Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Future Jones Is Growing Quickly (But Healthy!)


I Especially Enjoy His Middle-Period, Dramedies: My Favorite Films Pt. 4

#4 (tie) "Stardust Memories"/"Crimes And Misdemeanors"

Any list of great films for me ultimately has to have a Woody Allen film in it, if only to illustrate to those among you still reading this (hi Uncle Donny!, Aunts Lynn and Jane!, Blake!) what was probably the hugest pop culture influence on me during the eighties.

Besides "Thundercats" of course.

Say what you will about Allen (and what New York tabloid hasn't?), his films from "Annie Hall" through "Husbands and Wives" showed what mature stand up comedy can lead to cinematically and pointed the way to almost all modern cinematic romantic comedy. A pretty big statement, but then, since I get so many discounted pastries from *$'s these days, I'm a pretty big guy.

Think about it this way. Without "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall", there would be no "a film by Nora Ephron".

Maybe I should put it another way.

Allen's output, beginning with "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall", marked an evolution for a comic filmmaker who was known primarily for intellectual, "Hellzapoppin"-style farces like "Love And Death" (Bob Hope does Russian literature), "Sleeper" (Charlie Chaplin's sci-fi film), and "Bananas" (The Marx Brothers go Marxist). With this new type of comedy, Allen was able to combine his stand-up comedy persona (funny, well-read nebbish) with his real life issues (an inability to enjoy anything for very long, attraction to equally neurotic women, an obsession with pre-bop jazz) to create films that transcended his own style of stand-up. If you think about it, the films gave the Stand-Up Woody a real person to empathize with, and they gave the Real Woody a sense of humor to lighten up his own self doubt/loathing.

And for me, he reached his height in two films at the opposite ends of the eighties.

"Stardust Memories" is basically Allen's "8 1/2", featuring comic filmmaker Sandy Bates quest to make more serious films and have more stable relationships, while going through hallucinatory sequences involving memory, fantasy and a smothering group of grotesqueries known as his "fans". All of this is framed by his attendance of a tribute to him and his work being held at a dreary, seaside resort, the Hotel Stardust. And the memory that most haunts him involves his ex-girlfriend, the uber-neurotic Dorrie, played by the incredible Charlotte Rampling!

To put it mildly, having seen this film now far too much, Rampling is the movie. Her underplaying of most of her romantic scenes with Allen (she almost mumbles her lines), coupled with the scenes where Dorrie has gone off her meds, is (pardon me for getting all James Lipton-y on you) an acting lesson every actress should attend. The last time Allen's character sees her is in an insane asylum and the jump cuts of Rampling, that are held in a basic shoulders-up close-up frame, is the kind of scene that would be difficult to the most accomplished thespian. But Rampling sails through it without making it too showy or actor-y, just playing out the truth of the emotions in every cut.

I think maybe the fact that I saw this on cable, (we're talking early-eighties-HBO-one-film-seven-times-a-day cable) when I was fourteen, might indicate a certain bias. Also, I haven't eaten anything but chocolate this morning...

"Crimes And Misdemeanors" shows us Allen combining his serious and comedy leanings in a way that is breathtaking. Almost a film of two novellas, the "Crimes" section tells the serious story of a successful optometrist (Martin Landau) who's crazy mistress (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to tell his wife about their affair and the police about some shady business dealings, if he doesn't divorce his wife. The "Misdemeanors" tells of a struggling, principled documentarian (Allen) who takes on a job shooting a PBS documentary about his wife's asinine brother, a television comedy producer and legend in his own mind (Alan Alda). At the same time, Allen contemplates an affair of his own with the PBS liason (Mia Farrow), that Alda is also drawn to. The two stories are connected by the wife's other brother, a rabbi (Sam Waterston) who is slowly going blind and who is being treated by Landau.

The way this film brings together some pretty dark and complex thoughts about justice (there is none), a kind and loving God (nope), and the idea of a fair and balanced universe (fuhgeddabowddit), is Allen's crowning achievement. Landau should have gotten an Oscar for how he takes through his character's struggles, making us as culpable as he, as we empathize with the dark path he takes. And frankly, I have never cared more for a character that Woody Allen has played, the way I felt for his hapless documentarian. I mean, of course Allen stacks the deck, so of course you're going to feel for the guy, but he does it the most artfully he's ever done it. A great close for a great decade of filmmaking for Woody Allen.

And yet both inadvertently, I believe point to some of the criticisms of Allen today.

Not the "his comedies are no longer funny" criticisms, but other ones. Sigh.

"Crimes" contains a conceit that is one of Allen's overriding themes in his more serious work. There is no God- only luck. But what happens in this film is what tends to happen almost anytime Allen tries to make this statement. his own characters betray him. In every film that Allen has a character state that there is only luck, you can see how the choices the character made are much more responsible for the outcome. In "Crimes", Landau , in the end, seems to get away with a horrible crime. Yet the last shot is him drunkenly telling the story of what happened to Allen's character as a kind of movie pitch. Which only indicates to me, that, far from feeling no guilt, Landau will keep tipping his hand, until finally the truth will come out. But I don't think Allen the director/screenwriter is ever cognizant(sp.?) of this.

As I don't believe he ever knowingly puts his life into his movies. But he does it still. In "Stardust", one of the big knockdown, drag out, screaming matches that Allen and Rampling have concerns an accusation of Allen's character having flirted with Dorrie's fourteen-year old niece. He denies it, and since Rampling is the crazy one off her drugs, there is some plausible credence to his denials.

Cut to the early nineties, and Allen and Mia Farrow's divorce.

Maybe, all of these films are just a good filmmaker's artistic (the good ones, not the ones from the past fifteen years), unconcious justifications for his behavior.

see: Hitchcock, Alfred.

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