This is yet another entry in my occasional series of open letters to Woody Allen, which is becoming a more or less annual thing in these parts. You think I’m kidding? Here are the entries for 2005 and 2006.
It’s me again.
So. Last week, I watched Scoop, and it was so dispiriting that I hung my head in shame for ever loving you. You’re my first auteur and, like an old girlfriend that I just can’t shake, I return to your movies with a mixture of admiration, anxiety, and something like love. I do this even when I know it’s bad for me, that it’ll leave a lukewarm, not quite zesty taste in my mouth. I still haven’t made myself sit through Match Point, but I know I can’t resist for much longer, even though I’m well aware that I’ll be disappointed. Again.
It’s not that Scoop is terrible, exactly. Whatever else you can say about it, its photography is crisp and subtle—the way you capture rippling water (indoors or outdoors) is stunning—and the soundtrack is ever so tasteful. The cuts are so graceful and immaculate that the movie’s rhythms are lulling, as if you’re gently rocking us to sleep.
That, of course, is part of the problem. There’s no jolt, no spark, no surprise that would lift these rhythms beyond the soporific and into the sensuous. The jokes don’t sink so much as they just float by, unanchored to any aesthetic or moral vision. There might be some good one-liners in there, but everything’s so languorously poised that I didn’t notice.
So, in a way, Scoop is worse than terrible. At least an atrocious movie would be memorable. No, old friend, you’ve once again made a merely forgettable movie. It dissipates from the mind like rising steam, as soon as the credit roll.
How could this be? All the parts are there for, if nothing else, a wickedly entertaining trifle. In Scarlett Johansson, you’ve found a glowing and ripe, if somewhat inept, lead actress. Hugh Jackman is gorgeous enough that your lackadaisical direction of him still doesn’t diminish his sex appeal. Ian MacShane singes the screen on Deadwood, and there he’s encumbered by incredibly baroque dialogue and elaborate costuming. You had sparkling sets and production design. You had a crew with whom you’re incredibly familiar; it’s at once startling and chummy to see how often the same names show up in your movie credits.
So, you’ll have to forgive me for not being sure at first what went wrong. I turned to Lance Mannion for guidance:
I could try to make the case that Scoop is to Match Point as Northrop Frye said A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to Romeo and Juliet, the comedy that is the tragedy in a mirror, and then connect them both to Crimes and Misdemeanors.
And I could point out that the gathering of the journalists to toast the memory of Ian MacShane’s character is a deliberate reminder of the gathering of old comics in Broadway Danny Rose and in that way Scoop reaches back to Annie Hall and the scene of Alvy Singer’s early days as a comedy writer.
Allen’s character, the third rate magician, Sid Waterman, aka the Great Splendini, is just the kind of act Danny Rose would have represented and counted as one of his most successful clients.
And Allen and Scarlett Johansson bumbling through a murder investigation together is reminiscent of Allen and Diane Keaton bumbling through a murder investigation in Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which Keaton and Allen were allowed to have the marriage their characters couldn’t bring off in Manhattan.
And the appearance of ghosts harks back to Alice, and there are replays of jokes from Sleeper, and the figure of Death is straight out of Love and Death, although wearing a different sheet, and Death in Love and Death is an homage to Bergman whose influence on Allen travels through Interiors and on into all his “serious” movies leading us back to Match Point which leads us back to Scoop.
I could do it, fit the piece into the puzzle, but is it worth the time and effort, that’s what I have to ask myself.
Going by the time and effort Allen himself seems to have devoted to Scoop, I’d have to say no.
And Lance is right. You’ve recycling yourself, and have been for a decade. I suppose it happens to the best of us, but that doesn’t mean you should be so keen on showing it to the world. Your New York has always been a rarified, romanticized version of the city. But at least it was recognizable, and bore some semblance to the real world. After Small Time Crooks, though, your movies seem to take place increasingly in a feedback loop of your own material and older, better screwball comedies. The movies are nothing more than confections cobbled together from other movies and stage plays, with no attempt to reach out and say something about life as it is lived. Believe me, I never thought I’d be comparing you to Quentin Tarantino, but you both now make movies that have no reference points except for other movies and pop-culture detritus. Your version sounds like moldy-fig jazz rather than scuzzy funk, but ultimately the difference is negligible.
I thought that perhaps a move to England would scrub the mothballs from under your eyes, but it’s just made you even more calcified. To use an endlessly recycled cliché, since you’re so fond of them these days, you know New York City like the back of your hand. But England—its accents, its architecture, its streetlife, its gestures and customs—befuddles you. You don’t get it. Perhaps this is why Scoop’s actors flail away so helplessly. Here’s Lance again:
The script is slight but amusing enough. But Allen doesn’t seem to have put any thought into the cinematography, the staging, or the directing. It’s almost as if let an assistant film some middle-inning rehearsals. There’s a too casual, let’s just try it out and see if we can make it work feel to everything. The whole cast seems unsure of their lines. Nobody moves through their scenes with any energy. It’s not just as if they’re saving it up; it’s as if they’re still trying to figure it out, still looking for their marks on the floor and hesitant about whether to cross on this word or that or sit before delivering a line or just after.
Man, it’s like summer stock gone horribly wrong. At first, I thought it was just Johannson, who often seems blank and clueless in her roles. But everyone, even the inconsequential minor characters, has the same deer-in-headlights look that she has. And, poor Johannson. Lord knows that she’s no Helen Mirren, and that numbing accent-less voice of hers makes me want to shake her. In Ghost World and Girl with A Pearl Earring, though, she’s at least been engaging. As Lance points out, she’s trying for an interesting idea—a nerd in the body of a bombshell, who’s just getting over her geekiness and who still doesn’t know how her body affects others or even how to walk with it. It’s a potentially hilarious role. You could at least try to help her out. After all, it’s part of your job.
But it seems you can’t be bothered with the script or the acting or anything but the craft. And here’s where I disagree with Lance—I think you still have your mojo on a technical level. In fact, you’ve become more assured and stylistically steady than you’ve ever been. Your camera glides through scenes fluidly; the lighting design is warm and inviting; the compositions and frames are intelligent. But you’ve effectively become a studio hack—you just churn ‘em out on a quick schedule, with a relatively low budget, working with the best cast you can get rather than what the film’s best suited for, working with what seems like the first or second draft of the screenplay. You once claimed that you found the idea for 2002’s Hollywood Ending on a discarded cocktail napkin, and I believe it. You also claimed that, if it’s 6:00pm and you think you could get a better take on a scene but the Knicks’ tip-off is at 7:30, you’ll be at the Knicks game. Shoot fast, shoot cheap, and get in bed by ten o’clock. It’s all about the efficiency, and very little about the art.
But there’s a paradox. You want to be an auteur. You rarely collaborate on screenplays, which is a shame. 1994’s fantastic Bullets Over Broadway was co-written with Douglas McGrath; there’s a lesson there, pal. You autocratically won’t let actors see the full scripts of the movies they’re in. You don’t let producers see dailies. For the past 15 years, and maybe longer, your movies have had a particular glowing, romantic aura—I can tell within two minutes if I’m watching one of your films, even if I’ve never seen it before. Essentially, your vision isn’t compromised by anyone else.
On paper, that all sounds like the wet dream of a Cahiers du Cinema critic; it’s worth noting that you continue to be revered in France. (Hell, you even made a good joke about this at the end of Hollywood Ending.) On celluloid, however, it’s dreary in your hands. Since your vision is now curdled and consists mainly of recycled versions of your own material, it can’t help but feel hermetically sealed. You’re putting out an artistic brand rather than an artistic vision, and frankly I’m tired of both of them. You’ve got a post-1960 auteur’s ego but the soul of a 1940s studio hack.
You’ve become addicted to moviemaking—I can’t call it movie love at this point. You’re old enough to be my grandfather, so I know damn well that I can’t convince you to stop making movies. (I tried, in April 2005. You didn’t listen.) But maybe, just maybe, I can talk you into making better ones.
How? Embrace your inner hack. Instead of cranking out fourth-rate scripts, and then forcing yourself to work with such weak material, direct the screenplays of other writers. There are actually great screenwriters out there. I know, I know, it’s hard for you to believe this, which is more proof that you need to get outside more. You’re gonna shoot a new movie every six months, like Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher or Henry Hathaway. Fine. But don’t rely on your dust-covered typewriter for inspiration.
Scoop—like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig, and the lesser films Alice and Deconstructing Harry—relies on magical realism and/or tricky postmodern conceits. It’d be thrilling to see you direct a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, bringing a glowing classicism and theatrical staging as counterpoints to Kaufman’s anxious tomfoolery. I’d be interested—no, really!—to see how you stage and activate a genre crime thriller, or how you might bring visual coherence to the slapdash comedies designed by Will Farrell and his bunch of loonies.
If you want to test the waters slowly, why not adapt a play by George S. Kaufman? He’s one of your idols, after all, and his plays hold up. Once in A Lifetime is the funniest satire of moviemaking that I’ve ever read, and it’s still painfully accurate. With updated pop-culture references, the comedies won’t smell like mothballs. As you’ve already proven in Bullets Over Broadway and Radio Days, you’re in love with the milieu and can recreate the feel of the times exquisitely. Best of all, you couldn’t withhold your actors from the material; the Kaufman & Co. collection is available in any good library. It’s also worth mentioning that Kaufman collaborated with other writers on almost all of his plays; again, hint, hint.
I once thought that a move to England (and to Spain, for your upcoming comedy set in Barcelona) would shake you up. Instead, the cultural instability you experienced made you withdraw further into yourself. New York is you. You know it. I know it. Let’s stop kvetching about it. An aesthetic move into genres and writing styles with which you’re unfamiliar, however, could be just the thing to bring back the sound of surprise to your filmmaking.
The point is this: I’m not asking you to forgo everything that makes you tick. Don’t be (too) afraid. In 2006, your fellow New Yorker Spike Lee made Inside Man, ostensibly a genre heist film. He didn’t write it and, as it was produced by Brian Grazer, he had a personality as strong as his that oversaw the movie’s production. Nevertheless, Lee made his best movie in a decade, and one that was true to his moral vision. Even better, it brought out his fighting spirit with a channeled focus that honed his documentary When the Levees Broke, released just six months later, into one of the best TV movies of 2006.
So, I’m not asking you to forget yourself. Not at all. Rather, I’m asking you to immerse yourself in someone else’s ideas for a change. Ironically, you just might rediscover what made us like you in the first place.
Best wishes, as always,