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MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993)

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4 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Jesus. Claustrophobia and a dead body. This is a neurotics jackpot.”

Allen fans and Annie Hall-ites of all descriptions have been clamoring for a modern day peek into what became of those luffable, loavable and lurvable characters. Woody has repeatedly toyed with the idea of showing them young and old, having saved unused footage from the original shooting that was used in Anhedonia; the sprawling three hour original version of Annie Hall. Yet Manhattan Murder Mystery is likely the closest we, and he, will get to this holy grail as Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman rework an unused murder mystery subplot from their initial story of Annie Hall. The premise was that Alvy and Annie miss the film where Alvy refuses to go in 5 minutes after it’s begun, go home and find out their neighbour had died. Allen purportedly  tried to use a similar subplot in Hannah and Her Sisters. Given a full length feature to breathe, this concept becomes a very fun and funny caper. It’s a light and bubbly comedy first and foremost, and a great one at that, but it’s also a creative murder mystery story indebted to The Thin Man that keeps you guessing.

Outside the confines of the erratic relationship of Annie and Alvy, this story of excitement and adventure flourished in the lives of middle-aged couple Carol and Larry Lipton. The same basic notion remains, with their elderly neighbour Lillian House (Lynn Cohen) dying from a hert attack the day after they meet her. Carol cannot shake a feeling that Lillian’s husband Paul (Jerry Adler) is somehow involved in the death and becomes absorbed with fascination at solving things, with enthusiastic help from her friend Ted (Alan Alda) and unwilling help from her husband. Allen’s kvetching is perfect foil for Keaton’s detective devotion, and who else could be their lovechild than Zach Braff (in his film debut). When Anjelica Huston isn’t playing the victim of the perfect murder, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors, she’s helping to solve one here as the slightly too clever novelist. Her partial role in the plotting is to serve as an alleged sexual interest for Larry to destabilize the harmony of his marriage. But her real value to Allen comes in her overview of the sequence of events, which feels a little too expository for the audience to get in on the act.

You can’t have material originally envisaged for Diane Keaton performed by someone else. Although this reworking was originally written with Mia Farrow in mind, Keaton coming on board provided a comedic performance that Allen admits outdoes his own writing. The script was too tightly plotted to make significant changes that played to Keaton’s sensibilities, rather than Farrow’s. But the “greatest screen comedienne we’ve ever had next to Judy Holliday” changed the comic center of the piece and thus the tone of the picture. Working with her was “great therapy…a great palliative” for Allen in the wake of his irrevocable personal and professional separation from Farrow and boy oh boy if she isn’t the same for the audience. Making her first proper appearance since 1979’s Manhattan (overlooking a minor cameo in Radio Days), she sizzles and dazzles. Keaton has represented a missed figure in Woody Allen’s work during the Farrow era. Allen’s formal structure of writing parts specifically for her to perform altered the kind of films he would write. There’s no need to complain when that results in the quality of work that is Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days and Husbands and Wives, but sometimes you just long for Keaton to call Allen a fuddy dud.

This is another classic fish out of water scenario that shaped the success of Allen and Keaton’s collaborations in the 70s. Allen really embraces this, throwing back to physical comedy of his early funny ones. Fighting with a phone cord on his face and struggling to put on his shoe having been woken up sleep deprived are two amusing examples of how Allen is still maturing as a comedian. He doesn’t need to destroy himself in a Buster Keaton slapstick sequence like the Execu-ciser from Bananas to get a laugh. He’s refined his comedic performance to get the most out of the little and apply them to the everyday. It’s funny because it’s happened to us and we relate. This level of comedy peaks in the hysterical scene where the team make a blackmail phone call to Paul House made up of recordings of his mistress taken from a fake audition. But what actually makes it so brilliant is Keaton’s reactions, as her tepid enthusiasm for engaging in the plan turns to expected exasperation at Allen naturally almost fumbling it all up.

The handheld camerawork from Carlo Di Palma follows on from Husbands and Wives. It takes on a different meaning here, changing from an intimate faux-documentary about marriage to a fast paced murder mystery etching a comedic guidebook of how to reinvigorate a marriage. What the camera focuses on, where it pans to and from all act as tense clues and play off serious conventions in the genre. But it also develops classic conceits of Allen’s cinematography in interesting ways: shifting viewpoints around a dinner table and among ensemble discussions in rooms; both gliding and jarring the camera among the surroundings at the appropriate times; dialogue being delivered out of shot for over 10 seconds when Carol and Larry walk around a water fountain in a park. A confrontation and shoot out in the back of an old cinema surrounded by mirrors also showcases Di Palma’s obvious talent in composure, composition and style. It messes with your perspectives in a very Hitchcockian way, yet it’s a blatant homage to Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai as that very film is playing in the background. Allen’s “I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again” line seals its place in history – at least it’s not imitating bad television for once.

Huston describes the shooting as “oddly free of anxiety, introspection and pain”, qualities which ironically embody his previous film Husbands and Wives. “It’s just a lark for me. A vacation…It’s sort of like giving myself a personal reward. Just an indulgence.” Allen said. In the year that he was having, he evidently felt that he needed it. What a gift it is to us too. He’s not been this fun and entertaining since the charming Broadway Danny Rose in 1984. As Allen describes it, it’s “just the kind of picture I loved to get lost in as a kid…a very pleasurable experience”. It’s remarkable that Allen could make a film this enjoyable while going through the adversity of a very public trial in the court and in the media though a prolonged custody battle and allegations of child molestation.

As part of their mild marital inquiry, Carol asks Larry “You don’t think we’re turning into a comfortable old pair of old shoes do you?”. You could well imagine Annie and Alvy evolving into these two 16 years down the road, such is their instantly dazzling chemistry, but you could never imagine their relationship being symbolic of a comfortable old pair of shoes. If this is the last time that we see Allen and Keaton on screen together, they go out in delightful style (“I’ll sit with you through the opera next week. I already bought the earplugs”; “I’m your husband, I command you to sleep. Sleep! I command it. I command it! Sleep!”). But we still keep hoping for an encore, because we need the eggs.

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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MANHATTAN (1979)

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5star | Dir: Woody Allen

“You’re throwing away an enormous amount of real affection on the wrong person.”

Chapter One. He adored Woody Allen. He idolized him all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that he, he romanticised him all out of proportion. And I really do, which is why I’m undertaking this project of watching his canon of work this year. I want to see if my views are justified. I want to know whether Woody Allen really is my favourite filmmaker, and if he always will be. Manhattan suggests so. Yet Allen was so unhappy with the film that offered to make a new one for free if United Artists didn’t release it. Thank goodness they did, because it’s without a doubt something to add to Isaac’s list of things worth living for.

Annie Hall may be the more enduring film in mainstream culture, but Manhattan is his most well realised film to that point. The multiple parallel story arcs progress and overlap with precision, the characters are the richest to that date, the relationships are insightful on the underlying moral hang ups that plague them, its style is impeccable, and it’s Allen’s sharpest written comedy in terms of wit and intelligence – arguably not a single joke falling flat. One in particular sticks with me: “Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening, if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery”. In the eternal war of Annie Hall vs. Manhattan, both are undeniably brilliant in their unique ways. The former makes me giddier and gives me more raw pleasure, but the latter simply makes me feel more about what’s happening in front of me.

Your instinct is to root for Isaac and Mary purely because of who is portraying them. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are an adorable and endlessly charming on-screen pairing, but that’s matched by Tracy’s endless neurosis and Isaac’s endless inability to compromise. There’s only so much mileage between a pretentious woman who shoots below her all too self-aware standards and a man who “when it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg award”. Keaton marries Annie’s affability with the complicated psychological currents of Renata, giving Allen a great energy to bounce off that creates a love/hate relationship which is always alive. In a way it’s a shame that this doomed couple share one of the most romantic moments in cinema. But it’s very true to life in a film where none of the relationships feel like lasting and love is nothing but transient.

Not that Isaac’s other relationship in the film with teenager Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) gives you much more hope to root for either. You understand Isaac’s placement on their relationship in the first half of the film and, in your best judgement, you have to side with him. But Hemingway’s understated and sensitive performance –  capturing the naivety and integrity of this young girl precocious beyond her tender years – draws you into her emotionally mature 17 year old perception of the world. You know that there’s zero chance of 79 year old Isaac and 55 year old Tracy watching a W.C. Fields film in bed in 2016, and zero chance of them both being fulfilled with that life. But she utterly convinces you to have a little bit of faith in them, even if Isaac doesn’t at the ambiguous close of the film. The irony is that he so badly wants to, just as badly as he doesn’t want that thing about her that he likes to change. It’s a devastatingly straightforward sentiment equaled by Tracy’s own: “I can’t believe you met somebody you like more than me”. Her attempt at rationalising Isaac breaking up with her is absolutely heartbreaking. Hemingway does so little, but it reads immensely.  When her voice softly breaks asking Isaac to “leave me alone”, you want to do anything but that.

Gordon Willis’ close up framing of that shot, and the closing exchange of the film, are just some examples of his breathtaking work that go beyond the obvious showmanship in the opening montage. Manhattan is a titular character unto itself; he captures not only the action happening but its existence in the immediate surroundings (all shot on location, amazingly), inseparably fusing the two together. His compositions and choreography are so striking, playing with exposure and silhouettes in such stimulating fashion. He injects the love that Allen has for New York into the viewer so that we’re not merely peeking in at his magnificent love letter to the city, but experiencing it. Coupled with the stellar Gershwin soundtrack after Woody’s two film experimentation without music, this gives it a gloriously traditional feel that’s reminiscent of a 1940s romance. It’s incredibly immersive and iconic cinema.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Third viewing.

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INTERIORS (1978)

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4 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Its been such a long time since I made love to a woman that I didn’t feel inferior to.”

An early scene in Interiors sees E.G. Marshall’s Arthur speak to his wife Eve (Geraldine Page) and two of his three daughters (Diane Keaton’s Renata and Mary Beth Hurt’s Joey) over Sunday breakfast. He’s been thinking long and hard, soul searching? After paying his dues as a responsible father and loving husband, he finally feels he has the freedom to make a revocable decision – to spend some time on his own. This presence of a revocable decision mirrors Woody Allen’s own in pursuing one of his true passions; a serious drama, which he’s wanted to do since writing a draft of The Jazz Baby after Take the Money and Run. He didn’t know how he would feel making a dramatic film until it happened. Following the success of Annie Hall, he had all the cards to play with the studio to find out.

It certainly can’t be seen as an easy decision for Allen at the time, eventually realising that he was “breaking my contract” with his fans. The irony is that unlike Arthur, who made his decision irrevocable by seeking a divorce and remarrying (to a woman the exact opposite of Eve; Maureen Stapleton’s colourful and vibrant vulgarian Peal), Allen has now built a reputation for the unknown with fans. You never know what kind of film he’s going to release next.

But if you saw Interiors at the cinema in 1978, you’d be forgiven for anticipating a punchline to the opening scene discussing how beiges and Earth tones make a more subtle statement on the large floor space of an open kitchen. Your experience of Allen to this point would give you no inclination to expect a sombre and sorrowful drama in the vein of Swedish director Ingman Bergman and Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, where Allen doesn’t even feature on screen. But you would wait all 88 minutes of this film and find no witty side remark to the camera or cartoonish payoff. Instead, this scene marks Allen’s artistic departure into meditation on the complex behaviour and anxieties of the human being; their formation, manifestation under dark conditions, and how they can instigate such conditions over a lifetime.

It’s a testament not only to Allen’s versatility at jumping from parody to romantic comedy to intelligent family drama, but that of Ralph Rosenblum and Gordon Willis too who return from Annie Hall. They seamlessly shape-shift genres and guide the still young filmmaker in his evolution, capturing moments of tragedy with as much poise as they did with machine gun witticisms. Willis’ tracking shots, in particular Eve’s breakdown in the church and the sisters walking along the beach, add such striking dimensions to these moments Allen has written and these actors have played. And what playing by Diane Keaton, who effortlessly swoops from Annie’s comic timing to Renata’s cold artist angst and is excellent at both. That she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar while two of her cast members were highlights the quality on screen. Geraldine Paige won a BAFTA for her wonderful performance; delicately balancing fragility and hostility as the immaculate ice palace that she’s erected around herself melts into extinction, like her mental state. She’s so expressive and truthful to the moment, often remarkable in her stoic shattering.

It’s not uncommon for Allen to depict New York intellectuals attempting to find meaning to their interconnected familial lives, but the presence of dramatic contexts gives Allen’s familiar motifs new shades and a truly raw complex. Eve’s domineering mother role (inspired partly by Louise Lasser’s mentally unstable mother); Renata being overcome by feelings of her mortality (“I can’t seem to shake the real implication of dying. It’s terrifying”) and inability to satisfy her ambitions; Joey’s directionless character skeleton containing so many feelings and need to express something, but not knowing what that is or how to express it, rebirthing via Scarlett Johansson in 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Frederick’s inadequacy and resentment at his marriage. The light-heartedness of Allen’s broad body of work belies how truly serious and personally candid the themes he tackles are.

Allen is unexpectedly restrained here, not only in the direction but also in not casting himself. This wasn’t done because he wanted to devote himself entirely behind the screen in this new venture, but because he knew his limitations as an actor. This would defiantly mark the end of Allen writing purely as a vehicle to forward his own stage act. His admiration for Bergman is obvious from reading any interview, and most notable until now in the self-conscious comedic homages in Love and Death. But Allen’s has no narcissism about his first foray into the dramatic world, similar to his views on much of his canon – it was “an interesting failure” and “what I wanted to do and the best I could do at the time”. If he were to remake it, he would make it more fluid and fun for the audience: warm up the cool tone, introduce Peal earlier on, loosen the static cinematography, make the dialogue more colloquial.

But Allen is too hassh on his work as usual. You understand every well constructed narrative beat, you appreciate each precisely formed line of dialogue, you invest in the heavy and chilly tone, you marvel at all the turtleneck jumpers (courtesy of costume designer Joel Schumacher). Although it never becomes quite as affecting or pathos driven as I think Allen would like it to.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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ANNIE HALL (1977)

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5star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Why do you always reduce my animal urges to psychoanalytic categories…he said as he removed her brazier.”

Annie Hall is many things. It’s as neat as you can get. It won’t go out of fashion at the turn of any century. It’s unbearably wonderful, too wonderful for words. It’s unbelievably transplendent. It’s so much fun to know. It’s the eggs we need in life. It gives great meeting. It’s la-di-damn delightful. It’s something you fall in lurve/loave/luff with. It’s the opposite of a meal at a Catskill Mountain Resort. It’s the Woodman at the height of his powers. It’s what won Allen his first Oscar, beating Star Wars in three categories. It’s quintessential Allen and yet merely a blip in his infinite output. It’s not my favourite Woody Allen film, but it has a wit and warmth to match any other. Above all, it’s truly timeless cinema.

I discussed Allen’s preoccupation with populating his work with autobiographical topics in his first official film, Take the Money and Run. Annie Hall acts as much a turning point in Allen’s career as it does the vehicle for his catharsis. The content of his further 39 films  would suggest that he didn’t succeed here, despite his best attempts. Allen is neurotic and self-absorbed comedian Alvie Singer, has an overbearing mother, values sports over all else, has been in psychoanalysis for 15 years, views existence bleakly, has anti-Semitism paranoia, has problems with authority, struggles with the obligations of fame, enjoys watching Ingmar Bergman films, writes jokes for other comics, has had multiple wives, is snobbish towards awards and slots in a child molestation joke (oy vey). There is even a play within the film about the relationship of the film, which is itself based on Allen’s prior relationship with Diane Keaton. In this moment, Allen-come-Singer justifies his idealised depiction of the relationship because life makes it difficult for you to get things to come out perfect. But as a continually dramatized version of his reality and psyche, how appropriate is it to view and judge them as separated?

Pitched as a nervous romance, Annie Hall charts Alvie’s attempt to sift the pieces of his failed relationship with Annie through his mind. This framing presents an overflow of ideas (the split screen, the subtitled inside thoughts, the removed body, breaking the fourth wall, cartoon animations) to play with conventional methods of cinematic storytelling and a timeline that jumps about as much as your mind has reading this. We’re treated to vignettes not of jokes but of intimate narrative movements, with character moving away from speaking in pure witticisms to more behavioural dialogue. It not only subverted the conventional 1977 romantic comedy but ushered in the whole genre after the screwball burst. Its success then, and in the following 39 years, is a testament to how relevant and true to nature it is at exploring the personal intricacies and irrationalities of romance. What area of relationships doesn’t it offer amusing insights into; trying to fix someone in your idealised image, inadequacy, fear of intimacy, paranoia, infidelity, suffocation, fear of moving in together, rushing into love, improving as a person because of your partners influence, comparisons to other couples, avoiding sex, getting bored, jealousy, lust vs love. We’ve all surely made a long winded and light hearted anecdote about a family member’s death via narcolepsy to try and appear funny in the early stages of courtship, right?

It’s an awkwardly honest film to the point that it makes us all aware that we’re not alone in our insecure romantic manifestations. Keaton in particular is the catalyst for this. Her loveable portrayal of the titular ditz Annie Hall – a woman who has the plague for being wide open on a Friday and a Saturday night – created not only a fashion icon but someone rooted in everyday unspoken anxiety. She’s your infectious best friend, your crush and the person looking back at you in the mirror. Allen wrote the part for her and how masterful Keaton is here at reactive acting, crafting an affable and genuine aura to this heroine. The orchestrated 3am spider scene for Annie to see Alvie because she misses him still hits me in the heart when she breaks down in tears. You could rewatch the wonderfully naked scene in the tennis club infinite times, still finding equal levels of joy and psychoanalysis from it.

The advancement from Allen’s initial slapstick films to this is startling; the marked jump in sheer quality of the work, the unexpected nature of it and the composed level of execution of the premise. It’s almost as big a shift as this to Interiors. Allen’s bravery in forgoing “clowning around and the safety of complete broad comedy” was profitable. For 1977 this is transformational cinema, just as inspired as any of his earlier pictures but (slightly) less scattergram and more sophisticated. It’s honed, wholesome and heartfelt. For the first time you see well rounded characters that aren’t there just to crack a laugh out of you. They and the jokes, funny as ever, serve to develop the narrative. You wouldn’t have expected that man who had shown only an aptitude for making funny slapstick jokes and quick witticisms could explore resonant issues on the many complications of life so profoundly, sharply and with such astute awareness. But it is what made Allen one of the world’s most lauded filmmakers and established a viable prototype for the anti-leading man. Do you disagree?

To think he almost released a 140 minute stream-of-consciousness film about Alvie’s mid-life crisis named Anhedonia – described by editor Ralph Rosenblum as a “nondramatic and ultimately uninteresting kind of cerebral exercise” – instead of this masterful re-cut. How different our world could be today.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Fourth viewing.

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LOVE AND DEATH (1975)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I thought we should divide his letters. Do you want the vowels or the consonants?”

In the final moments of Sleeper, there is what would seem to be intended foreshadowing to Love and Death; two subjects that Allen doesn’t merely have a fascination with, but an infatuation with exploring through his art:

“What do you believe in?”
“Sex and death, two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after sex you’re not nauseous.”

But this was not intentional. Woody actually wrote a draft of what would largely become Annie Hall and Manhattan Murder Mystery, but was dissatisfied with it. Instead, he cherry picked aspects of that draft and wrote a Russian literature parody in the comic vein of War and Peace.

Love and death are staples of his identity, combining many times but never so cogently as with Love and Death. Death and the meaningless of existence encompass Allen’s work. Even up to this explicit exploration of it, we have had Sleeper (Miles hunted for being an alien), Bananas (blood soaked political revolution), Play It Again, Sam (the pointlessness of going on after divorce) and the murder laden What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. And we haven’t even got to the likes of Crime and Misdemeanors, Match Point or Irrational Man yet. But love – or the sexualisation of love to be more accurate – is Allen’s hallmark. Insightful remarks such as “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed?” are espoused from the same man who forces his love interest to plead “Can we not talk about sex so much?” It’s something we have to ask as viewers , and something I’m sure Keaton herself has had to say verbatim many times in private.

Love and Death, shot in France and Hungary, is similar in narrative structure to Sleeper, and somewhat to Bananas: a cowardly and nebbish Boris Grushenko (Allen) inadvertently pursues a life of war to win the love of a woman; bumbling slapstick comedy forms many of the war scenes; the lovers join forces to defeat the tyrannical dictator; the odds are overcome in outlandishly bumbling fashion; and inevitably the love of the girl is won (here, sort of). This functions as something of a comedic cine-essay through the medium of Russian literature; not only on existentialism, but also on how to woo a woman. It’s very funny at communicating both through homages, drawing heavily from the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.

There’s a notable evolution in Allen’s writing from those early pure slapstick comedies. Now he had a stimulus in Diane Keaton; a terrific comedic actress with confidence and charm. He’d written roles for women before, including his former wife Louise Lasser, but now he had confidence in writing roles for the actress. She is the catalyst for him developing the reputation for writing some of the richest, rewarding and fully formed female characters in cinema history. Here he actually focused half the narrative on Keaton’s story arc, shifting away from producing work to merely showcase himself as a comedian and instead share the responsibility of carrying the comedy. And she is more than successful.

In the final moments of the film, Keaton and Jessica Harper are shot in blatant Bergman close up framing. This (and the character of Death from Persona) would be a precursor not to Allen’s following film, but his 1978 Ingmar Bergman tribute Interiors. As for his next effort, the precursor would be the monologue that concludes Love and Death which is delivered straight to the camera and almost confronts the audience. Like Bergman’s heralded cinematography, this one shot would come to signify the career of Woody Allen to most who know his work. That and the opening of Manhattan. But we’ll get there shortly.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.

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SLEEPER (1973)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly 200 years.”
“But they all ate organic rice!”

“There’s very little overt comedy in the film”, quips Allen facetiously in the trailer for Sleeper. That’s akin to claiming that there’s very little overt suspense with Hitchcock, or very few overt explosions with Michael Bay. Because this is a very funny film on a number of levels; physical comedy, pure wit, Buster Keaton and Marx Brothers inspired silent slapstick, genre satire, impersonation (Diane Keaton as Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire is superb). Even a running gag with a faulty rocket launcher is predictable but ironically effective. These are all features of this early Allen era and inevitably you compare them based on laughs. It almost becomes exhausting to keep up with the frenetic pace of the comedic blitz here for 85 minutes. It’s difficult to imagine this (and any Allen film, based on his universal compact running lengths) being the 2 act, 3 hour epic originally envisaged. The cast look like they had a bunch of fun shooting this though, and it’s a bunch of fun to watch too.

As the final vignette of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex… leaned towards a sci-fiction vein, Sleeper embraces that genre with pizzazz. Allen plays Miles Monroe, a clarinet player and heath food store owner who’s cryogenically frozen in 1973 and returned to life 200 years later. Viewed as an alien under an omnipotent government, he soon becomes part of a Marxist revolutionary underground movement (yes, his ideas have endured that long it seems) to overthrow the Leader. There’s a lot of farcical hijinx amongst the satire, however slight the plot just outlined becomes. While Everything… felt dated, Sleeper feels even more firmly rooted in 1973. Although this “nostalgic look at the future” harkens back to silent comedy slapstick and a traditional jazz score performed by Allen’s own New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra, the dystopian comedy comes from cultural and social references of the time. But how Allen portrays 2173 still has comic appeal based on a worldview in 2016. You understand the intentions, so jokes can transfer to modern day topical equivalents and remain amusing.

After starring together in Play It Again, Sam, this would be the first of six times that Keaton is directed by Allen. Of all of his female muses she is undoubtedly the most memorable, important and dynamic. Many before and after her have entertained and moved, but none have demonstrated an equal iconicness to Allen as she has. Seeing them connect as individuals in the intimate scene before Miles’ capture is rewarding and substantive not just because of their chemistry, but also to see the embers of Allen’s poise and talent for writing romantic relationships. They flirt, they tease, they learn about each other and we invest in them. Of course, he begins flirting with another woman 5 minutes later in the film – because having “great tomatoes” justifies such a thing – and they abruptly pronounce their love for one another with less than a minute before the end of the film. But such growing pains can be overlooked when you know in hindsight what was to come.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.

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