by Kirk Woodward
[Like George Bernard Shaw and the Beatles (did you ever figure those two names would appear together in the same sentence?), filmmaker Woody Allen is a subject of some interest to Kirk Woodward, my friend of many years who’s been a prolific contributor to ROT. Kirk’s last two posts on this blog have been about the great Irish writer (“Re-Reading Shaw,” 3 and 18 July, 8 and 23 August, and 2 September) and the Fab Four (“Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” 27 September), and now Kirk returns with an article about reviewers (another favorite topic—he wrote a whole book about reviewing) and Allen’s latest films. (Kirk also wrote about Allen before on ROT: he posted an article about “Bullets Over Bullets Over Broadway” on 29 August 2014.) As in both “Re-Reading Shaw” and “Now, Live,” Kirk writes about his own take on things, based on his experience and observation. And as with the recent past posts, you may disagree with some of what Kirk says in “Woody Allen’s Recent Movies,” but once again, I maintain that his thoughtfulness and perspicacity make his opinions and conclusions worth considering—even if you’re not a particular fan of Allen’s filmmaking.]
Woody Allen (b. 1935) famously does not believe in God or an afterlife. I hope he’s wrong, if only because I want him to be able to enjoy the critical praise his films are due, and I’m afraid he’s going have to wait until he joins the choir invisible for that to happen.
Many people, in the arts and in other fields, are taken for granted until they’ve passed on, at which point they are idolized. That’s likely to be the case with Allen. All his work – all 1100 or so hours of it – will (I’m guessing) then be issued in one collection, probably on some digital device the size of a toenail clipping, and films that are now essentially disregarded will be considered important for their imagination and creativity.
By my count, Woody Allen has been involved in some seventy-three films to date. He has written around fifty of them, directed forty-nine, and acted in some fifty-five. Obviously there is a lot of overlap here – I count thirty-eight films for which he was the (or in a few cases “a”) writer, director, and actor. (As best I can tell, I’ve seen about half of the total seventy-three.)
I’m not saying that Allen has been ignored, because obviously that’s not the case. He is the subject of a shelf of analytical books, mostly admiring. He is enormously respected in the film-making community, and actors say they consider it a career highlight to be in a Woody Allen film.
But the reviewers . . . ah, that’s a different story. Reviewers often write, so to speak, with their eyes on the rear-view mirror. In Allen’s case, they frequently don’t really review his current film, they review his past career.
A. O. Scott’s review in The New York Times (14 July 2016) of Allen’s most recent film, Café Society (2016), is a typical example. Even the headline for the review – likely not written by Scott, of course – reads, “‘Café Society Isn’t Woody Allen’s Worst Movie” – a reference to Allen’s career right there – and Scott goes on to describe the film as “neither an example of bad, late Woody Allen nor much in the way of return to form.”
Wendy Ide in The Guardian (4 September 2016) writes, “It’s not in the same league as Allen’s finest work, but neither is it a honking misfire like Magic in the Moonlight.” Adam Graham in the Detroit News (29 July 2016) says “. . . it doesn’t reach the heights of Woody’s best . . . .” Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post (21 July 2016) says, “With each succeeding year, Allen’s insular version of the past feels more eccentric.” Examples can be multiplied.
To my mind this is both this strikes me as both a lazy and an offensive approach for a reviewer to take. I say “offensive” because it patronizes an artist who has made significant contributions to film, to comedy, and for that matter to culture. I say “lazy” because what I would describe as a ho-hum attitude of superiority is an easy one for a reviewer to assume – unearned, but easy.
I maintain that a reviewer’s responsibility is to confront the work at hand. I want to know, as if I had never seen another movie, what this one has to offer. Only by approaching a piece of art that way, it seems to me, is a reviewer able to see and describe what might be new, significant, or even revelatory about a particular film.
The career-evaluation approach to reviewing strikes me as one step removed from the gossip columnists’ – “Old Woody isn’t the filmmaker he used to be.” What does that have to do with the movie at hand? But comparing past and present movies is an easy game. It’s also a bad habit.
No one’s art is the same today as it was yesterday. To take another example, Bob Dylan isn’t writing “Blowing In the Wind” any more. Why should he? He wrote it years ago. What’s he writing now? What does it have to offer? Is it valuable or not? Talk about what someone has done, and you won’t have to talk about what they’re doing.
As a result, a great deal of worthwhile work is overlooked. I would argue for the merits of a number of films by Woody Allen that are generally ignored – for example, from his middle period, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Small Town Crooks (2000), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), and Hollywood Ending (2002).
None of these are remembered as “Woody Allen classics,” and some were panned and/or did badly at the box office. All of them, I submit, would have been considered delightful work if they were not looked at as “Woody Allen films.” Under that burden they could not be “seen” for themselves.
Obviously I am expressing my own highly debatable opinions, but another point can be objectively demonstrated. There is no such thing as a “typical Woody Allen film” because his films are significantly different from each other. They are structured differently, they use different narrative devices, they have widely different kinds of characters.
Certainly elements recur. It would be remarkable if they did not, since one person, Allen, is their prime creator. (Recurring elements appear in Shakespeare’s plays too.) But Allen works hard to differentiate his films. He finds inspiration in numerous sources, and he uses a variety of narrative structures.
I would like to demonstrate this point by looking at five recent films that Allen has written and directed, and in some cases appeared in.
SPOILER ALERT: In order to discuss the various twists of these movies, I have to at least hint at some important – sometimes crucial – plot elements. If you haven’t seen Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man in particular, stay away from the following.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)
This delightful film was both a critical and a popular success; it won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and earned the most money among Woody Allen’s recent films. The narrative hook in this film is . . .
I TOLD YOU THERE’D BE SPOILERS! THERE’LL BE OTHERS! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
. . . time travel. Owen Wilson plays a writer in modern-day Paris whose favorite time period is the 1920’s. Having problems both with his fiancée and with the novel he’s trying to write, he finds himself traveling, each midnight, into the Paris of that era, where Hemingway challenges him to box, Gertrude Stein reads and evaluates his novel, and Surrealistic painter Salvador Dali visualizes him as a rhinoceros. From a narrative point of view, perhaps the most interesting twist is that a detective, hired to shadow the writer, gets himself stuck in an even earlier time period, and can’t get out.
TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)
I enjoyed this film almost as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Paris, which is saying something, but the two are radically different. The mood of Midnight is romantic and serene; the mood of Rome is boisterous. A narrator introduces and closes the film (there is no narrator in Midnight). The film intertwines four separate stories told in differing comic styles; it crosscuts between the stories, but presents them in different time frames: for example, one may take a day, another one a number of days.
· A not terribly successful opera director (played by Woody Allen) discovers a “natural talent,” a tenor who, unfortunately, can only sing when he’s in the shower.
· An American woman and her husband, inadvertently separated, each become involved in potentially compromising farce situations..
· Leopoldo, a staggeringly average Italian man, finds that for no apparent reason he has become a celebrity, with his every move, including what he had for breakfast, captured by the army of reporters following him.
· Jack, an architecture student, meets John, a successful older architect, who accompanies Jack – visibly or invisibly, in fact or in imagination – as he tries to sort out his love life.
Together these four storylines form a sort of seminar on the possibilities of light comedy. The story of Leopoldo is particularly brilliant, in our age, when people frequently become celebrities for odd reasons (“reality” TV shows) or even for no reasons at all.
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)
In this film, and the next, Woody Allen plays with familiar metaphysical themes – God, death, a meaningful universe. The center of this plot is literally magic: two magicians try to determine whether or not a medium really has supernatural gifts or not. More than that: the plot is literally an elaborate magic trick. I can’t say any more, in order not to spoil the fun for anyone who wants to see the movie, and I hope you will, but I don’t know any other plot that works like this, and it’s a brilliant idea. Some reviewers said the dialogue was uninspired. I suppose they mean that it doesn’t have a lot of gags in it – not that those would be appropriate for the movie, which is deliberately a period piece. A. O. Scott, in his review (24 July 2014), wrote, “Mr. Allen has had his ups and downs over the years.” Need I say more on that subject?
IRRATIONAL MAN (2015)
Irrational Man is a suspense film with a sort of Hitchcock construction to it, as a woman (Emma Stone) becomes increasingly aware that her philosophy professor, testing the idea that a universe without God is meaningless and therefore that every action is equally absurd, has committed a murder, and is likely to have to commit another one – hers. The climax of the action is brilliantly staged – it happens in the blink of an eye, and calls into question much that has previously happened in the film. Reviewers tended to say that the film was dull, which I don’t understand.
CAFÉ SOCIETY (2016)
Unlike the movies discussed above, Café Society is a thoroughly, almost novelistically narrated film, which allows Allen to skip a great deal of exposition for the large number of characters, and move quickly to their central dilemmas. The love triangle between young Bobby, eager to get out of Brooklyn; his uncle Phil, a major movie agent in Los Angeles; and Vonnie, Phil’s secretary, is a strong story in itself – and the way the characters find out what’s happening is skillfully presented – but the story also allows Allen to demonstrate without preaching that “café society” – the life of the comfortably rich – is not life’s ultimate satisfaction. The bittersweet ending embodies this theme: just because a person has everything, doesn’t mean they have everything.
Even a cursory survey of the five movies shows how different they are from each other. There simply is no sense – even if it were good practice – to view these films as basically one long movie directed by Woody Allen. I can’t think of any equally prolific artist who has produced so many works of such variety. Certainly Allen’s films contain themes, motifs, and even plot elements that can be tracked from one movie to another – as is likely to be the case with any artist over a long career. (I cited Shakespeare as an example; I could also cite Eugene O’Neill.) It seems pointless to stop there, and not look at the way Allen handles his material this time.
A review, I maintain, should consider and reflect the work being looked at – not at something else. Criticism, as opposed to reviewing, can take a broader view, and a critical look at an artist’s entire career may be legitimate for a critic. Reviewing has a different focus. It reports on the work at hand.
I could be belligerent and ask what the reviewers’ outstanding contributions to art that allow them to patronize, say, Woody Allen might be. They might properly reply that their contributions are in the field of reviewing, and that a reviewer is an artist too. I agree, and I have no right to look down my nose at their accomplishments. I see much to applaud in various reviews, looked at one at a time. I just want reviewers to review Allen’s movies according to the nature of each one – not as mere signposts in a career. That, I submit, is the heart of the artistry of a reviewer.
[Kirk’s book about reviewing I mentioned in my introduction, for the curious ROTter, is The Art of Writing Reviews (Merry Press/Lulu, 2009), available to order or download at http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272; potential readers can also access this site through Spiceplays, Kirk’s own webpage, http://spiceplays.com/id7.html. I also wrote a four-part commentary on Kirk’s book which I posted on ROT: “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward,” 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009.
[When the reviews of Café Society came out last July, I thought I spotted a similarity between the film’s plot and the plot of a Woody Allen play I’d seen Off-Broadway back in 2004, A Second Hand Memory. I mentioned this to Kirk and he did a search to see if anyone else found the same connection. Turned out, someone did: Don Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal of 8 July commented on the plot similarity and the blog The Woody Allen Pages remarked on the WSJ’s mention in “New Café Society Interviews Discuss Production And New York” on 7 July. On 1 September 2014, I posted my 2004 report on Second Hand Memory on ROT.]