The divorce has been coming for some time now. We’ve been separated for years, but it’s only recently that I’ve even considered taking the final step. Lord knows I’ve tried to make it work. I indulged the flights of fancy, the ‘creative excesses’ if you will. I supported his change of scenario, hoping that Europe would unlock some hidden store of talent that would make our future together tolerable. I even ignored the tabloid way he decided to undermine his personal life. But after a couple of fleeting glimpses of the old brilliance, the same old sad self-indulgence set in. Now, with his latest attempt at interpersonal angst, I’ve decided I can’t take any more. After nearly FOUR decades of dedicated fandom, I am divorcing Woody Allen once and for all.
Oh, we’ve had our troubles before. During the late ‘70s, his Fellini-inspired slap in the audience’s face - otherwise known as Stardust Memories - was a particularly hard time. All we wanted from our cinematic hero was a little of his old comic joie de vive. It didn’t have to be Sleeper or Love and Death, but would it have hurt to follow a more of that Annie Hall/Manhattan style of wit with worry? Apparently, since everything about the 81/2 rip was a visually arresting rant against trying to pigeonhole an otherwise indefinable artist…except, Allen had made his entire career on comedy. Asking for a few more jokes didn’t seem like such a major request.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Joan Pera
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 15 Aug 2008 (Limited release); 2008)
Granted, it was probably unfair to dwell in the past like that. After all, it must be tough for any creative type to live down such a start. His first few efforts remain gems in a frequently faltering genre. Still, he must have been insulted by the non-stop comments about those “early, funny films”, enough to make a mockery of such a sentiment. And this was even after we tolerated his back-peddling Bergmania. Interiors has its moments, but it just can’t compare to the Swedish master being mimicked. Similarly, A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy proved that, when it comes to calm country mannerisms, a Jewish American filmmaker can only stumble like a stooge.
But he kept coming back. Zelig was an experimental wonder, growing better and more poignant with time, and the next four films - Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Radio Days - proved he had lost none of this nostalgic character craftsmanship. Even after going off the tracks again with September (completely recast and reshot during production, thus beginning the mythos), Another Woman, and his “Oedipus Wrecks” segment from New York Stories, he delivered Crimes and Misdemeanors. Only the most cynical cinephile could deny that film’s power and glory. It looked like things might just work out between us.
And then - disaster. One sloppy, subpar production after another. It’s a list too long to discuss here, but from 1990 to now (almost 18 years) Allen has made only three good films (Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point), two tolerable efforts (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry) and a bunch of god-awful garbage (and before you bellyache, go ahead and defend Celebrity, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Melinda and Melinda). Perhaps even more unsettling, Allen has yet to make another movie that matches the critical buzz and acclaim of some of his older works. Even the ersatz musical Everyone Says I Love You is now just a forgotten speck on an usually blemished resume.
There will be some who disagree with the assessment, and it is there right to. I can only go on my own experiences with Allen. I first fell in love with his work when I saw Sleeper as part of an ABC Sunday Night Movie broadcast premiere. I laughed hysterically at this sci-fi spoof, even if I didn’t understand all the jokes (I was in my very early teens at the time). When Annie Hall opened, I was one of the first in line, and again, I was swept away on how mystifyingly magical his movies were. Allen was definitely a thinking man’s humorist, and some of his references were so arcane that, after looking them up, they have stayed with me my entire life (like Oswald, the character from Ibsen’s Ghosts, and his infamous headache).
That was the joy of a Woody Allen movie. He never talked down to his audience. He assumed they were just as bright, intelligent, and educated as he. He wasn’t afraid to infuse his characters with outsized idiosyncrasies, as long as they were grounded in the urban everyday surroundings of their life. Many see Manhattan as his masterpiece, and rightly so. It walked the precarious border between arrogance and amiability with a style and a substance that continues to draw fans and fanatics alike. For a while there, it was hard to completely dismiss an Allen film. You could find massive flaws in what he was attempting, but the level of success was usually measured in some kind of entertainment.
But all that stopped somewhere in the ‘80s, and September is a good example of why. By this time (1987), Allen was seen as a legitimate American auteur. He already had eleven Oscar nominations (and three wins) and a kind of creative carte blanche that studios wanted to be a part of. Working almost exclusively for Orion (who had a distribution agreement with Warners), he had final cut, was capable of casting whomever he wanted, and could even go so far as to keep completed scripts away from his hired help. Actors longed to be in his films, his Academy pedigree (especially in the realm of Best Supporting Actress) almost a given. In essence, he had all the power a filmmaker could ever want - and it seems to have gone about systematically abusing same.
September was meant as a “chamber” piece, a filmed play as it were. Over the course of the production Allen recast the lead twice, and after editing the first version, did indeed rewrite, recast, and refilm it again. In today’s money-oriented clime, that would be unheard of. But Allen’s productions were always cheap, and up until this point, aesthetically successful. September changed all that. It showed the writer/director as insular, moody, and discontented. It didn’t help that the movie was a bore. Even after Crimes and Misdemeanors (his last true masterpiece), efforts like Shadows and Fog and Hollywood Ending smacked of the same artistic recklessness. Of course, had he only made Love and Death for the rest of his career, trading on his high concept hipster humor for every successive film, we’d be crucifying him too.
But Allen’s recent miscues - the dull Scoop, the awful Cassandra’s Dream - are perhaps the most troubling of all. At a recent screening of Vicky Christina Barcelona, I was struck with how little I cared about the filmmaker’s whiny, overly wistful characters. The story of how love conquers and confuses is something he explored (far more successfully) when I was in high school, and his choice of actors - Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson - seemed more show biz then sensible. Like the passionate painters he depicts in the film, Allen has become an artist wholly in love with his own devices. He no longer feels a need to experiment or explore. Instead, he rounds up the current crop of A-list faces, places them in his overly talky tableaus, and shoots everything like the hand-held POV camera was a novel and new device.
The worst thing an ex can do is make you long for the early days of your relationship. It’s even worse when you dread the next expression from their already tired canon. For me, Allen stopped being exciting over a decade ago. Now, I merely tolerate his presence within the motion picture schema. Maybe he has another laugh out loud comedy in his kit (his last attempt, Small Time Crooks…), or perhaps he can mine individual turmoil and moral turpitude for one more knock out drama (Match Point). Unfortunately, I’m not willing to wait. I’ll gladly have cinematic egg on my face should this prolific 73 year old regain his aesthetic footing. Until then, I’ll resign myself to the past. It’s what any new divorcee would do.