Deconstructing Woody

Rating: NNNNNin an era when it's not unusual for a filmmaker to take two or three years to complete a.


Rating: NNNNN

in an era when it’s not unusual for a filmmaker to take two or three years to complete a project, Woody Allen’s career is metronomically prolific. If you ignore the occasional short film and acting appearances in other people’s movies, Allen has directed 31 features in 33 years.He combines a hack’s relentless output with an artist’s profile. Never mind critical acclaim consider his reputation among his peers. He has 20 Academy Award nominations as a writer, director and actor, and won Oscars for writing and directing Annie Hall and for writing Hannah And Her Sisters 18 nominations from the Writers Guild of America 21 nominations from the British Academy plus a couple of Cesars (French Oscars) for best foreign film.

Allen’s output gives him a luxury that most Hollywood directors don’t have: he’s allowed to fail. He can make a crashingly awful homage to German Expressionism like Shadows And Fog, of interest only because it generated the trivia question “Which Woody Allen film features Jodie Foster?” Or a musical with a cast without talent for either singing or dancing (Everyone Says I Love You). In the long run, it doesn’t matter.

Allen has pretensions to being our Ingmar Bergman, to creating what the American critic Manny Farber called “white elephant art,” but he has the working habits of a sketch artist. His serious films are, with the possible exception of Crimes And Misdemeanors, the products of an artist indulging his worst instincts with the best intentions, and working away from his greatest strengths. How could anyone put a line like “I was thumbing through my mother’s edition of Rilke” into a screenplay and not expect people to laugh?

After several years with Diane Keaton, and several more with Mia Farrow, he has ceased to write roles for a muse figure. The great female leading roles in his films tend to be written, quite specifically, for those two actors.

And, in an odd way, for Louise Lasser, the second Mrs. Woody Allen, his co-star in Bananas. Lasser’s performance in that film was a template for the neurotic pauses of both Keaton and Farrow in the later films.

He still writes great supporting parts (note the Oscars for Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway, and the extraordinary work of Judy Davis and Kirstie Alley in Deconstructing Harry), but he’s lost that central inspiration figure. Now he’s more devoted to the pursuit of youthful hotness, which In Hollywood Ending he tries to use as a riff on director-star dynamics — but Allen the 66-year-old actor can’t bring it off without seeming like, well, a dirty old man.

There was considerable comment at the time of Manhattan about the 25-year age gap between Allen and Mariel Hemingway. But that’s less than the 30-plus years between Allen and Helen Hunt in last year’s The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion.

That said, Allen is an interesting instance of a second-tier great director. Second-tier great directors are talented filmmakers who hit their stride at the exact right moment, and for a decade or so their movies are so perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist that they take part in shaping that mood. This certainly fits Allen’s astonishing stretch of films from 1977’s Annie Hall to 1987’s Radio Days.

Some bemoan his decline as an artist in recent years, complaining that Small Time Crooks, for example, isn’t Manhattan or Annie Hall. It isn’t, but I wonder how we’d see Manhattan today if it were a new film.

Before 1977, Allen’s films, like his stand-up routines and the short humour pieces he wrote for the New Yorker, were frantically inventive, wildly funny and crazily incongruous.

Who can forget the young Virgil Starkwell trying to play the cello in his high school’s marching band in Take The Money And Run, or Howard Cosell doing post-coital interviews on Fielding Mellish’s wedding night in Bananas?

After 1987, Allen began his retreat from anything that resembles contemporary reality, though Husbands And Wives is a worthy companion piece to Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, and the satire of Deconstructing Harry, the most underrated of Allen’s films, has a very sharp edge, not to mention a great self-lacerating Judy Davis performance. You can look at Deconstructing Harry as a swipe at Philip Roth: the language, the use of thinly disguised autobiography for fiction, the fact that after the Allen-Farrow breakup Farrow began seeing Roth.

The 10 years between 1977 and 1987 contain a sextet of films — Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Zelig, Hannah And Her Sisters and Radio Days — as good as any American director managed in the same period. They represent a dream of New York that shifts from the nervous romance of Annie Hall and the yuppie smugness of Hannah to the achingly funny nostalgia of Radio Days.

If it became fashionable to deride Allen as a “neighbourhood” filmmaker, or one whose New York remained remarkably white, there’s no question that he knows the psychological terrain of his films as intimately as Martin Scorsese knows Little Italy and Spike Lee knows Brooklyn.

Allen may be a regional filmmaker, but the Wednesday that Manhattan opened in 1979 there were Star Wars-size lines at theatres in New York in the middle of the afternoon. Of course, no one saw the film in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Artists are often perceived to be in decline when they’re not. Hitchcock was widely seen as finished in the late 50s, when he made Vertigo. I doubt that the latter-day Allen will get the sort of critical upgrade given Hitchcock in his latter years — it’s tough to get around things like the jittery hand-held camera work in Manhattan Murder Mystery or the sheer mean-spirited feeling of The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion — but Hollywood Ending is certainly an improvement over those two films.

And he’s still got time to surprise us. And, if nothing else, he did provide the best advice ever for aspiring filmmakers.

“Don’t go into show business. It’s dog eat dog. It’s worse than dog eat dog. It’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls.”johnh@nowtoronto.com

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