Wednesday, June 1, 2011

WHY WOODY ALLEN IS OUR GREATEST LIVING FILMMAKER


 I just saw MIDNIGHT IN PARIS this week and it confirmed to me that Woody Allen is our greatest living filmmaker. Sure there are bigger and better directors working today: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and David Fincher, to name just four. But as far as someone who directs and writes his own films no one can compare to the incomparable Mr. Allen. 
Original caricature of Woody Allen by Jeff York (copyright 2011)
Woody Allen has been writing and directing movies since 1969 when he filmed his first original comedy TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN. Since then he’s done it forty more times. In just over forty years. That’s an amazing amount of creativity in a business where everyone knows how difficult it is to get just one film made. And some of the greatest films of the last four decades are on his resume. Consider if you will:

SLEEPER (1973)
ANNIE HALL (1978)
MANHATTAN (1979)
ZELIG (1983)
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
ANOTHER WOMAN (1988)
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
MATCH POINT (2005)
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008)

One could also make the case for a place for SWEET AND LOWDOWN, MIGHTY APHRODITE, RADIO DAYS and ALICE on the list of Allen greats, but no matter, all of them were written and directed by the incredibly prolific Mr. Allen. And more often than not, he has starred in them as well. He’s one of our most indelible film actors yet his talent in front of the camera is often overlooked because of his talents behind it. But make no mistake, Allen is one of the funniest and most moving screen clowns ever, in that rarified air with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx. Allen’s not only a comedian he’s an icon. And his acting resume alone is that of a major film star. 
Woody Allen with Mia Farrow in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
Allen's work is incredibly distinctive too. His films have their own instantly recognizable style: the recurring themes of love and death and artists struggling to make sense of the world; the early 20th century jazz that usually plays on the soundtrack; the distinct rhythms of his writing. The sound of a Woody Allen movie is both old school and utterly contemporary. His Borscht belt roots shine through in the Jewish cadences, but so do the casual tempos of modern conversation. Woody Allen writes some of the sharpest movie dialogue ever, filled with hope and cynicism, scathing wit as well as deeply neurotic anxieties. It’s the voice of modern man trying to find an explanation for all the irrationality in the world.

And his voice is mostly expressed through comedy. It has often been said that comedy is harder to do than drama, as you have to keep the audience laughing in comedy, and it’s extraordinary that Allen has been so successful working in this most difficult of realms. And he has mined that vein successfully over and over and over again. So why is he not heralded more than say a Scorsese or Kubrick? Is Allen too reliable and too good? Does the fact that he makes a movie every year, unlike Kubrick who took forever to make a film, make him seem less special? For those who argue his work is too frequent or too repetitive, they need only look at two of his most recent films: MATCH POINT and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Both were startling in how far they strayed from the typical Allen comfort zone. MATCH POINT is a dark thriller about an adulterous English social climber. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is a story about two American women at a crossroads in their lives who discover what they want and don’t want while vacationing in Spain. Anyone who thinks that Allen only writes elitist New York stories simply hasn’t been paying attention lately.
Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2009)

Perhaps the reason that Allen doesn’t quite get his due can be directly attributed to his own doing. Allen lost a lot of good will in the late eighties when he left Mia Farrow for Soon-Yi Previn. (He’s still with her, by the way.) And Allen has always been notoriously private and shy with the press. He doesn’t do the late night talk shows. He doesn’t give a lot of interviews. (However there is an excellent one in the current issue of Film Comment.) Perhaps if he’d sit for the American Film Institute lifetime achievement award dinner or accept the Kennedy Center Medal of Honor, he’d be  lauded more. But my guess is that all that doesn’t matter too much to him. He’s all about the work and he puts it out there year in and year out. He’s got a lot to say and having an annual forum is probably enough.

So for now, his work and his work alone is proof of his legacy. And what a body of work it is. If you haven’t ever seen some of his seminal films, or haven’t watched them in a while, you owe yourself the pleasures of ANNIE HALL, the definitive romantic comedy of the seventies; or the bittersweet character study that is BROADWAY DANNY ROSE; or the provocative dissertation on morality in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. In that, what I consider to be his greatest film, Allen stirs the pot especially when you consider that the criminal of the story (Martin Landau) gets away scot-free while the misanthrope (Woody) loses almost everything. 
Martin Landau and Woody Allen in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
Then you should go see MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. His latest is whimsical, clever, charming and touching. In it, a writer (played by Owen Wilson doing the best variation on the Allen archetype in decades) travels to Paris to find inspiration for the novel he’s writing. And while he’s there he finds himself time traveling back to the Paris of the 1920’s where he ends up rubbing shoulders and debating ideas with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Gertrude Stein and a beautiful muse played by the iridescent Marion Cotillard. (To whet your appetite I've embedded the trailer below.)

It's a beautiful little film that made me laugh, cry and really think. It just might be one for the ages. Just like so many of Woody Allen’s films. Just like the man himself.

6 comments:

  1. I haven't seen a lot of his movies, so after reading your blog, I am inspired to watch some of them:)

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  2. Fabulous caricature! It captures for me the essence of the common, everyday man struggling with the absurdities of life that he often played in his older films from decades past. In them he wasn’t a super hero, didn’t always get the girl, put up with pompous snobs (as best he could, but not without some delicious wisecracks), struggled with a foundering career, agonized over his insecurities, verbalized his fears and anguished about what it all meant. In other words, he was us. And he made it damn funny.

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  3. Thanks, Juli! Glad I've inspired you to check out some Woody Allen movies. Maybe start with ANNIE HALL or CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. And let me know what you think whatever you watch!

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  4. Fan With No Name, thanks for following and for your terrific thoughts. (And so glad you like the caricature.) And as you point out, Woody's screen persona is really vital on so many levels. He's a filmmaker who has a lot to say about the world we live in and our struggle to survive it.

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  5. Long before he was creating film for the screen, he wielded his verbiage to create movies inside our brains. His short stories were a hoot and his night club act was something else. A recording is still available on vinyl, 8-track and high priced imported CD.

    http://www.amazon.com/Woody-Allen-Nightclub-Years-1964-1968/dp/B000006SE9

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  6. So right you are, Michael. He's been an important comic voice for a long time. And before he was a stand-up and penned short stories, Woody Allen wrote sketches for Sid Caesar. What a talent!

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