ALICE (1990)

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3 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“If you want, we can go talk about our kindergarten that would give him the best chances of getting into an Ivy league school.”

Magic realism and the way it works itself into his work has been one of Allen’s most identifiable themes. Who can forget the scene with a young Allen in Stardust Memories, the out of body experiences in Annie Hall, the core of Magic in the Moonlight, the fantasy of The Purple Rose of Cairo, his mother transporting to the New York skyline after a magic trick gone wrong in Oedipus Wrecks?

Yet Allen’s most magical works, in the sense of their charm and theme, don’t need the supernatural frivolity on show during Alice. We’re presented with sometimes wistful flashbacks infiltrating the present, invisibility, a wise muse appearing when most needed, the power to make any man fall in love with you and more. But consider the romanticism of Annie Hall and Manhattan, the sentimentality of Purple Rose, the nostalgia of Radio Days and Sweet and Lowdown, the spectacle of Midnight in Paris, the unbelievable yet touching journey of Zelig. They achieve their status and aura from marrying genuine pathos with a sprinkle of cinematic magic. Alice instead gets straight into the magical conceit and imposes its conventions without any understanding of the context or background on the characters.

Titular upper-class housewife Alice begins questioning her 16 year marriage and her privileged lifestyle after developing feelings for a handsome saxophone player. Subconsciously suffering from a sore back, her troubles are truly emotional, even superficial. A Chinese acupuncturist prescribes a series of reality-altering herbal remedies to alleviate her troubles of dissatisfaction. These herbs lead not to bed rest but to supernatural adventures, unexpected personal insights and necessary confrontations with who she had become since her Catholic upbringing.

You might not be surprised to know that the film was originally titled ‘The Magical Herbs Of Dr Yang’, and thank goodness for that change. This fantasy and fantastical action, with both comic and dramatic overtones, brings inevitable comparisons to The Purple Rose of Cairo. In fact, there are very similar moments towards the end of both films when Farrow’s characters end up losing both men she loves by choosing the route of less reality. On both occasions there is a choice, yet her final choice here is one in herself rather than of either man. She devotes her life to Cambodia to give herself and her children deeper values after an adulthood of superficiality. It’s another blurring of reality in Allen’s work considering Farrow’s philanthropy, generous adoption of disadvantaged children and worshiping of Mother Teresa.

But at the core of the comparison comes the realisation that Alice does nothing better than its predecessor. It’s essentially the same to The Purple Rose of Cairo as Deconstructing Harry is to Hannah and Her Sisters – a breezier, messier, softer spoken and less potent reiteration. Allen’s script does have some lovely dialogue though – the lines “I try to look pretty so your friends can admire your taste”, “I hold onto my youth, but he doesn’t notice” and “Love is a very complex emotion. No rational thought…much romance, but much suffering” speak so piercingly from their quiet delivery.

However, coming off such success at displaying how his comedic and dramatic passions can coalesce, Alice never seems to find its tone or placement like Crimes and Misdemeanors. It has fun moments of wacky hijinx, affecting moments (all anchored by a sweet and heartfelt performance from Farrow, with one hilarious seduction scene) and existential detours into examinations of midlife malaise. But his whole idea never assembles the meaningful stakes, interesting sub-characters or engaging performances to hang it on.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)

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4-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Idea for a farce – a poor loser agrees to do the story of a great man’s life and in the process comes to learn deep values.”

There’s certain expectations with most Woody Allen pictures; a New York setting, a large degree of wit, a beautiful woman delivering a great performance, suffocating neurosis, people talking out of frame, jazz. You don’t normally come to one with the intention of having your values and morality tested. Yet with Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen distills his cinematic hallmarks and philosophical passions into a meaningful debate on the decency of human impulse. It chews so tenderly on the impact of our every decision in the governance of our conscious; how we are defined by the choices we make and how it affects our position in the universe. It’s a masterful conclusion to a decade of dominance in cinema, with a collection of 10 films that challenge the consistency and quality of any filmmaker from any period.

The title lays it out plainly: what is a crime, what is merely a misdemeanor and how do we rationalise them into these compartments? The loosely connected parallel stories of ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau) and fledgling documentary filmmaker Cliff (Allen) challenge this thesis, as they confront the depths of their values in the pursuit of self-perceived innocence and a clear conscious. Judah’s dramatic arc undoubtedly has more gravity in this regard, as he green lights the ‘perfect murder’ of his strung-along mistress (Anjelica Huston who’s great in her anxiety, neurosis and mental trauma) to save his reputation and marriage. Breaking Bad captivated us with similar commentaries 19 years later, in showcasing the transformation of an ordinary man taken from one sin to deeper sins. The dread in the viewer here comes not only from the suspense of whether Judah will get his comeuppance, but the understanding that he realises his capacity for these stakes, and whether he will revisit it later in life.

Like almost every Allen film since 1977, this deals with the intellectual middle-class of New York. That demographic actually serves a potent purpose here, as Allen shrewdly comments on the inability of intellectuals to properly rationalise their ethical dilemmas. Judah’s struggle before and after the deed leads to questions such as “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice? Is what shes doing to me just?” In this self-centered pursuit of happiness and satisfaction in life,  murder equated to infidelity, and murder resulting from the fear of your infidelity becoming known isn’t the same as any other motivation. The end result of Judah’s moral code is a refusal to let her “destroy his life”.

That Judah is an eye doctor is no coincidence, rather it’s part of some really strong symbolism from Allen – a man who helps other people improve their sight, yet is incapable of clear moral vision. While his Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston, whose little anxious touches resemble a modern day performance by Joaquin Phoenix, though ironically not his in one of Allen’s other morality tales involved murder, Irrational Man) goes physically blind while being metaphorically blinded by his faith to the realities of society. This unjust world is suggestive of Allen that there is no God there to punish the deserving; you can be free of a permanent feeling of guilt and only you can punish yourself. But for how often Allen mocks Judaism, he takes it very seriously here and offers Ben wise words to combat Judah: “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel, with all my heart, a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.”

The comic side to the film sees Allen’s Cliff selling out by making a documentary on his big shot brother-in-law television producer (Alan Alda) while falling for a producer on the documentary (Mia Farrow’s Halley). The original cut had only one scene with Alda, more of the side story with Cliff’s sister and niece (which does seem to go nowhere in this final edit) and features Mia as a social worker in a nursing home for vaudevillians where Cliff is making a documentary. These changes appear to made valid improvements, even if it did require re-shooting 80 out of 139 scenes, making it his most re-shot film outside of the completely reworked September. It’s profoundly and poetically written, earning multiple nominations and winning a WGA for best screenplay. At times it is overly done though, slipping into expositional monologues. But the cast do a terrific job with the words, Landau in particular who was also nominated for multiple awards in an unconventional headline role.

Originally titled ‘Brothers’, this balance of comedy and drama is something Allen has longed to accomplish and came closest with Hannah and Her Sisters. The philosophical drama and farcical comedy would combine again more rigidly in 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, to much less success. But here the comedy, drama, existentialism and thrills of both stories converge sublimely in such playful construction. For instance, one moment you have the suspense of Judah receiving a call from a detective which transitions into a scene with Allen at the cinema watching a rendition of “Murder He Says” from Happy Go Lucky. As inherently tragic as the film is, there’s still some blistering jokes slotted in:

“He’s interested in producing something of mine.”
“Your first child!”

The flashback device is often used by Allen to good effect. They’re usually there to inform audiences about narrative details: Annie Hall is almost a film of scenes in shuffle mode but the trips that he, Annie and Rob take back to observe his childhood are richly informative and comical; Stardust Memories floats to the past; Broadway Danny Rose gets a lot of comedy out of prior endeavors. But here, Judah’s silent contemplation from the past, in the form of flashbacks for the viewer, not only inform us of this non-present time but act as methods for him to work through his conscience. It’s less artificially inserted for the sake of narrative necessities and more organic from the characters mental dialogues.

Woody, either arrogantly or stubbornly, opines on the tendency for his work to reflect reality rather than the superficial happiness of Hollywood. Judah, as if knowing that Woody Allen himself makes movies in New York, tells Cliff “You want a happy ending, you should see a Hollywood movie”. It’s as downbeat and morbid as he’s become, with Judah left unpunished and at peace with his moral values. While Cliff serves a prison sentence of four months away from Halley (as he did with Tracy in Manhattan) and a broken heart upon her return. It’s a very dark and disturbing ending even for Allen, which leaves you contemplating your own moral balance in the modern world.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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ANOTHER WOMAN (1988)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I wonder if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.”

Before Allen took a modern swing at Tennessee Williams and deception in his last Oscar winner, 2013’s Blue Jasmine, he explored a less melodramatic kind of mid-life crisis in Another Woman. It came at a time when his relationship with Mia Farrow – who features here as Hope, pregnant with who would become Satchel Ronan Farrow and giving up the lead role because of that – was beginning to show private signs of breakdown and abandonment through accusations of deception. The other woman in their private life at this time was actually another girl, Mia’s (and then Woody’s legally) adopted daughter Dylan, who Mia felt Woody was showing a disproportionate amount of attention and affection to – effectively stealing his love from her. In fact, Hope’s first speech to her psychiatrist about being deceived could almost be taken from Mia’s own words in court (or in her own psychiatry sessions) just a few years later, surrounding her other adopted daughter Soon-Yi’s affair with Woody. How prescient of Allen, whose final roles he gave to Farrow (Hannah and Her Sisters onwards) were that strongly reflecting their private life and her family background that some have accused it of being a pseud-cathartic vehicle for her own psychoanalysis. The pinnacle of this life-imitating-art would aptly be in Farrow’s final film with Allen, Husbands and Wives, filmed partially during their break up and so reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding them.

The characters in the world of Woody Allen seem unable to live (satisfied, unhappily or just plain exist) without psychiatry. Exploring the psychology of human beings has fascinated Allen for much of his career, ironic since his own 40+ years of it has supposedly done no good to him. Hope’s sessions are overheard by Marion (a magnificent Gena Rowlands), who’s renting an apartment next door to complete a new book. This physical manifestation of upper class isolation matches Marion, an empty and lonely writer who notices much of herself in Hope’s confessions. Her eavesdropping prompts her to confront some well hidden and unresolved memories; Hope’s words become a passageway into Marion’s psyche, with her speak of self deception and self-destruction and regret being third party expressions of Marion’s subconscious turmoil.

Like the line from the Rilke poem she reads, Marion must change her life. Allen describes Marion as ‘strong intellectually but blocked out in her feelings’, which would be an accurate to many of his creations. But there is a cerebral and introspective nature to Marion common only to the characters of his previous dramas, Interiors and September. Her brother loathes her, her husband no longer feels for her and her best friend rues her (much to her own bemusement). A lifetime of safe and conservative choices has left her frozen, numb and cold – too cold according to Allen, admitting the lack of warmth to the character as the film’s key fault.

This is all a clever concept, one originally conceived in a comic fashion by Allen and eventually realised as that in Everybody Says I Love You. While here is not the comic incarnation of the idea, it’s purposely also not realistic in its dramatic context. Marion can block the sound out entirely from two couch cushions against the grill, so she has the choice to listen completely or not at all. The choice to continue blocking or to confront. It’s a classic cinematic convention that we buy into and here plays to the mental state of its protagonist. The narrative flows between present day reality and Marion’s troubled mind; transporting into her memories, hallucinations and dreams with a free fluidity.

After his experience on Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s well known that Michael Caine’s one piece of advice for Gena Rowlands was not to save your best performance for the close up, because Woody does no close ups. But with Bergman’s longtime collaborative cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s at the helm (the first of four with Allen), Rowlands and her complexity of thoughts are shot through multiple close ups of pulsating stillness. This uncommon use of the close up was a conscious attempt by Allen to match Bergman’s skill at ‘developing a language that can convey inner psychological states to audiences’. He achieves that on this instance. There’s much feeling in Nykvist’s work which, with its immaculate compositions, is impeccable here. He not only captures but traverses the players and their environments so gracefully. A particular visual motif is cutting people off or in half by playing with light exposure, walls separating individuals in the shot and hands covering half of a face. It’s a very Bergman film at its core, inspired heavily by Wild Strawberries and furthering the identity of Allen’s dramatic work as Berman-lite. Yet it’s as much a (loving and flattering) Bergman imitation as something like the well-regarded When Harry Met Sally is an Allen imitation.

September was Allen’s most theatrically structured film and there’s a carryover here, with dialogue and conversations textured well for the stage. This is no better emphasised than during Rowland’s surreal and superb dream where her real life exchanges are put on the stage and acted out by her peers. It’s good writing as always from Allen (although the dialogue is sometimes robbed of its subtext) and in comparison to September, this is no less well made or performed. It’s actually a more creative, engaging and controlled drama. The dream sequence for instance – with its eloquent use of Erik Statie’s Gymnopédie No 3, the contrast between dark backgrounds and exposed faces, and the playful amalgamation of fantasy and reality – is accomplished and skillful work.

But for all its conflict and embedded repression, the storytelling feels as unresolved as its central character. It’s not exhaustive of its material, at only 77 minutes and with a forced conclusion to this chapter of her life. She’s seemingly ‘at peace’ knowing that her affair was fictionalised in the novel of her ex-lover (an underutilized Gene Hackman) while the woman that she has obsessed over has now detached herself from society (similarly to Marion) and likely gone off to commit suicide? Like Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s an artificially pleasing but ultimately unsatisfying ending from a man who knows how to end a film with poise and poignancy. Sorry Woody, but I hope you accept my (minor) condemnation…

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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SEPTEMBER (1987)

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3 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I just long so to hear certain things said to me again. I want so much to respond, but I can only run.”

Allen pulls double duty for 1987, after releasing Radio Days at the beginning of the year. But it should really be recognised as triple duty. The film eventually released as September was in fact rewritten and re-shot with half the cast changed. The original was fully edited, but Woody felt unsatisfied with it and wanted to do re-shoots, so he just filmed the entire thing again. The original cast included Christopher Walken (too macho sexy), Sam Shepard (not interested in acting enough to do a re-shoot), Charles Durning (miscast) and Farrow’s own mother, ’30s movie star Maureen O’Sullivan, as her mother – much the same as her smaller role in Hannah and Her Sisters.

This is an atmospheric Bergman and Chekhov inspired chamber piece of repressed emotions and regret. In standard fashion for the worlds of Woody Allen, this universe is viewed as “haphazard, morally neutral and unimaginatively violent”. The lives of the people here are as vulnerable as the flickering flames from the candles keeping the country house barely illuminated that evening.  They’re all escaping New York for individual reasons and seeking refuge in the countryside, but in the process of their procrastination are going through the motions in life. Allen calls this “unfulfilled passions”, a theme present in many of his films but with strongest resemblance to that of Joey in Interiors (with a clear parallel of selfish mother figures causing eternal pain in their children’s lives) and Cristina in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As Allen sensitively states:

“To me the most tragic, the most sad quality is if a person has a profound feelings about life, about existence and religion and love and the more deep aspects of life, and that person is not gifted enough to be able to express it.”

These are people infused with loneliness, despondent about their existing circumstances and with a vision for how to change it – but the person to fulfill that has someone else in mind to fulfill theirs. Unrequited love and everyone longing for the wrong person is an unashamedly borrowed trope from Chekhov but this is understated, subtle and unobtrusive work from Allen, Carlo Di Palma (who views this as his best work out of 12 films with Allen) and the cast. These are ironic traits considering that Allen wanted a theatrical feel to the piece. It’s formed by long takes, a clear scene structure, defined character entrances/exits, beautiful mise-en-scene with some great monologues and duologues. Renowned Broadway performer Elaine Stritch is absolutely fabulous, Mia Farrow’s emotional outburst in the third act is affecting, and Dianne Wiest and Sam Waterston have a nice lustful tension between their mere close bodily proximity.

But for all its theatrical conventions and conflict present, it’s dry and lacks the energy that Woody’s films have never suffered from. Stagnation creeps in to the pace and the issues behind the drama are only thinly explored on a surface level, leading to muddied and superficial exposition regarding character relationships. It doesn’t help that most of the main characters are irritably self-pitying and indecisive. After his superlative run since Zelig in 1983 – and arguably since Annie Hall 10 films ago – this feels like a comedown. It’s an appreciatively well made film, but suffers from its chronological context within Allen’s canon.

Like his previous introspective drama, Interiors, there isn’t much comedy to appease the casual fan. The most amusing thing here is that someone actually shows remorse at committing adultery in a Woody Allen film. It’s also interesting that the story of a mother forcing her daughter to lie in court would resurface (slander and unproven) in real life for Woody and Mia. But there are a couple of little lines here and there: “You’re young, you’re lovely. Although you dress like a Polish refugee”. Unfortunately there’s also another throwaway reference to rape. But while it may be lesser Woody Allen (and his lowest grossing film to date) even within only his dramatic work, he still manages to showcase his way with words:

“It’s hell getting older, especially when you feel 21 inside. All the strengths that sustain you all through your life just vanish one by one. And you study your face in the mirror, and you notice something’s missing. And then you realise it’s your future. “

However, it’s not quite as good as another other film named September.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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RADIO DAYS (1987)

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4 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I compromised when I picked Martin. I wanted someone tall and handsome and rich – 3 out of 3 I gave up.”

I’d forgotten almost everything about Radio Days since I first watched in in 2011, except that it gave me an overriding feeling of warmth. This isn’t surprising, considering this admitted sprawling vanity project inspired by Allen’s upbringing is a slight and conventionally plotless film about not very much. But it’s a demonstration of the confidence in his craft that he can make a piece of art matching that description and it be such richly enjoyable, touching and sweet viewing.

“Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past” appeals Allen, in a voice-over towards the beginning of his account of growing up during World War 2. Fans must accept this trope for any entry to his filmography, but it’s never been so directly applicable than in this “self exaggerated view of my childhood”. Almost a spiritual sequel to the childhood flashbacks in Annie Hall, it’s a similarly autobiographical coming-of-age tale to Fellini’s Amarcord. By essentially recreating his childhood, “or a facsimile of it”, this fairy tale captures the tone of the time so vividly for those who didn’t experience it. Carlo Di Palma imbues it to glow with nostalgia and glisten with a personalised remembrance. Pleasant little sketches and vignettes form memories of his upbringing and hearken back not only to that time, but to the exaggerated comedy of Woody Allen’s early funny films. There’s a classic joke about a pitcher with heart, lots of situational comedy and a sight gag of a lady freezing into a coma mid sip of tea.

The wistful moments we all have for our childhood are unavoidable. This is a nostalgic celebration of your own upbringing and a forever bygone time. It’s also a plea to your mind at not wanting to forget it all as the voices and qualities of your memories”grow dimmer and dimmer”, with new mediums and new experiences replacing the once glamorous world of radio (or TV, or disco, or SEGA, or iMacs, or smartphones, or who knows in the future) in society. It’s like Allen is passing onto us his fond memories, like a father to a child. Every film for Woody is personal, but through his lovingly handled reminiscence, this may be his most sentimental (and self indulgent) work.

But just as Allen shares amusing anecdotes about his favourite moments from the popular days of radio, he equally presents dark events that tragically demonstrate the other end of radios monopoly on society’s attention. Real news updates such as the death of Kathy Fiscus down a well – which features some terrific camerawork – or announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbour give the film an even stronger placement in the mood of its wartime. It shows the connection that the country has to the radio and how the radio can bring them all collectively together. Yet in unmistakable Woody fashion, these serious moments of pathos are still hung on a hilarious punchline (“Who’s Pearl Harbour?”).

Allen is perhaps most acclaimed for his writing, and this screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. But the selection and use of music within his work is just as important a pillar in shaping his artistic identity. Here is perhaps his most musically focused film, with 43 songs picking before writing the script to “make a memory for each important song in my childhood”. It’s all so evocative and emotive, giving the film a wonderfully melodic quality. This would probably be Terence Davies’ favourite Woody Allen film, for whatever that’s worth.

Woody moves from one ensemble to another, this one more dysfunctional but with characters no less alive than those so revered in the previous years Hannah and Her Sisters. The whole cast do a great job, particularly Dianne Wiest who’s a knockout at every turn. Whether she’s melancholy about her lack of a significant other to get her pregnant, or comically realising that she’s dating a homosexual. She returns for her third film in a row with Allen, but the film is also one of cameo returns. Shawn Wallace, Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts (in his final Allen role), Danny Aiello and Diane Keaton, who appears for the first time since Manhattan to serenade us into 1944. It’s a lovely surprise. She’s certainly someone who would be nice to come home to, and it feels just like old times.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Second (and third) viewing.

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HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

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4-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom – I can’t fathom my own heart.”

Woody Allen has been nominated 16 times for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of these, and one of the three that he’s won. It’s more screenwriting nominations than anyone else and no surprise that this acclaimed writer would give his 2016 film, Café Society, an apparent novelistic quality. It’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time and his triumph in this sublime piece of work from 1986 – with scene titles as if chapters and characters narrating their own story arcs – is the closest he’s come to achieving that.

With its exploration of troubles with interconnected familial relationship, this could arguably be seen as version of Interiors which Allen has lightened and sharpened 8 years on. It’s what established his convention for large ensembles of differing worldviews challenging the boundaries of life and the boundaries physical connection via intellectual dialogue. Each character is defined and dissected in front of the camera in his most overbearingly (if you’re not charmed by it) neurotic film. Voice overs and inner monologues reflect this neurotic nucleus of Allen’s depiction of people; it guides their actions and it guides the narrative here.

The film plays like a pleasant and pleasurable Chekhovian family drama, especially as it charts three years in the lives of three sisters Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). It’s largely inspired by Farrow’s real life family background and even incorporated into the shooting – Hannah’s apartment is Farrow’s apartment; her mother Maureen O’Sullivan plays her on screen mother; the relationship issues between the showbiz parents; similarities in the professions of the sisters; even Allen’s alleged romantic interest in her sister Tisa. All this meta is taken even further by Holly writing a script based on the background of their family background, similar to Alvie Singer writing a script based on the relationship in Annie Hall, which was itself based on the relationship between Woody and Diane Keaton.

Farrow was “honoured and outraged” at Allen taking “many of the circumstances and themes in our lives and…distorting them into cartoonish characterisations.” But turning ordinary reality into art is “what writers do”, she concedes, and what Allen has built his entire career on. He’s one of the best at exaggerating situations and character traits that we all recognise for heightened dramatic and comedic effect. From the more articulate “I’m just trying to complete an education I started on you five years ago” to the more basic “Boy, love is really unpredictable”. But what’s unsettling in terms of Allen’s writing regularly being taken from real life is his constant references and throwaway gags involving child molestation. I count at least 10 in these 17 films into his canon. It’s upsetting to see regardless of the wider circumstances of his private life.

This was first film since Annie Hall without collaborator and cinematographer Gordon Willis, who’s responsible for shaping Allen’s education in the craft of filmmaking through nurturing his creative maturity. But swapping to Carlo di Palma, Michelangelo Antonioni’s longtime collaborator, was no trade off. They would work together on 11 more films up to 1997. He brings a lovely eavesdropping quality to our time with these people. He creates such great dynamics in amalgamating moments of intimate privacy and public awareness. This is not notable in the scene with the sisters at lunch where the camera circles around them as they unleash their neurosis, bitterness and guilt at one another.

The simple gags here are often the most memorable too – Michael Caine’s version of “getting hysterical”; the thought of Woody Allen as a Hare Krishne; the sight of  Allen at a punk concert; “How the hell should I know why there were Nazi’s. I don’t know how the can opener works”.

The breadth of characters gives Allen a richly textured canvas to paint and probe all manner of themes and behaviours. With three years to cover and this many interesting characters to develop, it naturally sprawls, but it’s a truly lived in world. Michael Caine as Elliot shows such range – from the boyish giddiness in getting his answer from Lee, to the frustrated eruption at wife Hannah after his affair with Lee is broken off against his will. He nails every note of the character’s written journey with precision. While he admitted to not having the best experience working with Allen, he’ll surely have found it worth it for the Oscar, which he’s fully deserving of. As is other Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, who turns from grating minor character to affectionate lead as the narrative progresses.

Allen’s story arc as hypochondriac Micky feels the least connected to this world and these people. This becomes apparent even more so when the final act shifts so sharply from the love triangle to the his courtship with Holly. After the darkly truthful endings to The Purple Rose of Cairo, Stardust MemoriesInteriors and Manhattan he goes for a conventionally happy ending that reads false. Woody regrets “not having the nerve and resolving it too neatly…satisfying in some way…they resign themselves”. While no character arc is left unfulfilled, thing are resolved with contrivance. This is the first of Allen’s films in my retrospective where I’ve left with a colder feeling upon rewatch. It’s still brilliant, but in the context of his filmography, it’s not quite the pinnacle I had considered it to be.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Fourth viewing.

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THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)

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5star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week, otherwise what’s life all about anyway?”

Even to the present day, The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of his rare pictures that Allen himself even admits to liking -“It was the one which came closest to my original conception”. It also feels like one of his most personal, exploring the well worn theme of fantasy vs. reality within a love story to the picture house that has clear autobiographical touches. Every Woody film has these but here it’s not just sharing his unfiltered thoughts as if in a psychoanalysis session; he’s actually trying to place you into his experiences as a young boy, developing himself in the darkness of his local movie house. It’s one of his finest achievements in storytelling, charming and amusing and devastating you in equal measure at the appropriate interludes.

According to Allen, going to the movie house is a way to “avoid the harsh realities of life…the greatest kind of tranquilizer or embalment”. This is exactly why Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a Depression era waitress frequents them so often. With a job she’s not good at and a brutish unemployed husband (Danny Aiello), she dreams of living in the worlds of grand RKO pictures. When seeing their latest release for the fifth time, the film-within-a-film The Purple Rose of Cairo, character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen and into the cinema aisle to declare his love for her. This bring in Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrayed the character, fearing the career consequences of a double raping and murdering everyone he comes in contact with. But Cecilia soon has the choice between this fantasy and a much more appealing kind of reality to her husband Monk, as Gil also falls for her. Allen’s worlds regularly have an essence of the physically impossible and simple excuses for suspending your disbelief in them – here, quaintly, it’s because this is New Jersey.

There’s a real tension between the fantasy of the fictional art we all love to watch on the big screen, and the harsh reality it’s supposedly trying to replicate. “The real one’s want their lives fictional and the fictional one’s want their lives real”, after all. Allen speaks so intelligently on how we romanticise the people and worlds in art, on screen, in books, in our imaginations and ultimately in our hopes. But our expectations cannot be matched. Fantasy is ginger ale instead of champagne, stage money, cars not starting when you get in them and no fade outs to kiss scenes. One side of her decision is honest, dependable, courageous, romantic and a great kisser – while the other side is real. Yet even when she’s kissing the real thing in Gil Shepherd, she’s still only kissing the versions of him that she adores watching on the big screen. She’s only playing the part of his female co-star. Real is putting too much pepper in the spaghetti sauce, living in fear of getting a beating from your deadbeat husband and being unemployed during the Depression.

“When you choose reality, you get hurt”. This is the pessimistic view of the world that Allen permeates into all his works and what makes them so affecting. Allen calls any other ending to this portion of Cecilia’s life “trivial”, and he’s right. Like the lives in Manhattan, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories – these endings aren’t happy, but they’re the truth. The romantic choice we would all be sympathetic to siding with is the Hollywood perfection of Tom Baxter. But the truth is what ultimately becomes more satisfying as an audience member, even if it breaks your heart to see it unfold.

Michael Keaton was famously let go after 8 days of shooting, for looking “too hip” to be from the 30s, and replaced with Jeff Daniels. He has fun playing both sides of one individual in Gil Shepherd the pretentious actor and Tom Baxter the romantic creation (deliberately played with a cheerful bravado, and singled out for reviews on the East coast because of it). Farrow is also her element as the adorable Cecilia. She’s mousey, timid and downtrodden but grows strength the longer she immerses herself in this fantasy. How she beams with giddy adoration when first meeting Shepherd. She showed in Broadway Danny Rose that she had the vibrancy to be a star of the screen in this era and here she looks the part. The magical glow that Tom describes Cecilia having is all Farrow. And how perfectly she delivers one of Allen’s most poetic and bittersweet lines of dialogue – “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything”.

Allen remains playful throughout it all, mining every angle of the the concept for all its comic and dramatic possibilities. It’s such a subtle and deceptively somber meditation on the act of escape through the vehicle of the celluloid. What film speaks more directly to cinephiles, as who amongst us doesn’t prioritise the cinema when spending our limited but hard earned money? After losing the man of her dreams, twice, Cecilia returns to the one thing that’s truly dependable – celluloid and flickering shadows. And she’ll no doubt go to bed that night dreaming of dancing cheek to cheek with Fred Astaire.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Fourth viewing.

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