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Thursday, July 18, 2013

WOODY ALLEN: EXISTENTIALIST IN NEW YORK



woody allen


I'm still in the spell of this evening's ongoing film festival event, Woody Allen: A Documentary, released in 2011, directed by Robert Weide. Woody Allen is the Bob Dylan of film in my generation. Like Dylan, his beginning was extra good, he stood out. Before he started making films, he was one of America's funniest comedians in his youth. Then he made very popular silly movies full of existential humor. Then he made Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, and a long list of others, many of them classic American films the day they were released. The silly went away overnight. As he explained in Manhattan, he was tired of writing silly television comedy when he had so much more to say. I heard a critic say of Interiors that it was deep and heavy. Yeah. Not everything in life is comedy. Tragic stories happen too. Though Interiors was a story that took the viewer through sorrow, sorrow is a legitimate human feeling. Artists go for the range of the human scope, not what appeals to corporate sponsors. It's our place to keep up with the artist as much as it is the artist's place to keep up with us. I recall something I heard or read in an interview with Bob Dylan some years ago when asked what a certain song meant. Dylan said, It's my place to write them and yours to figure them out. These are surely not the exact words, but it's the part my sorry memory retains. Woody Allen, in his mid seventies during the filming, had the same attitude. He makes the films, puts them out there, some people like them, some people don't.

meryl streep and woody allen in manhattan


The only parts about the documentary that failed to get my full appreciation were the critics. This one, FX Feeney I think was his name, I took for so limited he fell into the Pauline Kael slot for me, the Hollywood critic of late 60s, early 70s. I found I disagreed with her taste a hundred percent of the time. I don't deny Feeney some fair insights, but he didn't hold my interest much. He was too affiliated with Hollywood, Academy Awards, red carpet glitz for my taste. In my personal film watching, Hollywood only figures as films to avoid. Hollywood is corporate glorified television. I like independents. Woody Allen is the ultimate independent. It was told that he goes to the producers, tells them he has a movie to make, and it's on. He doesn't even have to give a brief of the plot unless he wants to conversationally. In a way he is the Shakespeare of America in our time. Allen writes his films, acts in them and directs them. His films are as particularly American as Shakespeare's plays are English. Shakespeare made silly comedies in his beginning years, grew weary of them and wrote serious dramas in the history plays and tragedies. Allen's history plays were stories of the contemporary upper middle class of Manhattan. In my own personal taste, Crimes and Misdemeanors is my favorite Allen film. I see it his Hamlet. In Shakespeare's time the belief was that we pay for our sins. In Allen's time, not necessarily.

woody allen


Somebody insightfully called Woody Allen the Albert Camus of comedy. When you see it, it's almost too obvious to mention, but I doubt I'd ever come up with that insight on my own. Absurd is Allen's view of the world. A line from one of the films, maybe Hannah and Her Sisters, Max von Sydow says in a kind of Shakespearean monologue, an aside to the audience, "If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up." Max von Sydow in Allen's film was a nod to Bergman. The Allen period that satisfies me the most is the time of making each film an American version of a given great director's film. My other favorite Allen film is the one critics slam and call his worst, Stardust Memories. He played with Fellini's 8 1/2, the story of a director having a difficult time with women, the result of his own infidelities, driven to introspection and self-doubt of himself as an artist. One of the many aspects of Stardust Memories that took hold of me was the way he brought forward the feminine beauty of the women in the film. Early in the film, neither one is what I'd call stunning. Nice looking women. As the film goes along, they become more and more beautiful. By the end, Charlotte Rampling became the Venus of now before my eyes. She became a vision of beauty, and by then we knew her humanity too.


charlotte rampling in stardust memories
 
 
Woody Allen appreciates the feminine like few film directors I can think of. He likes a woman's mind, how women think, how women feel, and especially explores what really is the feminine. Allen finds the truly feminine that has nothing to do with makeup and fashions. He finds and brings forward the grace in his actresses. He appreciates the feminine especially sexually, which he does not deny, but uses in the telling of his stories. The women in his films are not just roles, but complete human beings, even the incomplete ones. In a way like feminist writer Germaine Greer, Allen is always looking for the authentic feminine in a woman, and he finds it, brings it forward in full appreciation. This aspect of Allen's films was not touched in the documentary of his life in film making. Allen's appreciation of the feminine stands out for me in Allen's art form along with his humor and insight. Actually, I found it odd that the people who put the documentary together failed to bring up Allen's appreciation of and respect for the feminine as expressed in his films. Allen's women have a feminine grace seen in few films that are not French. He also looks at the nature of the people in this world with a cold and sympathetic eye. From his start in show business he was carried along by his amazing talent. He said in an interview for the film, "After all these lucky breaks, why do I feel like I got screwed somehow?" Hearing him say that, I thought it as good an illustration of Allen's world view and comedy in a one-liner as could be found. He is the master of the one-liner.
 
  
woody allen with hair
 
 
 
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