Saturday, March 28, 2020


Director Woody Allen

Allen with actress Mariel Hemingway

Mariel Hemingway

Allen with actress Mariel Hemingway

MANHATTAN          A                    
USA  (96 mi)  1979  ‘Scope  d: Woody Allen

Made in an era when Woody Allen films were still funny, where his cleverly written dialogue was likely the best thing you heard in a movie all year, convincingly real and naturalistic, with Allen’s giant ego as well as his phobias and anxieties at the heart of the film through his own autobiographical central character, yet this also has a majestic view of New York City and is really a love letter to a city of magical possibilities, beautifully captured in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the same man who filmed THE GODFATHER (1972), where this may be Allen’s first art film, shot in ‘Scope, visually intoxicating while driven by the melodies and natural rhythm of George Gershwin’s music, making this the quintessential Woody Allen film, listed at #1 from an October 4, 2013 Guardian Poll, "The 10 best Woody Allen films".   Accentuating the impressive skyline as well as city streets, parks, and museums, much of the film becomes a travelogue taking us through a tour of New York City’s most magnificent borough, never looking so stunning, filled with cultural landmarks and significant locations, offering a Who’s Who of what to see there, caught in a moment in time, like a time capsule, or a metaphor for contemporary culture, accentuating all the things Allen loves about his exalted city.  Opening to the lush sounds of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Rhapsody in blue -  George Gershwin - Gary Graffman, New York Philharmonic - Zubin Metha (16:37), including luminously romanticized shots of the city, the skylight at dawn, a silhouette of the Empire State Building, the neon lights of Broadway, all framed in an idealized montage of a perfect city, Allen in voiceover as writer Isaac Davis narrates the opening lines as if typing out the first draft of a 40’s pulp fiction crime novel, where he’s a Raymond Chandler tough guy in a noirish story describing the gritty pulse of New York City through expressive language, but finds it difficult to choose the right words, stopping and starting again several times before finally getting it right, elegantly setting the tone for what’s to come, where Allen has a history of romanticizing New York City in films, again idealizing his favorite city with familiar city streets, Manhattan - Woody Allen (HD) Opening Scene (3:09), “New York was his town and it always would be.”  In contrast, next to this glorious backdrop, the citizens who call this place home are themselves flawed and plagued by ordinary, everyday problems, caught up in their own tawdry melodramatic betrayals and personal issues.  To start out with, Isaac’s best friend is Yale Pollock (Michael Murphy),  married for over a decade to Emily (Ann Byrne Hoffman, the first wife of Dustin Hoffman), yet he’s caught up in an affair with Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), a bright and attractive but somewhat flaky personality, while Isaac, annoyed that his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep), who left him for another woman, is writing a tell-all book about their marriage falling apart, while he’s dating an attractive 17-year old high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), mature beyond her years, both seemingly happy, though he’s obviously using her, yet deep down he thinks she’s too young, never really taking her seriously.  Nonetheless, their time onscreen together is positively charming, where despite his omnipresent litany of neverending neuroses, Allen has rarely been seen this happy and relaxed before, an essential component to why this film is so revered, as it’s perhaps closest to his authentic self. 

Throughout the film it’s clear we are part of Allen’s world, awash with stunning Gershwin melodies, while the pathetic counterpoint to the city’s romanticized perfection is the deceitful affliction of the feeble-minded humans residing there, suggesting humans sabotage their own personal happiness, filling the screen with writers and intellectuals, all supposedly working on books, each one viewed as selfish to the core, overly self-absorbed and emotionally naive, where their morally tangled lives are founded on enormous personal transgressions that are breezily swept away with the greatest of ease, with each relationship built upon a series of betrayals, where one of Allen’s self-confessed intellectual anxieties (raised near the end of the film as an idea for a short story) is creating unnecessary neurotic problems that prevent his characters from dealing with life’s more important issues, finding amusement in their sheer ineptitude.  Because humor is so ingrained into the fabric of the film, one excuses the misogynistic leanings, as duplicitous characters falling from grace are at the heart of the film, providing a near mythical landscape of what amounts to a gargantuan distance between heaven and earth.  In this film, romantic attachments fall apart, love never lasts, the exact opposite of the typical 30’s Hollywood musical with Fred Astaire, as exemplified by Yale’s marriage to Emily, which Isaac thought was air tight and would never crumble.  But everything touched by the hand of humans eventually falls apart, thereby leaving their own ephemeral imprint or legacy.  When Yale breaks up with Mary, it opens the door for Isaac to step in, where their initial meeting is disastrous, at emotional and artistic extremes, yet he can’t get her out of his head, thinking perhaps she’s the voice of maturity that he’s looking for, despite her swooning mood changes that are epic, both caricatures of changeable artistic temperaments, exposing the pretentiousness of New York intellectuals as culture snobs, rehashing their relationship in Annie Hall (1977).  Part of the fun of this film is watching Allen’s continual self-obsession, which he mocks with sarcastic humor, yet he can’t disguise a constant need for attention, which seems to be the standard operating position of male characters in Woody Allen movies, who delude themselves by forgiving their own flaws, but not in others, having little time to sympathize with the rest of the world, as they’re too busy thinking of themselves.  There are plenty of digs at his own character and the inflated view of himself, with Yale attacking his moral self-righteous attitudes, “You think you’re God,” claiming moral superiority, always presuming he’s right, to which Isaac coyly responds, “Well, I gotta model myself after someone.”  But ex-wife Jill gets the motherload of targeted barbs, with his friend Yale (rubbing it in) reading aloud from her memoir, scathingly accurate, so piercingly true that one can’t help laughing in approval, as this is the epitome of self-deprecating humor, “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair.  He had complaints about life but never any solutions.  He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices.  In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights when in fact it was mere narcissism.”  Not sure Allen has ever been more accurately described in one of his own films, continually inviting ethical scrutiny, reading like it’s straight from the hallowed halls of heaven, or from psychiatric notes, yet dripping with veracity.

After this game of musical chairs, with Yale returning to Mary, claiming he never stopped loving her, willing to sacrifice his marriage for her (while buying himself a flashy Porsche sports car to help ease the pain), Isaac has a revelatory moment of honesty, like how stupid he was to throw away what he had with Tracy, who despite being 25 years younger displays more emotional maturity than he ever does, yet he always kept her at a distance, never really accepting her for who she was, now viewed as innocence personified, remaining one of the most gorgeously appealing characters in any Woody Allen film, just 16 when filming, so open and vulnerable, untainted from cynicism, very much like who she is in real life, where her screen persona represented her own, even-keeled and wise beyond her years, very reserved and grown-up (coming from a family with deep-seeded emotional turmoil, with the public glamorizing the Hemingway misfortunes with suicide and depression), becoming a shining star in Allen’s universe of misfits, where he was fortunate to discover her at the height of her beauty and stardom.  She famously rejected Allen’s advances after the film was completed, showing a surprising independence, where she is the antithesis to his moral fallibility, where her virtuosity only makes her stand out even more in the universe of his films, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but losing to Meryl Streep in KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), who was more of a lead character, countering Dustin Hoffman who won for Best Actor.  Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman were nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to the writer of BREAKING AWAY (1979).  In the abyss of his personal rejection, Isaac lies on the sofa and recounts into a tape recorder those things that make life worth living, each very carefully thought out, “Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Paul Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, and Tracy’s face.”  The pause afterwards says it all, as he’s internalizing what a shmuck he was to give up on her for someone his own age but so emotionally unstable, whose anxiety level mirrored his own, subject to catastrophic mood swings, while Tracy is as well-grounded a human being as exists opposite his own, and he ignored her, like something Jean-Pierre Léaud’s adolescent Antoine Doinel would do in Truffaut’s series of autobiographical encounters in Introduction to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel.  Attempting to call her by phone, but the line is busy, he instead runs through the streets of the city in an extended sequence accentuating the city streets that he adores, bookended by the “Rhapsody in Blue” music of Gershwin, blending together the loves of his life, creating a seamless encounter that may as well be with fate, testing his luck once again, thwarted by a 6-month adventure that she’s about to embark upon to study in London’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts that he actually encouraged, thinking it would do her a world of good.  Running up against his own advice, he begs her to stay, not wanting to lose that essence about her that he likes, hoping it will never change, but she reassures him “not everybody gets corrupted,” and all the plans have already been made by her family, suggesting 6-months isn’t so long, concluding with the kind of line Billy Wilder might have written, “You have to have a little faith in people.”  Gobsmacked and completely befuddled, he can only offer a wry smile, like that magical Chaplin moment at the end of CITY LIGHTS (1931), where he can’t weasel his way out of this one, caught like a deer in the headlights, perhaps seeing himself for the very first time, as the curtain drops, Manhattan (1979) Ending (HD) YouTube (8:00), offering a few final shots of the city skyline, with Gershwin’s Embraceable You playing over the end credits.  Strangely, of all the Allen films, this one holds up better and feels more contemporary than all the others. 

Post Note

In hindsight, one may re-examine the film after the very public fallout of the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow breakup, where sexual assault allegations were made against Allen by his seven-year old daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992, claiming Allen sexually molested her in Farrow’s Connecticut home, though Allen has always denied the accusation.  The Connecticut State’s Attorney investigated the allegation and contended there *was* probable cause for a criminal case but did not press charges, claiming the effected child was too emotionally fragile, while the Connecticut State Police referred Dylan to the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale–New Haven Hospital who concluded that Woody Allen had not sexually abused Dylan, and the New York Department of Social Services found “no credible evidence” to support the allegation, though it was never demonstrated conclusively that it had not happened.  Nonetheless, Dylan’s brother, Ronan Farrow, now a journalist, has publicly supported his sister, where the incident has become embroiled in the #MeToo movement’s insistence that victims must be listened to.  Adding to the controversy, Allen (at the age of age 56) began having an affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (essentially his step-daughter, though he and Farrow were never married) when she was a senior in high school, graduating in June 1991, with a sexual relationship allegedly beginning December 1991.  While there is some controversy surrounding Soon-Yi’s actual birth date, it is generally recognized as October 8, 1970, making her 21 years of age, eventually marrying Allen in 1997.  Lesser known to the public, just a few years before making this film, Allen (at the age of 42) previously dated a 17-year old high school student named Stacey Nelkin who was attending public magnet school Stuyvesant High (17 was and remains the legal age of consent in New York).  He likely had her in mind while writing this film.  In the custody turmoil, Farrow labeled Allen a child molester and a sexual predator, charges that were initially ignored, but resurfaced again when Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards in 2014, with Dylan Farrow (now age 28) repeating her allegations in an open letter to The New York Times, writing another to The Los Angeles Times in December 2017, again reiterating her allegations.  This time, however, there was public fallout from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, affecting Allen’s ability to work again in the industry, with Amazon Studios backing out of a 4-movie distribution deal in April 2019, cutting ties with him all together, and no new films have been distributed since the release of Wonder Wheel (2017).  This history brings to mind suggestions that Allen is a sexual predator, with many finding Allen’s behavior in this film, combined with his history, as enough proof, featuring Allen as a grown man developing sexual and romantic inclinations with a high school student.  Her parents and their reactions are never considered, as they are not part of the self-obsessed delusion that the Allen character represents.  Does this history effectively alter one’s appreciation for the film?  For some it not only could, but it does (Woody Allen Is Both a Genius and a Predator ... -  Not so much for me, now in his mid 80’s, Allen poses no risk to anyone (though his children may feel otherwise), where this may arguably be Allen’s best film, as it’s presented essentially as a fantasy, cleverly funny, at times hilarious, offering a swooning romanticization of both the city and its inhabitants, using a lush Gershwin musical score as a backdrop, poking fun at the inherent flaws of human fallibility, becoming a gloriously visualized operatic work, where humans never live up to their potential, becoming an idealized dream versus reality, Beauty and the Beast fable, with humans (the beasts) still learning how to make their way in a cold and indifferent modern world.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Annie Hall

Director Woody Allen on the set

Allen on the set with cameraman Gordon Willis

ANNIE HALL           A-                   
USA  (93 mi)  1977  d: Woody Allen

I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and examining my life and trying to figure out where did the screw-up come.
— Alvy Singer (Woody Allen)

For its time, ANNIE HALL was a startlingly original film, bridging the gap between straight comedy and drama, making that great leap forward, becoming a rare critical and commercial success, made on a $4 million dollar budget, the film grossed nearly ten times that amount, winning accolades and awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Diane Keaton winning Best Actress, all confirming Allen’s status as a great artist, ironically happening in the same year as the release of blockbuster hit STAR WARS (1977).  The two films epitomize the Hollywood divide between smaller art films and large-scale commercial moneymakers, one with almost no international appeal while the other does extremely well on the global market.  Often viewed as Allen’s most appealing film, looking back in time, however, the film pales in comparison to the more dramatically accomplished Manhattan (1979), arguably Allen’s greatest artistic triumph, alongside Stardust Memories (1980), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, though my personal favorite for pure unadulterated joy remains the hilariously weird Broadway Danny Rose (1984).  Perhaps it has something to do with how much you can endure Diane Keaton’s klutzy shtick, where this film doesn’t age as well as some of his others, especially Allen’s efforts to shape the entitled character of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in his image (which is soundly rejected), as the film is not really about her, but about Allen’s view of himself, described by Annie as an island unto himself, satirically expressing his inability to relate to Annie or any other woman, except in his imagination.  While this film takes steps towards drama, it remains first and foremost a screwball comedy, listed at #4 in the American Film Institute’s poll of the top 100 American comedies, AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - Wikipedia, mostly taking place in Allen’s mind, providing a distinctive Jewish-American identity, including a brief stand-up comedy act, opening and closing the film with old Borscht Belt jokes, with several asides directly to the audience, having flashbacks to former wives and lovers, including Carol Kane’s infamous quip to Allen after making love, “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience.”  But the centerpiece of the film is an infamous affair with Annie Hall that includes prolonged mayhem, modeled on their own romantic relationship (though at the time of the film’s release Allen and Keaton had been separated for at least four years), turning into a beginner’s guide to a neurotic love affair, each with their own insecurities and obsessions that continually get in the way, eventually growing tired of each other, but she surprises him by cutting off the romance and making a move to Los Angeles, a cardinal sin in Woody world, where he remains an entrenched New Yorker.  At the outset as comic Alvy Singer he reveals he has a hyperactive imagination, claiming to have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, which sets the stage for the film.  Beginning on a street in New York City, with Alvy living in a house under a giant roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, he and his childhood friend Rob (Tony Roberts) reflect back on their lives, with Rob continually referring to him as Max, with Alvy getting to the truth about living in New York City, “Don’t you see?  The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re leftwing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.  I think of us that way, sometimes.  And I live here!”  Brought up in Brooklyn during the postwar era, both are able to magically speak to long dead relatives in memories and ask pertinent questions, taking him through his troubled childhood with a kind of Groucho Marx sensibility, following him through early years of therapy with Alvy depressed at the thought of discovering the universe is constantly expanding, all the while searching for love, blocked by his own fear of commitment, with suggestions that love is what makes life worth living.

Recognized wearing his signature black-rim framed glasses, with his films offering Allen’s zany point of view, the success of this film elevated into mainstream culture what it meant to be a “Woody Allen film,” reaching unprecedented success for over a decade until 1989.  Coming from a long line of romantic comedies, from Shakespeare’s endless squabbling between Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, to the screwball comedies of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton join the list in this bittersweet view of modern love, using memories of a romance after it is over, as Alvy looks back on his life through a series of incidents told in no particular order, yet interestingly conveys at the outset that he has broken up with Annie Hall.  When they initially meet, nervously exploring their awkward thoughts while checking each other out, subtitles are used to indicate what they are really thinking while a typically banal conversation takes place.  When asked about her previous boyfriends, rather than answer, Annie and Alvy stare and watch, along with viewers, as a younger version of Annie is seen with her boyfriends, both offering a running commentary about what they see from a modern day perspective, a device Allen uses again when he returns to his second grade class, contending that in 1942 he had already discovered women, where he’s scolded for kissing a girl in class, but is then seen as an adult sitting at his desk defending himself, speaking directly to the audience, though surrounded by his elementary school classmates.  Allen also resorts to split screen techniques, with both Annie and Alvy seen in therapy sessions complaining about a lack of progress in their relationship, with Alvy complaining they hardly ever have sex, only three times a week, while Annie says they have sex constantly, maybe three times a week.  This device is used again when they visit Annie’s Protestant family in Wisconsin, shown side by side with Alvy’s Jewish family, hilariously showing the stark contrast.  Alvy is never viewed in a positive light by his own family, even going back to his childhood years, suggesting something is always missing from his life, like joy or happiness, yet Alvy’s own take is that he had a happy childhood.  Much of the humor in the film is Jewish humor, where Allen is highly reactionary to his own deep-seeded paranoia about growing anti-Semitism, including the visit to Annie’s family, where he’s sure her endearing “Grammy” loathes and detest him for being Jewish, always giving him the evil eye, which Allen exaggerates to being a Nazi sympathizer.  Another technique is resorting to animation.  During one heated argument, Annie and Alvy turn into cartoon characters, with Annie transforming into the Wicked Queen from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).  One of the more clever devices has Annie and Alvy waiting in line to see a movie, forced to endure the obnoxiously pretentious pontificating of a loud-mouthed NYU professor standing behind them, getting on Alvy’s last nerve, but when the man starts raving about teaching the theoretical ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Alvy steps out of line and out of nowhere pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out of the lobby to denounce the meaningless and superficial utterings coming out of the man’s mouth, thoroughly justifying Alvy’s sense of moral outrage, turning to the camera and uttering, “Boy, if life were only like this!”       

Despite the novel techniques used by the director, none of the characters reveal themselves with any depth, remaining content to highlight comical moments, strung together in vignettes, where their relationship runs hot and cold, on and off, and back on again, before running out of gas, never delving into the missing ingredients, as they never figure out how to address their conflicting interests.  Annie likes to smoke a joint before sex, as it helps her to relax, while Alvy grows irate that she needs a substance to enhance the mood in order to deal with him, thinking instead it should be natural and hormonal, yet each constructs artificial barriers that the other person is not willing to overcome, beautifully expressed in a scene having sex, with Annie literally stepping out of her body like a ghostly phantom, literally separating the mind from the body, sitting alone in a chair simply passing the time, as if waiting for it to be over, leaving Alvy with a lifeless body to make love to, ingeniously remarking that she feels distant and removed.  Throughout their relationship, Alvy pushes his own agenda onto her, causing Annie to think he views her as shallow and uneducated, not intelligent enough to take seriously, as he pushes dreadfully serious books on her, each one pertaining to death, while also suggesting she take adult evening classes, thinking it would do her a world of good.  This does little to promote her self-esteem, which is publicly on display during an audition at a random club, with Annie singing an excessively slow version of “It Had to Be You” Annie Hall Diane Keaton sings (3:21), singing again near the end, Diane Keaton - It Seems Like Old Times (2:30), and while Alvy confesses support, he does little to help advance her career, showing outward defiance against a move to Los Angeles, suggested by a sleazy record producer (none other than Paul Simon) who would love to record her, whose luxurious home in Los Angeles with palm trees and a pool is the site of his recording studio, with Los Angeles portrayed as a Hollywood fantasy, where even his old friend Rob has moved out there and continually sings the praises, but Alvy is disgusted by his artificial use of canned laughter to enhance the jokes and make him appear to be funnier.  ANNIE HALL is an early version of Manhattan, as much a romanticized ode to the city of New York as it is to the named character, filming all over the city at some of Allen’s favorite locations, including Annie Hall’s apartment on 68th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues in Manhattan which Allen has noted is his favorite block in the city.  Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Gordon Willis, Manhattan is given a glamorized look, hyperenergetic, filled with the nervous energy of those living there, viewed through conversations, clubs, bookshops, restaurants, and a plethora of cinemas, where art house theaters show foreign film masterpieces like THE GRAND ILLUSION (1937) and THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1969), while marquees in Los Angeles advertise schlock films like HOUSE OF EVIL (1968) and MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973), literally skewering the West Coast mentality, reflecting Allen’s disdain for what he perceives as a shallower culture.  Yet to Annie, Los Angeles is a symbol of freedom, while Alvy has panic attacks and car problems, emblematic of all the traffic back-ups that he turns into a demolition derby of disgust, reminiscent of the bumper cars he used to play in his youth, returning back to New York to write his first play, a dramatization of his and Annie’s relationship, allowing art to produce a more favorable outcome.  When the real Truman Capote appears in a Truman Capote look-alike game at the beach, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality, allowing viewers to make their own choices, where perhaps the ultimate message is that in art and life we need our illusions.