A dream of a nightmare of a movie

Casssandra's Dream 03

This is my annual open letter to Woody Allen. The entries for 2005, 2006, and 2007 are available at the links. Spoilers follow.

Dear Woody,

If you make a great movie and it doesn’t get seen, does it make a sound? Perhaps you’ve asked that question about yourself lately, as 2007’s annual excursion into Woodlandia slipped in and out of theaters last year. Despite the movie’s stellar top-flight cast of Ewan MacGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson, and rising starlet Hayley Atwell, and despite your prominence as a filmmaker, the lovely and haunting Cassandra’s Dream bobbed up to the surface for just a brief media moment, and then sunk. At least in this country, it might as well have been a straight-to-DVD release. That’s a shame, and you must know that.

Then again, judging from the bare-bones, no-director’s-commentary packaging of the DVD, maybe you don’t care. You’ve always struck out into the wilderness on your own, without heeding anyone else’s advice (such as, ahem, my own). You’ve reviewed Bergman’s maps and star charts from time to time, but on even those you’ve jotted down your own New York notes.

You have to admit, though, that I was right. Getting out of New York apartments and getting away from Manhattan bluebloods—both of which I’ve been harping on for years—were good ideas. You needed some fresh air and new accents to absorb. (Early reports on your new Vicky Cristina Barcelona, shot in Spain and starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, indicate that you’re continuing to stretch your wings to good effect.) Sure, your initial British sojourns were rocky—2006’s Scoop, in particular, was flaccid—but that was because you merely transplanted the voices and themes of upper-crust New Yorkers to English actors and landscapes. You hadn’t moved far enough away from familiar themes. I thought it was just laziness.

Instead, I should have realized that you were making baby steps towards a new path. With rare exceptions, you’ve basically taken class privilege for granted. There have been Jew vs. WASP cultural tensions in your oeuvre, sure, but class anxieties are few and far between, and muted if present. In 2000, you lampooned yokels on the make in Small-Time Crooks, but the (funny) comedy was so broad that the movie didn’t get underneath the skin.

Match Point (2005), though, was your breakthrough. Class struggle is central—a striving tennis pro is the protagonist and, once he sees wealth in action, he’ll do anything to attain and keep it. There’s no questioning the bleak content, but the dark tone is belied by the sinuous camerawork, the sunlit and glossy sheen of the surface (banisters, floors, tousled bedsheets, skin), by the warm glow that’s at once inviting and a little distant. The warmth caresses the viewer—it’s a subjective, cinematic representation of Chris Wilton’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s) discovery of privilege and how it intoxicates him. That visual intoxication combines with the acidic narrative to create a woozy, pungent film. In terms of class, everyone gets a little burnt by Match Point. It’s a nasty piece of work, made even more nasty because I found myself identifying with Wilton in spite of myself.

In Cassandra’s Dream, you go one further. The milieu is working-class through and through. The protagonists/brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry Blaine (Colin Farrell) never break through to the other side, no matter how hard they try. Their efforts involve gambling, lying, stealing from their parents, and ultimately murder. For all this, as with all true tragedies, I felt empathy with and sympathy for them. They’re complex and lovable, and the despicable things they end up doing don’t seem contrived but rather unforced and even necessary. I could see how easily they would be duped and how awful things would turn out—the narrative trajectory is foretold from the title, if you know anything about who Cassandra was. As with all good tragedies, the tension comes less from suspense about what will happen but rather how it will occur, and because the depth of characterization engrosses us even as we know the characters are doomed.

Now, let’s be honest. Your new movie isn’t on the level of Othello or the Greek tragedies you allude to in the title. The closing minutes feel rushed and the final still shot of the boat (“Cassandra’s Dream”) falls flat. The denouement is a shrug when it should be a stinging slap. And did you have to introduce the tonal and narrative shift to tragedy with a conversation amidst thunder and rain? That’s so literal it made my head hurt, especially when the movie is otherwise so light on its feet.

As with Match Point, you’ve got the radiant sun laying sheets of yellow and dapple and sparkle on everything. The first half of the movie—with its crisp blue sea; verdant and lush trees, hill, and meadows; blooming flowers; the gorgeous way you and your cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond drape clouds and water alike in painterly light—stops the heart. Even better, you’re not content to just let this warmth and vibrancy drench the screen. Cassandra’s Dream drinks it in, sure, just as Ian and Terry do. They’re flush with life and possibility. As the movie begins, everything’s coming up roses for them. Terry’s winning major bets (30,000 pounds in a single night!). Ian’s planning a major investment in a couple of California hotels. Life’s golden.

Even at the beginning, though, you hint that the shine might be gold paint, not the real thing. The boys buy a boat they can’t really afford. Ian sets aside the girl who loves him for an actress (Hayley Atwell) who’s more self-absorbed and less true than he can see, and tries to impress her by pretending to be much wealthier than he really is. Terry’s fortunes go up and down drastically. Though the camerawork isn’t handheld, there’s a restlessness about the camera that belies the happy visual tone; it’s always on the move. There are more close-ups in Cassandra’s Dream than we’ve seen in your last five movies combined—the better to see the growing anxiety on the brothers’ faces. As the movie progresses, the compositions gradually lose that rich tone, which is replaced by blacks, blues, nighttime shots, and overcast skies. Around the hour-and-fifteen-minute mark, it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen the sun in some time. Weird. Its presence was so strong just minutes before. I noticed that my stomach was tightening but I couldn’t have told you when that started.

That’s masterful filmmaking, graceful and surefooted.

As visually superb as Cassandra’s Dream is, where it shines best is with the casting. McGregor and Farrell don’t really look like each other, but they’re completely believable as brothers who love, like, and ultimately betray each other. Critics have complained that the characters don’t sound reliably working-class but don’t you listen to them. (I know you won’t.) You can’t win for losing. If you refrain from moving outside your Upper East Side bubble, you’re criticized for not portraying the real New York in all its complexity. (I’ve criticized you for this, too.) If you deign to write outside that bubble, critics complain that you’re out of your depth. This particular criticism, commonly applied to Cassandra’s Dream, shows a contempt for actual working-class people—How dare you show them having interests beyond drinking and domestic violence? How dare you have them speak without using the word “fuck” in every other sentence?—that doesn’t recognize the actual complexity of, say, the sorts of people I grew up with.

In September 2007, I wrote the following:

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 [Ingmar] 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 [Harvey] 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.

I stand by that, but I think you’re now consciously trying to explore your working-class roots. (You did this in 1987’s Radio Days, too. It felt so close to your heart that it makes me smile every time I see it.) You’ve grafted those concerns onto two London blokes, and then written them with strong doses of complexity and pathos, so that their bad deeds make us cry for them rather than just hold our noses up at them. As things escalate, Ian hardens into a resolute man capable of doing anything to claw free of his predestined fate as a restauranteur. Terry, in turn, draws on his initial instability to become even more emotionally chaotic. In short, the characters continue to surprise us even as events harden them into more extreme versions of themselves. Their behavior stems from themselves. Nothing feels unnatural or as if the filmmaker’s nudging them for the sake of making a point. This narrative ease comes in part from McGregor and Farrell’s nuanced performances but, let’s face it, a lot comes from your strong writing.

More than one critic has commented that you condescend to Ian and Terry but—unlike your black prostitute in Deconstructing Harry—that’s exactly wrong. True, they’re in over their heads, but not because they’re stupid or easily manipulated. Rather, class anxiety kills them. The true tragedy of Cassandra’s Dream is that Ian and Terry are both good enough people as is, but are convinced (and have convinced themselves) that they’re not, that they have to pretend to be something other than, “better than” they are. They have humor, love, and grace. They’re good lovers. They’re fiercely intelligent and ambitious. Yet they get swindled by a world that tells them they’re not good enough as is. At least at first, they’re a kick to be around. If I’m reading you correctly, Woody, what you’re saying here is this: If these two loving, gentle souls can be soulless, manipulated strivers, well, so can most of us.

So, in the end, Cassandra’s Dream doesn’t lacerate them so much as it slices the idea that we’re only worthwhile if we aspire to be the only truly rich man in the movie: Uncle Howard. As Tom Wilkinson plays him, the man (a virtual Daddy Warbucks) is rich, tasteful, and outwardly generous. He’s also a vicious, ugly liar willing to sacrifice his family to save himself. He’s a criminal. He reduces his nephews to his level in order to keep his status. If you’re condescending to anyone here, it’s him.

And yet, because you’re full of complexities, you allow him to get away with everything. There’s no catharsis in your tragedy, which is why Cassandra’s Dream’s ending is so frustrating. You call upon the Greeks but you won’t finish the job. It’s a wonderful, doom-laden picture that’s infused with sunlight, and that unfinished business makes me mad. But maybe that’s just you being honest—not all bad guys get caught; not all crimes are avenged; not all wrongs are righted.

But you’ve made me care so much about Ian and Terry that I kept hoping for a classical ending, something to alleviate the pain. Once again, you’re not as forthcoming as you could be. Maybe, though, just this once, I won’t see it as a fault but just as the unfair order of things.

Best regards,
Walter Quiet Bubble


I give thanks to the man formerly known as the Shamus, who offered this appreciation of Cassandra’s Dream, which encouraged me to watch it instead of foolishly passing it by.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to A dream of a nightmare of a movie

  1. If I didn’t already miss you from that strange random night at Crossroads (I mean, the party where we played on a random playground) then I read this and I am so happy I found your blog. Come up and play with me in Oxford. I mean, we have like an awesome swing set and slide and everything.

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