By Vito Delsante
“If my films make one more person miserable, I’ll feel I have done my job.”
- Woody Allen
In pop culture, “genius” is often pinpointed to one spectacular moment, a confluence of talent, luck, and hard work. It is heard in music, seen on film, and/or experienced in words. I am, by no means, a critic but what I intend to do with BEFORE/AFTER GENIUS is revisit the catalog of the artists that have made the most impact on my life and discuss the work that led up to the eureka moment and what came directly after.
NOTE: There are some slight spoilers below, but none that should affect enjoyment of the films discussed.
I don’t remember how old I was, but I was pretty young when I saw Sleeper, Woody Allen’s take on Rip Van Winkle in a police state. I didn’t get it. All I knew was this guy dressed like a robot and if it was science fiction, I was there. It wasn’t…not quite, but that was my first exposure to Woody. I was too young to fully understand Jewish humor, New York-centric themes, and self loathing. I mean, I loved the Marx Brothers, and Groucho is as close to a comedy king in my house as you can get, but the Marx boys were slapsticky and obtuse; anyone who had a full diet of Bugs Bunny could get their jokes, even if the innuendo went by them. Woody was at once mature and yet, slightly sophomoric, but only if you got the joke. There’s a language barrier between Woody and Groucho (two of the best stage names in comedy) that once you get past, you see the connect. But make no mistake; Woody Allen is an island unto his own…which, if you asked him, may suit him just fine.
While watching Midnight in Paris, one can’t help but feel that in comparison to his earlier work (specifically, his 70’s output), it is a quintessential Woody Allen movie. There are the shots of Paris in the beginning (akin to the shots of New York City in the opening of Manhattan), things and places that Woody himself must love. The opening credits, whose font is unchanged from his prior films (with a few exceptions). And then there’s Owen Wilson. The common complaint amongst critics (or maybe it’s fans?) of Allen’s films is that, realistically, no woman would find Woody that attractive. True, he was getting older and his leading ladies younger. True, his nebbish charm seemed out of place in a culture that put value in other aspects of a man’s appearance and personality (ever see those Axe spray cologne commercials?). But in Owen Wilson, he has a true avatar that, according to People Magazine, is one of the Sexiest Men Alive.
While it hasn’t opened as of the writing of this article, To Rome With Love has Jesse Eisenberg, aka Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, standing in for Woody and from all appearances, he’s another appropriate avatar that may not be Sexiest Man Alive material, but hey…it’s not an old man hitting on Ellen Page. Critics silenced, but it wasn’t too long ago that Woody himself was in that role and no one batted an eye. He was deemed worthy of adoration because his skill didn’t lie in his bedroom prowess, but in being able to make a woman forget herself and maybe, forget the odd man in front of her. Nowhere is that more evident than in his film, Annie Hall.
Genius: ANNIE HALL (1977) is…this is a difficult sentence to start. Because what can you say about Annie Hall that hasn’t been said before? What kind of new and exciting detail can I give? Probably none, but that’s not really my aim anyway. I’m only pointing out what a piece of genius this movie is. I’ll talk about the before and after in specifics, but to recognize the genius of this movie, you have to look at it stacked against all the other movies around it. Prior to Annie, Woody’s comedies were just that; comedies. Fictional comedies, to be specific. That’s not to say that Annie Hall isn’t a comedy…but is it? It’s the first of his movies to be autobiographical, which is odd considering that someone else wrote the movie with him (Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Sleeper, Manhattan and a few others). The concept of art imitating life is key here, as this movie is, ostensibly, Woody and Diane Keaton’s relationship laid out for the audience to see, warts and all. It’s almost too real (Keaton’s real last name is Hall and Allen was married twice before, among other small pieces of their life). I’ve heard some say that the movie is about Annie, and I’ve read others say that it’s a movie about couples, but, to me, it’s really the story of Alvy Singer, a stand-up comedian dealing with his own insecurities in a relationship that start the second after he admits to loving Annie Hall, a lounge singer who is absolutely crazy for him. Before this, he carries a false bravado (as much as a nebbish can, I guess) and afterwards, all of his self-doubt comes to the surface, which in turn causes Annie to doubt herself. In the end, Alvy is to blame for their break-up because, as the character himself says, there are two kinds of people in the world, “…the horrible and the miserable,” and Alvy spends the entire film figuring out which one he is and which one he’s ok with being.
There is so much that is real about Annie Hall that it’s hard to classify it as a comedy (a dramedy maybe?), even if there are funny lines and funny moments that are laugh riots. There have been dozens upon dozens of movies that use a lot of the formula created in this movie, but the closest thing I can think of is Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s a true uncomfortability…I tend to think of it as a rash…that when you see Alvy (or Larry in Curb) experience life as it’s happening, you want to run and hide. It’s sincere to the point of painfulness and you get the feeling that it was the first time he was that honest on film. Oh, and we don’t even get to his preoccupation with sex and death! But there’s the light, as comedians say, and it’s time to move on…
Before: LOVE AND DEATH (1975)
I’d never heard about LOVE AND DEATH until I started getting this article together, and frankly, I want to punch everyone in the face that never told me this movie existed. Arguably, you could pick any three movies Allen did between 1969 and 1979 and pick a genius moment. Love and Death could have been the genius that led to Annie Hall, but as mentioned, Annie Hall was transcendent in a way that Love and Death isn’t. Mainly because no one would mistake this for an autobiography. Regardless of that fact, it’s a phenomenal movie. Like Annie, L&D was directed and starred Woody, but he alone wrote the film, and that’s an important distinction. In some ways, Annie is Woody challenged to open up by his co-writer, Brickman, and this is Woody’s comedy chops unleashed. It’s as if someone challenged him to take Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Bergman through Flatbush and see where it led him/them. It’s incredibly literate without expecting the audience to know literature. The most amazing feature in a lot of Woody’s earlier work like Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and others is how comfortable he is using anachronisms, but then you realize that Woody, himself, is the anachronism. He’s the square peg in the round hole. L&D is pretty straightforward; just like those Russian authors (and you might as well throw in Anton Chekov’s plays), Allen uses this film to wax philosophic about…well, philosophy, class, war, love, death, God…it’s a pretty full experience. And as a director, this might be his grandest scale piece, shooting full on battleground war scenes, something that you just don’t expect from him (and you don’t see anything on this scale until Zelig). Broad comedy led to big screen filmmaking, which then led to a very personal piece.
What strikes me as fascinating about Love and Death is how there really are no answers, nor does the film expect you to walk away thinking. It’s just Woody’s id babbling, and that’s where he is king. Being able to say whatever you want, in the moment. And once again, you have to single out Diane Keaton. Here, her dialogue is more in tune with Woody’s; she comes across as Allen’s voice coming out of a woman, whereas in Annie, she sounds like a real woman (or, if you prefer, she sounds like herself). She has as many punchlines as Woody, and throws them down with the same perfect timing. Timing in comedy, as we know, is everything just like it is in music. Funny that Woody is also a musician. The movie ends with Woody’s Boris and the embodiment of Death dancing down a path toward the afterlife, moving from left to right where, on the screen, the words, “The End,” stand. A more subtle and suitable ending may not exist in all cinema.
After: INTERIORS (1978)
There’s a certain expectation you get when you sit down with a Woody Allen film. Laughs, poignancy, and a bit of discomfort at a familiar theme. To say that Interiors has a lot of the latter, and very little of the former, would be a gross understatement. Interiors came hot on the heels of Annie Hall, which, for those scoring, won four Academy Awards. I can’t find reference to Allen stating that he implicitly wanted to do a Bergman-esque drama, but in Woody Allen: A Documentary, he did say, “I’ll sacrifice some of the laughs for a story about human beings.” He may have been talking about Annie Hall or Manhattan, because he sacrificed all of the laughs in Interiors. There are lines, one-liners, delivered in this film that are so weighty that, in another film with another score delivered by another actor, would get a laugh. Not here. This is drama, painful, real, and dark (with suicide, attempted rape…not typical Woody Allen fare). And that’s kind of the point. Allen, for all the stringed together gags and one-liners he was known for starting out, as of Annie Hall, he finds a way to marry the two and tell a complete story. He matures physically (from 40 to 43 years old) and somehow, that affects his storytelling. After Interiors, the one thing you can say about Woody Allen is that, as a filmmaker, he’s unpredictable.
Interiors refers to interior decorating, the profession of Eve, the mother (Geraldine Page), but daughter Joey (Marybeth Hurt) explains it perfectly in the third act: “I mean, all the beautifully furnished rooms, carefully designed interiors, everything’s so controlled. There wasn’t any room for any real feelings.” That feeling of tension under the surface, because everyone has to be so perfect, is evident. The only person with any inkling to get out of it is Arthur (E.G. Marshall), the father, who meets Pearl (Jean Stapleton), a widower, in Greece and within a month is asking for her hand in marriage, and divorce from Eve. You can see why; Pearl is full of life. She wears bright, garish clothes. She’s gregarious (vulgar, if you ask Joey) and she’s not afraid to be herself. In quite literal fashion, she’s a bull in a china shop. She’s pleasant, and in a Woody Allen film, comedy or not, pleasant people are oddities. Just like in Annie Hall, this family is made up of “the horrible and the miserable” (to the point where Diane Keaton’s Renata is a writer obsessed with death…just like Woody). It’s a quiet film (the ambient noises, such as breathing or waves on a beach, are amplified) and there are some subtleties, but this film is heavy. That may be intentional on Woody’s part.
Some might say that Manhattan was the genesis of genius; others, Bullets Over Broadway. Some will agree with me, though, and say it was Annie Hall. AH really shifted the way Woody told stories. He went from broad comedies to a personal anecdotal comedy about real people in a real relationship to a very dark drama. Post Annie Hall, we learned that Woody Allen, armed only with a good idea and a portable typewriter, is a dangerous man. Because once he realizes that he can tell any story he wants to, and damn the expectations, he really opens up and gets to work. It’s kind of revelatory.
Photo by Seth Kushner