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The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen

The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen

Peter J. Bailey
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen
    Book Description:

    For three decades, no American filmmaker has been as prolific -- or as paradoxical -- as Woody Allen. From Play It Again, Sam (1972) through Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Allen has produced an average of one film a year, yet in many of these films Allen reveals a progressively skeptical attitude toward both the value of art and the cultural contributions of artists. In examining Allen's filmmaking career, The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen demonstrates that his movies often question whether the projected illusions of magicians/artists benefit audience or artists. Other Allen films dramatize the opposed conviction that the consoling, life-redeeming illusions of art are the best solution humanity has devised to the existential dilemma of being a death-foreseeing animal. Peter Bailey demonstrates how Allen's films repeatedly revisit and reconfigure this tension between image and reality, art and life, fabrication and factuality, with each film reaching provisional resolutions that a subsequent movie will revise. Merging criticism and biography, Bailey identifies Allen's ambivalent views of the artistic enterprise as a key to understanding his entire filmmaking career. Because of its focus upon filmmaker Sandy Bates's conflict between entertaining audiences and confronting them with bleak human actualities, Stardust Memories is a central focus of the book. Bailey's examination of Allen's art/life dialectic also draws from the off screen drama of Allen's very public separation from Mia Farrow, and the book accordingly construes such post-scandal films as Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite as Allen's oblique cinematic responses to that tabloid tempest. By illuminating the thematic conflict at the heart of Allen's work, Bailey seeks not only to clarify the aesthetic designs of individual Allen films but to demonstrate how his oeuvre enacts an ongoing debate the screenwriter/director has been conducting with himself between creating cinematic narratives affirming the saving powers of the human imagination and making films acknowledging the irresolvably dark truths of the human condition.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2839-9
    Subjects: History, Film Studies, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-1)
  4. 1 That Old Black Magic: Woody Allen’s Ambivalent Artistry
    (pp. 3-17)

    Deconstructing Harryopens with what is probably the raunchiest joke Woody Allen has committed to film. Ken (Richard Benjamin) and his sister-in-law, Leslie Qulia Louis-Dreyfus) are having an affair; while their respective families are down by the lake enjoying a picnic, the lovers are inside his house, copulating. Enter Leslie’s blind grandmother. “Come,” she bids Leslie, “lead me down to the lake.” Having no idea what the couple is doing, Grandma cheerfully engages Ken in a discussion of the merits of martini garnishes. He eventually achieves a clamorous orgasm, prompting Grandma to comment, “Boy, you mustreallylove onions!”


  5. 2 Strictly the Movies: Play It Again, Sam
    (pp. 19-31)

    All it would have taken was a single moviegoer. It’s 1972, and that lone film enthusiast enters a theater hardly a minute after the feature’s published starring time. Although he’s read nothing about it, he is looking forward to watchingPlay It Again, Sam.Instead of the new Woody Allen-scripted film, however, he’s confronted with the ending ofCasablanca,awash in a strange shade of blue. Bewildered, the filmgoer heads off to the box office to ask whether the theater has without notice been transformed into a rerun house. He’s directed back to his seat, assured that it isPlay...

  6. 3 Getting Serious: The Antimimetic Emblems of Annie Hall
    (pp. 33-45)

    From its opening sample of Rick and Ilsa’s farewell scene to its dosing comic revision of Michael Curtiz’s famous denouement,Play It Again, Samis thoroughly preoccupied withCasablanca;what Allen’s film isn’t, as previously indicated, is a parody ofCasablanca.Rather than merely exaggerating the melodrama ofCasablancafor the purposes of satire,Play It Again, Samcritiques and reinterprets the medium it has appropriated, creating a dynamic tension betweenCasablanca’sprimary projection, Bogart, and Allan Felix, an art/life tension which eventually produces the protagonist’s fully traditional reversal and recognition. Like the metafictional explorations of fairy tales, folk tales,...

  7. 4 Art and Idealization: I’ll Fake Manhattan
    (pp. 47-57)

    The idea that, as Garp phrases it in John Irving’sThe World According to Garp,“Fiction”—and thus, art in general—“has to be better made than life,”¹ is one of the central tenets of Modernism, a concept which, in a roundabout way, assumes the compensatory capacity of aesthetic creation and the superiority of crafted art to gratuitous, inchoate existence. It is a notion to which Allen adheres in his own filmmaking practice, but one which provides his artist-characters with remarkably little compensatory solace for their sufferings.

    Alvy Singer’s play is, presumably, “better made than life,” but it doesn’t alter...

  8. 5 Strictly the Movies II: How Radio Days Generated Nights at the Movies
    (pp. 59-69)

    InManhattan,Isaac Davis is, as was Allen at the time, in the process of creating an artistic document culturally anatomizing Manhattan, one deliberately romanticizing its subject. The similarity of the artistic projects of Isaac and Allen—“Chapter One,” Isaac/Allen opens the film without identifying himself—tends to blur the boundary separating protagonist from screenwriter, this elision having become one of the primary devices Allen’s films employ to further complicate their exploration of the relationship between art and life. Since Charlie Chaplin, no other film actor has been more popularly and consistently conflated with his on-screen persona than Allen, who...

  9. 6 Life Stand Still Here: Interiors Dialogue
    (pp. 71-83)

    The art form celebrated inRadio Daysis clearly a popular medium, and it is one of the significant characteristics of Allen’s films that, as a component of their focus upon the life/art conflict, they consistently affirm popular culture over serious art. A major dramatic tension inStardust Memoriesexists between Sandy Bates’s desire to make socially significant movies and the groundswell of voices (a Martian named Og among them) encouraging him, “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes” (p. 367). In the same film, the one scene not permeated by Sandy Bates’s anxieties and self-recriminations...

  10. 7 In the Stardust of a Song: Stardust Memories
    (pp. 85-99)

    Anyone who has heard a Woody Allen monologue or watched one of his films is familiar with Kleinman’s rhetorical strategy, the same one employed by Sandy Bates in telling Isobel “You can’t control life, it doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only—only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert” (p. 335). The difference inShadows and Fogis that Jack, the philosophy student Kleinman befriends in Felice’s brothel, challenges the maneuver so central to Allen’s comedy. In both Bates’s and Kleinman’s one-liners, the speaker avoids committing himself to a position on a...

  11. 8 Woody’s Mild Jewish Rose: Broadway Danny Rose
    (pp. 101-111)

    Perhaps “bores” is an inordinately harsh term with which to describe them, but the comedians who gather at the Carnegie Delicatessen in the opening scene ofBroadway Danny Roseto trade borscht belt jokes, kibitz about the old days on the New York stand-up comedy circuit, and compete with each other to tell “he greatest Danny Rose story” are nothing if not sentimental. The pervasiveness of that sentimentality is but one of the elements which makesBroadway Danny Roseseem a cinematic antithesis to the prevailing jadedness ofManhattan’sethos, and even more so to the relentless perspectival and affective...

  12. 9 The Fine Art of Living Well: Hannah and Her Sisters
    (pp. 113-129)

    This dilemma is so repeatedly invoked in Allen’s films that it has practically come to seem a familiar Woody one-liner, a predictable component of the repository of jokes we watch his movies to enjoy. It’s part whine, part existential interrogation. Mickey Sachs (Allen), the producer of a television show resemblingSaturday Night Live,rehearses it with his assistant (Julie Kavner) early inHannah and Her Sisters:“Can you understand how meaningless everything is? Everything! I’m talking about ... our lives, the show ... the whole world, it’s meaningless .... I mean, you’re gonna die, I’m gonna die, the audience is...

  13. 10 If You Want a Hollywood Ending: Crimes and Misdemeanors
    (pp. 131-143)

    If it’s difficult to identify the Woody Allen film ending that least approximates the morally consonant, emotionally gratifying closure ofBroadway Danny Rose,it’s not because there’s a shortage of candidates.ManhattanandStardust Memoriesclose on resonantly discordant notes of irresolution and human isolation, diminished chords. The most optimistic sentiment offered at the end of the unremittingly dourSeptemberis “Time will pass and you’ll forget this summer,” Allen’s second chamber film proving incapable of conceiving a more fortuitous conclusion to human affairs than forgetting them. The Great Irmstedt’s affirmation closingShadows and Fogthat people need illusions “like...

  14. 11 Everyone Loves Her/His Illusions: The Purple Rose of Cairo and Shadows and Fog
    (pp. 145-159)

    Stardust Memoriesdramatizes the contradictory agendas of artistic purposes from the maker’s perspective;The Purple Rose of Cairodelineates them from the vantage point of the viewer. As one of the most infatuated of the millions upon whom screen illusions are intended to work their magic, Cecilia is confronted inPurple Rosewith many of the same conflicts between reality and illusion which besiege Sandy Bates—the issue of movies as a desperate evasion of an insupportable actuality in particular. The Allen protagonist even better suited than Bates to playing counterpart to the self-effacing, illusion-pursuing Cecilia, however, is Kleinman, the...

  15. 12 Poetic License, Bullshit: Bullets Over Broadway
    (pp. 161-171)

    One of the limitations of the allegorical mode ofShadows and Fogis that the necessarily abstract assertion the film makes about the human dependency upon art allows it to provide only a minimum of insight into the nature of the magic illusions on which its conclusion turns. (The German Expressionist films—primarilyNosferatuandThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—whose influence pervadesShadows and Fogare similarly blunt instruments, works as dedicated as Allen’ to atmospherically externalizing a condition of soul and as little concerned with the detailed exposition of complex ideas.¹ Because of its more realistic aesthetic,The...

  16. 13 Let’s Just Live It: Woody Allen in the 1990s
    (pp. 173-181)

    LetBullets Over Broadwayexemplify the ambivalence of Woody Allen’s attitude toward art in the 1990s. The movie enacts David Shayne’s realization that his only hope of redemption from the corruptions to which artistic ambition is heir necessitates renouncing the theater and fleeing with Ellen to Pittsburgh to become a family man. However, the cinematic vehicle of that dramatic message embodies a contrary judgment. The contradiction is implicit in Julian Fox’s fine description of the cinematic art of Bullets Over Broadway: “The film is a visual feast, from its Times Square opening—actually a black-and-white cut from the period which...

  17. 14 Because It’s Real Difficult in Life: Husbands and Wives
    (pp. 183-197)

    Now that the protracted media paroxysm with whichHusbands and Wiveswas so inextricably linked has receded into whatever part of the national memory it is in which we store yesterday’s scandals, it’s more difficult to perceive the movie as the source of extreme discomfort that so many of its reviewers described it as being. David Denby’s reaction to the film typifies the frustrations of reviewers attempting to respond critically to a work of art the tabloids had already designated a cinematicroman à clef.Allen’s characteristic disavowal of autobiography in his films—“Movies are fiction,” he told Time, “The...

  18. 15 Rear Condo: Manhattan Murder Mystery
    (pp. 199-209)

    The projection of human need upon reality’s ceaseless flux and the subsequent, inevitable disillusionment of that effort often dramatized by Allen's films is most eloquently described by a physicist, Lloyd (Jack Warden), in September. Asked what he sees when he looks out into the universe, Lloyd replies, “I think it’s as beautiful as you do. And vaguely evocative of some deep truth that always just keeps slipping away. But then my professional perspective overcomes me. A less wishful, more penetrating view of it. And I understand it for what it truly is: haphazard, morally neutral, and unimaginably violent.”¹ Kleinman’s characterization...

  19. 16 That Voodoo That You Do So Well: Mighty Aphrodite
    (pp. 211-221)

    The mystery underlyingMighty Aphroditeis not, as it is inManhattan Murder Mystery,generically but genetically coded. Allen was inspired to write the film’s screenplay by thinking about the legally indeterminable heredity of Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan, and the fact that the child would never know what her inheritances actually are.¹ The way in which those meditations also inspired the introduction of the Greek chorus into the film isn’t difficult to imagine, the enigmas of parenthood precipitating questions about origins appropriate to these on-stage projections of the audiences of Greek tragedy. And so the movie opens with the...

  20. 17 And What a Perfect Plot: Everyone Says I Love You and Zelig
    (pp. 223-239)

    Allen’s implicit self-appointment as a devotee of the goddess of love inMighty Aphrodite—his declaration representing more of a reenlistment than a new commitment—involves him in a contradiction which the films he has yet to make will find extremely difficult to resolve. Acknowledging the differences between Linda’s physical ripeness and his own small stature and advanced years, Lenny jokes that “At my age, if I made love to you, they’d have to put me on a respirator.” In fact, he seems to survive their amorous night together nicely, leaving her with a daughter as if in reciprocation for...

  21. 18 How We Choose to Distort It: Deconstructing Harry
    (pp. 241-253)

    It’s one of the oddities of Allen’s film oeuvre that his primary objection to the perception of art in Western culture is so seldom directly aniculated in his movies. Renata, the poet ofInteriors,offers its most explicit summation in asking her analyst, “I mean, just what am I striving to create, anyway? I mean, to what end? For what purpose? What goal? ... I mean, do I really care if a handful of my poems are read after I'm gone forever? Is that supposed to be some sort of compensation? Uh, I used to think it was, but now...

  22. 19 From the Neck Up: Another Woman and Celebrity
    (pp. 255-265)

    As Woody Allen prepared to enter the twenty-first century, he was not a sanguine spectator of the realm of cell phones, facial makeovers, and celebrity worship he believed New York City had become. Whereas inManhattanhe had dramatically juxtaposed breathtaking vistas of the city and the soaring melodies of George Gershwin with the shallow narcissism of the city’s inhabitants, inCelebrityManhattan seems to have dwindled to the size of its characters’ sensibilities, New York merely providing an urban backdrop for their self-promoting and self-serving erotic pursuits. Like Isaac Davis inManhattan, Celebrity’sprotagonist, Lee Simon, is writing a...

  23. 20 Allen and His Audience: Sweet and Lowdown
    (pp. 267-278)

    No element of Woody Allen’s filmmaking career has been more markedly Modernist than his aesthete’s principled inattentiveness to the issue of audience. Allen’s interviews proliferate with genial disavowals of accountability to his audience, with affirmations of his greater commitment to craft than to effect. Responding to the charge that his movies embody anti-Semitic attitudes, Allen characteristically sidestepped the concern by invoking the imperatives of art over audience sensibilities: “I’ve ... had an enormous amount of criticism from Jewish groups who feel that I’ve been very harsh or denigrating or critical. So there’s a lot of sensitivity always on these matters....

  24. Notes
    (pp. 279-310)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-316)
  26. Index
    (pp. 317-325)