Focus On: Woody Allen

(Originally posted at Take One)

Woody Allen is one of the most dedicated and prolific filmmakers working in the industry today. At the age of seventy-six, the chequered American director continues to contribute a film a year to his remarkable forty-three film canon, something he has done since simultaneously directing the throwaway farce A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and the ingenious faux documentary Zeligin 1982.

Allen has never been as publicly approachable as he has in recent years: personally appearing at the Cannes Film Festival on several occasions to promote his latest offering, speaking candidly in interviews and, of course, opening his doors to director Robert Weide and permitting an all-access pass to his unshowy lifestyle.

As refreshing as this is (and for his unwavering fans it is quite the godsend), this lifting of the lid on his personal life smacks of a possible desire to redress the fading public opinion of him and his career; an attempt to alleviate the constant critical destruction of the past decade’s batch of films. Since its heyday in the 1970s, Allen’s cinematic stance has perhaps never been scrutinised as much as it has been of late, and although last year’s Midnight in Paris had its supporters, each new film is picked apart by critics in an attempt to figure out whether it stands as that most tired and subjective of achievements, ‘a return to form’.

In a climate where box office behemoths are shamelessly conjured up from a variety of sources (see Battleship based on the strategy board game of the same name), and made solely for the benefit of financial charts, Allen’s latest work has to some extent been looked upon, with a degree of scorn, as prosaic and behind the times. One of the many highlights of Robert Woody Allen: A Documentary is the illumination of the director’s approach to writing his screenplays: on his trusty typewriter, using scissors and staples to rudimentarily cut out and insert new or old sections. An unfathomably elemental process in contrast to today’s standard method of digitally cutting and pasting on a word processor. This charming insight is mirrored by Allen’s seeming refusal to alter his directorial disposition as a purveyor of human behaviour and relationship quandaries, something dealt with in one form or another in almost all of his films.

Allen’s devotion to the cinema of his heroes, from Ingmar Bergman to Federico Fellini (to whom he paid something of an explicit homage in films such as Interiorsand Stardust Memories) is reflected in the way that his films deal with the existential crises of a group of bourgeois city dwellers, the fragility of the human condition, and their conjoined effects upon the relationships his characters frequently enter into and fall out of. Constantly prescient in their themes, his films can be seen to exist in their own timeless bubbles, the characters dealing with love, death, fidelity, luck, familial angst and the tricky presence that fate plays in their lives. They take place in their own individual timeframes: for instance, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, despite some minute details, feels ageless and most importantly spaceless. It plays out in a shimmering, nondescript London that could easily pass for a summery New York, his most accustomed locale. Allen’s films feel like throwbacks to simpler times, uninterested by large budgets and glossy special effects.

Some say that Allen’s more recent films have become bogged down in dated and imitative reflections on life and love, especially the moody, London-set dullard Cassandra’s Dream. Some have typecast him as a one-note director who deals in monotony. But he still has the ability to convey both his creativity and his wit, whilst remaining unable to comprehend or appreciate the present tense. Whereas his handsome, melancholic Radio Days looked back to his youth during the golden days of radio, his interest in the past is specifically observed in Midnight in Paris, his most profitable film to date. Owen Wilson, on fine form as the wide-eyed Allen cypher, plays Gil Pender, a writer nonsensically transported to the Paris of the 1920s, an era he is unequivocally obsessed with, to enjoy a series of cahoots with his many literary heroes, from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gil’s fixation with these midnight flights of fancy has repercussions in the present tense with his fiancée, yet does wonders for his novel (which, coincidentally, is a story examining nostalgia).

It can all too easily be assumed that Allen seems to be embracing, both in and outside of his work, a nostalgia for a time when his films had an intrinsic critical relevancy, a passionate fanbase and some form of box office clout. These elements appear to be missing with each yearly release (barring, of course, Midnight in Paris). You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is, according to Allen, a revisiting of the leitmotifs and observations in the morose Interiors; Whatever Works, in which Allen took a detour from his extended European vacation to depict a misanthropic New Yorker hesitantly entering into a relationship with a younger woman (a plot device used several times before, from Manhattan to Husbands and Wives). Even his upcoming To Rome With Love takes on an episodic, multi-narrative structure analogous to Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (1972).

For all this outwardly brazen rehashing of previous works, this is Allen proving that he is still a filmmaker learning on the job, changing and updating his sage outlook on humanity as he himself becomes older and wiser. No one is more critical of his work than Allen himself, who is notably unhappy with the outcome of a high percentage of his filmography, yet he continues to tell stories because that is what he enjoys doing. Even if he retains an indifference to the processes of filmmaking, preserving a lax approach to directing coupled with a nonchalant attitude to reviews and box office figures, Allen should be commended for carving out a career doing exactly what he wants to do, and what his impressively permissive auteurist bearing allows him to do. His career is best described as a delightful and well-earned form of arrogance that disregards public and critical opinion.

If anything, he stands, like independent cinema wunderkind John Cassavetes before him, as a challenger to the opposable dominance of mainstream filmmaking that governs and destroys so many careers, resisting surrender and simply moving to a different continent if he is refused funding. How many other filmmakers have bounded, albeit shakily, from the USA to Europe so successfully? Like the character of Leonard Zelig in Zelig, a social hermit who has the ability to adapt physically and mentally to any given surrounding, Allen is able to flit in and out of the cinema each year, remaining in the public consciousness whilst taking on different locations and actors and interlacing them into new and singular works that preserve his bashful idiosyncrasies.

In perhaps his most celebrated masterpiece Annie Hall, which changed the game for the romantic comedy genre in 1977, Allen’s character Alvy Singer recalls, in one of many meditative reflections, an old joke about a man telling a doctor how his brother thinks he is a chicken, and how he doesn’t turn him in because he needs the eggs. He laments: “I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships– you know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but, I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs”. Although he has unfairly been accused of taking on a somewhat lackadaisical approach to filmmaking in recent times, and however admittedly mediocre some of his latest films seem to be, we still need him to produce those eggs, because one day this treasured filmmaker will, inevitably, stop laying. And what a loss that will be.

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