It’s been a long time since I bothered to see a Woody Allen film on a big screen — longer than I’ve posted on this blog, even. And in general Woody Allen has always been a topic I’ve avoided for what I consider two exceptionally valid reasons:
1. Allen’s movies, churned out at an ever-increasingly feverish rate, have devolved into mere dissociation devices from his utterly disturbing life. And I resent playing audience to emotional resistance-as-art—which is why I also yawn at the redundantly pathological works of David Lynch, who once proclaimed that he discontinued therapy when he realized it would change his art. Yes, yes, neurosis provides the backbone of most great art, but as a starting-point rather than as a place to permanently malinger. After Husbands and Wives, the gloriously cinema verite Dear John in Special 3-D 20-20 Hindsight that he filmed presumably right before he passive-aggressively let his partner discover nude pics he’d taken of her daughter, I’ve always contended that Mr. Konisberg lost his footing. Since then, he has only clocked in shoddy rationalizations of artistic narcissism (Hollywood Ending, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Everyone Says I Love You); doggedly light, me-thinks-he-protests-too-much contrivances (The Jade Dragon); and lethal cocktails mixed from both (Celebrity, Melinda and Melinda, in which he dragged his characters-are-mere-marionettes conceit down to a whole new low).
2. Physically, he is a dead ringer for my dad. I may fancy myself more Jungian than Freudian, but any discussion of Allen’s creepy sexuality (which seemed that of a dirty old codger even back in the ‘60s) sends this broad running for the psychoanalytic, psychotropic hills, blood flowing copiously from my eyes. Like, in a Woody Allen movie or something.
But there’s something burning in the air, and I do believe it is Hollow Wood. At a cineblogala the other night, I found myself launching into Allen with a renewed vigor. A few days later The Looker was kind enough to supply me with Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s brilliant Woody autopsy (not available online, alas). And then, during this last hell-hath-no-fury heatwave I actually plunked down a sawbuck to catch the, ugh, Scoop — drawn by the curiously new tone of its critical reception (even sharp-toothed Times critic Manohla Dargis described it as “oddly appealing”); by how tarot cards played a leading role along with hotter-than-the-Fourth-of-July Hugh Wolfmanjack; and by assurances that Woody had demoted himself, finally, from a leading man to a sidekick whose sexual lusts have been supplanted by heartburn.
Even at 90 minutes, Woody’s latest bogs, but I must report that I dig it anyway. Like last winter’s vastly overrated Match Point (crazy that its highest praise was how un-Woody it was), it’s based in London — though, this time he stars American actors and costars British actors who, blessedly, don’t speak Allenese. (Nothing more inadvertently funny than Jonathan Rhys Meyer whining in a posh British accent, “Mooother, you know that’s her emotional Achilles heel….”). The new backdrop liberates Allen to realistically represent class dynamics for the first time since he himself started making real cashish. He’s neutered himself enough so that I can finally stomach him, although his brand of hand-wringing still looks suspiciously like self-molestation. And Dargis is right; Allen may not be Side Effects funny here, but he’s looser in his skin, not only as a writer/director (he remains too derivative to merit the term auteur) but as a performer no longer hindered by the existentialism and compensatory cheeriness of yore.
As the Great Splendini, an American magician, Allen’s greatest trick may be his stage patter: vintage Wood strained through All That Jazz-era Ben Vereen cheesecloth. Early in the film, he regales his audience with the old Manhattan chesnut “You’ve been a sincere sensation” and then pulls out of his aging tuchus ye olde “You’re incredible humans. I feel great love.” He’s a little wizard, all hopeless eyes and clownish hand-flailing and head-tilting, whose eyebrows waggle into many forms of punctuation behind the trademark glasses that dwarf his now-wizened face — not unlike the robot he aped in a Sleeper many eons ago. With his limbs flapping in billowing layers of plaid sportsjackets and Hawaiian shirts, he’s a shrimp scampi who can’t resist laying card tricks on unsuspecting uppercrustaceans (forgive my lapse into Shellfish). Finally, he has reprised his original shtick — the superficial wisecracker less troubled by the fate of the world than by how he can pull one over on it.
Except now that he’s not trying to get down girls’ pants, he’s free to expose the soft underbelly of that sizeable, cantankerous wit: a fuddy-duddy sensibility that’s not subversive so much as classically conservative. Allen’s legendary narcissism is such that he takes umbrage with whatever trespasses outside of his comfort zone, be they jocks, bean sprouts, EST, cocaine, shopping malls, strong emotions, spirituality, or, mothers, or, now, Scarlett Johansson’s blowsy sexuality.
Jonathan Rosenbaum writes:
Filmmakers like Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati differ critically from Allen in the degree to which they express their conflict between narcissism and self-hatred in relation to their comic personae….They usually maintain enough distance from their own characters to allow audiences to have a critical perspective on them.… Allen, by contrast, is too close to Woody to allow us this detachment; his task is to seduce us into sharing his character’s confusions and ambivalences without being able to sort them out. ….There is a lack of ironic distance on his characters, and if [his films] genuinely attack self-interest, [they are] seriously handicapped by being unable to see beyond it. Allen’s problem is both coping and scoring — and he is more concerned with scoring than coping at the end of the day.
Until recently, I believed Allen’s films only dipped into that abject shallowness when his life took on a drama that overshadowed anything his films could ever approach. God knows as a teenager I worshipped such mid-70s and 80s works as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors as wry homages to the havoc inevitably wreaked by human desire. Indeed, they are widely upheld as his richest, most emotionally resonant works. But now that I’m (roughly) the same age as these films’ characters, I recognize them as the obsessed, overly cerebral, arrested development cases that they are; as such lily-livered self-rationalizers that they actually render him a relative, if relativist, martyr. Which is, of course, the point — however unintentional. If writer/director Neil Labute sacrifices the plausibility of his characters to his misanthropy, Woody has always drowned his creations in Narcissus’ kiddie pool.
And Woody’s plotting, especially in already-established genres like mysteries or crimes of passion that don’t allow much wiggle room, suffers radically from that same narcissistic inability to see past his navel or outside his own ass. Any machinations requiring more than Alvy Singer-style fumblings — be they third acts, legitimate motives and true suspense — elude him as they’d also require that all-elusive big picture that would shrink his own self down to a mere cog. In fact, if any truly philosophical or truly intellectual dilemma has ever really fueled his work, it was really another just another variant of his narcissism: what Rosenbaum refers to as his “compulsive morbidity,” as evidenced in everything from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters. The ultimate sign of a selfish person may be a blinding obsession with the extinction of that self.
I’ll take it a step further: Allen’s moral and philosophical investigations amounted mostly to him struggling to sort out if God truly existed — and if he were a punishing sort. From Crimes and Misdemeanors all the way to Husbands and Wives, the question was not so much whether transgression was morally reprehensible as whether it was mortally punished by a vengeful God. Once mannerly Martin Landeau as doctor gets away with murdering his wife, he experiences nary a bad dream. Once erudite Michael Caine as businessman gets away with fucking his wife’s sister, he settles back into domestic harmony.
Woody resolved that dilemma in Husbands, when his alter-ego, a writing professor, opted out of shtupping his student in the eecummings rain only to have his wife leave him for another (taller) man anyway. Suppressing your basest impulses hardly reaps rewards unto themselves, he seemed to suggest, and soon after, he took the leap of unfaith. And when no bolt of lightening struck him down him (and even the media forgave him surprisingly quickly), he jumped his own personal shark as well. God doesn’t exist, he had determined, and so there no longer existed a reason to strive to be a good person to please him. No reason to refrain from fucking your stepdaughter. No reason to pursue self-improvement.
He quit analysis and declared instead: “The heart wants what it wants.” But having taken the leap and survived, having not been felled by a taboo of Oedipal proportions, his films lost the one artistic tension that had fueled them. He had made his bed and no longer feared lying in it eternally. The problem: How can you reinvent your work if you’re no longer courting change? How do you make intriguing art when you’re travelling in the denoument of your own life’s dramatic arc?
Judging from the ensuing films, he grounded himself on that one for a while. No only did his growth as an artist completely halt, but his acknowledgement of the basic passage of time, as well. He continued to cast himself against gorgeous 20- and 30something women, and though New York grew ever more culturally complex and financially stratified, his characters remained white 30something artist types who listened to Bach and, naturally, Louis Armstrong (though there ain’t nothing wrong with Louis!) and lurked in cavernous, well-appointed flats. And every other picture completely mimicked without improvement an already-existing genre, whether it be music mockumentary (Sweet Lowdown), Hollywood musical (Everyone Says I Love You) and
Old men Take the Money and Run Small Time Crooks, a new form of metamovie, in which he limply ripped himself off.
But Scoop heralds a new Woody era, in which the Woody persona finally reverts to its rightful place in his cinematic universe: a largely irrelevant, Sleeper-era borscht-belt court jester sidelining the main event, just out to make’em laugh, make’em laugh without any underlying existential angst or divorced-dad self-pity. Casting the fulsome 21-year-old Johansson has a lot to do with that. Though she frequently costars with significantly older men, something about the sensuality of her full-lipped, lingering baby fat highlights the creepiness of their desire — so much so that 70something Allen has finally capitulated to the role of a pseudo fatherly advisor, though he grouses about it bitterly all along the way and luxuriates in the joke that he’s hardly decent papa material.
As Sondra, a journalism student keen on cracking the story of the century with help from a recently deceased ghost and good old Splendini, Scarlett has shed her normally flattened demeanor. And it turns out Scarlett animated is terrifying. Braying in entire paragraphs and windmilling her limbs every which way, she is positively Ethel Mermanized, an overeager dork who fucks often but without much skill or any neurosis. Hey, as Woody himself has been known to say, 80 percent of life is just showing up. And it is actually quite fun to watch her barrel right over his protestations and nasty little digs (her fingers, they’re stubby! She can’t swim, she’s not buoyant!) rather than transmogrify into a Woodette, as even his most formidable leading ladies normally do. In fact, from a brilliantly cut set of scenes, in which she matter-of-factly shrugs off fucking a musician for an interview she doesn’t even land, Scarlett as Sondra establishes a sexuality Woody could never relate to but as a filmmaker, finally, does not judge. Splendini does, but his very assignation is that of a walking anachronism. It’s a new millennium, Woody is acknowledging, and he’s just an old man dancing on its grave.
Of course, he still treats such plot necessities as dramatic structure and tension largely as nuisances; I barely understood or even cared who Scoop’s murderer was or how he was caught. But though Allen may not have entirely transcended his narcissism, or at least his limited abilities to execute a real whodunit, he’s come to terms with all of it.
And that’s what distinguishes Scoop most. Allen as filmmkaker no longer fears or is ashamed by his own insignificance. At the end of the film, he blithely offs a Splendini rushing to save Sondra (though she hardly needs saving), and the world, or even film, scarcely ends. Rather, its characters take his demise in stride with nary a pause — exactly what would have sent Alvy Singer into paroxysms into despair.
The film ends with Splendini riding a slow boat to nowhere, literally cheating Death with his nifty deck of cards, and literally skimming the surface, just as he should. Yes, Allen seems to be saying, he doesn’t change. But the world around him does — women change, technology changes, New York changes, and his own body changes — and he now accepts his increasingly limited relevance. After all, there really is no fool like an old fool. If his classic joke was, “I’ve always been two with Nature,” finally, finally good old manchild Wood has become one with his own.
I’ve been rereading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, for a gig, and I came across a passage that has always resonated with me so deeply:
There’s something about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of any sort of anesthesia that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid….Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug. If it feels warm and fuzzy, it is probably the [addictive] choice. If it feels dangerous and scary and threatening and painful, it is probably healthy.
These days, I no longer automatically distrust what feels right. I have learned that if you are honest with yourself for long enough, you start to parse out the differences between your reflexes, which often really aren’t to be trusted, and your instincts, which emanate from your truest self. But I will be forever aware that the more I fear something, the more I should clamor to learn from it. And when I first read that passage, I was just beginning to undertake a journey not unlike a detox although I was sober. It was like reading a transcription of my secret thoughts — of my dawning recognition of all the different anesthesias, from love affairs to friendships to food to books to the business of being a prettygirl, that I deferred to rather than simply trust myself. I was 25 and still afraid of my own shadow, let alone my independence.
Knapp died in 2002 from lung cancer. She was a life-long smoker. I still believe, however, that it was better that she died clearheaded than with a clear set of lungs, if she had to be felled by one of her addictions. For I looked up to her as one of my literary and spiritual big sisters, although I doubt we would have even liked each other very much in person. She was shy and somewhat socially conservative: a true-blue Bostonian, the sort who sent larger-than-life me running to black-sheep NY as soon as I could. The beauty of a really skilled memoirist, though, is that through her perspective you can connect with a person whom you might not admire or even recognize in regular life. It is a testament to how gifted Knapp was at her job that I wept for most of the day I heard about her death although I never once met her while she was alive. I knew that, unlike most people, she actually stayed present for the life she did manage to live.
So it is not strange that I miss her still. Selfishly, I miss the possibility that she could live more and learn more and write more so I could continue to understand more of my life through the lens she so painstakingly provided. So that I could keep anticipating from her example more of my own challenges and progress. Sometimes I fantasize that she will posthumously pen another one of her fiercely precise memoirs (she wrote three in all), this time about what it was like to die.
There are so many ways that growing up is lonely, but perhaps the most daunting is that eventually, whether or not we like it, we become the grownups by default. Although, as Knapp herself wrote:
It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I’d never before really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less of a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and mantain. I’d spent most of my life waiting for maturity to hit me from the outside, as though I’d just wake up one morning and be done, like a roast in the oven. But growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. You begin to let go of the wish, age-old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.
I’ve been watching Family Stone while cleaning — a friend lent it to me is my only thinly veiled excuse — and what strikes me most is how bad Sarah Jessica Parker is. I never thought she was terrible on Sex and the City. As Carrie Bradshaw, even if she stumbled a bit when a strong emotion was called for, her physical comedy harkened back to old Broadway in the very best way. She threw out vaudeville one-liners with panache. She tripped well. She wagged. She mugged. She arched her eyebrows with the best of them,
But she is God-awful in this film. I mean shite and shinola. Parker is no more a terrible stage actress than she is a terrible television actress, but now that I consider the body of her filmwork, she truly fouls up celluloid every time she crosses its path, except for maybe in Footloose. Pictured on a big screen, her long face and wiry body resemble those of a 1950s drag queen, which is hardly her fault. That she overreaches and stammers is. She falls so out of step with her fellow actors that she comes off as more humanoid rather than fully human. Someone get this woman a musical. Just ban Aniston from the same fate.
For I’m stuck on the idea that not every actress is suited for every medium. Film requires a level of honesty that the small screen doesn’t, but television requires a level of give and take and an insouciance that the long incubation of moviemaking often renders impossible. And stage requires a level of engagement and vibrancy that almost inevitably proves too much for any sort of screen actor. Of course there exist the likes of Glenn Close, who rarely falters, not even in The Shield, of all things. Kathy Bates, in town for a reading of Eve Ensler’s Necessary Targets, is smart, honest and accessible in every medium known to man. And God knows Helen Mirren never misses. British broads basically are equipped for everything, all attendant metaphors applicable.
But can you imagine how dreadful Meryl Streep, who excels on stage even more consistently than she does on film, would be in a sitcom? She’s already almost too larger-than-life for the big screen. (To be fair, she turned in the best performances of her later career in Angels in America, but HBO hardly counts as TV anymore.) Or take Catherine Keener, a star on stage and big screen whose snide demeanor would merely come off as a lack of affect on TV. Maggie Gyllenhaal is such an ideal film actress that I can scarcely imagine her in any other medium. Jennifer Aniston has flatlined in every movie she’s ever appeared in except for Office Space, in which bad acting was actually the point, but she sported genuine comedic chops on Friends. Julia Roberts really is a decent movie star, if a limited film actress (a whispering Mary Reilly will forever haunt my dreams), but her sputtering guest turn on Friends flailed and Broadway ate her for breakfast with forgivable glee. Some actresses whom I’ve seen shine on stage over the years have never made it to screens of any sort (save the requisite Law and Order episode) not only because their looks didn’t translate but because they couldn’t stop pitching to the back of the house.
The list goes on and on — and I haven’t’ even tackled the European actresses. It’s like a missing lesson from the Free To Be You and Me soundtrack: Not every actress is suited to every medium and, hey, that’s okay.