MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Woody Allen Will Never Be Finished

It has become inevitable that with every new release fromWoody Allen, there will be hundreds of stories written about him that will say either “Woody’s officially finished,” or “Woody’s back!”  The man has been written off and then welcomed back so many times at this point and I’m just happy that it hasn’t stopped him from releasing a new film almost every year, never missing a beat or breaking his stride.

I’m of the belief that when someone has released so many masterpieces, it is ridiculous to ever write that person off.  It’s not as if those masterpieces were confined to one brief period, either; he’s made at least two masterpieces in three different decades.  So while his recent output hasn’t been of the highest quality, I will never have the gall to think that the man has somehow “lost it.”

If nothing else, Woody Allen has never been a director who is risk-averse; whether it’s releasing Husbands and Wives in the midst of a very public break-up with Mia Farrow or making an Ingmar Bergmanesque drama on the heels of winning an Oscar for Annie Hall, he has always been aware of what the public perception of him has been and unafraid to potentially step in front of the firing squad.

The release of Woody’s newest film, Cassandra’s Dream, is a reminder of how great he can still be.  It is the next chapter in his trilogy of jet-black crime films (along with Crimes & Misdemeanors and Match Point), all of which are about the punishments our psyche inflicts on ourselves for our crimes against morality rather than the judicial punishment for breaking the law.  This is also the third film in a row that Woody has decided to shoot across the pond in England and it seems as if this new location has infused him with a vitality that comes through in the writing of these films.

Woody has only acted in one of these “British” films – the disappointing comedy Scoop – and it was a supporting role.  He seems to be more comfortable allowing himself to drift behind the camera and it’s a testament to how good (and streamlined) his writing and filmmaking craft has become that he feels he can no longer spar with the quality actors in his films.  He seems to have realized that his filmmaking savvy has grown past his acting ability.  Some might say that the quality of the storytelling has lost its edge, but it’s also become a lot sharper and cleaner; Woody now has the confidence to tell his story the way he wants to.

To review his forty year career as a filmmaker in detail would take thousands upon thousands of words, but it’s worth looking at some of his recent past in order to refute the repeated claims that Woody Allen has somehow lost his touch.  I think part of the problem is the impossibly high standard that is set for him, as a result of making flat-out masterpieces like Annie Hall,Manhattan, Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives.  So when he makes a film that is merely good, it is looked at as something like a disaster because everyone wants to see Woody hit a home run every time out.  I don’t think he does hit a home run every time out, but I also don’t think he’s ever really struck out completely (except maybe with Celebrity).  I think most of the time he hits a solid double.

In my estimation it’s been over ten years since he’s made a film that I could say is an inarguable, homerun masterpiece (Everyone Say I Love You, one of the finest musicals made in the past twenty years), but he’s made several that I think were fine films; Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, and Anything Else are all good, some of them verging on great.  There’s a famous repeated line in Stardust Memories where Woody’s autobiographical main character is upset that his fans prefer his “earlier, funnier” films.  Well, I would disagree with this assessment that those films are Woody’s best.

Of course, I love Bananas and Sleeper and the very underrated Love and Death, but I think when Woody’s at the top of his game, he is able to blend his comedy into a darker story.  He perfected it with films like Annie Hall, Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters, all of them films that make me laugh and cry, at once whimsical and all too real.

In Stardust Memories, when his character encounters an alien, it tells him that if he wants to make a real contribution to society, he should “tell funnier jokes.”  Well, it seems as if now that’s not the best course of action.  Like with most comedians, there are only so many ways you can tell the same joke and in his last few stabs at comedy, Woody has come up short. Scoop, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, they all have interesting premises and aren’t bad movies per se, but it feels as though we’ve heard this tune before.

That is why, with his newfound interest in the crime genre, Woody seems revitalized.  He is able to tell stories he hasn’t told before, in ways that he hasn’t told them.  In Cassandra’s Dream, he has found a story in which he is able to use Philip Glass to compose the score instead of using his usual jazz standards.  This latest film, much like Match Point, doesn’t feel like a typical Woody Allen picture.  It shows a filmmaker who is willing to try something different, a man who is still in awe of masters like Ingmar Bergman but his career is beginning to hew closer to someone like Bunuel in the sense that Bunuel hit a creative high towards the end of his career by making insane satires.  Woody’s creative high is by stepping into territory once reserved for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, but because it is Woody, it is focused more closely on the idiosyncrasies of its main characters.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell both give fantastic performances, reminding us of Woody’s ability to get some terrific work out of his actors, making them comfortable enough to bare themselves.  One major difference between this film and most of his films that he doesn’t act in is that there is no Woody facsimile.  Usually there is one character in each of his films that is the representation of him, whether it’s John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway orKenneth Branagh in Celebrity.  With this latest film, there is no neurotic hypochondriac, just working class Britons who are struggling with their consciences.

In the latest film, I was blown away by the scene where the actual crime was committed.  Watch and see how Woody films it with such restraint as he gracefully pans away so that we only get to see the built-up and the let-down and never get to see the crux of their dilemma, causing us to infer some of it.  It is a masterful stroke by a master filmmaker, one that perhaps a younger man might have filmed, unable to resist the cinematic possibilities of that scene.  And it is Woody’s maturity that imbues the film with something different than the average crime movie.

It is easy to make comparisons between Cassandra’s Dream and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead; after all, both films are from living legends and are about brothers who commit a crime involving another family member.  The difference is that while I prefer Lumet’s film, there is not a single scene that you can point to where you might be able to say “that’s a Sidney Lumet film” and I think that’s a strength that Lumet is not easy to define as a filmmaker.  But, I also think it’s a strength for Woody Allen that even though his latest film is tremendously different for him in terms of tone, location, even cinematography, it feels like a Woody Allen film and that’s the definition of a true auteur.

I understand the complaints against his work, which range from his dialogue being stilted or his stories being full of contrivances.  But, I think when you go into a Woody Allen film, you are expecting a certain kind of product – just like you would expect to see hard-boiled tough guys in Martin Scorsese pictures – and you either accept that or you don’t.  And if you can’t accept that there are going to be certain particulars to a Woody Allen film that may remain unchanged, then you’re already going to hate his newest picture.  While I think thatCassandra’s Dream lacks many of these defining characteristics, it does feel like a Woody Allen film.  And maybe after releasing close to forty feature films, some people are just tired of his shtick.  Me, on the other hand, I still appreciate the neuroses and still relate to the moral complexities that my favorite Knick fan writes about.  Whether writing slapstick comedy or dark drama, Woody has always had a keen sense about the narcissistic tendencies of the human race.  It’s funny because I think that some of his biggest critics are guilty of that very same vanity, of believing that they’ve seen enough from this brilliant filmmaker just because they’ve seen his other work.  The garnish may make the dish look familiar, but each one is a completely different stew.

Woody Allen just turned 72 years old and he’s currently in post-production on his latest filmVicky Cristina Barcelona, which was shot in the titular Spanish city.  It astounds me that someone at his age would be willing to film in strange new cities and try out different genres instead of pumping out the same pap every time out.  It’s unbelievable that he releases a new film every year, like the film equivalent of Stephen King, amazing me with the sheer ability to pump out that many fully developed stories.  We should be treating every new Woody Allen film as an important event, like the way we treat something like Star Wars or Cloverfield.  Instead, Cassandra’s Dream is opening in a few theaters the same weekend as the latter film and it’s not even a blip on the radar for most people.  And I think that is a travesty.

If I had to pick one story thread of any Woody Allen film that I would point to as the zenith of his genius, it would be his character’s story in Hannah and Her Sisters.  In that film, he is a man who suffers a crisis of faith as a result of believing he is going to die.  He tries out different religions, trying to reach some sort of understanding in this world.  In one inspired scene, he asks his parents how there could be a God if he would allow something like the Holocaust to happen and his father shrugs and says, “I don’t even know how the can opener works.”  The character falls into a deep funk and contemplates suicide and in one of the most magical scenes in film history, he goes to see a Marx Brothers movie and realizes that this life cannot be all bad when we have Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

That is how I feel about Woody Allen, whether he is delivering another classic or just a trifle; when I sit down in a theater to see the latest flick from Woody, it makes me realize that not everything is as bleak as it seems.

Noah Forrest
January 29, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 24 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon