Monday, November 21, 2011

Achieving Immortality Through Not Dying

"I married a very immature woman, it didn't work out. Tell me if you think this is immature: I'd be home, in the bathroom, taking a bath. She would walk in, whenever she felt like it, and sink my boats."

That, taken from an early Woody Allen stand-up routine, is a very good joke. I would argue that it's a great joke, though greatness is probably achieved through the delivery, something that, it goes without saying, is lost here. But either way, I think the joke is pretty stellar, and while I typically resist the temptation to explain why a particular joke strikes me as funny, I have to say that the writing of this, the self-contained nature of the joke, and the simple declarative nature of the punchline, paired with the implication that Allen believes this story will win you over to his side, renders the whole thing truly brilliant.

In Robert Weide's new three-and-a-half hour documentary Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide links that joke, without needing to strain himself too terribly much, with the fact that Allen's first marriage, to Harlene Rosen, occurred when both parties were teenagers. Which I think you'll agree gives the joke a whole other thing to think about, though frankly it doesn't make the joke funnier. It just makes you go "Oh, I see" and then move on. The joke is the kind that, if you find it funny (and I'll allow for the possibility that some of you don't), you're going to want to repeat it to others. I seriously doubt, and anyway sincerely hope this isn't the case, that anyone who chooses to repeat that joke to friends and also happens to know about Allen's past will follow up "...sink my boats" with "And did you know that the man who told that joke was married to..." That wouldn't help anybody.

All of this is perhaps slightly illustrative of the tension that has been present in Woody Allen's filmmaking career since the mid-70s, which is basically Allen's own repeatedly stated regret that his mind functions comedically first, and not just first but above all, rather than tragically. That is, creatively, so that his bone-deep gift is for the joke, and not the existential weight and philosophical profundity that he nakedly strives for and idolizes in other filmmakers. In Weide's documentary, Allen comments on the strangeness -- and you have to think he regards this as debilitating -- of his having been influenced primarily by Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Ingmar Bergman. I think "strange" is probably fair enough, although I'd say some version of that combination, with equivalent figures swapped out based on generational differences and what have you, is hardly unique. What's unique about Allen is his ability to make it work.

I came to Woody Allen through his comedy. Everybody who has ever been a fan of Allen, even if they eventually fell away, took the same basic route. Regardless of the fact that I believe there is a depth to Allen's best work that he himself doesn't believe is there, I still started with his early, funny ones. Which one, I couldn't tell you now, but I remember working backwards through Bananas and Take the Money and Run and Sleeper and Annie Hall, so I'm going to guess it was either one of two film which I still regard as among my favorites: Love and Death and Broadway Danny Rose. If you care to know how my top five Allen films gets rounded out, I'll tell you: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days. So pretty clearly, as far as Allen is concerned, I consider the 1980s to be the Salad Days. And I'll be honest, using these films, and also Zelig, probably, as my base, working back through his 70s stuff was mostly a disappointment. I would say that, obviously barring Love and Death, his greatest pure comedy, as well as Take the Money and Run (and What's Up, Tiger Lily?, while I'm at it), the movies by which Woody Allen made his bones and which are still considered by many to be among his greatest work strike me as being more evident of the kind of strain towards seriousness and Artistic Expression that others claim -- and in many cases I would probably agree -- mar a lot of his later films. It was years before I saw Manhattan, and now I would happily watch Cassandra's Dream again before it, if given the choice. Speaking of which, in Weide's film, Larry David talks about the impact Annie Hall had when it was first released, and says that his father, who'd seen it first, told him "Don't go see House of Wax!", which apparently he'd been out the door to check out before his dad stopped him. I like Annie Hall, and I'd still take House of Wax.

I like jokes, and I don't devalue them as Woody Allen does, or as anybody who shrugs off criticism of a bad comedy or bad comedian by saying "Comedy is subjective." The idea being that if you laugh, it's funny, and you can't force anyone to laugh at something they don't think is funny. Well, you can't force a boner on somebody either, but if crime scene pictures of the Black Dahlia case are doing it for you, you're wrong. So jokes matter, and there are levels of quality in jokes as there is in anything else. It can be difficult to see a comedian you admire turn his nose up at the entire world of humor simply because it comes so easily to him, and because he wishes he was better at something else. Another early experience I had with Allen's work was his three (at the time) books of comic writing, Without Feathers, Side Effects and Getting Even. In "The Scrolls", a piece in Without Feathers the conceit of which is that versions of famous Bible stories that differ significantly from the versions we know have been discovered, Allen wrote this line:

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on."

Reading that for the first time, it must have been the single funniest thing I'd ever read. Still, today, it's right up there. How is it possible that such a talent is not enough?

As it happens, that’s none of my business, and good thing, too, because (again, barring Love and Death) Allen is at his best when he finds some outlet for both sides of his brain. I should probably preface this statement with the confession that, phony superfan that I am, I have pretty much avoided Woody Allen’s completely serious films as if they’d been made by a filmmaker in whom I had no interest whatsoever. With the exception of Another Woman, which has thus far been enough (I am also somewhat familiar with “Interiors”, a basement-tape type song by Randy Newman, who regards the sort of infamous Woody Allen drama of the same name with some amount of sarcasm). I do not, let it be noted, count Allen’s latter-day crime films like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream in this not-actually-a-boycott, and in fact find them, though flawed, an entirely fascinating and welcome new-ish facet of Allen’s career. The only major problem with Match Point is that it never needed to be made at all, at least judging by Allen’s stated motive, which is that Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point being a remake of half of that film, is too funny. It, of course, isn’t too funny, so the problem seems to be that it’s funny at all, all of that funniness coming from the Woody Allen section. The Martin Landau section, the one that Allen thinks is worth anything, is a chilly tale of murder and guilt and, more importantly, the overcoming of that guilt in the face of a shrugging universe. The Woody Allen section, the one that Allen came to think hobbled the film overall, is a light-hearted bit of romantic comedy that involves heartbreak – unalleviated at film’s end, by the way – a particularly grotesque form of rape, and suicide. So what I’m saying is, Woody Allen is wrong about Crimes and Misdemeanors, mathematically and demonstrably (in fairness, as seen in Weide’s film, he seems to view Crimes and Misdemeanors somewhat differently and more affectionately now than his comments at the time of Match Point’s release would indicate). The film is funny, but the humor sort of chokes a little bit. And anyway, without the flashes of humor and even warmth that film has and Match Point does not, he would not have achieved the rather astonishing tone of hopeless optimism, or optimistic hopelessness, that is the film’s final note, and is of a complexity that Match Point can’t even comprehend.

Not that I can blame Woody Allen for being wary of his own impulses. By the time he made Crimes and Misdemeanors, he’d already made Hannah and Her Sisters, after all. That’s a film that, for many years, I would have placed among my favorites, but now I have to say that when I read Allen claim, as he does in Woody Allen on Woody Allen, a book-length interview with Stig Bj√∂rkman, that he had a failure of nerve on Hannah and Her Sisters, that he “copped out”…well, it’s true, he did. It’s not that the film is, in the end, happy. It’s the godddamn pregnancy. The ending of the film goes something like: I can’t ever get pregnant, oh wait yes I can, roll credits. The passage of time has revealed to me that this is objectively terrible. This is a shame, because there’s a lot that’s very nice about the film, a bit New-Yorker-up-his-own-ass, certainly, but funny, full of fine performances, and empathetic. It’s just that the harder edge Allen wishes he sometimes had would have really come in handy. When Allen derides his light and comic impulse as his greatest weakness, he’s not doing it just because he thinks comedy is a lesser form – I mean, he does, he’s said so, but he’s also been creatively harmed by it before. And Allen would never patronize to the comic abilities of Bob Hope or the Marx Brothers as he does to his own. Maybe this simply makes him a hypocrite, but see, too, Shadows and Fog, a film that I – perhaps only because of my personal tastes and interests, but still – believe could have been his masterpiece, but which manifestly isn’t. When Shadows and Fog is discussed, one thing that is never, as far as I can tell, remarked upon is the fact that it’s based on a one-act play Allen wrote called Death, which can be found in Without Feathers. This play is mostly the same as the film – both are funny, eerie tales of murder and vigilantism in some unnamed, early 20th century European town, possibly in Germany or Austria, mixed with questions of God and Godlessness, plus some other things, too. Setting aside the various digressions the film, with its longer script and running time, allows itself, Death and Shadows and Fog seem to follow the same path narratively, until you remember how Death ends, and how, in an early scene, Shadows and Fog removes any possibility that it will end the same way. Okay, but Death remains eerie right up through the ending, and Shadows and Fog…well, it loses its nerve, and it cops out. It actually becomes charming, of all things. This is not the desired outcome for a film such as this. Why would Allen purposely do himself in like that? He had an ending that he could have used and which would have been better, but he refused. For all the talk of Allen’s amazing position in the film world to do whatever he wants to do, did he or somebody else convince him that, in this case, nobody would accept his ending? Not coming from him, anyway? Whatever happened, Shadows and Fog does two things: one, it adds credence to Allen’s assessment that his natural-born wit sometimes gets in the way of his better artistic judgment; and two, it places all the blame on Allen and makes you think that maybe you’d rather he not complain about it, even in the modest, resigned way he does, if the examples offered are actually going to be acts of sabotage. It also makes me think of another short play by Allen, Death Knocks, which is not terribly closely related, but also not entirely unrelated to Death and Shadows and Fog, and I start to wish Allen could give up the struggle in favor of his particularly formidable gift. “Holy Christ, and I thought you were saving sixes.”

Which I suppose brings me to Broadway Danny Rose, my single favorite Woody Allen film. Viewed, I’m guessing, as an accomplished trifle by not just Allen but by the majority of his admirers, it is, for me, his single most moving film, and in the 80s, in particular, that was a crowded field, with Radio Days and Purple Rose of Cairo, to name but two. It’s also his funniest (again, although only possibly this time, barring Love and Death). And these two points, the emotional and the comic, are completely bound up in the character of Danny Rose, played by Allen. What Allen accomplishes with Danny Rose, as well as the various lowest-grade novelty acts for whom he is a sun, is pretty extraordinary. There’s an old saying that critics like to paraphrase, as do schoolkids trying to avoid getting in trouble, that goes “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.” When the schoolkid says this, he or she is lying, of course. When a critic uses some version of it, usually by saying it makes them feel uncomfortable to be offered characters in a comedy who are meant to be laughed at, he or she is revealing a few things, among them a lack of understanding of comedy, as well as their preferred use of movies, which is to allow them to feel superior to the filmmaker. Plus also, like the schoolkid, they’re lying. The films that practice laughing with tend to be engaged in some very shrewd self-mockery, an excellent and time-honored tradition, and they are exceedingly rare. I'm thinking, almost exclusively, of Albert Brooks here (there are more, and it can get a bit murky, but by and large...). Show me a comedy that’s made up of a bunch of people laughing together, with no derision or mockery stated or implied, and I’ll show you a movie that doesn’t exist, or at least is the worst comedy that has ever been made. To one degree or another, it’s almost always laughing at (the essential meaningless of the phrase “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you” reminds me of a family joke: “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing near you”). In Broadway Danny Rose, we’re laughing at Danny Rose constantly. But what cuts this is the fact that there’s a great deal of affection in that laughter – laughing at need not be acidic, which is a key point. But it can’t be laughing with, because Danny ain’t laughing. Hell, the movie even has us laughing at a guy with a stutter! Because he has a stutter! I don’t know, maybe all that means is that we, and Allen, all suck, but I never feel like anyone in Broadway Danny Rose is being condescended to, and when Danny gets stabbed in the back, it’s infuriating. Not just that, but Danny’s lovable cowardice does not mark him for sainthood, as a more condescending film would do. No, that cowardice lands an innocent man in the hospital, and Danny suffers the guilt he deserves. Broadway Danny Rose is human, and humane, and funny as shit. It certainly, for me, is more meaningful than Match Point, the film he made specifically as a corrective measure because he thought another film wasn't meaningful enough. It's strange to think that after forty years, Allen hasn't learned to just let things happen, and to seek profundity will almost ensure that you don't find it. Or that when you laugh at a really good joke, you're not laughing at nothing.


Patricia Perry said...

Bill -

This is a great post.

It's frustrating to me that Woody can't accept he has a genuine gift for comedy - but then, that tension between the natural comedian and would-be tragedian is what gives his best works their greateness.

After watching that great documentary, it's hard NOT to assess your appreciation of Woody's work. I think we all like to squabble about which are his greatest films - my top five would be ANNIE HALL, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, MANHATTAN, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, with about five other films vying for a very close sixth-place rating.

As you can see by that ranking, I am SO with you on BROADWAY DANNY ROSE. I didn't fully appreciate when I first saw, but it only gets better with repeated viewings.

Have you seen YOU WILL MEET A TALL, DARK STRANGER? I think that's been very underrated.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Pat. I feel like I had a lot more to see about all this, but couldnt' find a place for it. I suppose it's good that I paired it all down, even if it was unintentional. Those last few paragraphs sure are long.

To my mind, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE is nearly perfect. It evokes such a specific and interesting world, with the nightclub acts, and the comics telling the story at the Carnegie Deli, and the run from the mob taking them to the outskirts of New York, all in beautiful black and white and with an absolutely effortless humor. Plus one of the two best last shots in Allen's filmography, the other being, for me, not MANHATTAN, but CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.

I have not seen YOU WILL MEET A TALL, DARK STRANGER, but my wife and I instantly became curious while watching the documentary. I'll look into it ASAP.