Old friends, old hobbyhorses

I’ve expounded on the virtues of Matt Zoller Seitz’s Friendship Theory of Film Criticism (FTFC) before, and I’ve harped on Woody Allen before, so it’s useful to get fresh perspectives on my old hobbyhorses from time to time. Girish wasn’t thinking about Allen at all when he wrote this:

Is this a [Aki] Kaurismäki lab experiment in draining the narrative of the ‘false complexities’ of a pseudo-manipulative, traditional ‘humanistic’ character-driven narrative? Is Kaurismäki trying to prove some narrative theorem? Is this an essay film about narrative? As you can tell, I’m dying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but so far… I got nothin’.

Still, it’s like seeing an old and dear friend you see every two years or so—as we do with so many contemporary filmmakers we cherish—only to discover that he’s turned up for the lunch date hung over, in a laconic and slightly foul mood, not willing to say much; but it feels good to see him anyway. You shake hands afterwards and hope that at your next reunion, two years later, he’ll be better and slightly more scrutable company.

…but he got to my fixation all the same.

By the standards of FTFC, Allen’s been an old friend for decades now. We see each other less and less often—his movies come to Jackson theaters less frequently than they did in Dallas, where I was born and raised—and, when I do see him, he seems churlish, spiteful, and humorless. I love him, want to pat his back and lift his spirits, but it gets harder to do with each passing year, and more often I want to sock him one. It had gotten to the point where I’d almost forgotten why I ever liked the guy in the first place.

Two Saturdays ago, I was flipping channels, waiting for the laundry to dry. Turner Classic Movies had an episode of the Dick Cavett Show on, featuring an hour-long interview with Allen. This must’ve been 1971 or 1972, judging from the fashions (although Allen, in schlumpy flannel and jeans, could have been Anydork, in any decade) and the jive talk. It was mesmerizing in part because Allen was quick-witted, genuinely friendly, and unusually forthcoming about his filmmaking and writing. Host and interviewee pandered to the audience, but less so than we see today. Allen played the clarinet with the house band, reviving a big-band chestnut. Allen’s tone wasn’t as strong as I would like, but he played with suppleness and inventiveness.

Most of all, Allen seemed to be having a good time and not at all convinced that being a serious artist had to mean Being a Serious Person.

Over the course of the interview, Cavett drew out Allen on Bananas—which Allen has just finished—and Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, which he was about to begin working on. In true-genius TCM programming fashion, what aired after the Dick Cavett episode was Bananas. I hadn’t seen it in years, and was immediately hooked.

The Allen we see in interview comes through in Bananas. Although much of the humor is verbal, what astonished me was how much of the wit was visual. Several of the sequences are slapstick. Allen product-tests wild contraptions—an office desk with a built-in exercise machine; it malfunctions spectacularly as Allen pedals it, and as it’s being shown off to a potential buyer. A long sequence in which he tries to buy a porn magazine without anyone noticing is brilliant; the only words are when the cashier yells to a store worker, “Hey, Marty, how much does this copy of Orgasm cost?!” An even better sequence comes as he tries to set the right mood in his apartment for a girl he’s brought home, and manages to spoil the moment in more ways that you’d think possible.

Really, though, Allen shows his invention best in Bananas by what he does behind the camera, not in front of it. The camera moves more, and more quickly, than we’re used to in Allen’s films. There are fast zooms, roving Steadicam shots, hand-held action sequences, close-ups, and shots from odd, almost out-of-the-way angles and behind windows. The editing cuts quickly and sharply.

Allen’s directing post-1980 draws its aesthetic mostly from theater—few closeups, a relatively stationary camera, a concentration on interior sets, lighting that glows on everything in the room instead of a few selected objects. So it’s a real surprise to see, in Bananas, Allen playing around with film conventions. He’s conscious that he’s making a movie, and he’s having a ball toying with cinema aesthetics.

Although the movie is initially set in New York, it’s set and shot mostly in Puerto Rico, and mostly (shocker of shockers!) outdoors. Talking with Cavett, Allen mentioned that his first movie, Take the Money and Run, was shot in San Francisco. “Since the movie is set all over the country, in cities and in the country,” he says (I’m paraphrasing), “we needed a place that can look like a lot of different places.” Watching Bananas, a curious fact struck me. Although Allen is known as our quintessential New York filmmaker, his first four or five movies aren’t actually set or shot there. When we think of Allen’s oeuvre, we think of people walking and talking on New York streets, or blabbing in apartments that out-of-work writers couldn’t afford in real life.

But the man used to branch out. A oversized breast runs amok in Everything You Always Wanted to Know… amongst hills on an overcast day. In Sleeper, most of its fantastic gags involve outdoors chases. The city, when we see it, is a futuristic version of Manhattan. Bananas’s guerillas live in the wilds. Allen used to travel, used to go wild in the woods.

This wildness comes through in the writing, too. Although the non-sequitur one-liner is Allen’s stock and trade, those non-sequiturs were also visual in his early work. Bananas begins and ends with ABC’s Wide World of Sports doing, respectively, play-by-play of a political assassination and a couple’s first time in the sack. Why? I could argue that Allen is anticipating—about 25 years early—how every event in life becomes media fodder, how even our most awful and private moments become nothing more than infotainment as TV invades every aspect of American life. To tell the truth, I believe all that. But I also believe Allen’s just goofing off and playing around. It seemed right, and hilarious, to have Howard Cosell interview the bullet-riddled president as he gasps his last breaths. It seems right to stage a fancy dinner in which the string quartet is pantomiming the act of playing music, without any instruments in-hand, because it’s funny. Just as it seems right to succumb to toilet humor and bawdy jokes in Bananas, and have those jokes sit alongside surprisingly sharp political satire.

The cultural references are topical; the jokes make jabs at contemporary politics; the music is freewheeling and funky and a little bit rockin’. (Woody?!) Bananas is loose and rambling. In fact, it can hardly be called structured at all. Like the silent two-reelers it’s aping and updating, the movie’s held together by duct tape and gags. While not all of the sequences work, it’s all of a ramshackle piece that doesn’t feel like it could have been orchestrated by any other filmmaker.

Allen’s goofing off. He takes chances in his writing and his film aesthetics. He’s willing to throw in ideas without bothering to explain them with too much verbiage. He’s willing to fly his rambunctious, bawdy, freak flag. In the Dick Cavett interview, Cavett asks Allen about his drug use. Allen claims not to do drugs or even drink much, and instead adheres to a rigid, healthy diet. If he said that in 2006, we’d say, “duh, old man.” After seeing Bananas, however, I can understand why Cavett looks nonplussed at Allen’s answer. The audience doesn’t believe him, either.

Cut to a week later. Once again, I’m casually flipping channels, this time while a homemade soup is simmering on the stove. On the MoviePlex channel, I come across a dialogue (it can’t be called an actual conversation) between a young Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest. They’re lit by glowing brown and yellow light, and walk and talk—something about a manuscript Waterston’s writing; and, yes, he repeatedly refers to it as “the manuscript,” like some over-eager grad student—in a tastefully decorated room. The talk is stilted. There’s something about it that’s so metrical and carefully calibrated that makes them seem like automatons. They pause between each grammatically correct sentence. They never run over each other’s sentences. Even their gesticulations are designed not to impose. It seems like the actors are reading their lines off cue cards.

It was awful. I’d never seen the movie before, but I knew I was watching a Woody Allen movie, one of the few I’ve not seen. It turned out to be September. At first, I thought it was just the actors, though Waterston and Wiest are usually good. So I watched some more. Apparently, several couples are milling about in this over-tasteful house in this arid manner. They all talk the same way, no matter what they’re talking about. It was so bad that I turned it off after 15 minutes.

Great filmmakers make shitty films; it happens. Even in the stinkers, though, we see glimmers of the filmmaker working out his unfortunate problem onscreen. Even when our friend shows up at our yearly breakfast hung over and irritable and dull-witted, we see what makes us like him.

But there’s no sign of 1971’s Bananas—or Sleeper, or Love and Death—in 1987’s September. It’s the most lifeless 15 minutes I’ve watched in years.

I’m not one of the Allen fanboys who wishes he’d go back to making his early, funny stuff. Up until and including 2000’s Small-Time Crooks, he was consistently funny, interesting stuff. Sleeper is a better-plotted, more focused version of Bananas. Zelig weds Bananas’s zaniness with avant-garde, cut-and-paste film trickery that’s a decade ahead of its time.

But he seems to think that serious dramas must be as devoid of wit—visual or verbal—as possible. It wasn’t always this way—he fused his serious and comic sides beautifully in Annie Hall (1975), and thus gives a rounded portrait of a romantic relationship. He saw how life gives us cause for laughter and tears, often in the same breath.

Annie Hall, unfortunately, looks more and more like an aberration in his oeuvre. (So does the vignette-structured Radio Days, which is among Allen’s best movies, which also blends hilarity and pathos in equal measures.) For a better understanding of Allen’s inner tensions as an artist, we could do worse than looking closely at the difference between Bananas and September.

Unfortunately, I think September won out.

Harvey Pekar pegged the problem in a 1983 American Splendor comic strip, “Grubstreet, U.S.A.” Pekar is lording over a conversation with Wallace Shawn:

If Woody Allen wants to do a serious movie, why doesn’t he do something about Brooklyn? It’s possible to write seriously about Brooklyn. He’s a talented, perceptive guy but he can’t write believable WASP dialogue… And why would he or anyone wanna imitate that humorless, dull-witted Bergman? I mean, I guess the guy’s been an important filmmaker, in some respects, give ‘im credit for that, but he’s such a plodding, sophomoric thinker.

Amen.

Allen’s over the moon about Ingmar Bergman, as he’s revealed in countless interviews. The name pops up in the Dick Cavett interview. Now, Bergman’s not as bad as Pekar thinks, but he’s a poor model for Allen to follow. Bananas looks shoddy but clearly belongs to him. Allen points out in the Dick Cavett interview that the movie’s look is intentional; its light-on-its-feet visual tone mirrors the mostly improvised nature of the performances.

The reason I immediately knew September was Allen’s movie, however, wasn’t because it looked like an Allen film, but because it looked like a Bergman film without Swedish dialogue.

Allen’s never been comfortable making dramas or out-and-out tragedies on his own terms so, when he makes them, he usually tries to graft Bergman’s sensibilities onto his own. (A rare exception is 1992’s Husbands and Wives, in which he grafts the French New Wave’s fragmented, self-consciously sloppy aesthetics onto his screenplay. It’s a better fit.) Bergman is his hobbyhorse, a security blanket that he uses when he tries to branch out thematically.

A severe, Puritan, clean and cool Scandinavian, however, usually doesn’t get along with a vaudeville Brooklyn Jew with messy neuroses. The true tragedy, as Pekar hints at, is that Allen doesn’t have the confidence to make a drama with his own sensibilities, though he clearly has the talent. He retreats into Bergman parody instead.

To make it worse, even his comedies are increasingly drowned in Bergman touches. I couldn’t tell the difference between the comedy and tragedy halves of Melinda and Melinda. This might have been the point but, if the movie was going to veer towards one of Allen’s extremes, I wish it had been the bumbling Bananas extreme instead of the scintillating and boring September end. From the 1990s onward, he’s been easing slapstick out of his comedies, and resorting more and more to one-liners he wore out in 1980. Small-Time Crooks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Sweet and Lowdown, Hollywood Ending and Bullets Over Broadway are all gorgeous and stately to look at. They all have the same slow-moving camera and graceful lighting as September. But only the first and the last are worth seeing.

Allen seems to think being mature is being like Bergman. But playfulness isn’t the same as immaturity. Anyway, mature or immature, I’d rather my friend behave like himself, instead of who he thinks he ought to be.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Old friends, old hobbyhorses

  1. brian says:

    Quote: “…a vaudeville Brooklyn Jew with messy neuroses.” A perfect, and funny, description of Allen. I’m not near the Woody Allen fan you are, but I have seen most of what he has done and agree with everything you laid out. I would have to add The Purple Rose of Cairo as being an exception to his 80’s movies, so much humor and imaginative charm that it makes it one of my favorites. Jeff Daniels and Mia Farro are brilliant together, its a wonderful homage to movies in general, and finds that perfect and necessary balance between humour and seriousness.

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