Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hannah and Her Sisters

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS                A        
USA  (103 mi)  1986  d:  Woody Allen

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond, by e.e. cummings, 1931, somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond | Academy ...                                              

Opening with the soaring notes of Harry James’ golden horn, You Made Me Love You - Harry James / Helen Forrest ... YouTube (3:18), this is one of the better Thanksgiving films, beginning and ending with a lavish Thanksgiving party given by the family of “three sisters,” borrowing liberally from the idea of the original Chekhov play, turning this into one of Allen’s most novelistic films.  Generous, warmhearted and funny, the complexity of the story unravels the lives and tangled relationships surrounding Hannah, who attempts to juggle a complicated life and a demanding family that includes her two sisters, her parents, her husband, ex-husband, and an assortment of friends and relatives, where this is the best ensemble piece in Allen’s career, a character driven drama, where the performances all enrich the dramatic detail of the story.  At its core this film feels very incestuous, with men lusting after and even stalking other sisters from the same family, possibly because their family throws such a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner party that it’s impossible not to want to be there.  Another way of looking at it is a Woody Allen love letter to Mia Farrow, providing a “romanticized” view of her, who as Hannah is at the center of a story that revolves around her two sisters, each of whom is lusted after by one husband or another, while she remains at center the rock of Gibraltar for the entire family, cooking and preparing the Thanksgiving dinners, while seven of her own children play themselves in the movie, including Soon-Yi Previn, Allen’s eventual wife, adding more than a touch of authenticity, while her own real-life mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, plays her mother.  Having been involved with Mia Farrow since 1980, this was their fifth of thirteen films made together, shot in Farrow’s own Central Park West apartment, with the camera moving in and out of the rooms, and is Allen’s variation of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), opening with large theatrical families gathering together for three successive holiday celebrations, with Bergman’s film celebrating Christmas, displaying a restless tone of contentment in the first gathering, signs of turmoil and trouble in the second, with a resolution of the lingering troubles by the third.  Much like the short stories of Chekhov, a chapter heading opens each new sequence, with Allen, after having re-read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, experimenting with a literary style that intercuts and intertwines various stories.  It’s a film that shows a bohemian side of New York City that no longer exists, including Pageant Books and Tower Records, or Top Shop in Soho, all part of the existing landscape, with a trio of sisters that are beautifully written and brilliantly acted, saving one of the best roles for himself.  Shot by Carlo Di Palma, it all comes together with a painterly feel vividly capturing a romantic side of a contemporary 80’s New York bathed in an autumnal glow, enriched by a newfound maturity in the artist’s life.                                                     

Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the eldest of three sisters, with Holly (Dianne Wiest) as the middle child, a rebellious coke addict in the beginning of the film and something of a misfit, while Lee (Barbara Hershey) is the youngest, most sensual, a recovering alcoholic, and the target of interest from the leering eyes of Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine), who secretly longs for her.  Lee is involved in a relationship with an older father figure, Frederick (Max von Sydow), a gloomy artist and social recluse.  Hannah’s ex-husband is television producer Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen), a full-blown hypochondriac who believes he is suffering from symptoms of every known fatal disease, but more likely simply suffers from the stress and pressures of his fast-paced job.  While Holly is a struggling actress, she’s temporarily cofounder of the Stanislovski catering business that she runs with her friend April (Carrie Fisher), where they meet a dreamy architect with a love of opera, David (Sam Waterston), who takes them on an architectural tour of New York, Hannah And Her Sisters - David's architecture tour of New York YouTube (5:15), before dating them both, leaving Holly’s ego bruised as she thought he was exclusively into her.  While the sisters are very close, tension still exists between them, especially in the changeable lives of the younger sisters who look up to Hannah for stability, as she is a constant fixture in their lives, also the darling of her parent’s eyes as well, continually doting on her throughout their own tumultuous marriage, where Nora (Maureen O’Sullivan) is the ever flirtatious alcoholic who always wants to be the center of attention, both still thriving in acting careers of their own, while Evan (Lloyd Nolan) seems destined to always bring Norma back down to earth with quips like (in reference to Hannah), “I can only hope that she was mine!  With you as her mother, her father could be anybody in Actor's Equity!”, continually seen playing piano standards like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” over the holidays, which becomes a central theme of the film.  Allen uses the voiceover to allow each character to describe their inner feelings, which also has a way of foreshadowing events that are about to happen.  What remains unclear is any backstory, as we never know what drew Hannah and Elliot together, especially since he’s immediately interested in someone else, attempting to show discretion, but he always seems to go out of his way to find her, and then very much like Frederick, he’ll suggest a book, a piece of music, or a poem, like the E.E. Cummings poem that he marks and notates as a reflection of his feelings for her.  Perhaps because she needed to get out from under the authoritarian vice grip of Frederick, she opens the door for Elliot, which is bit surprising, considering the respect the sisters have for Hannah, but that is one of the central strands of the storyline.  Allen, of course, frames Frederick’s realization that Lee is having an affair with a despairing rant about the state of the world, as he’s actually been bored by the mediocrity of television:

You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz.  More gruesome film clips and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions.  The reason they can never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question.  Given what people are, the question is ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’

You see the whole culture.  Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show.  Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?  But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers.  Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money.  Money, money, money!  If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.           

Allen as himself is easily the funniest thing in the film, identifying himself in a chapter entitled “the hypochondriac,” perhaps initiated by a flashback sequence revealing his marriage with Hannah came apart when a medical report indicated that his sperm was infertile and he was unable to have children.  Causing him complete embarrassment and utter humiliation, she asks if he might have ruined himself somehow, perhaps from “excessive masturbation?”  In an amusing scene, he then awkwardly asks his best friend if he’d like to father Hannah’s child by artificial insemination?  After the divorce, for whatever reason he goes on a disastrous date with Holly, which is like a date from Hell, where she’s literally scooping spoonfuls of cocaine into her nostrils at an ear-splitting punk performance in the filth of CBGB’s that simply alienates Mickey, telling her “I’m afraid once they’re done singing they’re gonna take hostages!”  When she slams the door in his face afterwards getting into a taxi, he tells her “I had a great evening.  It was like the Nuremberg Trials.”  Later, unexpected hearing loss leads to thoughts of cancer and a brain tumor, where he’s already plotting out methods of suicide, where he may have to take his entire family with him.  The build-up of mental exhaustion sends him into an existential tailspin of endless despair, believing life is meaningless.  Finding no rational explanation for God, he even hilariously experiments with converting to Catholicism, an experience that apparently includes a crucifix, white bread and mayonnaise, which freaks out his own Jewish parents who weren’t even aware you could do things like that.  Thoroughly desperate, Mickey would try anything to find meaning in life, even talking to the Hare Krishna’s singing and dancing in the park, reading their literature, but everywhere he looked he could find no answers, seen eventually perplexed and confused by a holographic Jesus in a religious bookstore.  His moment of revelation comes at the most dire moment, following an unsuccessful suicide attempt where he simply wanders the upper west side streets of New York endlessly.  Tired and exhausted he winds up at a revival movie house watching a movie, which quickly becomes reminiscent of the “Let My People Go” Go Down Moses - Sullivan's Travels (1941) - YouTube (3:31) sequence from Sullivan's Travels (1941) where a chain gang sits down in an all-black church to watch a movie together with the parishioners.  The director Preston Sturges intended to play a Chaplin film, but rights were denied, instead playing a Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse 1934 Playful Pluto - Video Dailymotion (7:22), where Pluto’s paws continually get caught on fly paper, where the animated pranks and pratfalls leave the congregation in stitches, a welcome relief from the otherwise harsh human conditions of the Great Depression.  In Mickey’s case, of course, the holy grail of movies turns out to be the crazy antics of the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933), Duck Soup (10/10) Movie CLIP - To War (1933) HD YouTube (3:28), which resuscitates his declining spirits, deciding life should be enjoyed, rather than always having to be understood.   

I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it.  I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film.  I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn’t it so stupid.  Look at all the people up there on the screen, they’re real funny, and what if the worst is true.  What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it.  Well, ya know, don’t you wanna be part of the experience?  You know, what the hell it’s not all a drag.  And I’m thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.  And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows.  I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have.  And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.

Continually borrowing money from Hannah for her next project, Holly abandons her acting and catering careers to try her hand at writing with a script that seems to reveal personal details of Hannah and Elliot’s relationship, including secrets never revealed by Hannah to either of her sisters, so she’s shocked to see her life exposed under such scrutiny, threatening to expose Elliot’s relationship with Lee, who was mysteriously able to provide insight that even Hannah was not aware of.  When questioned, Elliot disavows having anything to do with it, but this revelation makes Lee step back, as her affair is obviously threatening her sister, so by the second Thanksgiving she ends the relationship and decides to go back to school.  Hannah, however, is stung by the revelations that she’s viewed as so saintly that she doesn’t need anybody, that she’s self-sufficient and overly focused to the point that she displays no weaknesses or vulnerabilities, always being so reliant and taking care of others that she becomes impenetrable, which is another way of indicating she doesn’t let anyone else get truly close to her.  Everyone in the film is exposed, while at the same time showing signs of envy and even harboring thoughts of secret bitterness at the success of others, making this one of the most complicated films that he’s ever written, where errors and imperfections are sympathized with along with personal strengths.  Emerging from this myriad of relationships drifting apart and coming together, the film brings out the most important ingredients of life and love, while still exploring feelings of jealousy, confusion, sibling rivalry, sadness, loneliness, and most especially hope.  Rather than an out-of-place side character lost in the struggles of depression and self-loathing, Allen’s own personality infuses this film with the same sense of humanity found in the other characters,  In fact, his search for meaning in a meaningless world and what passes for organized religion becomes quite touching, where his affirmation of life rises above the typical cynicism found in his other works.  Only by learning from their previous mistakes do they eventually discover their humanity.  The knock on the film is that it is too warm and optimistic, where the ending is at odds with the bleak realism of all but the last fifteen minutes, as the original ending had Elliot still with Hannah, but in love with Lee, who had married someone else, where he was forced to relive the same nightmarish feelings of personal torment, doomed to forever see her at family parties, a constant reminder of what he had lost, leaving him emotionally adrift, drowning in his sorrows, which Allen recalled “was so down for everyone that there was a huge feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction every time I screened it.”  He also filmed more explicit sex scenes between Hershey and Caine that were also cut, but it all comes together in the end with Mickey accidentally running into Holly in a record store, rekindling forgotten feelings, allowing him to read something she wrote that he genuinely admires, finally affirming Holly’s long felt ambition, bringing a note of tenderness and optimism to an emerging expression of love.  Both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Academy Awards in the supporting actor categories, while Allen won for best original screenplay.  The film is listed at #4 from The Guardian Poll, published October 4, 2013, "The 10 best Woody Allen films".

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