This is a faithful summary of the corresponding chapter in the upcoming eBook, Reel to Real. Please join the dialogue.

Allen: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
Woman: Yes, it is.
Allen: What does it say to you?
Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.
Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allen: What about Friday night?

Play it Again Sam


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Given how deeply the more mature ‘Woody’ persona has embedded in the public consciousness, it is odd to go back to his first films, and thus be reminded what Allen was, at his core, for so much of his career. To think that Allen would be capable of ‘something different’ seemed to belie the trajectory of most artists, especially the comedians before and after him. After all, Annie Hall was released in 1977, when Allen was past forty, which is a late start for a dramatist when compared to Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and other great American filmmakers. Yet, for all that, Allen would -- even in his early period -- pine for innovation, drama, and downright seriousness, wishing to leave it all behind for the sake of becoming a ‘real’ filmmaker. Thus, his comedies are full of techniques, genre inversions, and appropriations that would follow him into his Golden Age, even as they’d help make his present work in films well above those of the Hollywood machine Woody Allen has always loathed.

That said, one of the period’s worst films is, no doubt, 1965’s What’s New Pussycat? Although directed by Clive Donner, Woody did act and write the script, even as he was constantly fighting with the producers and studio execs from the very beginning who merely butchered Allen’s writing. In my estimation, the funniest moments are the first few, where a Woody-like psychoanalyst (Peter Sellers) fights with his wife, throwing out witty one-liners and rejoinders that are utterly in line with both later Woody films and his early stand-up. The fact that the rest of the film looks, feels, and sounds nothing like the writing he did before or after shows that, despite the film credits, Woody Allen merely had a supporting role within, thus explaining why he’s more or less disowned it. As he’d often say afterwards, if he had his way, he’d have made the film twice as funny, and half as successful -- or some-such, which is the kind of attitude he’s had for much of his work to this day.

Although Woody’s next film officially credits him as the director, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) is merely a reworking of a schlock Japanese spy film, wherein that film’s footage was edited and rearranged, with characters’ ‘serious’ lines being completely dubbed over by Allen’s ridiculous ones. In short, it turns the original film’s actors into Jewish-sounding agents in search of “the perfect egg salad recipe,” replete with pointless and impossible details such as wires coming out of people’s ears, and other cheap-looking props that, oddly enough, help further the film’s wonky universe, rather than detract from it. But while Allen hated the film, thus presaging his more ludicrous criticism of films like Manhattan, it was both original and funny. In fact, its worst flaws were not so much in the humor, but the editing job, which added pointless footage of The Lovin’ Spoonful, almost as an after-thought, without Allen’s consent. No, given the nature of the work, as well as its flaws, it cannot be great comedy, much less great cinema, but if one looks at the film for what it is -- a nice series of one-liners coupled with ridiculous action -- rather than what one wishes it to be (a too-common sin of art criticism), it still holds up well even today, despite its banal source material.

It was only with Take the Money and Run (1969) that Allen finally had directorial control over his films, wherein its success or failure could be placed squarely on Allen’s choice of final cut. Although it was soon followed by his short, yet-to-be-released 1971 film Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story, a series of gags which casts Allen as friend and confidant of Richard Nixon, the ‘mockumentary’ style would only get better in Zelig, over a decade later, and enter cinematic greatness with Sweet and Lowdown. Regardless, the ‘Woody’ aesthetic was now in full swing: a crisp 85-minute run-time, the hyper-development of the ‘nebbish’ persona that nonetheless gets a beautiful woman, over-the-top humor, and a clear beginning, middle, and end, even if that narrative is thin, and not too deep.

Take the Money and Run’s main thrust is Virgil (Woody Allen) in various sketches, first as a bullied boy who grows up in a tough neighborhood, then as an adult who turns to crime, and fails over and over again in an attempt to make it ‘work’, only to end up back in prison with no real means of escape. This leads to one of the film’s best scenes, wherein Virgil himself finally gets interviewed while he’s carving a gun out of a bar of soap, the same method by which he tries (and fails) to break out of prison earlier, in a holdup which ends with the gun melting in the rain. In the midst of answering the interviewer’s questions re: whether or not crime pays, he suddenly turns and asks: “Is it raining outside?” This is the film’s last line, its comedy all the more enhanced by the suddenness of the end and the ‘mischievous’ music that starts to play as Woody’s face is caught mid-sentence, his mouth slightly open, his eyes serious and earnest. The film has been criticized for its structural conceits (who is the documentarian, after all?), but given that it is merely a series of gags that already require a suspension of disbelief, to make this additional allowance is no big deal, especially since it is so well-crafted.

It works to view Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) as a pair, for while they seem to be about different things, they are, at their core, quite similar: two light satires that nonetheless manage some depth driven by gags, yet at times turning away from them, too, into more substantive territory. Of the early comedies, Sleeper is probably the most successful, for it is not only a very funny film, with lots of downright physical acting by Allen, it also seems to aspire to higher things, too. The premise is that Allen’s character, Miles Monroe, goes in for a minor operation in the 1970's to treat an ulcer, only to wake up two centuries later in a totalitarian state. America has been split into various regions, and red-clad police officers patrol the general areas, while Miles and the ever-distrustful Luna (Diane Keaton) must pair off to find the great leader’s nose and destroy it before it could be cloned. Luna is hilariously scripted as an ‘upper crust’ type with pretensions to bad poetry, and with the complete ignorance that many of Allen’s later, deeper characters share, albeit in far more realistic ways, while Miles is a classic coward. One might assume, then, that there is a ‘sustained’ comment here, but while the film does foist up others’ flaws and makes a mockery of things, it is too gag-driven to ever be more than a series of jokes, no matter their half-hearted aspirations. Indeed, Sleeper is a very good film, no doubt; a film that does what it does far more intelligently than similar Hollywood offerings can ever do, but is too broad, too frenetic, to be a rich satire. It is, alas, from a time when Woody Allen could not be aiming very high -- a fate that many critics wished upon him as soon as he’d exceed himself.

Bananas may be lighter, in some ways, but is really just as good. Allen plays Fielding Mellish, a tester of office products who gets embroiled in a revolution in the fictional South American country of San Marcos, only to return to America as ‘the leader’, and win back the woman (Louise Lasser) who rejected him for his vapidity. Yet the film has even fewer character arcs, as there is no one, for instance, like Luna, who changes, deepens, and offers herself as a symbol in a palpable way; and while similar claims can be made for Allen’s character (or even Louise Lasser’s) in Bananas, they are more difficult to prove, given how little their experiences seem to truly impact them. Yes, she ultimately falls in love with Mellish, but it all feels a bit hollow, as there is nothing that Fielding does to engender any real change within himself. In short, his radicalism is not so much a put-on, as it is merely ‘a thing’ that happens while he’s in South America.

That said, such critiques merely obscure what the film is -- a broad, well-written comedy -- in favor of what the viewer wishes it to be, the latter being a critical faux pas from which there is simply no turning back. Indeed, the film has often been dismissed as ‘toothless’, given that it never truly straddles a political line, preferring instead to subsume it all under ‘the joke’. But that’s not the point, as it is a comedy first, which both gives it an artistic ceiling difficult to breach, as well as shields it from accusations that it has too many…well, too many jokes, even as most of them are non-topical, and function as mini-sketches. Yet the film’s aims -- however modest -- are hit, and would only goad Allen into even better work with time.

Although directed by Herbert Ross, 1972’s Play It Again, Sam is classic Woody Allen, replete with the long take of Felix’s (Allen) open mouth in the movie theater, to his horrific attempts at dating after his wife leaves him to play out a trite little fantasy, to his white collar job at a film magazine. To add insult to injury, his wife not only leaves him, but utterly nails his flaws by calling him “one of life’s great watchers” -- not realizing, of course, the irony of calling herself a ‘doer’, for she does nothing of value, but merely strokes her own ego. This is expected, as the script was written by Allen and performed as a Broadway play first, before it was a film, re-uses all four leads from the original production, and thus allows them to ‘perfect’ it. In a real sense, then, it is very much Woody’s film, and probably has the best Woody-made characters and writing before Annie Hall. In short, if Bananas had ‘domestic’ scenes that never really went anywhere, this, by contrast, develops them, and if Sleeper occludes some potentially deep conversations, this film actually reveals them. No, they are not on the level of his Golden Age romantic writing, for even potentially great flirting scenes are overcast with Humphrey Bogart’s (Jerry Lacy) ridiculous apparition, however well-written and well-cast. But they do much to propel Linda (Diane Keaton) as a ‘real’ person (as opposed to Luna, or Love and Death’s Sonja) with flaws and insecurities, who behaves in real and not merely comic ways. One could call the film, then, Allen’s first experiment with something serious, even as it’s mere prep work for the greater things to come.

By contrast, 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask) is closer to Woody’s more anomic comedies, such as Take the Money and Run, than a true narrative-driven film. It is told in a series of sketches, from Allen’s riff on Fellini and Antonioni, to that of Allen’s horny court jester, to a sketch on a psychoanalyst who falls in love with a sheep, which, while entertaining, do not add up to a true narrative whole. But perhaps the film’s best sketch is the last one, wherein Woody Allen plays the part of a sperm cell inside a man’s body, which, in turn, resembles a mission control for a faceless man, “Sydney,” who attempts to have sex with a pretty insistent woman. It is, in fact, an interesting inversion, down to the eventual appearance of a priest who takes over the man’s conscience, and forces him to lose his erection (which, too, is controlled by burly men who force levers in order to ‘get it up’). The priest blames Sydney for “assaulting” the woman, which gently pokes fun of the sexual malcontents of Allen’s own era, and is a gag that might still be relevant a century hence, as people, inevitably, will continue to find something disagreeable, as future ‘jesters’ will continue to prod.

Love and Death (1975) is closer to Allen’s other narrative films, complete with a beginning, middle, and end, not only of action, but even more importantly, of character and idea, too, as Allen spends a great deal of time skewering the very figures  he, in fact, loves. Indeed, the fact that Allen could be so tongue-and-cheek about things quite important to him is a good sign, as he’d go on to craft ‘serious’ films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Melinda and Melinda with both comic and tragic sides, while retaining a sense of wholeness. This, by contrast, is all comic, as there is unrequited love, intrigue, courtly demands for “satisfaction,” and various high- and lowbrow gags from a nation that, while aping French customs, is still hopelessly a nation of serfs, and driven by serf mentality -- no better exhibited, by the way, than in Allen’s refusal to kill Napoleon at film’s end. Sure, the personages within are more or less caricatures, but they are well-sketched caricatures in a work that’s essentially a spoof. In one of the film’s best running gags, for instance, characters have perfectly normal conversations with one another, only to break into philosophical digressions and almost anti-poetic denouements, enhancing the film’s ‘milieu’ even as it distracts from their own furthering. No, such things are not especially deep, but the humor works quite well, even if one does not get all the references, for there’s still something clearly allusive and ‘amiss’ in some of the best jokes, and thus in need of the viewer’s attention.

The film would be, alas, the last purely comic pairing of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen for over a decade and a half. And while it’s been said that she is more ‘straight-laced’ than Allen in this film, she is just as meta-fictive as Allen himself, and the film as a whole, and utterly belongs in it. One sees tiny details, such as her quick looks in the direction of a scene’s comedy, as if she’s almost ‘sniffing’ it out, or smiles -- such as the death-scene with the herring-merchant -- that are more appropriately winks at the viewer, than done for the scene itself. Yet it works, and the fact that Diane Keaton gets these differences and capitalizes on them shows not only a great comic actress, but one that is self-aware, to boot. This would bode well not only for Annie Hall, his next directed film, but Allen’s entire Golden Age, which is depended not only upon his scripts and visual powers, but on the actors that would help make such things relevant, and real.

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