Some thoughts on Annie Hall and romantic comedies in general

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mimitabu writes:

"Do [romantic comedies] usually have a protagonist? what does s/he usually want? "Get back into a family"? "Find happiness"? "Get over my ex"? "Become a better person so i can be a better father/mother"? Then i thought about the best romantic comedy, Annie Hall. i thiiiink you once wrote here that it has brilliant script, but i don’t believe you’ve ever posted an in-depth analysis of it. Does it have a protagonist? Is it Alvy? What does he want? "To get the eggs"? Is he just living out some sort of narcissistic pathology? Are there rules that Annie Hall follows that other successful romantic comedies also follow? If so, do they do away with the idea of a protagonist altogether?

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A bold complex experiment, a polished, effective comedy and a brilliant, thrilling, fascinating, staggering achievement.  A mockumentary before the term existed, this movie shatters the boundaries of what mainstream entertainers should be capable of delivering to the public.  It’s hard to imagine another filmmaker of Woody Allen’s generation (Clint Eastwood, Francis Coppola, even Martin Scorsese) getting anywhere close to the daring, peculiarity and audacity of this project (appropriate enough for a movie the theme of which is people refusing to do what others expect of them).

I’ve seen this movie a dozen times and have made a mockumentary of my own and with the exception of exactly two shots, I haven’t got the slightest clue as to how Woody Allen pulled this thing off.  I wish someone would write a book about the movie and its development from concept to script to shooting and into editing.  Were all the plot elements in place when the picture went before the cameras, how did the documentary aspect of the project come into focus as the post-production went on, how much of the footage had to be created and how much was lucky finds?

With technical fireworks as dazzling as this, it’s easy to overlook how great the acting is in this movie.  Special note goes to the actor playing the elderly modern-day Mia Farrow, who has almost as much screen-time as Farrow herself and whose every remembrance is given just the right spin of humility, self-aware humor and grace.

Everything is utterly convincing, even when it’s absurdly comic.  In a time when mockumentaries are common (one is currently a smash boxoffice hit) and look increasingly unconvincing (Borat is funny as hell but is unconvincing as a documentary — why on earth would some of its events be filmed?), it’s truly impressive to see one where everything from extensive, elaborate production design to precise, detailed extras casting to the grain and scratches on the fake old film is exactly right.

The movie I’m working on, The Bentfootes, contains less authentic detail than any given five minutes of Zelig, a fact I can live with only when I consider that our budget is probably less than the money spent in any given five minutes of the two years it took to shoot and edit Zelig.  To watch this movie as a filmmaker is to feel one’s feet turn to clay.
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Sweet and Lowdown

Emmett Ray and Rusty Venture compare notes.  Pun intended.

If The Venture Bros were a musical biopic, it would be Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.

Emmett Ray (Sean Penn) is a brilliant guitar player, but he lives in the shadow of greatness, namely Django Reinhart.  Living in this shadow has apparently cast a pall over Emmett’s entire life.  (urbaniak fans know that Rusty Venture himself is in the movie, in a very Rusty kind of role, The Guy With Few Lines Sitting Next To The Star.  So Emmett spends the movie in the shadow of Django, and “Harry” [urbaniak‘s character] spends the movie in the shadow of Emmett.)

Emmett’s problem, it seems, is that he keeps his feelings under tight control, and that has crippled his artistic muse.

(Robert Fripp tells a story where a critic takes him aside one day to inform him that he (Fripp) and Jimi Hendrix were the two greatest guitar players of their day, the difference between them being that Fripp had all the technique in the world but nothing to say, and Hendrix had no technique and everything in the world to say.  Fripp, being who he is, and English besides, could only agree with the critic’s assessment.)

(And I own one CD by Hendrix and 85 by Fripp, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my aesthetic tastes.)

What does Emmett Ray want?  Well, like Charles Foster Kane, he wants to be loved, but only on his own terms.  A hugely talented artist with one of the most impoverished souls ever brought to the screen, he’s bought his own line; he routinely introduces himself as “Emmett Ray, the greatest guitar player in the world” (and occasionally adds, in shame, “except for this gypsy in France, Django Reinhart.”)  Women, for Emmett, are an audience, so when he starts up (“falls in love with” is too generous a phrase) with mute  Hattie (Samantha Morton) it seems like he’s found his perfect mate. 

His life with Hattie brings his soul to the brink of awakening, and brings with it a certain amount of artistic and financial success.  (Allen can’t quite bring himself to equate the two; instead, he brings success to Emmett Ray by having him, literally, fall into a pile of money.) Being the egotistical boor he is, Emmett assumes that he’s achieved the success all on his own and promptly leaves Hattie for Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is Hattie’s polar opposite.  Hattie is poor, simple and mute, Blanche is society-born, pseudo-intellectual and won’t shut up.

Blanche is attracted to Emmett because he’s a lowlife and that makes him “real.”  So it’s only a matter of time before she drops him for someone even more “real,” namely button-man Anthony LaPaglia.  (The equation/comparison of artist and killer is explored more fully in the superior [and funnier] Bullets Over Broadway.)

What makes Emmett “real,” in spite of his shortcomings?  He has three consuming passions in the movie: playing guitar, watching trains and shooting rats at the dump.  Blanche tries to plumb the depths of these bizarre pastimes on an intellectual level, but neither Allen nor Emmett seem interested in them on that level.  Emmett is simple enough to do what he does and not think about it, but he’s not simple enough (or generous enough) to entirely lose himself.  He’s always got to show off, he’s always got to announce himself.  He needs an audience or else nothing is worthwhile.  The movie never shows him merely practicing, or doing anything by himself really.  It seems he couldn’t imagine playing guitar for the sake of playing; it would have to be in front of people.  There’s a climactic scene where  a heartbroken Emmett (see below) tries to conjure up some choice licks to seduce Gretchen Mol, a dimwitted dance-hall girl, in a train yard; when he realizes she’s not listening, he disintegrates emotionally and destroys his guitar.

The tone of the movie occasionally veers from warm, detailed, straightforward behavioralism into broad silliness, which strikes me as odd and unnecessary.  It seems as though Allen doesn’t trust his material enough to write Emmett’s story entirely seriously, or doesn’t trust his audience’s willingness to consider a subject as ethereal and complex as the artistic muse.

Another way of addressing this problem is  to ask, Why is Emmett the way he is?  The script doesn’t really say — it suggests that maybe Emmett had a bad childhood, grew up poor and without proper parenting, but that’s true of hundreds of artists more generous of spirit than Emmett — why is Emmett so stunted and unavailable?  The movie leaves the question unanswered.  He is the way he is.  (Allen has never been shy of making plentiful use of the lazy screenwriter’s friend, narration, and uses it to connect the dots and fill in the blanks here as well, both in the witty “real life” narrators like Nat Hentoff and Allen himself and in Uma Thurman’s Blanche, all of whom attempt to allow the audience under Emmett’s skin, to no avail.)

The acting in general is very good, but Sean Penn is extraordinary here.  There are a number of scenes where he is called upon to be a genuine human being and we can see the war in his eyes between his desire to feel and his inability to do so.  He’s not just a jerk, he’s a jerk who has salvation easily within his reach at every turn and yet chooses to shun it.

There’s a scene toward the end where Emmett goes back home to find Hattie and ask her forgiveness.  In the movie’s best moment in both the acting and screenwriting departments, Sean Penn grudgingly asks Hattie if she wants to come back to him and she, unable to speak, hands him a note.  He reads it, and after a pause, asks “…Happily?”

Strangely, given the subject matter (an artist unwilling to engage with his feelings, and thus failing), this was Woody Allen’s last really good movie for a long, long time.
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Anything Else revisted, incredibly

Christina Ricci has seen the future.  Or maybe the past.  It’s a little confusing.

LJer dougo has sent this utterly flabbergasting piece of analysis.

For those of you unable or unwilling to click on the link, I’m going to repeat the gist of the information here anyway, just because I think that it will be a healthy exercise for me to do so, that I might slowly get myself used to this idea.

A while back, I typed up this little piece on Woody Allen’s Anything Else, referring to it as “Woody Allen’s low point.”  Normally I find that when I don’t like a great director’s movie, it’s because there was some other level to it that I couldn’t appreciate, but Anything Else is one of those movies where you’ve really, really got to be a glutton for punishment to have to want to watch it again, because there honestly doesn’t seem to be anything going on under the lame, disorganized comedy you’re watching.

Well, it turns out that dougo has discovered that there may, in fact, be something else going on under that lame, disorganized comedy.  Namely, a (work with me here) time travel comedy, wherein Woody Allen plays the older version of himself (Jason Biggs), who comes back in time to save his younger self from following his own life’s path.  Now, suddenly, the ending, which doesn’t work on any level as is, starts to take on a whole new comic dimension. (In the movie, Woody tells Jason to join him on a new job in LA, then panics at the last minute and says that he can’t go because, of all things, he’s shot a police officer and is on the lam.  It makes a whole lot more sense, and is funnier, if, for some reason, Woody’s time machine is failing and he ducks out on Jason in order to get back to his own time.  Christ, the movie almost becomes Back to the Future.)  (It would also make sense that Jason Bigg’s character is actually from the 1950s, which would explain his love of torchy jazz and his anachronistic attitudes about present-day NYC.)  (Jesus, now that I think about it, maybe there was a third part of the movie, all about Jason’s life in the 1950s, which he escaped in order to get to what is now our present.  Then his future self comes back to rescue him from the 2000s.  Now that would have been some kick-ass movie!)

Now, ordinarily I would file this under “people with too much time on their hands” but, well, I guess I’m one of those people, because, the fact is, there is something of a precedent for Woody Allen movies starting out much more “experimental” than they finish up.  Woody lore is rife with alternate endings, scrapped productions, replaced cast-members and and even completely re-done movies.  Annie Hall was, they say, originally a three-hour movie about a man’s inability to experience pleasure, and contained a substantial murder mystery.  And was actually shot that way, and became the Academy-Award-winning classic only in the cutting room.  (And the murder-mystery part was later re-made as Manhattan Murder Mystery.)

Also, Woody has always been playful with genre devices whenever his narrative needs a goose.  Just a casual perusal of his titles comes up with deft employment of ghosts, time travel, flying saucers, fairies, voodoo, spiritual displacement, The Gods and magic (especially the “Chinese Box” trick, which comes up at least four times in his work, and which he uses again in the upcoming Scoop [which looks wonderful, by the way]) (And let’s not forget, before Woody was a comedian, he was a magician.)

It makes perfect sense that Anything Goes might feature a character from the future, and it also makes perfect sense that Woody would decide it didn’t work and cut it out of the movie at the last minute, leaving behind, yes, another romantic comedy, although one a far cry from Annie Hall.  And the only people who might know about it are the actors in the scenes cut out and the crew who shot them, and they could easily be sworn to secrecy.  He works with the same crew members for decades sometimes, they wouldn’t say anything (not that anyone would ask), and even an actor as grouchy as Sam Shepard  becomes tight-lipped and stoic when asked why they were cut out of Woody Allen movies.  So who knows?
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Anything Else

Alas, our “title joke” thread provides an apt segue into this movie.

1. Would you like to see a great Woody Allen movie?
2. Isn’t there Anything Else?

Could be Woody Allen’s lowest point. It would be easy to point to Jason Biggs’s stiff, forced, lifeless performance, but I don’t think it’s his fault. Because the movie is full of stiff, forced, lifeless performances. Actors as diverse in talent as Christina Ricci, Danny De Vito, Jimmy Fallon and Allen himself all give performances pitched at the same level of stiff, forced lifelessness.

Problem seems to be that Allen’s directoral instincts and rhythms seem simply off somehow. Scenes that should play nimbly and spontaneous come off as stagy and hollow, actors waiting for their cues instead of humans having a conversation.

And then there’s the script, anacronistic and off-tone. Young people in their 20s, in 2003, kvetch about their therapy and hotel-room prices, talk about their love of Billie Holliday 78s and Edna Millay, make their living writing for nightclub acts and excitedly jump in a cab to go see Diana Krall.

Scenes are over-explained, stale jokes are flogged, wordy lines fall flat and lie still.

Woody does get the best scenes when he goes into his cranky, paranoid old man routine, and he gets one point for using a Moby song in a nightclub scene, an actual up-to-date, current piece of music in a movie set in present day.
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One of Woody Allen’s most frustrating films. A convincing and detailed love story, derailed by a handful of bizarre missteps and a hopelessly outdated view of popular culture.

1. Kenneth Branagh’s performance, on first viewing, is nothing but an unapologetic impression of Woody, and is hugely distracting for that reason. Only in later viewings can one appreciate it for what it is, a VERY GOOD impression of Woody. He’s got it all down, the stammerings, the body language, the gestures. That he manages to get any human feeling across in the midst of this highly detailed stunt is an accomplishment all by itself.

There is another performance that comes to mind in this regard, Clint Eastwood does a feature-length impression of John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart. Again, it fascinates partly because Eastwood is not known for his facility with impressions, and partly because he manages to pull it off. Eastwood, a movie star of the highest magnitude, only occasionally attempts to play an actual role, but he’s impressive in this and in another picture of the era, Heartbreak Ridge.

2. The film is lovingly shot and even more lovingly produced. Not many people will recall that, as the ’90s drew to a close, Woody Allen shocked New Yorkers by declaring that his budgets were going to be drastically reduced and that even things like free coffee for the crew would be eliminated. Celebrity was the first film in his new austerity program, but instead looks like one of the most lavishly produced films of his career, packed with name actors in bit parts, dozens of locations, sophisticated camerawork involving complicated lighting schemes.

INSIDER GOSSIP: the great Sven Nykvist, who shot 3 Allen movies prior to this one, once complained to me that he disliked working with Woody Allen because his camera setups were dull and unimaginative. He must have been happier with Celebrity, where the camera rarely stops moving and there is a lot of emphasis on foreground and background, faces moving in and out of frame and many complicated crowd scenes.

3. Among the actors who flit in and out of the movie are JK Simmons, Dylan Baker, Allison Janney, Adam Grenier, Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Mark Addy and no fewer than 3 future Sopranos.

The cast is mostly wonderful and occasionally brilliant. Leonardo DiCaprio shows up halfway through the movie and practically burns a hole in the screen.

4. Well-observed, witty and erudite scenes of show-business lives occasionally butt straight up against broad, farcical physical comedy. The strangest of these scenes involves Bebe Neuwirth choking on a piece of banana.

5. As I say, there’s a decent love story somewhere in here. Removing all the references to our wicked culture of celebrity, we have Kenneth Branagh, who is turning middle aged and feels like he hasn’t lived yet. So he breaks up with his dowdy, repressed wife (Judy Davis, teetering on the edge of self-parody) and pursues a number of women. He has meaningless sex with a movie star, pursues and fails to catch a fashion model, lands a beautiful, smart, talented book editor, then throws that relationship away in order to get involved with a shallow, insipid young actress. Meanwhile, Judy Davis has a nervous breakdown, meets a TV producer, goes to work on his show, ends up becoming an on-air personality, gives up worrying about meaningful things, and becomes happy and fulfilled.

Right there is an interesting, heartfelt, well-written contemporary love story (well, perhaps not “contemporary;” Branagh, who’s almost exactly my age, has the attitudes of a man almost twice his age, and does not own a computer, allowing for a lame “only copy of my manuscript” plot point). Almost a remake of Manhattan in this regard, the luminous black-and-white photography making the connection even clearer.

6. The problem is, the love story is freighted with an “important,” “scathing” critique of our current culture of celebrity which, news flash, Woody Allen finds wanting.

This is the man who, in Annie Hall, equated Bob Dylan with Alice Cooper and the Maharishi, all in one scene. This is a man who, although born the same year as Elvis Presley, seems to listen only to music made before he was born, who rolled his eyes at punk rock (in 1986, on time for him) in Hannah and Her Sisters (SILLY PERSON: Don’t you just love songs about extraterrestrials? WOODY: Not when they’re sung by extraterrestrials!). His attitude seems closer to that of someone like Steve Allen, who always maintained that Elvis Presley was a no-talent hack dancing at the pleasure of his money-raking puppet-masters.

There is no accounting for taste. I don’t care for rap music, but I wouldn’t write a movie about it where I complained about it being a clattering racket made by foul-mouthed idiots. And the parts of Celebrity that deal with the general culture and steer clear of individual cases are brilliantly brought to life and work just fine. But when he tsks and sneers at Joey Buttafuoco and suggests that skinheads and the obese are not worth celebration, it makes the whole movie seem stale and remote, when in fact it is one of his most vibrant and lived-in pictures.

I wonder, who does he think will be going to see this movie? Does he think there is an audience out there who will say “Wow, I guess he’s right, now that I think of it, our culture DOES tear down the worthy and celebrate the worthless!” If such a person existed, why would they be going to see a black-and-white Woody Allen movie? No, in these moments he’s patting himself on the back and inviting us to sneer along with him.

Sure, there’s a lot of garbage in our culture. But the finer arts have always appealed to a more limited audience. And a lot of it will be forgotten and the good products of this exact same culture will live on, just like always, which will make those moments of Celebrity all the more baffling to future audiences.
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Hollywood Ending

Well, they can’t all be classics.

I can’t think of anyone who likes all of Woody Allen’s movies, but most of the time, even with the lopsided ones, I can find something going on in it that makes it worthwhile.

Hollywood Ending is one of the very few where, despite the sincere efforts of everyone involved, it doesn’t click.

Most of the cast is great, but there are a few key performances that just fall flat, sound off-key. Some of the writing is really sharp, really clever, but again, in a couple of key places, I have to look at it and go Huh? This is the guy who wrote Hannah and Her Sisters?

Scenes sometimes go on too long, and a few times actors even flub their lines. It’s hard to believe that the man who has somtimes re-shot entire movies decided to use some of the takes he has here.

But like I say, they can’t all be classics.

But it does remind me of how many great films Woody Allen has made. In fact, I would have to say that, of all living American directors, he has a higher percentage of great films than anyone else. Like roughly a third.

I would say, in chronological order, they are:

Love and Death
Annie Hall
Stardust Memories
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Broadway Danny Rose
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Hannah and Her Sisters
Radio Days
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Husbands and Wives
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Bullets Over Broadway
Deconstructing Harry
Sweet and Lowdown
Match Point

Wow! That’s 18 great movies! And that’s not counting movies he didn’t direct, like Play it Again, Sam and (cough) Antz!

Then there are movies that kind of skate by on charm (Bananas), fine pictures with debilitating flaws (Mighty Aphrodite), and misfired experiments (Shadows and Fog).

Mostly, these later comedies (Celebrity, Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Anything Else) seem like scripts that he shot in order to keep working. Which is fine. Mostly they maintain the high level of technical excellence that we’re used to (Celebrity, for instance, is one of the most beautifully shot of all his movies), but every now and then there will be some scene or bit of business or performance by a major star and I’ll say “What’s up with that?”

There are a number of scenes in Hollywood Ending that really fizz and pop, but then there are bizarre lapses (like the last-minute inclusion of a long-lost son) that seem really lazy and perfunctory.

Luckily, as we can see with Match Point, his gift has not entirely lost him.
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Madagascar, Small Time Crooks, Schindler’s List

Boy, now that’s a marquee!

Sometimes all a movie has to be is funny, and the first two movies on this short list are funny (Schindler has its moments too, but let’s not push it). I wouldn’t confuse either Madagascar or Small Time Crooks with high art, but Madagascar is a scream. I watched it for the third or fourth time this evening (that’s how it is when you’ve got kids) and my four-year-old and we both laughed our heads off. You know a movie has got something on the ball when both the four-year-old and the forty-four-year-old are laughing at the same gags.

It has almost no plot, and for once it’s a relief. These CGI pictures are so expensive, they usually end up over-plotted and airtight, not a moment wasted. As James Urbaniak once said about Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, “You could bounce a quarter off that movie.” And as much as I like the Pixar movies (I’ve seen all of them at least 50 times), they are slick, polished and calculated compared to Madagascar, which has a loose, flexible, what-the-hell quality about it. Maybe because it’s only 75 minutes long, 60 of which passes without the semblance of a plot. It feels like a much older comedy, something like Horsefeathers perhaps, with an accent on situation and character instead of plot, which, considering its budget and construction, is a miracle. I mean, think of it. Here’s a movie that had to cost over $100 million and was developed over something like a decade, and at some point someone in charge (probably Jeffrey Katzenberg) said “You know what? The hell with plot and ‘lessons’ and heart-tugging emotion. People get that all the time from family films. Let’s just make this the funniest thing we can, let it breathe a little. Can we do that?”

And then it works, and goes on to make a billion dollars (I’m guessing).

Small Time Crooks I haven’t seen since it came out, but, like a lot of Woody Allen’s slighter movies, it holds up well over time. I would put it slightly below Manhattan Murder Mystery or Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in terms of pure enjoyment.

Woody Allen gets lauded all the time for his writing and direction, but no one ever seems to notice what a great actor he is. And you could say “Yeah, but he’s always Woody Allen,” but so what? Cary Grant was always Cary Grant, no one ever complained about it. The detail, spontaneity and rhythm of his performances is consistently astonishing to me. How he gets the performances he does from his other cast members is another question. I’ve heard from a number of actors that he is ridiculously incommunicative as a director, but he somehow he manages to get career-best performances from people. In the case of Small Time Crooks, there’s Elaine May, who I’ve never seen work as an actor before, and she is amazing here. Yes, okay, everyone’s playing stupid, but she takes it to a whole different level. With Michael Rappaport for instance, we can see that we’re seeing a smart guy play a stupid guy, but Elaine May is completely opaque, your jaw drops when she says the things she does. I’ve actually met people who are as stupid as her character here, and that’s how they are. Not just garden-variety stupid people, I mean people where you really don’t know how they get through the day, you’re worried they’re going to forget to breathe or something.

Although the DVD transfer is only okay, the photography by Zhou Fei is typically luminescent.

And I bring up Schindler’s List only to point out that it also features the guy painting the name on the glass door again. So there you are, Hudsucker, Seven and Schindler, the basis to your next “stump the film geek” quiz.
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