The other day, I impulsively watched Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper, which I hadn’t seen for decades. I never feel much desire to revisit Allen’s older work, given how he always has a new one just around the corner. The new films are always disappointments of course – I pretty much always vote the party line on that one – but if you’re like me, you go to them anyway, out of a sense of tradition (you know, like observing the Queen’s birthday). In recent years, it seemed maybe it was only me; Allen’s movies haven’t grossed as much as the rounding error on your average short-lived crowd-magnet. But then, out of nowhere, Midnight in Paris turned into his biggest hit ever. Of course, inflation contributed to that, but still, what a resurgence!
I wouldn’t be surprised if that prompted many people to go back to Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters, but I vaulted even further back, into what’s now generally seen as Allen’s funny but less substantial warm-up period. Like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Everything you always wanted to know about sex… and Love and Death, Sleeper was built around a big conceptual hook, designed as an engine room for jokes. The jokes, of course, largely reflected the attitudes and hang-ups of Allen’s contemporary New York environment, or at least of Allen’s no-doubt unrepresentative take on that environment. Like his great hero Groucho Marx, his characters in this period were imposed on the films more than integrated within them; but unlike Groucho, Allen contrived to evoke and even embody a quasi-aspirational way of being. This is really something - that someone whose screen persona was built so much on weakness and limitation, and who then inserted that persona into a stream of nonsensical environments, could even have come close to being an intellectual heartthrob. Of course, disingenuousness was always a large element of this alchemy, prominently the supernatural access to beautiful women (regardless of the conceit of complaining about the sex).
Anyway, Sleeper is the one about a health food store owner, Miles, who goes in for a routine operation and wakes up two hundred years in the future. It’s pretty funny, but I was surprised how radical it seemed in many ways. In part, this reflects the sense you get from watching almost any film of the early 70’s; the editing rhythms are easier and funkier, there’s a sense of collaborating with the audience, not simply projecting at them. Sleeper has numerous sequences you might call action set-ups, where Miles is pursued by the cops of the future, that kind of thing, and it regularly condenses these into abstraction: cut from Allen and Diane Keaton running away, with a crowd in close pursuit; to the not particularly athletic duo having covered a vast amount of ground, with the pursuers now somehow further back, that kind of thing. There’s no attempt to paste over the gap with flashy angles or cutaways to something else; you just take it as it is. Such devices go back at least to the silent era, but they’re not fashionable now. Toy Story 3, for instance, seamlessly choreographs the passage of its toy protagonists through the threats of the evil daycare, to their near-annihilation in the trash furnace.
Many of the jokes in Sleeper flow from Allen not amending his then-persona at all; everything he says is festooned with references that don’t make any sense in the future, and no one calls him on them (I think Keaton’s character only remarks once on how little she understands of what he says). When a future scientist shows him a bunch of 70’s era photographs, trying to learn more about what they depict, he dismisses each of them in a snappy one-liner, which the scientist then meekly accepts. Done a certain way, this could just have been vaudeville, like some of Mel Brooks’ films. But Allen, at this stage in the film, does something much more sophisticated – he plays the future world absolutely straight: the evocation of future architecture is immaculate, and the actors could easily have stepped out of Kubrick’s 2001. The friction between Miles’ chronic escapism and the chilly solidity of his surroundings reinforces the endless expressions of insecurity; it’s a tangible expression of a lonely worldview. In contrast, Owen Wilson’s passage between past and present in Midnight in Paris is as easy as dreaming, executed with a grace that instantly eliminates any real possibility of adversity.
As the film progresses though, Allen changes the rules of the future world, tacking toward rampant absurdity. The authoritarian state is enforced by inept cops who can’t handle their own fancy weapons. There’s an absurd-looking genetically engineered giant chicken. And to cap it all, it turns out that the iron-handed ruler has been blown up in an explosion, with nothing remaining of him but his ear, from which they intend to clone the whole man back to life. Although it’s earlier been made clear that the society knows virtually nothing of the time Miles came from, Keaton later evidences an intimate familiarity not only with the text of A Streetcar Named Desire, but with Brando’s interpretation of Stanley Kowalski.
Sex and Death
This might sound like the anything-for-a-laugh approach of a Scary Movie or an Airplane. But I was surprised how it all coalesced into a persuasive worldview, one based on sheer perseverance. Allen is famous for his self-discipline and solitary habits; his artistic longevity seems largely based on sheer stubbornness. Sleeper embodies that better than most of his films – Miles remains defiantly himself, and the world eventually bends. And although it’s maybe not much of a world, it’s malleable enough, if you work at it. There’s a giddy kind of optimism to jokes like the Volkswagen that’s been hidden in a cave for two hundred years, and then starts first time.
In the end, Keaton asks him what he believes in, since he’s already disavowed any belief in science or God or politics, and he says sex and death, two things that come once in a lifetime, but at least after death, you’re not nauseous. It’s not hard to imagine a latter-day Allen character making much the same joke (he must have coined a thousand variations on it), but I don’t know if he’d be as likely now to end on an evocation of nausea. The emblematic Allen title of later years (although far from the best movie) is Whatever Works, usually applied as a reflection on the unpredictability of personal fortunes. Sleeper is one of his most extreme predicaments, but also his most cosmically confident bending of the elements. In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson finds himself and maybe finds the girl. In Sleeper, by comparison, Miles is by several measures the most notable human being in the world, and what does that get him? The freedom to resume life in his comfort zone, built around endless jokes about his own epic failure. And definitely the girl. Of the two, I think that’s the more stimulating outcome!