Saturday, July 21, 2012

Anything could happen

So I was in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the pain to begin, and the assistant mentioned she’d seen Magic Mike that weekend. I told her that (as documented here last week) I had too – I was really happy about it, because it’s so rare that I manage to find common ground with anyone at the dentist’s – and she was absolutely astonished. She told me she didn’t know of any man who’d been willing to see it, except that one of her girlfriends duped a guy into going by telling him it was about a superhero, a subterfuge which didn’t ultimately work out too well. We didn’t continue the conversation because I had to start submitting to the pain, but it was a rare experience for me, movie-wise, to be considered quirky for having gone to see a big commercial hit: most of the movies I watch nowadays are old foreign ones, which a lot of people think of as just another version of the dentist’s chair (albeit with a bit more nudity, by and large).

Woody Allen

The truth is, I wouldn’t have gone to see Magic Mike except I was sure I could get a good article out of it, because if you’re going to try holding down a column like this, you can’t spend every week on Robert Bresson and Jean Renoir (I’m eternally grateful I’m allowed to spend any weeks on such territory). I would have seen it eventually, no question, but these days I’m happy to wait for cable. I mean, I can name films I’ve been waiting to see for thirty years, so it’s no hardship to put something like the remake of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on ice for seven or eight months, even if it is David Fincher. Truth is, there’s no more than a handful of films a year that I’m so excited about that I’d definitely go see them right away, even if I didn’t have a column – possibly the most recent example was Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.

That’s a fairly typical example actually – a movie made by an old guy I’ve admired for years, so that the desire to actually see the film is intertwined with some quasi-spiritual notion of keeping the faith. Which brings us conveniently to Woody Allen, because the record shows, I kept the faith – I was there for Scoop and Anything Else and Whatever Works and Cassandra’s Dream and all of them. It must have been quasi-spiritual, because only God knows what kept me doing it. Sure, they met my criterion of generating an article, but it was always pretty much the same one.

To Rome with Love

And then, last year’s Midnight in Paris became his biggest critical and popular hit for years, and ultimately got him another Oscar for its screenplay. I called it one of his most coherent and sustained films in a long time, which was true, but put another way, might just have meant it avoided any major screw-ups. It can’t have been just that though – I wouldn’t have said his new film To Rome with Love has any major screw-ups either, but it hasn’t galvanized audiences or writers in anything like the same way. I doubt Allen’s concerned, given how the new film dramatizes exactly such fickleness: an unassuming clerk, played by Roberto Benigni, suddenly and inexplicably becomes the object of intense media scrutiny, with reporters hanging on the mundane details of what he had for breakfast or whether he thinks it’s going to rain. Until, of course, they just as mysteriously lose interest and move on elsewhere.

Allen’s often built his stories on a sort of magic realism – for example, I recently rewatched his 1990 Alice, in which an unfulfilled housewife remakes herself by taking invisibility potions and suchlike – but in recent years it seems increasingly central to his view of the world. To Rome with Love is suffused with a happy awareness of possibilities and a refusal to moralize about their relative merits, and this spreads beyond plot and character, defining its very structure. The film intertwines four stories, all presumably happening around the same time, but occupying entirely different time frames -  a story spanning only a day is intercut with others depicting much longer periods. In one of the strands, a young man meets an older one and invites him for coffee; at some point the latter ceases to be a real person and becomes a kind of embodiment of the young man’s internal voice, accompanying him on his romantic narrative, until they somehow loop back to where they started and return to their respective realities. There’s no way to make rational sense of it – maybe it’s a dream or a reverie, or maybe our emotional maturity demands transcending our limiting concepts of rational sense.

Concept drawer

This is fanciful of course – most of us have to live in this world, not a parallel one. Maybe that hardly applies to Allen at this point though – this movie’s idea of political content amounts to a few exchanged barbs about “Communists,” and smartphones exist only so a character can kick-start her adventures by fumbling and dropping hers down the drain; economic problems and racial diversity are as invisible in his work as they’ve ever been. Instead, he continues his recent preoccupation with sexual multiplicity – three of the four stories involve seemingly guilt-free couplings outside the characters’ primary relationships – which seems like an earthly manifestation of his ease with bending time and space. He’s also extremely reticent about tying up any of the strands too tidily: the movie ends merely by emphasizing how easily it could keep going, with a whole new bunch of stories.

All of this means that terms like “coherent” and “sustained” don’t ring quite as prominently in one’s reactions as they did for Midnight in Paris, but to me that makes it a somewhat richer work. And personally I didn’t mind at all that Allen was raiding his bedroom drawer of unrealized concepts (it’s an actual drawer, as depicted in the recent documentary about him) for the story about an opera director who discovers a new talent who can only sing in the shower, nor that his comic timing and instinct for the punchline seem to have become a bit blurry, nor that he unaccountably wastes some members of his dream cast, Greta Gerwig in particular.

So this is what keeping the faith is all about. Then we went out to eat, and it was great, except that because of the current state of my dental treatment, I have to chew very slowly, and mostly with my back teeth on the left hand side, which comes very unnaturally to me. I’m finding it’s true what they say though – if you eat that much more deliberately, it fills you up faster. And it feels virtuous to have to concentrate so much. So that was my own version of old-guy serenity.

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