Monday, March 21, 2011

Part 3 of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Third and final section 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 3 of 3

Like Orson Welles, Allen has always been interested in magic and card tricks and skilled at it: he even told Robert Benayoun that, when he was a boy, he planned to become a professional gambler. He plays a magician in Scoop and a magician/hypnotist is a major character in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion; and in fact, magic emanates from all parts of Allen’s world — characters levitate in Zelig, Alice, Everyone Says I Love You; Mia Farrow becomes invisible in Alice; a screen character walks out of the frame of the film he is in and into real life in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Ghosts appear all over the place, most notably perhaps that of Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam. In Annie Hall, when someone in a cinema queue is boring the pants off the hero with his loud views on Marshall McLuhan, Allen’s character can magically produce McLuhan from the queue to refute the man’s ideas and tell him he’s talking rubbish. At which point, if you remember, Allen turns to the camera and says feelingly: ‘Boy, if life were only like that!’ Which is the point, of course: it isn’t, and for all that the fantasy life of these characters — their imagination, if you will — is a liberation and release, sooner or later they will need to return to, or confront, real life.

This deployment of ‘magic’ moments is an element of Allen’s Romanticism and a way of exploring the tension between Fantasy and Reality, Art and Life, which is at the core of many of his films. It’s also a way of suggesting that the world might be stranger than it looks, or that appearances can deceive. Again like Orson Welles, one of the forms that Allen seems to like is the ‘fake’ documentary, that looks real but isn’t, as in Zelig, or the bits with the philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the whole structure of Sweet and Lowdown, as ‘authentic’ witnesses recall an entirely mythical jazz guitarist with an ambition to emulate the great Django Reinhardt. Allen’s films often take you beyond the constraints of the real, temporal world into the realm of dreams and the surreal. David Thomson called him ‘a sad impresario of the bitter comedy of emotional hope’, but he can also be a lyricist of the imagination who takes audacious leaps into the unknown or the absurd. Even in a relatively matter-of-fact film like the recent Whatever Works, there are moments when the comfortable barrier between screen and audience threatens to break down and where the real and the mundane become close to the romantic and bizarre — like the very unusual first meeting between the elderly hero and his new romantic partner when she happens to be fortuitously under his second suicide attempt.

Love is strange; life is strange. One of my favourite lines in Woody Allen is that comment from Mia Farrow’s downtrodden waitress in The Purple Rose of Cairo: ‘I’ve just met a wonderful man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.’ The whole film is in that line: what happens when a film character steps from the screen into the heroine’s real world; the theme of the tension between life and fiction; and a tone of wondrous humour tinged with melancholy, to denote the gap between expectation and fulfilment. The film has something of the yearning and ambiguity of Keats’ great Romantic poem, Ode On A Grecian Urn, where the lover on the urn is perfect but petrified: he can never age but he also can never reach his goal; but it is a reminder of the consolation that the dream world can offer in the face of bitter reality. When Mia Farrow watches Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo, having been deserted both by the fantasy screen hero and the real-life actor who has played him, we see her face gradually transformed by what she is watching as Astaire sings, ‘Heaven, I’m in Heaven’. Maybe she’s responding to a truth that lies behind Top Hat’s romance, escapism, and impossible beauty: namely, that art can, albeit momentarily, ease the pain of real life and indeed might regenerate feelings about life’s possibilities.

Still, I don’t think Allen has ever disguised the fact that, even in his comedies, his vision of life is essentially pessimistic; and indeed that his productivity is his main weapon for keeping pessimism at bay. As John Lahr wrote about him in an article in The New Yorker; ‘He is, like all great funny men, inconsolable . . . his antidote to anxiety is action.’ Even the magician in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion says: ‘The ugly curtain of reality will soon fall upon us.’ The world he presents to us is often despairing and violent: there are suicides or attempted suicides in, for example, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, September, Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream, Whatever Works; in three films where murder is at the core of the narrative — Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream — the instigator goes scott-free, as if confirming the basic injustice of the Universe: crime is not followed by punishment. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, as Martin Landau awaits some retribution for collusion in murder, God’s silence is deafening: the phone rings and he answers, but there is no one there (he reminds me at that point of the murderer in Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover, who has murdered Porphyria but then sits with the body waiting for something to happen, for some divine retribution: ‘And all night long we have not stirred / And yet God has not said a word!’). You might recall the last scene of the film where Landau encounters Woody Allen’s character, who’s in a depressed mood because Mia Farrow has gone off with his celebrity brother-in-law (Alan Alda) whom Allen despises. ‘I’m planning the perfect murder,’ he says ruefully to Landau who, of course, is the right person to ask; and Landau makes a kind of coded confession, being surprised by how little his conscience has troubled him: as in Match Point, we see the comparative ease with which the powerful in society can evade or escape the consequences of their actions. Knowing that the Woody Allen character is a filmmaker, Landau’s doctor poses his confession as an idea for a screenplay: ‘he finds he’s not punished . . . he prospers . . . he goes back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.’ And when Allen protests that if the hero of the story doesn’t confess, then it won’t work because there’s no tragic catharsis or just resolution, Landau replies: ‘But that’s fiction, that’s a movie . . . If you want to see a happy ending, go see a Hollywood movie.’ As a rule, Woody Allen doesn’t make ‘Hollywood movies’.
What does he make movies about, then? Well, basically, Love and Death: pretty fundamental themes, also pretty awesome. There are obviously a lot of sub-themes there: when I mention the theme of Love, I’m not simply thinking of the romantic relationships at the core of his films, but familial love, which is often complex and curdled: mother/daughter, brother/sister, sister/sister relationships where there is a lot of devotion and compassion but also seething resentments, hostilities, jealousies that have built up over a lifetime and which can — in films like Hannah and Her Sisters, September, Alice, Deconstructing Harry, even Cassandra’s Dream — suddenly boil over: I’m often surprised by how much anger there is in Allen’s films and how good he is at writing and directing argument scenes. The films he makes are about people’s emotional lives, generally set in a cultural milieu he knows: people who are civilised but discontented, who are affluent and intelligent but whose materialist comfort seems to offer them no guarantee of worldly satisfaction, who find love and fidelity so hard. ‘For all my education and so-called wisdom,’ says Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, ‘I can’t fathom my own heart.’

To quote the playwright Conor McPherson on Allen: ‘He’s one of the very few filmmakers who combine rare technical innovation with a disarming ability to dramatise the deep inner states that cause human beings so much complexity. Among his many preoccupations,’ he goes on, ‘is man’s inability to accept love and beauty in his life — as to do so is to welcome the attendant notions of responsibility and mortality.’ He cites the scene in Manhattan when Allen ineptly breaks off the relationship with the young Mariel Hemingway as the most poignant and painful example of that, where the latter’s unconditional love is the hardest kind of love to accept because it confers a responsibility on the recipient that can be hard to deal with and an estimation of himself that the recipient cannot accept. My prime example of this would be the whole Sean Penn/Samantha Morton relationship in Sweet and Lowdown, and the devastating consequences of the man’s inability to cope with the woman’s devotion, culminating in the moving final scene between them, when I suspect she misleads him about her situation out of compassion and where he belatedly realises what in human terms his selfishness might have cost him. Has Sean Penn ever done a more moving piece of acting on screen than in that scene? Has anyone ever chewed more pensively and poetically on a sandwich than Samantha Morton there?

Well, I will leave those tantalising questions dangling in the air, and bring this talk to a conclusion by reminding you of the ending of Love and Death. There are many of the things I’ve been talking about: the use of classical music (in this case, Prokofiev); the prominence of Death (he makes an actual corporeal appearance in at least three films); the anguish of love, or as one character puts it, ‘to love is to suffer’; the pastiche and parody of both a Russian classic and the cinema of Ingmar Bergman (allusions in this sequence to The Seventh Seal and Persona); and a final philosophical reflection on the meaning of life, which concludes that God is not evil, but an underachiever. He goes out with a flourish, literally dancing with Death, but the questions he raises about the meaning of existence are still being pursued more than thirty years later; and whilst Allen continues to average a film a year, we most assuredly have not yet heard his last word on the matter.

By Neil Sinyard

© Copyright Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.

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