Fractured Compass

June 17, 2006

Why Should We Like Woody’s Movies?

Filed under: Straight and Weird Thoughts,What I Saw and Read — roundapple @ 8:32 am

In an interview, Woody Allen was quoted as saying that he thinks he has produced only mediocre works that only had a meager audience and made little money. While the latter may be true, I cannot agree that his work is mediocre. On the contrary, he is one of a handful of living American filmmakers who are true originals.
He certainly is no great actor. His performances in his movies call attention to himself in a way that at times distract you. He is not the character in his films. Rather, he always plays himself, no matter how different the characters he is portraying in his films are supposed to be.
His work has ranged from the trivial to the memorable. I cannot think of any film of his which will make it to anyone’s 10 Best Films of All Time list, but any work of his is singular – infused with a watermark that you cannot confuse with any director’s.
In the third edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, the perceptive film critic, David Thomson seems skeptical that Allen can develop as an artist. Thomson is a critic whose judgments I generally trust. After all, I tend to bring his book a lot of times to the toilet as reading material (a compliment, as I only bring the best material which I can read piecemeal there). I don’t have the fourth edition of the book so I can’t say if he has changed his opinion. So I disagree and think Allen is already a fully developed artist. If Vincent Van Gogh, whose work has touches of childishness and angst, can be forgiven for his neuroses (or psychosis?, or is it why he’s a greater artist?), why can’t we forgive Allen his?
Is it because British and American audiences have no use for angst? Angst is a feeling of unfocused anxiety or dread, typical of adolescents or adults who cannot get past adolescence. A European invention, I believe, which has flowered in Nordic climates. Allen is the supreme purveyor of American angst and is the most successful at it. He’s ambivalent about it, jokes about it, skirts it, and finally, makes it the stuff of his movies. Any movie which smacks of being personal nowadays is bound to have fewer audiences. Unfortunately, Allen will not shake it off and I’m not sure if he’d be better off without angst. It’s the lifeblood of his humor, just as the lifeblood of Luis Bunuel’s tirades was his love-hate relationship with religion and society.
Yet who can forget Allen’s attempts at looking like Ingmar Bergman in Interiors or even, Hannah and Her Sisters? He has an edge over Bergman in that he has a supreme abundance of what the Swedish master lacks – humor, no matter if adolescent. Or the exhibitionism of Annie Hall with its somewhat cruel exploitation of its lead star’s emotions? Hollywood loved it for its fashion statement. Can another American go Greek, complete with a chorus, as in Mighty Aphrodite? Or experiment with as philosophically contrived a film as Zelig – the one film where Allen, the actor, seems to fit so well? And what about the The Purple Rose of Cairo, a film that floats before your eyes, a metaphor for all ladies’ fascination with movies and actors, infinitely better than Fellini’s The White Sheik? Or the love affair with a city, as in Manhattan? Or Radio Days, a memory that is as good as it gets.? Half of his work is at least as original as anything you’ll ever get to see on screen, and I’m grateful for them. He falters every now and then, as in the recent Matchpoint, a film that seems to have Hitchcockian inclinations but lacking Hitchcock’s nonchalance and vivid characters.
In the same article, Thomson concedes that Allen is the “most inquiring dramatist at work in American film,” and “could yet be the kind of writer desperately needed by Coppola, Scorsese and so many others.” I disagree and say he is his own man and will probably be of no use to others. Especially to Coppola, whose supreme works, The Conversation and The Godfather part 2, would have been transmogrified into another shape were they written by Allen, or Scorsese whose Gangs of New York is fortunately beyond Allen’s imagination. I do wonder how Allen would fare rewriting or redirecting Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

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