The Films of Woody Allen
Through December at the Belcourt Theatre
When it comes to Woody Allen, sometimes I feel like the judge in Miracle on 34th Street, grappling with whether the state of New York should acknowledge the existence of Santa Claus. Many folks firmly believe in him. Others do not. I’ve pledged to keep an open mind. In fact, I can’t understand how anyone can have an open-and-shut opinion on Allen. The other day, a few friends of mine were batting his work around, and when one of them grumbled that Allen is “old and kind of lazy,” another replied, “How many movies a year does a guy have to produce to be labeled 'hardworking’?” To that, a third countered, “It’s a question of what he puts into the movies, and stale one-liners, contrived situations and recycled plot lines don’t count.”
So there’s the rub with Woody Allen as a filmmaker. He’s so damn prolific that he makes even the most industrious art-house auteur look like Terrence Malick. And yet there’s a lingering feeling even among Allen fans that if only he would slow down and spend a little more time on each picture, he could avoid the repetition in visual style and thematic concern that often makes his work seem undercooked. The objections make sense at firstuntil you ask the nay-sayers to name which parts of the Woody Allen filmography they would preserve, and they start naming movies that he cranked out in a relatively short period of time.
Of course, that may be because all of his movies are cranked out in a relatively short period of time. From 1969 to 1999, Allen wrote and directed 28 theatrical features, two substantial shorts and a TV movie, and he’s made two films since the century counter turned. In the ’90s alone, Allen riffed on fairy tales (Alice), chiaroscuro crime pictures (Shadows and Fog), documentary realism (Husbands and Wives and Sweet and Lowdown), Hitchcock (Manhattan Murder Mystery), ’30s screwball (Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite), musicals (Everyone Says I Love You) and the increasing nastiness of modern life (Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity).
Granted, all of the above films were ostensibly comedies, with jokes rooted in the neuroses of upper-class, middle-aged men. But the tone of each was so radically different that upon their release, critics invariably wrote about them as though each represented some permanent new direction for the filmmaker. They searched each feature for hints as to his state of mind. It’s only upon stepping back, and looking at his output for the decade as a whole, that Allen’s restless inventiveness can be appreciated.
The strange thing about the misinterpretation of Allen in the ’90sprompted in part by scandals in his personal life, which many expected to impact his work in a more significant wayis that Allen had been just as eclectic in the ’80s, generating pieces of bittersweet whimsy alongside farces, dramas and experimental hybrids. In fact, even though the ’70s produced Allen’s arguably most popular films in Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as his string of zany genre pictures, the first half of the ’80s contains some of the comedian’s most pitch-perfect, gracefully profound work. If you’re looking for a can’t-miss Christmas present for a sensitive cinephile, check out the recently released third volume of The Woody Allen DVD Collection, which features A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days.
In the meantime, head down to the Belcourt this month for a well chosen Woody Allen retrospective, heavy on the ’80s. The series kicked off last week with Manhattan, Allen’s mature 1979 farewell to the Me Decade. Next up is the 1973 sci-fi satire Sleeper, the best of his early zanies. The 1983 mockumentary Zelig, about a chronic impersonator, presents an amusing, compact inquiry into identity. In 1986, Allen made perhaps his most uplifting movie, Hannah and Her Sisters, a sprawling family comedy that affirmed the value of blood relationships. Then he made his bleakest movie in 1989, the perennial college ethics class favorite Crimes and Misdemeanors, about the chilling indifference of God.
If Allen had made only those five films in his career, he would likely be atop the pantheon of American directors. But it’s doubtful that those movies would be what they turned out to be if Allen had spent five or six years working on them. It’s the tossed-off energy of his work that makes it vital, and creates the possibility that in any given year, he might get it together and make another masterpiece. Some would argue that his power is fading, and that the five films in the Belcourt retrospective represent the best he’s done or will ever do. I would argue that in a few years, when The Woody Allen DVD Collection reaches the ’90s, critics will wonder how they missed the boat on two other Allen classics: the pungent Deconstructing Harry and the pleasantly airy Manhattan Murder Mystery. Finding overlooked gems like these in such a vast, diverse filmography shows the value of perspective, and of keeping an open mind.
It’s hard to believe Woody Allen ever made a movie as blissfully silly as his 1973 sci-fi farce Sleeper, which remains one of his most appealing and freewheeling films (and his funniest). After 200 years in a cryogenic deep freeze, wrapped in tinfoil, health-food nut Allen awakes in a futuristic world of robot servants, New Age aristocrats and bumbling revolutionaries. Pursued by police and scientists, he takes it on the lam with bourgeois flake Diane Keatonan adventure that entails inflatable suits, malfunctioning jet packs and an encounter with the cinema’s angriest pudding.
With its antiseptic hedonism and black-on-white production design, the movie’s a goof on the monochromatic futurism of films like THX-1138, 2001 and Godard’s Alphaville. (The production designer, Dale Hennessy, also did that classic of cheesy ’70s sci-fi, Logan’s Run.) At the same time, it has the most overt slapstick of Allen’s career. The guiding spirit seems to be Buster Keaton rather than Chaplin or Bergman, and if Allen lacks Keaton’s grace and athletic ability, he makes a game try, especially in the spastic wind-up shuffle he adopts while posing as a robot butler. (He moves like chattering teeth.)
This was a giant step forward for Allen as a director: For the first time in his early comedies, his visual sense connected with his verbal humorgags that were conceptually funny actually clicked in execution. Seen today, the movie’s even more refreshing because it’s such an anomaly in Allen’s careera helium-headed venture outside his comfort zone of New York and its nostalgic/sentimental associations. He went on to make more profound and sharply observed films, but you can’t help but miss the guy who’d engineer a chase scene through an orchard of giant fruit, just to stage the ultimate banana-peel gag. And he’s great with Diane Keaton, who was never more luminous behaving like a total ditzher Brando imitation here has to be seen to be believed.
Last Thursday the most vulnerable spot in Nashville’s film community was the video section at Tower Records on West End. More than two dozen local directors, actors and independent producers, including WSMV anchor Demetria Kalodimos, video maker Matt Boyd and exploitation vet Tim Ormond, stood eyeing a rack of videos as a Tower employee checked the P.A. “If a bomb went off in the room right now,” said WMOT-FM news director Randy O’Brien, a local screenwriter, “it would set the Nashville film industry back 20 years.”
The occasion was the unveiling of Tower Video’s new section devoted to movies by Nashville filmmakers. A joint project of Tower general manager John Kerlikowske and the Nashville Film/Video Association’s Andy van Roon, the Nashville Filmmakers section offers a small sampling of features, documentaries and short films for sale and rental. Dating back as far as the Ormond family’s lurid 1968 shocker The Monster and the Strippershot, let us not forget, on Methodist-owned soundstages at Nashville’s old Trafco facilitythe section is intended to raise visibility for local moviemakers while making Tower a community hub. A similar section can be found at Tower’s Opry Mills store, and proceeds from both will benefit the Nashville Independent Film Festival.
Though the section boasts roughly a dozen selections at this point, the films are a diverse lot. The most ambitious feature on display is the Sci-Fi Channel’s lavish recent miniseries Dune, whose executive producer, Mitchell Galin, is a Middle Tennessee resident. (Galin, whose credits include several Stephen King miniseries for network TV, is currently shopping three pilots developed with Scene Three Productions, two of which have been completed with primarily local cast and crew.) At the other end of the budget spectrum is Scott Crowell’s 1998 black-and-white serial killer study Stranger, filmed without shooting permits over four years’ time.
Documentaries by Tom Neff (including the Oscar-nominated Red Grooms: Sunflower in a Hothouse) and Jeff Patterson share shelf space with Amy Everhart, the indie children’s feature by attorney-turned-director Sam Stumpf. The NIFF sold out multiple screenings of Friends Seen and Unseen, Kalodimos and Kathy Conkwright’s documentary about underground Nashville radio preacher Prophet Omega; thanks to Tower, you can see it in the privacy of your own home. Or you can buy a copy and pass it around, just as Omega’s radio tapes were distributed among the Rolling Stones, Marty Stuart, Billy Bob Thornton, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and other celebrity admirers.
As cool as it is to have the work of Nashville filmmakers readily available in one place, it must be said that the section is in its infancy. The rentals barely occupy one shelf of Tower’s new release wall; for the moment, even the sale rack looks padded. But Van Roon says the city has an untapped wealth of short films and undistributed features. Tower’s Bob Goldstone says that the store will add more titles, perhaps including anthology videos and compilations of student films from the Watkins Film School. Anyone who wants to have a film considered for the section should call 320-3936.
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