘heart’ (no matter how silly and idealistic), and the comedic side to things revolves around his own lacks. As Kael writes, “Danny Rose is nobody in show business” -- a fact that helps him be the center of the tale as a ‘legend’ on the periphery, rather than hindering him in this regard. A better review than her last few, for it skimps on the Judaism, tribalism, and most of the personal attacks, Kael goes on to detail the characters, themselves, as well as their world, and even (correctly) dissents from the popular view that Tina is a great character. She is not, for a “ruthless tough dame who chews gum with a vengeance, talks with a nasal Brooklyn accent, and has a teased-stiff mop of curls” is not so much a character, but a mere stylization, no matter how well-sketched. Yet this is not exactly what Kael argues, as she believes that Tina doesn’t do much for the film. This is untrue, however, as the stylization in fact helps establish a milieu that never really was -- from the archetypes, like Tina or Lou Canova, to the guys who open and close the film, bullshitting in a way that is both untrue, yet necessary to their sense of things, and of themselves. And this is really where the film’s ‘magic’ (however limited) comes in. It is not because the tale is “satirical” (as Kael argues), or that Danny Rose is a mere “larva” of a character (likewise), but in the disconnect between what is and what isn’t, that really drives the film. As Kael writes, while “Woody Allen knows how repulsive Lou Canova’s act is, Danny Rose doesn’t” -- a reality that applies to everything from Manhattan to Stardust Memories, yet an insight that Kael not only misses in those other films, but ill applies here, faulting Danny Rose for not knowing better, while missing the fact that it is more important what the viewer knows about the character, rather than the other way around.
The last review is that of The Purple Rose of Cairo, which is interesting to look at because while I very much agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment of the film’s good qualities, the reasons she gives -- as with Sleeper -- are quite odd, at times. Yes, as with Danny Rose, it is a much better review than her other ones, for it jumps right into the film and stays there, but her line of argument derails early on and never gets quite on track again. For instance, she calls it Allen’s “fullest expression yet of his style of humor”, but while most (excluding Woody Allen, himself) would take issue with Kael’s calling it his best movie thus far, it clearly isn’t in the vein of his other films, but rather a bit of a detour. In short, Allen typically does gags, skewers the upper crust, skewers Brooklyn (not merely “Jewish”) families, and has fun at the expense of his own illusions. This, by contrast, is a “charming” (Kael’s word) tale that leaves most of these elements out, save for the only one that matters: the quality of the writing, visuals, music, and acting, rather than their specifics, which follows him in films as diverse as Sleeper, Interiors, Sweet and Lowdown, and Match Point. This may seem like a minor point, but it’s merely the tip of the iceberg, as Kael goes on to make a large number of other misreadings, and even interprets Woody’s ‘admission’ that he’d like to be Gigi (from the 1958 musical) “with two ribbons dangling quite mischievously past my bangs” quite seriously, as somehow integral to his art, rather than an attempt to be silly, as most of his gags are. Cecilia, to Kael, “isn’t very vivid”, yet her only evidence for such is that she is plain-dressing and looks, talks, and acts like a “mouse”. This may be true on a purely literal level, as far as how other characters might interpret her, but as with my comment re: Danny Rose, it’s far more important to consider how the viewer sees things, as he, by definition, not only knows much more, but is privy to the fact that art itself is a charade. Thus, the viewer watches Cecilia’s reveries get interrupted by the sound of a crashing object; sees her all-too-serious gossip; sees her various ‘tics’ as she reacts to Monk, especially her great confidence, near the end, despite our knowledge that the film’s de facto villain is absolutely right about her illusions; and sees her almost imperceptible turn to wisdom as she cries over her losses, and considers what to do next. Yes, Kael praises Cecilia’s lacks as important to the film, and while I agree in terms of others’ perceptions building much of the narrative, the character, itself, is in fact one of the more “vivid” female leads in all of cinema.
Kael goes on to make a good point about it being unclear “how consciously manipulative Gil is”, as this lends complexity to what might otherwise be a one-note character, but hinders its further development by merely calling the effect “a sense of dislocation”. In short, she is correct in her impressions, but not her reasoning, as it is not “dislocation” (that is, our reaction) that matters, which may or may not affect a viewer, but a complexity of motives (especially obvious when Gil is on the flight back), which is immanent to the character, and quite independent of our personal reaction. She then goes on to write that Gordon Willis’s cinematography is “too rich and shadowed for comedy”, since “The Depression thirties was the era of Deco dishware in cheap and cheerful primary colors, of yellow oilcloth on kitchen tables, and red-and-white plaids and checkerboard patterns wherever you looked.” Perhaps, but so what? Kael is in fact contradicting herself again, for she (correctly) opens her review by stating that “Cecilia and her Depression town are not quite real”, which is at first praise, a la the film’s own subterfuge, but now turns into criticism. In fact, what is implicit in Kael’s earlier comment is that Purple Rose is not even supposed to depict ‘the’ Depression, as it truly was, but the Depression of the popular imagination, which thus turns into a symbol for Allen to play with. And although she critiques the film’s “browns”, it is undeniable that such drabness is precisely what’s come to be associated with the time period. This is sort of like criticizing The Odyssey for its incorrect depictions of maritime life (it’s been done!) while missing the tale, itself, and thus mixing up the truth and reality. In short, art is the province not of facts (truth), but of reality, wherein deeper things emerge of life, minutia be damned -- especially if (as with Kael’s “primary colors”) they’ve already been quite forgotten, and replaced by a wholly new mythos for art to parallax. To demand that one must resuscitate them is nitpicky, and belongs more in a curiosity shop than an expansive work of art, as this film is.
Monk (Danny Aiello) is criticized, as well, as he is “too heavy and loutish”, and this is really where her essay finally comes off its wheels. Yes, Monk is quite dislikable, and Kael admits she “dreaded” his scenes, but again: so what? What Kael misses is the fact that Monk, despite being the film’s villain, is the one that sees reality most clearly, and is -- unlike Cecilia -- completely OK with it. Thus, despite Kael’s argument, this in fact makes him a much more interesting character than he first seems. When he shouts, “It ain’t like the movies!” at Cecilia, the irony is that he’s absolutely right, and the film’s do-gooder is wrong. This lends Monk if not outright credibility, then at least something for the film to play off of. She then writes that “the film’s resolution” makes Monk’s depiction “cruelly harsh”, yet all this proves is that Kael had not really seen the film’s ending, and the way it ultimately depicts Cecilia. Yes, Cecilia is disillusioned, and loses her ‘easy’ ticket out of a bad life, but we also see her go back to the movie theater at which she cries, and then -- as if something had finally ‘clicked’ in her brain -- smiles. It is, moreover, a smile that is sustained, and has little to do with what she sees, and everything to do with some new realization. Does she return to Monk? One can’t say, but it is clear that, whatever might happen between the two, her marriage can no longer be the same. As Dan Schneider writes, “even if it all was a dream you sense Cecilia -- despite her heartbreak -- has had 1 of those Rilkean ‘You must change your life.’ moments.” This is, in fact, much more in tune with the evidence, and a likelier outcome when one considers Kael’s own words: that there is a sense of strength and “independence” underneath Cecilia’s weak veneer. Indeed, for while she faults the film’s ending for being “tidy”, and that Allen needed to “pull something magical out of a hat”, the irony is that Allen has done precisely that. Yet, as with any good sleight-of-hand, it simply isn’t noticed -- not even by the ‘professionals’ in the room, who should at least have come to expect it.
Readers have praised how “unpredictable” Pauline Kael’s reviews were, but how could that ever be a good thing? It simply means that she had no consistent way of looking at art, and was therefore perpetually lost, deriding a cliche in one film, then praising it in another, all the while constructing reviews that -- if not merely full of invective -- were either non-topical, or full of holes and contradictions. In short, it didn’t matter whether Kael wrote a non-topical, blog-like memoir (Shoeshine), a review-cum-biography (Sleeper), racial invective (Interiors), amateur psychoanalysis (Stardust Memories), or straight reviews (Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo), for they are filled with the same cliches, misreadings, vindictiveness, and abuses of evidence and logic that cohere her work under one umbrella, but do little to further one’s understanding of art. Nor does it truly matter whether she was right or wrong, but how she got there, for unlike, say, Roger Ebert on Stardust Memories, or James Berardinelli on Celebrity, she preferred to fill with reviews with mere personal attacks, not dialectic, as things like evidence are quite tame -- boring, even! -- compared to ‘insights’ about Allen’s sexuality, or his Jewish self-loathing. Yet if my overview of James Berardinelli vis-a-vis Pauline Kael shows anything, it is that tameness and sound argumentation are far preferable to screeching. It is not, after all, merely about being right, but being right-minded. One could be wrong with all the right evidence. And one can be right with NO idea as to why. But a person who has an expansive and unbiased way of engaging art -- that is, unclouded by emotion or aesthetics -- will at least know what the hell he’s looking at. That won’t make one a great critic, but at least the art can penetrate. At least one can be better. At least there is the art.
Of all Woody’s critics, few have been as harsh as Jonathan Rosenbaum, a top film reviewer at the Chicago Reader for about two decades, and a writer of articles and books that are quite virtuoso in their technical scope and depth. Rosenbaum’s website alone features thousands of reviews, while some of his ‘side projects’ -- such as a DVD commentary on Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, a film that he helped re-compile in 2006 -- shows off a historical knowledge that few critics ever have. This sort of work ethic is impossible to deny, even if it’s not entirely congenial to the nuts-and-bolts of artistic criticism, which is what this book attempts. Thus, while Jonathan Rosenbaum mirrors Ray Carney vis-a-vis pure scholarship, he is, in his own way, quite recapitulative of that critic’s flaws, as well. In short, he has derided Allen’s characters as “cardboard-thin”, his style, visuals, and ideas “shallow” and derivative, and even complained of the “glitzy, suicidal chic” that allegedly permeates his films. The problem, however, is not that Rosenbaum is negative or dismissive, but that, like Pauline Kael before him, he rarely offers any real evidence for his claims -- many of his reviews are a mere four to five sentences long -- and when he does, they simply don’t align with the assertions made. So, for a purportedly comprehensive essay titled “Some Notes Toward a Devaluation of Woody Allen”, there is remarkably little evaluation, to start, and even less Woody Allen, the essay’s purported subject. The subject, then, is not so much Woody Allen, but a phantasm of the critic’s own making; an imago that -- when it doesn’t live up to Rosenbaum’s tangents -- is simply dismissed, even as he bemoans the supposed lack of intellectual engagement Allen’s films provide.
Thus, not only is Rosenbaum harsh, he is also one of Woody’s neediest critics, which is a far worse and more relevant charge. Now, I don’t mean this as an insult, but merely that Rosenbaum has a set of personal needs (as most people do) that he extrapolates into art (which no critic ought to do), and expects them to be satisfied. In short, he demands things from Woody to fit his own purview (anti-racism; social justice; questions of ethnic identity), and complains when he doesn’t get them (Manhattan doesn’t have black people; WASPs live in a bubble), for Rosenbaum is a ‘connoisseur’ that thrives not on film, on its own terms, but on art’s tangents, i.e., how well they fit a set of ethical or philosophical criteria, and Rosenbaum’s own relationship to the world. One may commend Rosenbaum for his commitment to such things -- as, indeed, such passions do not occur often enough -- but it also forces him into perspectives that have precious little to do with art. Thus, to step outside of oneself becomes unthinkable, and to imagine that there are values not your own implies a problem (hence his frequent use of the word “problematic”, which is really a code-word for ‘not-to-taste’). One could say, in fact, that Rosenbaum watches films for -- well, for Rosenbaum. This would not be much of a ‘problem’ (that word again!), except that Rosenbaum writes strictly for Rosenbaum, too, and perhaps anyone else that sees the world as he does, not ‘as is’. Sure, one could learn a lot about Rosenbaum like this, but what about the art? What of character? Dialogue? Poesy? Narrative depth? Yet such ‘frills’ are shorted when they are subsumed under a critic’s own needs and preoccupations.
Rosenbaum begins with this rhetorical question -- ‘rhetorical’, for he does not attempt to really answer it: “Why are American intellectuals so contemptuous of Jerry Lewis and so crazy about Woody Allen?...[W]hat is it that gives Allen such an exalted cultural status in this country, and Lewis virtually no cultural status at all?”
He goes on to blame viewers’ “infatuation”, and the like, but seems to miss a deeper point. Jerry Lewis is primarily a comic and entertainer, and while good at his job, he is mostly that: an entertainer of fairly limited scope. Allen, by contrast, has done everything from slapstick to deep and original drama, replete with great character arcs, wonderful imagery, strong narrative, and interesting things to say not only about people and their foibles, but the wan interpretations of truth, art, purpose, and reality that they inflict upon the world. The comparison, then, is an odd one (to put it mildly) and makes just as much sense as asking ‘why’ Gena Rowlands gets so much respect from “American intellectuals” in the theater, but not Hulk Hogan, despite the latter being ‘theatrical’, as well. It is also telling that Rosenbaum complains of Allen’s inclination to “drop names”, such as Kierkegaard, or Gustav Klimt in Another Woman, despite such things taking up, maybe, thirty to forty-five seconds of screen-time, total, even in Allen’s most ‘referential’ films. By contrast, Rosenbaum, himself, drops no less than seventeen names across his first three paragraphs alone, trapping his thoughts in a deluge of references that so often mar his own writing. To the objective reader, then, this is yet more neediness, this time for intellectual props, and others’ approbation.
Rosenbaum then goes on to make a good point about Allen’s fans more or less ‘rooting’ for the Woody persona, as they see their own flaws and images within. But instead of further developing this thought, he merely lets it alone, calling Allen’s films “strangely unformed and unrealized”, even as he misses the deeper point concerning his original claim. In short, Allen often throws his persona out there as a means of artistic deceit. Too often, viewers have empathized with a ‘type’ like Alvy (Annie Hall) or Isaac Davis (Manhattan), while ignoring the fact that such characters are really well-sketched manipulators, subjecting others -- as well as the viewer -- to their wiles, and not only succeeding, but winning our empathy, to boot. Thus, while Rosenbaum’s first claim is absolutely true, the fact that such paradoxical things can even occur implies good writing and great character arcs, down to Manhattan’s visuals lulling the viewer into a complacency that its ‘darker’ reality completely undermines. This is really the bottom line, and that Rosenbaum is hoodwinked into accepting Manhattan’s imagery as merely “validating” and “attractive” (a la its lack of black people) shows that he is only too willing to take things at face value.
The essay then turns to one of the more tired criticisms of Woody’s films: that they are “derivative” of Bergman, among others, but without further comment or explanation. The short answer is that the word ‘derivative’ -- if it is to mean anything at all -- implies ‘unoriginal’, as in, a derivation is not a mere use, model, starting point, or allusion, but a complete rip-off. Yet this is clearly untrue with the examples Rosenbaum, himself, provides. For example, he sees Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a middling, purely stylized, over-symbolic drama wherein characters speak artificially and have little to no real development, in Allen’s Interiors, a film that revisits many of the same themes and relationships -- including ‘favored’ sisters -- but with much more subtle use of symbol, far richer dialogue, and a clear beginning, middle, and denouement not only in the plotline, but of characters, themselves, who grow and react in utterly human, not merely flamboyant, ways. Allen is also accused of ripping off Fellini’s 8½ in Stardust Memories, but while the earlier film is nearly two and a half hours long, and narrowly focused on one character’s existence, Stardust Memories is one of the ‘leanest’ films ever made, and focused on far deeper concerns of the nature of truth, reality, purpose, and art, and uses Sandy Bates as a means for exploring them. It is, as Tony Macklin writes of Allen’s uses of Truffaut, “a springboard for his own vision”, rather than a rip-off, Sure, Allen’s own film downright feels like a homage, at times, but after so many alterations, and so much polish, the fact is, a film’s very essence changes -- influenced, or not. To think otherwise simply ignores how art moves and what these words mean, ideas that are covered more significantly in Schneider’s reviews of Cries and Whispers and 8½. At some point, Rosenbaum even goes on to draw parallels between Zelig and Warren Beatty’s Reds, conflating Zelig’s talking-heads with the latter film’s “witnesses”, when, in fact, it is far more accurate to say that Zelig is merely like any other historical documentary featuring a few ‘experts’, with one crucial difference: that they’re not merely discussing a fictional figure, but an utterly fantastical one, clearly making it a spoof on typical ‘period’ documentaries, and “indebted” to nothing but the knowledge of how such documentaries go.
Yet as posturing as these claims are, Rosenbaum’s essay really starts to suffer when he brings in the subject of Woody’s film editors. Yes, there is no doubt that Ralph Rosenblum (among others) have helped refine Allen’s work, but there is such a strong continuity between, say, Annie Hall (Rosenblum) and Manhattan (Susan E. Morse), or Crimes and Misdemeanors (Morse) and Match Point (Alisa Lepselter), re: character, visuals, scripting, poesy, ideas, and the like, despite differences of time, distance, co-writers, and changes in editors, that these are invariably Allen’s visions, and utterly dependent upon him, first. Graham Daseler calls this Woody’s “distinct stamp”, for while many have written off the ‘auteur theory’ in film, Allen, by contrast, “stands as a glaring reproof”, given how similar two films can be, even when decades apart. Nor is it a sin that “Allen’s conceptions”, as originally written, end up being altered, as every work of art goes through these changes (film included) until all that matters is what’s finally on the screen. Rosenbaum then goes on to deride Allen’s “literary” conception of film, ignoring the fact that any good film must start with narrative, first, whether that means something as simple as ‘See Spot Run’, or Allen’s magisterial opening in Stardust Memories, which uses symbols, visuals, illusions, allusions, and the eliding of details and plot points to get at some ‘deeper’ things that can’t easily be put into words. This, by itself, does a good job of laying to rest the notion that Allen is not ‘filmic’, but Rosenbaum further hurts himself by bringing up Godard’s awful Meetin’ WA, wherein Godard pointlessly uses Allen’s own title screens from Hannah and Her Sisters in between his inane interview of Allen, and Rosenbaum confuses this for a “cinematic device”. It is not, for the word “device” implies a meaningful useof something, not a haphazard editing job wherein a director randomly throws garbage at the viewer, hoping it’ll stick. Had Godard started with Allen’s alleged “literary” conception, however, he might have decided on a purpose, first, and avoided the anomie altogether.
Rosenbaum then takes shots at Crimes and Misdemeanors for purportedly trying “to address the rampant amorality and self-interest of the 1980s”, while pointing out that a “socially concerned” character, Cliff, isn’t reward for his aspirations, and that we’re forced to empathize more with Cliff than a murdered mistress. Yet it is again Rosenbaum’s own neediness that forces him to make such deductions, as Crimes and Misdemeanors does not in fact try to “address” what he claims it does, but merely shows amorality, in general, as it plays out within a hyper-realistic killer. This is a film that could have been made in the 1960s, or the 2060s, and it’d still be beholden to the same patterns of killers, mistresses, winners, and losers, so to give it a time-stamp is silly. Nor is it a mere case of ‘good guys finish last’ for Cliff’s character, because while Cliff has good intentions, as Rosenbaum points out, Cliff is also not exactly a good filmmaker, which Rosenbaum misses, thus putting Cliff precisely in the same artistic category as Lester, the film’s second de facto villain, save that Cliff is ultimately not successful. Nor is it a bad thing that we end up rooting for Landau a little when he offs his mistress, as it in fact takes a great script and narrative arc to turn a victim into an annoyance, and a sociopath into a minor hero, of sorts, no matter how temporarily. Again, Rosenbaum clearly does not ‘like’ the implications. In fact, I don’t either -- at all. But so what? Such inversions are really what make the film work, on the level of high art, while Rosenbaum derides the very things he over-reads into the film, or -- what’s worse -- ignores that which he cannot see due to his chosen self-restrictions. In fact, this is really a shame, as his ‘technical’ expertise could really shed some light on the murkier aspects of Allen’s film-making, and the history of films that -- when approached with a critical eye -- will be remembered for what they are, rather than what they are not.
At end, Rosenbaum wishes that Allen’s characters “face” their Jewish identity issues (which is again called “problematic”), derides Allen’s reluctance to “alienate” his fans (Stardust Memories is offered as a counter-example, while ignoring many others), and shakes his head at the improbability of an Allen comedy that “tells us something about, say, American idiocy blundering through the Third World” -- as if Allen needs to cater to Rosenbaum’s sense of propriety, and not Allen’s own vision. No, not every critical faux pas is a necessarily a bad one. Yet in a very deep sense, there is no ‘turning back’ from Rosenbaum’s, for it’s one thing to find a work of art lacking, and a completely different thing to wish that work of art to simply transmogrify, not because the art, itself, would be better for it, but because it would better fit your world -- no matter how noble or progressive that phantasm may be. This is not only the height of personal neediness, but antithetical to what art is, and what it could do for people, if only they could get past their own desires.
It is interesting to put Ray Carney into the category of Woody Allen ‘detractors’, since -- despite his often sketchy line of argumentation -- he is still quite above critics such as Pauline Kael and Jonathan Rosenbaum, for a number of reasons. For one, I am an admirer of his scholarly work, and especially what he’s done to help resuscitate John Cassavetes’s film legacy. Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes, for instance, took eleven years to write, as he had to conduct hundreds of interviews, hunt down obscure documents, and force himself to come to terms with his own perceptions of the artist, as a great filmmaker, versus that of the man, who was moody, sick, and quite dislikable, at times. This, by itself, shears Carney of some biases, and proves that he is at least able to look at things from a fresh perspective, no matter how it might discomfit him. Yet it is really his cogent attacks on Hollywood, film theory, and film criticism that stand out the most, given that he is an academic willing to stake his professional reputation on some unpopular claims. Needless to say, most don’t take any real positions (much less create them, as Carney has sometimes done), and thus belong to far lesser company.
That said, there is a world of difference between scholarly ability and a critical one, and Ray Carney prides himself on both. The former revolves around patience, meticulousness, and being able to digest large amounts of information to get at what’s ‘essential’. The latter talent, however, is quite unpredictable, and no skill-set, college degree, earnestness, knowledge, creativity, or ‘expertise’ will ever guarantee it, much less the ability to replicate these sound judgments, time after time. (This, as I’ve shown, was quite often Ebert’s flaw.) One can, for instance, be a great artist, yet know little of art’s ‘why’. A quick perusal of Shelley’s confused In Defence of Poetry will reveal this, as will the opinions of many artists, big or small, on what art is and how it’s made. In short, one could be intelligent, creative, honest, and a wonderful communicator, to boot, yet still be unable to articulate why something works, on a deeper level, while something else does not. And this is really Carney’s problem, as he is a great scholar, and sometimes even quite good when dealing with the generalities of Hollywood, artistic stagnation, and the like, but tends to break down when it comes to more specific critiques of art, itself. He has written, for example, why Citizen Kane, Woody Allen, and Stanley Kubrick are overrated, why Schindler's List is a bad film, why Hitchcock is primarily a stylist, and why Quentin Tarantino is all hype. This is, by my count, three valid claims, and three arguable ones. Sure, these are three ballsy (and intelligent!) claims more than most critics ever make, but they’re scattershot -- quite literally a coin-toss -- and therefore not replicable. No where is this more obvious, however, than in his detailed critique of Woody Allen, which is full of the same biases and misreadings that damn even far lesser critics than Carney.
The essay begins with a few obvious mistakes in its attempt to explain the popularity of Allen’s films. Carney’s assertion is that, unlike with other filmmakers, Allen gives us a “flattering” picture of our own selves, for his characters (men, especially) are “high-minded, good-mannered, well-groomed, and well-meaning”, and the women downright “intellectual”. Indeed, the viewer would even want to be a character, within, if the choice were forced upon him, given the popular alternatives. Moreover, the films, themselves, are full of “sumptuous” music, “elegant” cinematography, more or less tell the world that everything is alright, thus comforting us in the midst of entertaining. But while I’m quite sure that this is the case for most people, it is only because Ray Carney, himself, falls into the same trap that so many other critics (and viewers) do. In short, Allen’s characters are anything but upstanding, with only a few exceptions, and just as few real intellectuals, as opposed to mere poseurs. Alvy Singer (Annie Hall) is a self-loathing manipulator; Isaac Davis (Manhattan) is selfish, a liar, a bad writer, and does not, evidently, even reveal his true nature to his best friend, Yale; Joey (Interiors) is the perpetually dissatisfied non-artist, spoiled by American luxury, while Renata is the prototypically selfish one, and immature re: the arts, to boot; Hannah (Hannah and Her Sisters) is either a cold, manipulative bitch, or a ‘nice’ and selfless lady, depending on the evidence one takes; Cecilia (The Purple Rose of Cairo) is weak for much of the film, with only the hint of something ‘more’ in the last minute or so; Judy (Husbands and Wives) is one of cinema’s most nefarious creations; and Marion (Another Woman) has a mode of being that erases all proper emotion, a realization she only makes (and acts upon) at the ripe old age of 50 -- precisely when Hollywood thinks women ought to be quite dead. Of course, this does not even cover Judah (Crimes and Misdemeanors), nor even the blind rabbi, Ben, or Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Sweet and Lowdown, and Cassandra’s Dream, which are full of even more inversions that discriminating film-goers ought to be able to pick up on. To be fair, Carney’s essay was published before Crimes was released, which saw one of Allen’s biggest and most hyper-realistic villains, but the fact that the essay was not amended, but shown on his own site as a prime attraction, means the judgment more or less stands. More importantly, however, is that Carney already had a large number of characters to choose from to serve as counter-points, and yet, for whatever reason, did not see their true shortcomings. In fact, if I were forced to be anyone from these films, I’d choose Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories), the only true artist that Allen ever created, and one of the most ‘whole’ characters in all of cinema, despite the many opinions to the contrary.
But while Carney begins with a simple and over-common misreading, he quickly reveals his own biases, which afflict the rest of his essay. He complains of the “extraordinarily privileged” nature of a typical Woody character, and -- in a phrase that reeks of the film-speak Carney in fact loathes -- the subsequent “imaginative embourgeoisement of experience”. In short, there are no poor people in an Allen film, no black people, no crime, and almost no evil. It is sterile, pollyanna, and Carney does not at all ‘like’ this. But while it’s true that Allen is excluding one slice of reality by refusing to tackle certain issues, it makes zero sense to privilege those realities in a work of art over any others, as Carney both suggests and denies. If, for example, I wish to explore the subterranean world of Japanese BDSM circa 1962, I will not, quite naturally, turn to a Woody Allen film for answers. Nor will I blame Caravaggio for not tackling the issue of the proletariat in Death of the Virgin, or Andrew Wyeth for not addressing the overfishing of cod in his favorite Maine retreats. Woody Allen is concerned with the upper-crust because, as he’s often admitted, it is simply what he knows, and has therefore captured that ‘type’ better than any other artist. It is their world, as they see it, and that which is inessential to their tale is therefore excluded. This, in fact, is quite basic, for the best art is not some ever-expanding cone (as it’s been argued), but really a funnel from which a small-but-great concentrate emerges, and different artists are responsible for depicting these different ‘slices’. So while Martin Scorsese was damn good at showing a stylized underbelly, in a way that Allen simply cannot, he’ll still never craft an existential, metafictive masterpiece like Stardust Memories, or a comic gem like Sleeper, for that is likewise out of bounds. This is not a flaw, merely the reality. Thus, as I wrote of Jonathan Rosenbaum, to demand a work of art be something that it isn’t rather than what it is, is not merely a critical faux pas, but something from which there is NO turning back. This is because the second one starts to engage this line of thinking, one is trapped by biases, desires, and immaterial ‘needs’ that have little to do with what’s immanent to the art, itself, and everything to do with the viewer, whose personal demands thus override the image, and turn the thing into a mere phantasm.
As if realizing the strangeness of his argument, Carney attempts to ‘sophisticate’ his words by claiming that an artist does not need to be “held to a naturalistic or realistic social agenda”, but nonetheless complains of Purple Rose’s lack of “garbage” in the streets, as the film “breaks down” when it gets “hard” to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Well, yes, there is no clear dividing line, as this is an interesting way of showing Mia’s thoughts -- that is, characterization -- and very much deepens the film’s last few moments. Such things are not in Carney’s realm, however, for even the characters, he argues, are all quite “nice” and “never too confused” for the audience, and thus unable to make them “squirm”. But “squirming”, too, is merely one slice of reality, albeit one that Carney privileges over everything else, and thus uses his preference as a sledge-hammer to beat back the inevitable encroachment of the things he wishes to exclude. And, yes, while it’s true that audiences will sympathize with most of Allen’s characters, it is precisely because they, themselves, have bought into the very illusions Carney decries, and Allen, himself, criticizes over and over again. To most, Isaac’s “New York was his town, and it always would be” is an example of great writing. It really isn’t, and only Allen (and a few viewers) realize this, which is the exact opposite of Ray Carney’s assertion that Woody represents a kind of “modernism for the millions”. Indeed, for these millions, like Carney, see the illusions, and merely take them at face value. The only difference is that while the audience eats them up and smiles, Carney does so with a frown.
Carney goes on to deride the depiction of Holly’s (Hannah and Her Sisters) “drug problem” as somehow effete, for it doesn’t show how destructive drugs can be. Perhaps, but Carney’s assumption is that the drugs are front-and-center, when in fact it is Holly’s neediness, lack of self-worth, and poor decisions that are her mark, and thus lead to drug use in the first place, which is a mere symptom of her ills rather than the cause. Nor is she, like Flyn (Interiors), in a truly terrible situation, merely unhappy, but with pretenses to something ‘higher’ -- a luxury that many poor people simply do not have. It makes sense, then, that her drug use is lackadaisical, for it fits her character, fits her milieu, and fits her position in life. To emphasize drugs would strip her of other complexities given what the film is and what it isn’t, but Carney does not really see this. Annie Hall is given similar treatment, as Carney brings up a scene where Annie wishes to take cocaine, only to have Alvy -- who finally agrees -- inadvertently sneeze it all away. Carney calls this a “glib” resolution to the drug “problem” (a word that is quite often code for a critic’s own wants), given how things in the scene “threaten to get really interesting” before Allen suddenly cuts them short. In fact, they don’t threaten this at all, for Annie is a very casual user, at worst, is a better -- stronger, even! -- person than Alvy, and is probably in no danger of becoming a junky, thus making any ‘serious’ treatment of drugs irrelevant. At film’s end, she merely goes out a lot, plays tennis, and has other escapes that truly fit and fill her, thus obviating drugs as a need for such, not only for Annie, the person, but Annie the artistic creation, who’d only be marred by such a tangent. Indeed, Carney’s own focus would, as with Holly, completely take the force away from Annie’s air-headed qualities (which are the reason for her even trying coke in the first place), and thus torpedo the character Allen has been building. Granted, it may not be the character that Carney ‘wants’ to see, but so what? Annie is reality, for she is very much a real person, which is an accomplishment, not an “evasion”. I have also known a good number of drug addicts, from a childhood friend who became a heroin-addicted prostitute at the age of fourteen, practically before my eyes, to far less frightening stories, and must take issue with Carney’s idea that it is all somehow “interesting”. It is not. It is, in fact, quite predictable and rote, for every drug addict’s ‘reason’ is the same, every story word-for-word, and every arc -- whether towards death, or some happier denouement -- identical, no matter how unique such stories are often said to be. Indeed, Carney’s own insistence that this is “interesting” not only undermines Allen’s art, which really has no place for such, anyway, but sounds an awful lot like a “privileged” white person (to borrow Carney’s own plaints re: Allen) who wishes to be a voyeur, but without truly being able to understand the thing he wants to see.
Carney criticizes yet another great scene in Hannah, where the title character watches an argument between her parents, but offers no cogent reason for his dislike, except that there is no “real danger”, as if Marlon Brando busting out of the closet with the ‘kiss of death’ could somehow better things -- or, to use Carney’s own example, that the mother have an affair with a young stud to make things “really interesting”. It wouldn’t, as it’d merely introduce a layer of melodrama that Carney at first criticizes, then outright suggests. Hannah’s subsequent voice-over is savaged, too, but Carney confuses things when he assumes it is there to offer insight into her parents (who are, in fact, quite predictable), rather than into Hannah, herself, who is for the first and only time shown to be completely alone with her thoughts, as a means of providing some unadulterated ‘pro’ evidence of her good character amidst all the bad we’ve seen up to that point. Yet Carney’s most stolid reading of the film is his complaint that “the crisis magically abates, and is never referred to again.” Indeed, as it doesn’t have to be, for what we get from the parents -- prior to any voice-over at all -- is the fact that, after decades of marriage, the two fools are still going at it, for they are wired to fight, cheat, and act like asses due to their deepest point of similarity: their immaturity. Carney finds this all somehow unrealistic, but why? In fact, how many marriages are precisely like this? How many arguments do we witness on the street, on the train, or in the supermarket that follow the same sort of arcs and denouement? How many people are ‘stuck’ in an unhappy life, without the will to change things? Ray Carney calls their argument a “crisis”, but it is not a crisis at all, and the film’s own evidence never implies that it is. It is, in fact, simply one more argument among thousands of others that have already come, and will continue to come ‘till death do us part’. And it is not referred to again because something else will inevitably take its place, something no less lurid, and -- even more predictably -- no less dumb. It will follow the same arcs, and it will end in exactly the same way. Perhaps Lee will comfort them this time. Or perhaps it will be Holly. Do such details really matter? I have been there, alright, but after years of entertaining such disputes every single night, I still can’t tell you what the hell they were about. Woody Allen has therefore captured my reality quite well. Yet great art does something even better. It reveals such things are not exclusive to ‘your’ world, but universal, and really cuts into them quite meaningfully. Luckily, I got out of my “problem” (to borrow Carney’s phrasing) before it grew. Allen’s film, however, shows that many never do, and will simply die trying. This is quite frightening. This is real. Yet it, too, is somehow not in Carney’s realm, possibly because in his wish to be a voyeur of mere melodrama, he misses the true drama of everyday life.
Nor is his treatment of Allen’s magisterial Stardust Memories much better, for even as Carney wishes to get away from the sillier judgments made of the film, he still argues from ‘the enemy’s turf’, as it were. Carney’s first objection is to the film’s use of “grotesques”, given how far they are from reality, thus preventing Allen from truly being “contemptuous” of them. Yet even this line of reasoning accepts the common (and wrong!) assumption that Allen was merely trying to create monsters, and use them as a kind of straw-man against his own inner phantasms. There are two issues with this. The most obvious one is that such characters take up, at most, a few minutes of screen time in an 88 minute film, allowing everyone else to be sketched beyond caricature. Dorrie, for instance, is a psychotic nonpareil, while Sandy’s playboy friend (Tony Roberts) is both a slimeball and utterly correct about his best friend’s flaws. This is, quite naturally, good writing. The more cogent point, however, is that Sandy Bates is not Allen, at all, and while Sandy is talented and generally ‘whole’, his flaws and shenanigans are completely skewered by the film’s extraterrestrial scene, which was (the viewer must be reminded) written by Allen, himself, and serves as the film’s over-voice which reins ‘reality’ back in. This includes the way Sandy (ostensibly) sees others, and certainly the way he’s approached romantic relationships. They are, again, real people, and while a select few are caricatures, they are caricatures that serve the film’s purpose, and Sandy, especially, who is both skewered and -- at film’s end -- not. For more specifics on why the film works, despite Carney’s claims, I refer you to the earlier chapter in this book, as well as Dan Schneider’s review, which remains the most comprehensive examination of the film to date.
It is interesting, then, how Carney’s critiques, while often cogent as mere generalities, break down the very moment in which they are asked to live in specifics. This is true not only in his critique of particular films, but his mis-use of Allen’s “comedy”, not because it is somehow ill-fitting, but because, as before, Carney either overstates the argument, or simply applies it to the wrong thing. Thus, even comedy is subject to ridicule, for there is nothing innately humorous (at least to Carney) when the “grotesques” in Stardust Memories behave like idiots -- culled, by the way, from real life -- or when Christopher Walken’s character, in Annie Hall, rattles off some psychotic fantasy, which Walken thinks Allen might “understand” because he is “an artist”. The joke, of course, is that Walken is the ‘cream’ of Annie’s already-strange family, on top of being a kind of proto ‘artsy’ type who’d utter such banalities in the first place, depicted well before such people even entered the cultural lexicon. Sure, it’s not especially deep, but the film is more comedy than drama -- this scene included. To Carney, then, this is merely Allen’s way of “defusing” potentially difficult situations, but while he complains of this, it is, first of all, merely funny, with NO danger to Alvy even if Walken’s character were furthered given the film’s nature, and, second, is in fact an innovation. In short, it is innovative to pair a great drama like Crimes and Misdemeanors with a ‘comic’ side, in the same way that Allen’s ignoring of Walken’s artsy’s pretensions, or Holly’s drug problem is seen as (to use Carney’s phrase re: Hannah’s parents) “more silly than sad”. On a certain level, then, one must treat these addle-brained yet privileged people as they really are: silly, manipulative, and confused, rather than going through anything irreconcilable. (And, yes, this includes Walken’s character, as well, or else you’re in for a mindless detour.) In fact, they merely author their own flaws, but pretend their issues are somehow ‘higher’, and while Carney claims that he’s seen audiences feel “discomfort” at Walken’s revelations, what does this prove, exactly, except how easily audiences and critics alike will fall for the same illusions?
As noted, Allen’s use of voice-overs is attacked, as well, from the sillier and humorous ones (such as in Annie Hall), to those of Hannah and Another Woman. Hannah is again singled out for critique, given that Elliot, at film’s end, has resolved his own issues in a way that Carney -- in a tangent of his own making -- deems as “unrealistic”. But why? That someone has gotten to the bottom of his own immaturity? That such things ‘cannot’ happen? Well, no, as Elliot is quite aware of his flaws early on, and does not so much resolve them as he merely stops acting on them, and while Carney might find this unrealistic, this is, in fact, simply how people operate: they learn, and hopefully get better in the process. Nor are their realizations always right (another illusion that Carney falls for), as Isaac and Alvy prove, early on, and Judy, Cliff, Ben, Harry, and others much later. At other times, characters do realize things about themselves, but find that they’re in a ‘rut’, and completely lack the means (or will) to get out of it, which is, in fact, what most of Allen’s characters suffer through. To get back to Hannah, it is not even clear how much genuine change there is, for while Hannah, herself, might have grown, one wonders if Lee was merely a symptom of something ‘deeper’ in Elliot’s own psyche. In short, while the crisis has passed, its essence -- as with Hannah’s parents -- might not have, and while Elliot effuses over Lee’s new-found marriage, one must consider that it took a husband to change Lee for the better, because while alcohol was once her addiction, it was supplanted by Frederick, then by Elliot, who are merely stages in her own life. And now? Who knows? It is, in fact, question that can just as well be applied to Holly, for while Carney mocks the idea that she simply ‘wills’ herself into authorial success, and into being a good mother, wife, and writer, where, exactly, is the evidence for all this? The only example of her writing that we ever see (which Mickey cluelessly praises, giving us some clue into his own supposed talents) is a poorly wrought melodrama that ends on a cliche -- a fact that seems to elude Carney, even as he denounces cliches elsewhere. Nor do we have any evidence that she is a good anything, except superficially successful, for even Mickey’s ‘moment’ with her is brief, and is just as perfect and syrupy as in any new marriage -- Lee’s three relationships included, and Mickey’s with Hannah. Thus, to make any grand deductions from this, as Carney has done, is simply irresponsible, as the viewer must reckon with how realistic it is for Holly to have changed. One may give her the benefit of the doubt, of course, but she’s a woman of forty who’s never had a real job, had a drug problem, and is wracked with guilt and insecurity -- the type of women the ‘Woody’ type is utterly drawn to in film after film, with disastrous consequences almost every time. One can, I suppose, make good arguments pro and con, but ‘tidy’ it is not, but realistic, for many questions are unanswered. They just happen to be the questions that Carney doesn’t really care for, or even see.
Carney then goes full circle upon the mention of Manhattan -- that “squeaky-clean” film that over-romanticizes, and has no “garbage” in the streets -- not only via the film, itself, but also in the way he recapitulates his own errors. Carney pokes fun of the way Isaac falls in and out of love with Tracy, only to run back to her at film’s end, wherein the city’s panorama, Allen’s choice of music, and high-falutin’ cultural references are meant to be “taken seriously”, and that “even the most uninformed audiences know that they are meant to sit in silence and take Allen straight at such moments.” This would be quite damning, of course, but only if it were true. Yes, Carney excoriates Isaac for running back to Tracy after his session with the tape-recorder, but so does Woody Allen, and, in this disconnect, completely misses why the scene works. I’d criticize Isaac (and not Allen, as Carney often conflates), as well, but for very different reasons. Recall that, for the entire film, Isaac presents himself as a do-gooder with ‘ideals’, but is clearly a self-deluding manipulator with little to no artistic talent, and lots of secrets he rarely slips out. Tracy falls in love with him, but while he knows the relationship is doomed due to her immaturity and his own wandering eye, he refuses to nix it, as he is quite comfortable with a seventeen year-old nymphet whom he could ‘groom’ at bad art galleries, and the like. He dumps her only when he meets Mary -- another woman he is ill-suited for -- then runs back to Tracy only when Mary, in turn, dumps him. In short, Tracy is a rebound, and while much has been made of the ‘illusionary’ ending, as if it is ambiguous whether or not the two will stay together, the fact is, Tracy is simply too young and too intelligent NOT to outgrow a crass manipulator like Isaac. Sure, she spouts some ill-advised wisdom, and the like, but what has Isaac learned, exactly? Carney seems to think that Allen’s characters make (and reveal) their supposedly deep self-realizations, via voice-overs or direct interactions, but not only does this not happen, here, the ‘revelation’ is in fact a false one, as Isaac is selfish and delusional to the very end. In a great, earlier scene, for instance, Isaac is made to look as if his friends are reading out his prison sentence (via some damning passages of his ex-wife’s book), and while his bad behavior has finally come crashing down on him, the fact is, Isaac merely sweeps this under the rug, and learns nothing. He can’t try his little games with Mary, who -- while not any more intelligent than Tracy, despite Isaac’s manipulative compliments -- is certainly more experienced. Yet Tracy is there, alright, at least for now. But she too will go, and Isaac will only have his selfishness and his patterns. Yes, the audiences ‘love’ the film’s ending, but why? Because they are easily tricked into accepting its illusions, even as Allen spends the entire film denuding them, and showing how unrealistic they really are. Oh well.
One can safely say, then, that Carney’s mis-reading of Manhattan shows the issues with his criticism, as a whole, as the rest of the essay breaks down along the same ideological lines, and claims that -- while salient in their attempt to break free from typical film-crit -- nonetheless fall prey the very lines of reasoning he himself so often critiques. Indeed, it is quite odd to read Ray Carney’s pointed attacks on Hollywood, film journals, and commercialism alongside essays such as this, for when a critic can no longer distinguish ‘the thing itself’ from his own biases, it is criticism no longer, but an exploration of the writer’s own psyche. Jonathan Rosenbaum is guilty of this. So is Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby. Roger Ebert, too, had his blind spots. And just as I began my take on Ebert by positing the David and Goliath story, then ultimately rejecting it, I must do the same with Carney. Yes, he is very much against the film-school stolidity of bad critics and Hollywood apologists, but is, in many ways, their mirror image, too. At bottom, one needs to look at a work of art for what it is, not what it isn’t, no matter the source. As it stands, however, Pauline Kael winks with her left eye, and Carney -- as if on cue -- must wink with his right. This is not, alas, the inner workings of true criticism, but a machinarium. One should not wink, but talk straight, and be as faithful to an artist’s output as possible. Unfortunately, this is not a question that most critics ever consider, thwarted, as they are, by their own needs. By contrast, Ray Carney has considered it, but does so little with it, here, as to not really matter. Here’s to hoping that, in time, it will.