Sunday, October 17, 2010

What Works With Woody

I don’t mean to be morbid, but since Woody Allen is in his mid-70’s now, it’s tempting to carry out a thought experiment: how would his new film You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger seem if it had turned out to be his last? If you’ve followed a filmmaker over several decades, as many of us have with Allen, it’s impossible not to perceive each new work in relation to what preceded it, as an addition to an endlessly refined (not necessarily for the better) lifelong sculpture. I was a little too young to see Annie Hall when it first came out, but I joined the party with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1981, and I don’t believe I’ve missed a single one since then. It’s therefore inevitable that my take on Allen is the same many others have: he started small, hit a major cultural zeitgeist, staked out a plausible claim to greatness, and then hit a creative wall around the same time his personal problems erupted. Since then, it would take a major feat of memory to recall all the forgettable annual installments - Hollywood Ending, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, Anything Else, and so forth, although it’s hard not to admire the industriousness that keeps them coming.

International Woody

In recent years, Allen has largely reinvented himself as an international filmmaker, something that ironically would have seemed impossible for the younger, more energetic director. He’s filmed several times in the UK and also in Spain, and he’s already made another movie in Paris. At times, with Match Point in particular, you could really believe someone else was behind the camera, but this only sparks limited excitement – shouldn’t Allen be developing a fuller and deeper version of himself, rather than trying to be someone else? At least, that’s what I think when I compare him to Bunuel and Rivette and Rohmer and others who kept going into their seventies or beyond. But it’s become increasingly clear that Allen, for all his literary references and veneer of bookishness, isn’t truly occupied by the kinds of big ideas that keep an artist going until he drops. His main motivation, it seems, is to avoid ever having to spend a quiet night at home with nothing to do (once he’s got his sports fix and practiced his clarinet). As soon as he finishes a movie, by all accounts, he starts on another one, never looking back, churning through projects the way other old men work through jigsaw puzzles.

His latest release, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, is again set in London. Anthony Hopkins’ character leaves his wife after 40 years, marrying a manifestly unsuitable young “actress” (read hooker). The wife (Gemma Jones) falls under the sway of a so-called psychic, gradually devoting virtually all her waking energies to the world beyond. Their daughter (Naomi Watts) and her husband (Josh Brolin) have career and money problems; she dreams of hooking up with her wealthy boss (Antonio Banderas) and he lusts after a young woman living in an adjacent apartment (Frieda Pinto). The movie might be broadly classified as a comedy, but no one cracks one-liners; the laughs (if indeed they exist at all) come out of embarrassment, absurdity, and desperation.

Signifying Nothing

As with much of Allen’s later work, the film often seems under-developed and even lazy. The relationship between Hopkins and the prostitute, even allowing that lust can lead men down some irrational paths, is too sketchily presented to be remotely convincing. The Watts and Brolin characters make their living through art and writing respectively, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it in their conversations. In his heyday, as I mentioned, Allen was everyone’s favourite representative of a certain (narrow) strand of high brow behaviour, but that now looks at best like a phase he’s left behind. Near the beginning of Tall Dark Stranger, its voice-over narrator promises a tale of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” which as one of the most over-cited lines in all of Shakespeare doesn’t promise anything too intellectual or distinctive ahead.

That’s especially true since the notion of “signifying nothing” has become increasingly dominant in Allen’s work: it’s implicit for example in the title of Whatever Works, and he frequently makes the kind of film where A meets B who knows C who’s married to D who works for A etc. His characters frequently undergo dramatic reawakenings: in Whatever Works, Patricia Clarkson transforms from a religious Southern mother to a New York artist living in a ménage a trois, and her husband comes out as gay. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the sexual triangle involves two women. In several recent films, things turn to murder. But if there’s any particular perspective in there on the human psyche or on society, it’s only that it’s not worth having a perspective: you never know what’s around the corner, and whatever it is, it’s questionable whether it means anything.

What's Possible

Tall Dark Stranger, I should warn you, leaves most of its plot strands hanging, although with things looking mostly grim; the main exception, and where it chooses to close, is in the happiness (although likely fragile) it grants a character who may actually have become unhinged and surrendered almost completely to fantasy. Returning to where I started, if it were Allen’s last film, it would lend itself very easily to a farewell essay. Obviously one would try avoiding the obvious line about Allen now meeting his own tall dark stranger, but it would be impossible not to see the Hopkins and Brolin characters as commentaries on Allen himself, as embodiments of the mixed payoff from insufficient personal discipline (in one of the film’s more unexpected turns, the Banderas character stands as a relative example of sound judgment and shrewd personal life strategy).

But then, this farewell essay might say, the last few minutes of Allen’s last ever film (with a vintage version of When You Wish Upon A Star playing on the soundtrack) looked kindly on dreamers and modes of escape. Although his own work was mostly earthbound, he’d often acknowledged (for example in Purple Rose Of Cairo) the power of cinema to transform reality. It’s unlikely, you might write, that he ever fully realized all his aspirations for his work or for himself. But he stuck with whatever worked, and the longer he survived, the more he confirmed through his very presence what’s actually possible, if you focus on the conditions to make it so.

Happily though, it’s not his last film. But whatever he’s got going on in his Paris movie, I’m sure that too will work fine as a springboard for summing up his entire career. Maybe this means he’s a consistent artist after all. But maybe it just means that whenever you’re looking for a way into writing about latter-day Woody Allen, you’ve just got to go with whatever works.

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