There is, inevitably, a point at which every great artist matures and learns not only what it means to aim high, but to let go of the dawdles of one’s youth, no matter how much they were once loved, or how meaningful. Quite often, this is met with resistance, and Woody Allen’s experience is no different in this regard. At times, Allen’s been called a plagiarist, a fraud, a writer of bad characters, stereotypes, and bad scripts, all-around; purely literary, and never visual; a pervert, even, not only in his personal life, but his films as well, which made his ‘unfortunate’ turn to drama all the more troubling. One can look for reasons, but, as before, they rarely seem to manifest, as it’s far easier to take cheap shots than it is to justify them. Yet what such comments tend to obscure is how great Allen’s ‘Golden Age’ really was -- if the films were only to be seen -- down to the very things it supposedly lacks, but are, in fact, simply being ignored.
I’ve praised both Play It Again, Sam and The Front as examples of good early Woody drama, but it’s really Annie Hall (1977) that kicks off Allen’s Golden Age, for it’s the beginning of his best characterizations, best visuals, deepest narratives, and the overall sense that he had ‘made it’ as a filmmaker of some ability and substance. This is because Annie Hall takes many of his now-classic preoccupations with sex, death, relationships, and manipulation, and creates a genuine narrative out of it, not by force or gags, but simply by inserting some great characters into a landscape, and seeing how a narrative unfolds out of them. There is also a seeming simplicity here in Allen’s ‘Alvy’ (Woody Allen) persona, that absolutely misleads viewers into sympathizing with Alvy, rather than with Annie (Diane Keaton). In short, it is Alvy that constantly spouts self-deprecating gems and rich but down-to-earth posits that aggrandize him as both an Everyman, as well as a kind of ‘hero’, who’s gone through it, and gotten over it, too -- “it” being ‘confusing’ relationships, a lack of self-assurance, or whatever else that might be imbued into the film, yet isn’t really there.
The film moves in flashbacks and symbolic events, down to Alvy’s penchant for ‘fantasy’ being well captured even in childhood, wherein he drinks tea under an alleged rollercoaster, or frolics with Marilyn Monroe on the boardwalk. Annie Hall may not be the stellar visual work that his later films are, but it’s these little shots -- treated almost as if they’re throwaway -- that help drive the characters forward, and give the narrative heft. The child, therefore, is subtly connected to the man, such as in an early scene of two leads fighting that might be Alvy’s own exaggeration, or when we learn of Alvy’s marital problems with Allison (Carol Kane), a stable, intelligent woman that he ultimately rejects for not being the self-destructive ‘wanderer’ he so craves, or even a much later scene wherein the famous lobster sequence feels so ‘natural’ with Annie, yet plays out quite differently with another woman. The idea, then, is that Annie is so much better for him, all the while ignoring not only her very real problems, but the fact that Alvy -- a man incapable of pleasure -- tries to manipulate her into becoming the sort of person she simply cannot become, to Alvy’s chagrin. Quite often, Alvy tries to obscure reality (as if he were still living under that roller-coaster), but the truth does out, through the little things that not only wreck his relationship with Annie, but poke through his own happiness in other ways. This is not to say that he’s a bad guy. He isn’t. Alvy’s merely tempted by the same indiscretions that might plague anyone, and this makes him both believable and easy to relate to, even if the viewer is, like Alvy, engaging in a bit of self-deception whenever they align.
Annie Hall is often considered to be Woody Allen’s best film, and given the kind of discussion it gives rise to, it is not hard to see why. One only needs to look at the reviews to see this, with the film topping many Best Of lists, and widely being considered an exemplar of the romantic drama -- all, by the way, for very good reason. But although I’d consider it Allen’s first great film, and one of his very best comedies, it’s not his best overall, for reasons that should be obvious when seen alongside his later work. At bottom, it is a comedic look at relationships and the people behind them. Yet given its very nature, and its lightness, in parts, it has a ceiling that later films breach, as they probe far more deeply into characters, ideas, and relationships more complex than a romance gone awry. The visuals would only improve, and symbols become more frequent and more subtle, while the scripting -- already quite good here -- would reach poetic heights that, by Allen’s own admission, were simply out of his reach then. In short, the later films simply aim higher, accomplish more, and thus make Annie Hall, as great as it is, look timid by comparison.
Interiors (1978) is precisely such a film, for it takes a dramatic kernel -- a family in turmoil -- and shows how characters are affected by it, as well as how they, themselves, are the contributors to this dissolution. The film shocked viewers upon release, for it had exactly zero comedic value, no music whatsoever (save for ambient sound), and remains one of the heaviest stories that Woody Allen has written to this day. It is also precisely what is so hated in Allen’s work, for he skewers an ‘upper crust’ family in a way that is both poetic and realistic, thus opening Allen up to criticism of stereotyping or hatred. And yet, for all the superficial difficulty one might have with ‘getting into it,’ it is, at its core, a highly complex and well-wrought drama, full of great characters, interesting symbols (the red dress at the end; the black, almost cosmic tape during the first suicide attempt), and some really great psychological interplay between three sisters that would not be equaled until Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
But if the film was so rich, why was it also so heavily criticized? There is, unsurprisingly, a disparity between the film’s early reviews and much later ones, as is often the case with great art finally coming into acceptance. The abusiveness, then, of Pauline Kael, or the stolidity of Vincent Canby, has given way to far more positive interpretations. Indeed, for while the film has often been derided as Woody aping Bergman, and Bergman is clearly an influence, Allen is in no way derivative. Interiors partly revolves around art and its misuses, and its lack of a ‘savior’ element for the characters (Eve, especially); and many of the personages, such as Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), are completely and inarguably American, in the sense that they suffer through American excess and American leisure; all of which (art’s neuroses included) have become a Woody trademark, not a Bergmanian one. Joey, especially, is a true and fully realized ‘type,’ a ponderous, artistic wannabe that, for all of her detractors, in print and online, is completely real, and can appear pretty much anywhere in life, as if from the very thinness of the space she inhabits: arts cafes, jazz shows, gallery openings, and whatever else might invite such congregation. Renata (Diane Keaton), by contrast, is a successful but immature poet who wishes to use art to ‘save’ herself, while Flyn (Kristin Griffith) is the much-derided third sister who -- in a great writing arc -- is actually quite mature, at times, and most likeable of the three.
In short, the film defines its own moments, not Bergman’s, even as it uses Bergman to skewer a different set of realities that are often missed. Some have criticized the film’s heavy-handedness, but while there are a few clunkers (the ‘hands’ symbolism at the beginning; Renata’s disclosures to her analyst; Pearl’s responsiveness to the word “mother”), they do not define the film, simply mar it for twenty to thirty second spurts every once in a great while. Others have ‘disliked’ the characters for being uptight, but while this charge is hard to argue, it is also quite immaterial to the film’s success or failure, given that we’re dealing with -- well, with rich, sheltered WASPs, whose likeability is already quite out the window. Still others hate the film for its humorlessness. Yet Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, the film’s alleged base, is equally humorless, and nowhere near as hopeful; Autumn Sonata is one of the most difficult films to watch; and A Passion (which currently boasts a much-coveted 100% rating on RottenTomatoes) ends with a gang urinating on a mentally sick man, leading him to suicide. This is solemnity, alright, but Interiors is in fact part of a real universe of people who do complex things and are not defined merely by one part of their existence, no matter how grim that may be, and certainly not Bergman’s. With Eve, her fate, by contrast, was exactly that, and this is why reality went hollow.
Although Manhattan (1979) is one of Woody’s best and most-loved films, it also among the most misunderstood. This is probably because there is such a disconnect between the film’s stunning and romantic imagery, and the way the characters actually behave on-screen. Often, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and his ‘ideals,’ which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush, down to the use of George Gershwin scores that make every miserable person, within, seem happier than they really are. It’s quite an effective device, for it makes the film seem to be about one thing, yet completely undermines the genre tropes that other superficially similar works are so dependent on, even as the black and white cinematography of the great Gordon Willis seems to ‘pretend’ otherwise. This gives Manhattan a special place in cinema, even as, thirty-five years later, it continues to outshine films that, while inspired by Woody’s, are restricted by the genre conventions he absolutely defies.
This is true from the film’s very start, wherein Isaac, a seemingly bad writer, fumbles for words for his novel, then settles on a dumb cliche, to Manhattan’s last few ‘illusionary’ moments, replete with a melodramatic plotline that nonetheless succeeds. Isaac, after all, runs to Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) only when Mary (Diane Keaton) leaves him. Yes, he seems to surprise even himself when he says her name into the tape recorder, but did the name come up organically, or was it borne merely out of his recent loss, and thus loneliness? The film does not answer this question, and leaves much else open-ended. If anything, the alleged ‘love-letter’ imagery of the film must be seen in this light, however, for Isaac does not truly learn, and while he grows, he does so inward, deepening into his own irreality while remaining perfectly aware of this fact. Yet for all of Woody’s famed disgust with the film, I’d argue that Manhattan is an even better work than Annie Hall, for while the core is more or less the same -- a dissection of people’s flaws and the effect upon relationships, often moved by jokes and wit -- this film has deeper situations, deeper dialogue, better and more daring visuals, and more fully realized characters. In short, if Annie Hall was a great early work, slightly rough around the edges, Manhattan is a more developed one, complete with a deeper notion of itself that, to this day, still tricks viewers into accepting its illusions.
While Manhattan is often misunderstood, Stardust Memories (1980) feels as if it’s never even been watched, at least not without the blinders that so many critics have willingly put on. It’s been called disjointed, mean-spirited, autobiographical, a simple ‘homage,’ tribute, rip-off, or blunder, and a big step back, stylistically and qualitatively, from earlier works. This is not at all the case, as not even the accusations of Allen’s ‘ripping off’ Fellini’s 8½ pan out, for it is rich, multi-layered, full of sharp dialogue, wonderful experimentation, intellectual depth, and the kind of poetry and intuitive leaps that few works of art ever achieve, and stays a cut or two above 8½ despite being an hour shorter. It’s not only my personal favorite Woody film, but also probably his best (an important distinction to make), for reasons that become more and more obvious with every re-watch.
Unlike most Woody Allen films, Stardust Memories utterly defies capsule, much less a temporal breakdown, due to its use of flashback, dream, fiction, meta-fiction, and many other techniques. No, the film does not really have a plot in terms of a timeline marked by ‘big events’, but it has something far more important: narrative, which is how all the important features of an art-work -- emotion, ideas, music, details, image, technique, characterization, and others -- fuse into a coherent whole. In fact, while 8½ focuses on the travails of one character, Allen’s film merely uses Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) as a springboard for even higher things, such as the nature of purpose, existence, and, as the aliens would go on to say, what it means to “ask the wrong questions,” even as such things would be misinterpreted as merely ‘about’ the true-life Allen, himself. Yes, 8½’s symbols are reworked (simply look at how differently the opening is treated), yet the characters are even more complex (consider Dorrie’s ‘fractionation’ at the hospital; the looks exchanged or implied while Louis Armstrong plays; others’ neediness towards a flawed but ‘whole’ Sandy, as opposed to Guido’s rather narrow focus), and stand quite apart from the archetypes of his predecessor. At a certain point, then, it becomes quite difficult to disentangle many of the characters, for Allen’s film-within-a-film gives them motives and machinations that deepen them through multiple viewings.
Critics have also viewed Stardust Memories as an homage, but what’s implicit in that term is tribute, with only limited gains re: depth, originality, and overall quality. In fact, it is really a film that takes some source material, and runs with it; precisely what happens with almost any work of art, and especially one that makes ‘leaps’, as Stardust Memories does, into wholly new territory, both stylistically and qualitatively. Nor should Sandy Bates be conflated with Woody Allen, for while a few of the opinions may be the same -- the world’s dark, or that life is quite difficult -- one needs to keep in mind that Allen wrote the entirety of the film, from Sandy’s “bitching” (to borrow Roger Ebert’s phrase), to the way that his complaints and immature behavior is utterly demolished by the extraterrestrials, to the hopeful, redeeming ending, wherein art betters life by engaging it at its deepest. In short, Woody Allen is responsible for this, too, even as he guessed, quite presciently, that he’d never get much credit for being himself.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) is, by contrast, more or less a ‘resting’ film for Woody Allen, crafted in between the much better Zelig (1983) for diversion, and standing out primarily as the first Allen work to feature Mia Farrow. It’s been much derided, with Mia Farrow even winning a Razzie Award for her performance, but the worst one could truly say of the film is that it’s well-crafted fluff, with neither the depth of earlier and later films, nor the stand-out writing that saves Allen’s less ambitious works. Yet for all that, it has a number of interesting shots, such as the camera panning out of the window during conversation, thus adding to the characters’ sense of nervousness over their illicit acts, or ‘blurred’ shots behind glass, lending a visual heft to interactions that would be quite pedestrian in other films. In some ways, it recalls the adage for his earliest work: that this is well-done, if fairly broad comedy, and to expect too much (or, by contrast, too little) is a mistake that captures more of the viewer’s own infringements upon the film, rather than any fault with Woody Allen himself.
Zelig remains one of the world’s better mockumentaries, and one of Woody’s best comedies. This is partly because it is more serious than his earlier, gag-driven films, is flawlessly constructed on a purely technical level, and is much more daring overall, for it has a good narrative backbone as well as effects (and affects!) that remain quite fresh today. The tale follows Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a seemingly damaged man who appears via ‘historical’ images of newspaper clippings, blurred audio, and old-school film reels alongside Jazz Age figures and historical stereotypes as a human ‘chameleon’, taking on the shape, look, and manner of whomever he is around in order to better fit in. Given his talent (or curse), this is eventually picked up on by doctors, institutions, and various other ‘enforcers’ of the status quo who wish to get to the bottom of this power, subjecting Leonard to tests such as electro-shock and even psychotherapy. He eventually comes under the protection of Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who gets him to break free of his ills, only to rebound and become a moving target for ideologues, which are skewered nicely by the film’s use of real-life ‘talking heads’ who, in many cases, simply don’t have a clue about what the hell they’re talking about.
It’s interesting to compare this film to Sleeper because, although it is certainly deeper, better crafted, and more innovative, it still raises the same question that Woody’s earlier comedies do: how much depth can really be extrapolated from ‘broad’ comedy, and how much is it merely our own imbuement? Indeed, for even in the ‘filmic’ dramatization of Zelig’s woes (that is, a film within the Zelig film that capitalizes on Leonard’s celebrity), seemingly from the 1930's, Eudora is played by a bombshell, Zelig looks dumb, not sick, and is spoken of as being a “real” human being in the most cliched language possible. Clearly, Woody, as the over-over-film, is making fun of this possibility, not developing it seriously. Thus, as good as Zelig is, and as remarkable the editing job, I disagree with assessments that see it as a serious existential film, or an examination of deeper truths. It is not. Instead, it uses the glint of ‘deeper truths’ to craft one of the best comedies ever made, yet one that is ultimately reflexive rather than expansive.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984) remains one of Woody’s best pure comedies, despite having even fewer pretenses to depth than some of his early films. This is because while lacking truly complex characters, it nonetheless captures a milieu, albeit in a lesser way than Radio Days (1987). This is the world of act promoter Danny Rose (Woody Allen), a well-liked but none-too-bright showbiz figure whose ‘legend’ is recalled via a few stories told inside Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, in the spirit of Woody’s own standup experiences. They are old, and one invokes ‘change’ by noting how a recent joke -- done for twenty years, now -- fell dead recently, as others gossip about the culture and their own gigs. This is classic bullshitting, and realistic at that, upon which the name “Danny Rose” is mentioned, cueing into a scene of Danny trying to sell a blind xylophone player, a one-armed juggler, and Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) -- “a dumb, fat temperamental has-been,”, the hotel owner informs. The men at the restaurant marvel at this, for Danny is someone they’d apparently not thought about in years, and can respect his work ethic, even if not his intelligence.
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It’s not only an effective start, but a good framing for the rest of the film, while the black and white cinematography lends it a gravity that really does invoke old-time showbiz, in a way that color, for a pure comedy such as this, could not. After a few stories are swapped, one of the men says he has the best Danny Rose story, and with the name of Lou Canova, there is a round of knowing “aah’s” that draws even the viewer in. They’re content here, they’re ‘wise guys,’ but one gets the feeling that they, too, are nearing the end of their run, as Danny would in the tale within, thus making their recapitulations all the more reflexive and bittersweet. But while the film has become a cult classic among Woody aficionados, with much being made of Mia Farrow’s ‘tough’ character especially, she is fairly one-dimensional, albeit well-sketched as far as comedy goes, which actually works for her, and the film, itself. No, such lacks don’t allow the film to hit greatness in the way that Radio Days might, but had Tina the depth that is sometimes claimed, it might not even necessarily mean a better film, for there would be less ‘milieu’ (the film’s selling point) and more Mia, turning it into a more conventional, plot-driven comedy revolving around characters that would have done much better as symbols than real people.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) is another fine example of Zelig’s adage: that a work of art need not be great to be interesting or unique, and as well may significantly heighten an artist’s diversity of work. In some ways, this can be just as important as the better work itself, for the choice to expand one’s own sense of possibility can lead to things that might be otherwise impossible. It follows the fantasies and travails of Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a daydream-prone waitress married to an idiot and user, Monk (Danny Aiello), during the Great Depression. Yet instead of the film merely stereotyping her as a ‘good’ victim and Monk as ‘the bad guy,’ Allen, for his part, writes Monk as a repulsive yet utterly realistic character who is ultimately right about Cecilia’s flaws, even as Cecilia is the film’s de facto force of good. Indeed, for while she falls in love with both Tom and the ‘real’ Gil, they are both illusions, a fact she learns the hard way, precisely as Monk predicts, thus lending him a depth not at all apparent from his wan veneer.
It is telling that Woody Allen once felt that The Purple Rose of Cairo was his best movie, since it re-creates what it meant, at least for Allen, to go to the movies as a kid, thus finally aligning his intentions with execution. Yet this also brings up the question of what ought to be the criteria for artistic success. In Woody’s mind, it is how much the finished product falls in line with his original intent -- an odd way to judge films, to put it mildly, for art will always shape-shift and branch to new and unexpected directions, whether it be ‘totalizing’ elements, such as key themes, or smaller ones, such as bits of dialogue and symbols, despite the artist’s original desires. Perhaps this is Woody’s subconscious, then, which acts as some artistic overseer that prevents his immaterial ‘wants’ from spilling over to the film, wherein good things happen, for he lets the characters and vision live out their own lives as part of one internally consistent projection rather than be stymied by his own ego. Thus, The Purple Rose of Cairo shows this idea at its best, since Woody took a film whose subject is obviously close to him, yet still made it relevant to fans. This is called communication -- art’s primary goal -- and even though Woody certainly has better films, I doubt one could be made as ‘obviously’ good to the un-attuned.
Although the popularity of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) made Woody Allen doubt the quality of his own film, it remains one of those rare accomplishments that is both truly great, and well-loved -- two things that are in fact quite different, for the latter is based on attachments and on whims, which cannot be argued, while the former involves reason, evidence, and objectivity for its claims. In some ways, Hannah and Her Sisters revisits some of the tropes of Interiors, with a seemingly talented artist, Hannah (Mia Farrow), a ‘sore loser’ and druggie, Holly (Dianne Wiest), and a half-lost woman, Lee (Barbara Hershey), who, perhaps out of envy or resentment, starts an affair with Hannah’s husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). All three sisters have issues with one another, which remain the story’s real focus until the end. But even if one were to argue that there is no main character, it’s really Hannah that’s at the center of it all, or at least seems to be, for Hannah is either a great, well-disciplined and otherwise lucky person, whom her sisters can look up to, or a cold, manipulative woman, depending on how the evidence is interpreted.
It is partly this ambiguity that makes the film so rich, as it’s impossible to say with certainty what Hannah is, except that she most likely experiences a change at film’s end. Lee, by contrast, may be immature, but is not self-pitying or self-destructive, using Elliot as her ‘solid ground,’ in the same way, perhaps, that she’d once used alcohol to fuel her longing. Her eventual marriage seems to do her a great deal of good, as she’s happy, but we still don’t know what she, herself, is doing, only that her romantic life is now in order. Yet this seemed to be case with Frederick (Max von Sydow) as well -- at least for a while -- and calls into question whether she’s really learned to get along in life, or is merely jumping from person to person to feel ‘whole.' Holly’s end is also similarly ambiguous, as she goes from druggie to a supposedly fine writer, despite our only evidence of such being a melodramatic, cliche-ridden script she reads to her eventual husband (Woody Allen). Will the truth reveal her, and force her back into her old patterns? Such things are impossible to say, even if, on the surface, she seems quite happy.
Perhaps the facts don’t truly matter, however, as much as the perceptions do -- a comment that seems to run through parts of Interiors, as well. Renata may have been the ‘most talented’ of the three sisters, but we don’t know this; what matters is that she is perceived as such, and the psychological effects this has on virtually all the other characters. The same thing, then, can be said of Hannah, and it is interesting to note how different the reactions to both films are. At its core, Interiors is a really complex drama about three sisters, as is Hannah and Her Sisters, and while the specifics of that film’s wisdom may be different, the wisdom itself is not, for it sheds light on characters and the how, what, and why of their travails, poetically filmed, more dense (Hannah is twenty minutes longer), less ‘enjoyable’, but almost just as good. So, is it fair to deride one, yet embrace the other? Sure, it is true that Hannah is far warmer, yet even that will explain the critical discourse only half-way.
That said, although some viewers consider Hannah to be Woody’s peak, he really had a number of great films before it, and would continue to go on making inarguably great films after. Radio Days (1987) is one such film, and while it’s sometimes dismissed as a light diversion of sorts, it is probably as close to the unadulterated greatness of depth, narrative, and style that one can get out of ‘pure’ comedy, with echoes not only of Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), albeit never as heavy, but of Broadway Danny Rose as well, for much of its strength is how it captures a milieu rather than what happens, and partly how a seemingly ‘messy’ narrative unfolds into real coherence. Yes, the film is ‘about’ America’s fascination with radio in the 1930's and 40's and all this entails, but more accurately, it is any family’s milieu, and how its characters respond not only to one another, but also to the images and longings that radio (or anything else, really) brings out of them. People zip in and out, develop, regress; generation-defining incidents drive the various and complex emotions; and the narrator, Joe (Woody Allen), feels his entire childhood well up as he stands before the beach, lost in his memories.
This is how the film moves, and although it’s been criticized for being ‘plotless,’ this is simply not so. No, it is a non-linear narrative, but the phrase “non-linear” is not synonymous with 'anomic,' nor 'linear' with 'coherent,' for it’s quite easy to depict going from point A, to B, to C with little regard for character development, internal consistency, and natural, unforced progression -- the real definition of coherence in art, with ‘linear’ merely referring to one style among many. At bottom, then, the film captures not only a milieu but also the magic it provides any childhood, really, at any time, in a mere 85 minutes. The film is fleshed out by music, and oft-poetic narration framed by great visuals, such as the end narration, where Joe notes how much “dimmer” those voices seem to grow with time, as the club’s lit-up top-hat bobs up and down above the roof. There is even a classic song sung by Diane Keaton at the same night-club, and her voice lingers through the house via radio, as the camera finds each family member stuck in their own lives, happy or disillusioned. In short, every character gets his or her own arc, from beginning, middle, and end; every detail has a place, and every snatch of dialogue works to establish Allen’s milieu. And while the film isn’t merely played for laughs, such as Woody’s light but enjoyable Oedipus Wrecks (1989), it doesn’t sacrifice them either, but remains deeper than virtually all of his other comedies. Perhaps this is why, despite once being dismissed or ignored, Radio Days is making a popular comeback, as evidenced by the many reviews that have been written over the last decade.
September (1987), however, had no such luck, as it was panned upon release, and has more or less settled into lukewarm territory. Many critics have savaged the film, a few have been quite receptive -- perhaps all out of proportion -- and some are quite down the middle. I, myself, feel closer to the last view, for while it is not a great film by any means, and really is one of Woody’s far lesser dramas, it does have some redeeming qualities. It revisits earlier themes, albeit wanly, has some of the ‘feel’ of Interiors, boasts a few interesting shots and scenes, and some good snatches of dialogue. Yet it is also a pure drama that borrows the most from Bergman, down to Lane’s (Mia Farrow) Liv Ullman-like appearance (from Autumn Sonata) as the asexual, depressive, hausfrau type, and even has some weaker Woody acting, partly due to the general thinness of Lane’s character, and partly due to the stereotype that is her mother, which prevents these otherwise quality actors from reaching any real heights. It is not so much that Lane doesn’t grow (she doesn’t, really), but that, even if this is a character study of a ‘damaged’ woman, with no growth necessary, there is still no defining moment where this is obvious, or really comes to the fore via great visuals, dialogue, or symbol. At best, she is a part of a series of good, sometimes merely passable sketches. There is nothing, for instance, like Dorrie’s mental breakdown in Stardust Memories, fractured via edits, or Martin Landau’s ‘gaze into the unknown’ via his dead lover’s eyes, to push it forward. Stritch’s own stereotyped character doesn’t help, as she merely fills in the plot-line, and chugs things along. Some might point to Lane’s revelation to her mother as a defining moment, yet even that sheds no light on her illness or personality; rather it foists, a bit unrealistically, one event as her life’s deciding factor, while her mother remains so different from her, belonging, as she does, almost in a different movie.
September may have been only a mild success in a new form, but Another Woman (1988) was Woody’s highest accomplishment in the genre, and one of the greatest ‘pure’ dramas ever made. It deftly combines music (a string version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1), character (all are well-sketched and utterly real), acting (all excellent performances, with Gena Rowlands delivering one of the greatest ‘leads’ of any drama), visuals (everything from symbolic shots of Marion’s apartment, to the dark, winding streets that come to represent her own interior), intellectual heft (down to subtle uses of Rilke, with little symbols that continually pop in and out), emotion (simply look at Rowlands's scenes with Gene Hackman, and her self-doubting pauses), and narrative drive. In short, there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and a sense of narrative closure for all involved (even the film’s many symbols), all driven by characters’ internal changes and the film’s memorable lines.
Unfortunately, Another Woman did not open to very good reception, with critics making even more unflattering comparisons to Bergman, or noting the characters’ supposed lack of realism. Others have called the film intellectually masturbatory, singling out Marion’s references to Rilke, Gustav Klimt, and others, as false and pretentious. Yet the film revolves around intellectuals, including a poetry-minded philosopher, so to have a few references to the very things that might stimulate such people is not exactly unwarranted. Critics have complained that using Rilke does nothing to move the ‘plot’ (thus once again confusing plot with narrative), but I wonder if they’d even read the poems in question, or thought for a second of their implications. Archaic Torso of Apollo ends, after a magisterial look at the power of art, with an intuitive leap, to ‘change one’s life,’ the very dilemma that Marion entertains, and eventually resolves. The animal in The Panther, sixteen year-old Marion concludes, must be looking out into the image of death, wherein we see a several-second shot of a caged animal, with a drama mask lying on the floor -- the same mask through which Marion kisses Sam, who commits suicide, well before we even learn of her abortion. Thus, to say that it does nothing for plot (much less narrative) is both unfounded and ridiculous, as it only takes a second’s thought to see the import. But while professional film critics have at times savaged the film, it is experiencing somewhat of a revitalization, just like Radio Days before it, and will likely gain in popularity over time.
While Another Woman is a great film that hasn’t yet received its due, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is a widely-praised film whose greatness, while acknowledged, is often misunderstood. At its core, the film is not only about a hyper-realistic killer (as opposed to merely a ‘torn,’ freakish, or symbolic one), but also about the winners and losers that surround him, who not only shed light on his import, but on the lives and personalities of millions just like him. In fact, it is one of the film’s seemingly most throwaway lines, “might makes right,” that brings this idea to the fore, even as it obscures some of the more nuanced moments. To see it in action, one simply needs to look at how the film’s relationships bud and die. Halley (Mia Farrow) rejects Cliff (Woody Allen) because he is a loser, and falls for the vapid, dislikable Lester because he’s a success. A stranger humiliates Cliff’s naive, lonely lister merely because he can, and she’s only too willing. Dolores is not only killed, but her utter shallowness is remembered by Judah even after her death, wherein she confuses musical composers, or waxes poetic on the eyes being “windows to the soul”, despite us knowing that her own eyes were empty, with neither definition nor identity, when she was killed. Meanwhile, Ben (Sam Waterston) is a rabbi who is merely content with things as they are, or rather, how he sees them, creating a multifaceted symbol for Allen to play with. Yet, for all this, it is Judah (Martin Landau) at the center of it all, and it is Judah who -- far more than being a mere symbol or plaything -- is something far more real. He is ‘just another guy’ living at home, raising his kids, going to work, and giving to charity, separated only by the style and the frequency of his rationalizations, while the fact that he is ultimately a ‘winner’ affirms the Bible’s oft-ignored dictum: for whoever has, more shall be given, but whoever does not have, even that shall be taken away. This is “might,” as it begets might, and riches for the Judah Rosenthals, but even as Judah argues at film’s end, no fairy tales, nor happy endings.
Alice (1990) and Shadows and Fog (1991) can be taken as a pair, for they are both diversions for Woody, even as they are both good (albeit light) comedies. They are both, however, ignored for that same reason: they are ‘light,’ even as they’re far beyond a typical Hollywood comedy due to their visuals, characterizations, and narrative twists that aren’t merely there for fun, but have some actual import. Alice (Mia Farrow), for instance, is a typical Upper East Side housewife who kicks the film off with ‘visions’ of her own infidelity, coupled with interestingly-shot flashbacks to her first meeting with her husband, and then -- in the film’s best sequence -- ‘longings’ for her childhood, as she sits in prayer, or helps old relatives get better. She ultimately leaves her husband to become a missionary and social worker, an end that, although happy, casts some doubt on her person due to its rashness and stereotypical nature.
These are all interesting, well-done elements, and although many have called it flawed, this doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. I am somewhere between the two positions, however, for the same reason that Shadows and Fog gives both pause and something to praise. It is a black and white film that takes a few of Allen’s typical fixations and transplants them into an exotic world: that of a small 1920's European village, part of an ‘inverted’ Kafkaesque environment that is quite atypical for the man’s work. No, it’s not a great movie, given that its essence is an homage, and thus has a certain ceiling, but it is certainly not a 'gimmick,' either, as is often said, for a gimmick is a trick used merely for attention and nothing more. Kleinman (Woody Allen) is actually a good, comic nebbish, and given his inoffensive nature, is the perfect target for a Kafkaesque situation, because of his insistence on logical answers that are simply apart from this world. Yes, critics have derided its 'pastiche' nature, but while that characterization is true as to its use of Kafka, it also misses the point that Kafka’s style is appropriated, not merely plagiarized for comic purposes (such as Kleinman using black pepper for self-defense), which is really what a homage must do, anyway. There are a number of great shots, such as when Mia Farrow first enters a brothel, and the camera pans to every face, including hers, implicitly showing her growing changes; some very good lines, such as the exchange between the doctor and the strangler; and some philosophical posits which together really make it better than what’s typically been said -- even if not by a whole lot.
Although Woody’s last couple of films were underrated, they were not great works, by any means. It would take two years for Woody to return with another true drama, and thus triumphantly close his decade-and-a-half Golden Age. In some ways, Husbands and Wives (1992) is the most pure look at ‘Woody’ relationships, and one of the more intimate (and best) films of his career. In short, if Annie Hall was a kind of grown-up ‘first’ for Woody as well as Alvy Singer, and Manhattan too odd -- it dealt with a grown man and a seventeen year-old girl, after all -- or Hannah and her Sisters too marred by the ‘big problems’ of infidelity and familial conflict to really get at the core of romance itself, then this film merely examines the inner workings of two marriages, and what the interactions in one say of the events in the other, and vice-versa. It also features one of the most insidious of Woody Allen’s creations, Judy (Mia Farrow), whose selfishness, manipulation, and passive-aggressive behavior is not only utterly real, but frighteningly so. In fact, while the Jack/Sally arc seems to ‘peter out’ at the beginning, the two ultimately get back together, despite seemingly having more problems, while Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy split up. In a way, then, the two pairings reflect each other, even as one remains much healthier, which speaks to the way that Allen is able to capture such intricacies.
At bottom, the film is an interesting inversion of more typical ‘relationship’ films, given everything that it’s able to do. It is, then, a proper close to Allen’s Golden Age, for while he’d not go on to make such a film again, one still has these sixteen years to fall back on, and just as with the critical reaction to Another Woman, the best art exposes one’s biases, and forces, if not change, then revelation. On that count, Woody Allen’s last great film ought to be watched and re-watched, if only to note how one’s reactions shift, how sympathies and alliances between viewer and character re-align, and what that says not only of the complexity of Woody’s art, but how it betters those that choose to engage it.