Woody Allen Profile of a Film-maker

Woody Allen’s prolific output continues, with his next two films to be set in Rome and Copenhagen respectively. He still says he is yet to make a ‘Great Film’: a questionable and modest claim, when there is no doubt he is a Great Independent Filmmaker.

The film that kicked off the recent Woody Allen Season at the BFI, Hannah and Her Sisters, was a reminder of a great filmmaker at the peak of his powers: it has brilliant moments of slapstick comedy, a wealth of strong characters, wonderful dialogue, beautiful cinematography, a perfect soundtrack and a story that is captivating throughout. And Allen, the perfectionist, famously doesn’t like it.

The ending wasn’t heavyweight enough for him, a cop out where the loose ends are tied to a neatish resolution, rather than an uncertainty leading us to believe the air is filled with the burden of regret and an eternal sense of sorrow for Michael Caine’s Elliot that would had the flavour of European Cinema Allen has always aspired to.

In an in-depth interview on The Southbank Show in 1993 Allen revealed he never read books as a child, and later only did so almost out of obligation; it was cinema that was his real love, and which he then spoke of as being the superior art form. Sure literature influenced his work, with Hannah and Her Sisters being a perfect example as he told Stig Bjorkman in 1994 (reprinted in notes by the BFI) – the use of chapters was derivative from classical English novels, his first ensemble character piece of his was a style he liked from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and he liked the comparisons with Chekhov.

But it has always been mastering the art of Cinema that he has aspired to. And while it would be interesting to know if he recognises that the platform of long-running Television Drama at its best has now trumped theatrical movies, it is those thoughts, expressed nearly twenty years ago to Melvin Bragg, and arguably after most of his best work, that explain why as he progressed as a filmmaker, he has continually sought to make what he calls “A Great Film”. And as recently as last year, in Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, it is something he says he still believes has eluded him over the decades.

But many would disagree.

Allen, of course, was a stand-up comedian turned comedy writer, and it is the best elements from his early comedy that still produced laughs in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Even then he was pioneering a character that would last him, in some form of or another, for forty years and counting. Already by his third feature, Bananas (1971), he had got the quick witted but physically clumsy New Yorker with a therapist, down to a pat. Like all of his early work it was purely a comedy, with a Monty Python line in surrealism at times, not seen in mainstream Cinema much since the early-seventies with the possible exception of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Bananas also had the now dated approach where his character, Fielding Mellish, displayed a Benny Hill-like inadequacy to women, a legacy from what passed for comedy in the sixties.

But it was the basis of that character that led Allen to write arguably the greatest film comedy of all time, with the adaptation of his own play, Play It Again Sam, directed by Herbert Ross the following year. It has the benefit of two other great leads, Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton, alongside Allen, and has superb timing throughout with an endless supply of gags – character based, visual, one-liners, dream sequences – and never ceases to be funny after countless views. Allen may not have been the Director, but there is no doubt, this is a Great Film.

Allen continued with comedies, but a couple of films later Love and Death (1975), while containing the regular laughs, referenced Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish auteur whose work Allen first came across in his late teens, when he discovered a filmmaker who made films of substance and style he found superior to others. It was a sign of Allen’s intended direction. In an interview with Mark Kermode for Film 4 about his admiration for Bergman, Allen explained he already had an interest in the philosophical and existential, and finding Bergman’s films hit a note. His description about feelings of exhilaration on seeing a great artist’s work rather than any assumed depression because of the subject matter is a response that could be used by fans questioned of their love of Radiohead and Leonard Cohen as well as Bergman.

In his next two films the Bergman influence continued. 1978’s Interiors was a total change in style, an effective homage, and still perhaps his most serious piece to date. And even one year earlier, the comedy masterpiece and critical success Annie Hall (1977) was Allen’s first real exploration of characters, as well as being influenced in style by Bergman’s belief that films shouldn’t have a score, with all sound and music occurring as part of the film. Best Picture winner at the Oscars, with Allen named Best Director, awards he recognised as arbitrary and meaningless accolades, it was co-written with Marshall Brickman, and again perfects the winning formula of the funny but deep thinking middle-class neurotic from Manhattan, though this time was more considered than anything he had done before.

Keaton, for whom the role was written and who also won an Oscar Academy Winner for her performance as the title character, was again Allen’s perfect co-star as she already had been in Play It Again Sam, Love and Death and Sleeper (1973). As well as those films she went onto act in Allen’s Interiors and Manhattan (1979), star in the first two Godfather films and later, Reds, all in the space of nine years; it was a period when American Cinema had its last sustained great peak, and Allen and Keaton were both significant players in those glory days.

By Manhattan, Allen relinquished the self-imposed restraint of having no score, realising what worked best for him as he continued to develop as a filmmaker, and starting the black and white picture postcard movie of his home town to George Gershwin’s pulsating Rhapsody in Blue, as he learnt how to add and remove colour and light simply by his own direction technique. While again not being satisfied with the final output, Allen’s seemingly ubiquitous character, this time called Isaac Davis, is at the top of his game: confident, armed with all the best lines, and at times almost literally, as well as mentally, flexing his muscles.

By now he had established the character in a setting, the setting of middle-class professionals and artists with romantic tanglings in Upper Manhattan, the life he said he wrote about because that’s what he knew. And his romantic comedies continued to flourish in the eighties, with his new partner, Mia Farrow, as a lead. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Radio Days (1987) both contain hints of nostalgia, while both being bang on the money. But throughout, there were fresh ideas as well. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) not only emphasised his love of the escapism of Cinema, but showed an inventiveness first seen in the surreal elements of his early comedies. That originality was also apparent in the brilliant Zelig (1983), later in the clever Deconstructing Harry (1997), and most recently Midnight in Paris (2011). The musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996) was also a different turn, and when he took more weightier material in another direction, such as with Sweet and Lowdown (1999), he also flourished.

Last year’s Midnight in Paris is the film that has been hailed as his return to form, but that really came in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008); Midnight in Paris was his biggest box-office success, and was even nominated for an Oscar in the now enlarged category of ten films, but as we know, both of those factors mean little to Allen. And it is hard to believe that this gentle comedy is anywhere near the “great” film he seeks to make.

The feeling is Hannah and Her Sisters was the closet he has got (so far) to his own personal nadir to which only he can judge; a film in which he first used the cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who Allen described has having a “more European style”, as well as exploring a group of characters in depth. His allure to Europe has always been a factor, and in Melinda and Melinda, one of his characters, Chiwetel Ejiofor ‘s musician Ellis, spoke about how he would like to work in London, Barcelona and Paris, a move Allen made himself after that film. In fact seven of his eight films since were made in Europe, with varying degrees of success.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the best film of his arguably since the eighties, a strong character piece that looks and sounds beautiful, with a wonderful cast including Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Midnight in Paris was also a critical and commercial success but his London films were broadly panned. Scoop (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2006) were not his best work, although perhaps still more watchable than the forgettable American films Anything Else (2003) and Alice (1990). But You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, released in the UK last year, is a reminder that even an average Woody Allen film is still better than most, with nice understated touches from Josh Brolin’s Roy, always opening the fridge for a beer, to Anna Friel’s in-joke about soap operas, amidst the standard arguing couples, artistic struggles, guilt, and romantic shots in the rain. Match Point (2005), while also widely slated, endures repeated viewings, with darkness hanging over the comedy like Crime and Misdemeanours (1989), and even the deliberately more light-hearted Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).

His forthcoming feature, Nero Fiddled, has also been shot in Europe, this time in Rome, and news emerged this week that his next film after that will be set in Copenhagen. His only American film since Melinda and Melinda, Whatever Works (2009), has the same pokes at superstition through a small but welcome voice for Atheism and Liberty in cinema as You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger does, but without the intentional shadow of doubt Allen left in his London feature. Instead Whatever Works is pure comedy: constant in all his last three features the mother-in-law character is a vehicle for comedy, something we can assume is not from his own current personal experience; starring Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood, Whatever Works even has a strangely overtly happy ending.

The conveyor belt of a-film-a-year is a deliberate approach by Allen, whose prolific output is not just the reflection of a man who loves his work and his art, but of someone who understands not all of his films will be of the same standard, yet who hopes to produce real quality within the quantity. It is an organic process that has a track record of delivering the goods.

Ultimately, Allen cares little for the thoughts of critics, which is what makes him a Great Artist. His annoyance was clear in Stardust Memories (1980) where his film director Sandy Bates bemoans those who yearn for his early comedies, a message as clear as his ambivalence for his Oscar for Annie Hall. Even twenty-five years later in Melinda and Melinda, Comedy v Tragedy was a topic he still wrestled with on screen, but Allen is at his best when he makes in-depth character pieces that can explore weighty topics, and where the comedy appears naturally.

As Alex Cox wrote in 1990, in his introduction to Stardust Memories for the wonderful BBC2 show Moviedrome, “So what if the film seems slight or self-indulgent. This man is a great film-maker, maybe the best American director alive and working”.

A great independent filmmaker, who whatever he says, has made great films, with the very real possibility, there will be more to come.

MG

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