Monday, March 21, 2011

Part 1 of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Music, Madness and Murder: Some Reflections on the Cinema of Woody Allen Part 1 of 3

To coincide with the opening of Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, printed below is a transcript of the the first part of the talk given by Neil Sinyard as part of last year’s Woody Allen retrospective.
Woody Allen

You might not think it to look at him, but Woody Allen is a big subject. The critic Alexander Walker wrote that ‘it is a deception to see Woody Allen only as an American humorist’, and the French critic Robert Benayoun said that ‘his films spread out in all directions . . . the proof of him is to be found in his diversity’. These comments were made after Allen’s 14th film in the mid-1980s; they are no less true after his 40th film now, and it is this diversity more than the humour that is my subject today.

Woody Allen in Zelig

The persona has evolved and modified from its beginnings, from comic loser to cultural commentator; the cultural references have widened; he has done comedy films, serious films, and films both comic and serious (even with the same story). He has experimented with film form, with pastiche documentary and newsreel, media satire, use of split screen, subtitles to contrast outward speech and inward desire, chapter headings, direct addresses to the camera, and the dissolving of time-frames so past and present can be taking place within the same shot. There have been genre parodies, chamber dramas, Bergmanesque movies, Felliniesque movies, Renoiresque movies, comedies within the style of German Expressionism and Greek tragedy - and still he’s been criticised for being limited and repetitive. It’s why I quoted Roger Ebert in my notes and his amusing put-down of his fellow critics for their attitude to Allen: ‘There he goes again: doing something different.’ As with all the major film auteurs, certain themes recur and the particular social milieu he examines has been fairly consistent, but within that, the variety of subject and approach is enormous, and makes it quite difficult to talk about Woody Allen in total. There’s the Woody Allen of the ‘early, funny ones’; the more autobiographical (though he might deny that) confessional comedies; the American films, the European films; the films in which he does appear, the films in which he doesn’t; the present-day films as distinct from the period reconstructions etc. Even his choice of cameraman for different films is very idiosyncratic and personal: he’s had his Gordon Willis period, his Carlo di Palma period, his Sven Nykvist period, and so on. It’s almost as if a film like Zelig is his response to his critics: they want him to be one thing but, like Zelig, he is a man who cannot stop shedding his own skin.So, faced with that — and the time constraint of this talk — I thought the best thing to do was just to concentrate on some aspects of Allen that perhaps might not have been given as much attention as other aspects, recognising that there’s a whole host of other things that could be discussed; and I mentioned three things in my title for this talk — Music, Magic and Murder — though hopefully these topics will lead off in other directions as well.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

I’d like to begin, then, by looking at a sequence from roughly the mid-point of Allen’s career thus far: from Crimes And Misdemeanors of 1989. The title itself is a kind of literary pun: it invokes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, not the only time in his career when Allen will invoke Dostoyevsky: indeed, you might have noticed that that is the very novel the hero is reading early on in Match Point, which might be a portent of the later murder. Tolstoy will be invoked in Love and Death, Allen’s take on War and Peace, and will provide the whole structural framework and philosophical bedrock of Hannah and Her Sisters, which was partially inspired by Anna Karenina; and there will be a distinctly Chekhovian ambience to films like Interiors and September. I mention this in passing because I wanted to pick up on something Alexander Walker noted in the 1980s and which is an unusual and distinctive trait: not only what Walker called ‘the breadth of his literary references and the reach of his ambitions’, but also that they were not characteristically American: as Walker put it, ‘his spiritual and literary baggage seems to have been freighted from Northern Europe and pre-Revolutionary Russia’. And when we look at the sequence — and I want to say something about some of its stylistic features — I think we’ll see that one of the things that makes it seem different and strange is Allen’s use of music.

But let me set the scene: the story so far:
Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a wealthy, highly respected eye surgeon whose reputation and livelihood are jeopardised when his mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to reveal their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom) and also expose details of some financial embezzlement in which he has been involved. What to do? He contacts his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has dubious underworld connections, for help: Jack’s advice is to silence this woman permanently and, for a price, he can arrange it for him. Judah is horrified, but not for long, and gives the go-ahead. As we join the sequence, Landau and his wife are entertaining family and guests for an elegant dinner, whilst Anjelica Huston is being stalked by a hired killer and followed back to her apartment: we’ll follow it through until after Judah has visited her apartment and seen the dead body, to the point when he is in his bedroom, with his wife asleep, and the phone suddenly rings.

Some miscellaneous observations:
- I’m intrigued by the detail that Anjelica Huston’s apartment is ominously next door to somewhere called ‘Jack’s’: it portends what’s going to happen.
- We cut to the warmth of Judah’s home and the polite social chit-chat which is interrupted by a phone-call from Jack to tell Judah that the deed has been done: looks like ‘a small burglary’ he says (making it sound like Watergate):
- Landau whispers rather than speaks his shocked response into the phone even though he is alone in the room: it adds to the sense of conspiracy; tellingly and unforgivably, he uses the word ‘I’ five times in this conversation. Not a word about the victim: his response is entirely to do with how things affect him.
- ‘God have mercy on us, Jack,’ he says, before going into the bathroom and washing his hands, and three things strike me there:

a) the highlighting of the religious sub-text to the sequence (not the only time God’s mentioned);
b) it’s an echo of the last line of Vertigo, ‘God have mercy’ (there is a definite Hitchcockian element to the scene);
c) washing his hands, like Pontius Pilate.

He rejoins the others: implicitly, rejoining the world he wants to preserve and for which this awful deed has been done.When he sits down, the camera stays on him, and this is very like Hitchcock: although the conversation continues (and, significantly, is about eyes, a key motif of the sequence), we’re only half-listening: the camera is focusing on Landau: we concentrate on him and his mind is elsewhere: there’s a Hitchcockian counterpoint of dialogue and image where what the scene is about verbally is not necessarily what the scene is about visually. ‘What do you think, Judah?’ his wife asks. What is he thinking at that moment? There’s a single-shot flashback of him as he lies on Huston’s lap: a mental snapshot of guilt? ‘I think . . . I’ve done a terrible thing’, he replies: momentarily you might think he is going to confess, but the camera is pulling back, as if recoiling from what it’s seeing: it’s not looking at a penitent man, but a guilty man making plans to cover his tracks and checking on the deed.

Next scene: he is returning to the scene of the crime, à la Dostoyevsky. The camera placement is interesting: it’s as if it’s waiting for him, has been expecting him; has, as it were, reserved a parking space . . . the car stops: the camera moves down the front of the car as he switches off the headlights, picking up a lot of the elements of the sequence in a single movement: eyes/lights/ darkness/descent.

He gets out of the car and I do like the way Allen films this so that there’s no drop in tension (again a bit like Hitchcock: there’s a similar bit in Vertigo when Hitchcock has to get Jimmy Stewart out of the car at a key moment without any relaxation of tension and he does it in a visually ingenious way): he just moves the camera down in front of the car and then moves it back up and Landau makes a curious movement, where, instead of crossing the road immediately, he circles the car until he is standing at precisely the point the camera was the moment when Anjelica Huston went into her apartment for the last time: it’s a camera placement that emphatically implicates him in her murder. Maybe the camera at this juncture is ‘the eyes of God that see everything’ that we hear about in the brief flashback to Judah’s upbringing as a child: at this stage, we wonder, is this ironic? Or could it be the first stirrings of conscience?

When he enters the apartment and sees the body, there is a single continuous camera movement down from him across to the dead body which again implicates him in the deed and indeed emphasises his moral descent: the open dead eyes and the camera movement might remind you a little of Psycho: here the detail of the victim’s dead eyes looking up almost in blind accusation seems a cruel reversal of the single-shot flashback we’ve seen earlier.

When he shuffles round the body and sits on the bed, the camera moves up again to reveal a particularly disturbing image — his gloves: he’s not so shocked by what he has seen that he doesn’t instantly think about the saving of his own skin and not leaving any traces. Allen’s own comment on the camera movement here was: ‘I wanted the flow going in that scene because I felt that the moment had to be . . . reflective. So everything was done legato to keep the mood from breaking. I tried to get him into a trance and keep him in that. So the camera, moving like that, doesn’t break the rhythm, doesn’t snap off the rhythm with an awakening cut. It lulls you further and further into his state of mind.’ (Woody Allen On Woody Allen, In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman, Faber and Faber, 2004, p.217).

End of the first section of the talk in three parts by Neil Sinyard.

Read part 2 here.

© Copyright Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.


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