Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The evolution of Woody Allen

Woody Allen once said something to the effect that if one of his films performed well at the box office, he must have done something wrong. Few of Allen's films have achieved the financial success of which he has been so skeptical. Even Annie Hall, despite it going on to tackle Star Wars at the Academy Awards, fared only modestly in its box office returns. Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris, recently became the director's top-grossing effort and —at roughly $50 million in box office returns— must be considered one of the big surprises of the summer movie season. Some pundits may attribute this to the cast of Hollywood heavyweights, including Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams. But Woody Allen has always managed to attract big name actors, and Midnight in Paris is no different in this regard. So what do high box office number say about a filmmaker who has famously rejected the corporate side of his industry?

This question got me thinking about Woody Allen and his films, particularly his most recent work. Much has been written about the director, from his penchant for psychoanalysis and existential questions, as well as his emulating of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. But very little attention has been paid to the filmmaker's recent work and how how it reflects on the his career and sensibilities as a filmmaker. In light of Midnight in Paris's unexpected run this audiences this summer, now is as good a time as any to take a closer look at Allen's directorial sensibilities through the prism of his recent output.

In the late 1970's and 1980's, Woody Allen was on the forefront of American auteurs, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese. His public persona was that of a New York intellectual with a biting sense of humor and a neurotic screen persona. Some would argue that Allen regards the characters in his films with a disdainful eye. This is channeled through the main protagonist (often played by Allen) or in how the filmmaker writes and frames characters. However, despite what appears to be a cynical outlook, many of his films offer a distinct kind of lyricism to which little attention has been paid in writing about Allen. While he has long been preoccupied with existential questions and the illogical nature of life and love, Allen has balanced this outlook of humanity with a sense of hope and wish fulfillment in spite of his own persistent acknowledgement of the absurdity of such things. The Purple Rose of Cairo, for example, melds artifice and romanticism in what is essential a love letter to the magic of movies and to the fleeting innocence into which the movies invite us. Allen also delves headfirst into explicitly romantic and nostalgic imagery in Radio Days and Manhattan. Even in darker films is embedded a benevolence and longing for happiness and meaning. For example, Hannah and Her Sisters, despite offering its share of harsh observations on family dysfunction and communications, delivers an unexpectedly beautiful moment, when Allen's character, after a failed suicide attempt, goes to see the Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup. Upon seeing the elaborate set pieces of dancing and singing, Mickey has a profound realization of why life is worth living. These kinds of moments in Allen's films assert the filmmaker's belief that through all the struggles and illogical components, life offers joys and allows each of us to infuse it with the the meaning we wish for it.

In the past 20 years, Allen's public image changed dramatically and his relevance as a leading voice in American cinema has since waned. Despite his personal scandal involving Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, Allen kept to his rigorous filmmaking schedule, averaging about one movie per year as he had done his whole career. After a few critical darlings in the mid-90's, like Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and Everyone Says I Love You, and a couple of overwhelmingly dark works, such as Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry, Allen settled into a mold of predictable, harmless comedy that has cemented the general perception toward his recent work. This stretch roughly spanned 1998 to 2004 and included works such as Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Anything Else, and Melinda and Melinda. These films seemed like a step back for Woody Allen, as if was tired of making serious or ambitious films. They seemed almost like 90-minute versions of one of the director's comedic short stories or stand-up jokes. Tonally consistent with Allen's established visual and narrative style, these works are largely anemic and absent of the humor and observation that characterized so many of his previous works. I must admit I find a few of these works to be moderately enjoyable, such as Jade Scorpion and Melinda and Melinda, but this period cemented Allen's new image as withered, aged man still pumping out movie after movie just to keep busy.

Allen regained the attention of both his critics and critics at large with Match Point, which was considered something of a departure from his recent lighter fare and a return to old thematic threads in the director's oeuvre. Set in Great Britain and featuring a young cast, the film doesn't look like your typical Allen film. But those familiar with the filmmaker's sensibilities had little trouble identifying traits that were undeniably Allen. Match Point is an examination of class structures, chance, and sexual desire, among other things. Allen's aesthetic and narrative preoccupations have been more akin to those of Alfred Hitchcock in more ways than is typically acknowledged, and Match Point revitalizes these preoccupations with clarity. Woodyphiles often jokingly refer to it as a remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors, in that it tells the story of a man having an affair, who, upon faced with losing his status, arranges for the murder of his mistress. But this assessment is somewhat unfair, particularly in light of how differently the films deal with their similar plots. Where Crimes and Misdemeanors dealt more directly with Judah Rosenthal's (Martin Landau) guilt and his realization that he needed to protect his privileged status, Match Point depicts a young man, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), inches away from marrying into the protected British upper class who then meets and begins an affair with lower-class American woman, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Both men are eventually faced with unstable women who threaten reveal their respective affairs.

Despite these similarities, the differences between these two films are more notable. Crimes and Misdemeanors focuses on guilt and allows Judah to maintain distance from the murder of his mistress. In his exchange with Allen's character at the end of the film, Judah goes on to explain how the guilt is eventually lifted when he realizes he has a family and a life of wealth and privalage that make him happy. He moves on from the past, but he never appears to be at peace with it, despite recognizing that the eyes of God may not be watching him. Match Point, however, more explicitly probes the raw sexuality and violence of its proceedings. Social class is important to both films, but Match Point is not only more raw but more cynical, as it weaves this narrative around the basic thematic notion of chance. Chris kills Nola as well as an elderly neighbor in ugly fashion. And he gets away with it because he didn't properly dispose of all of the evidence. Thus, where Crimes and Misdemeanors acknowledges the ugliness of the world and of some people in it, the film is searching for some kind of answer. It asks questions about how a man can live with himself who has committed such heinous acts. And Match Point, with its analogy to tennis early in the film, uses this to serve up a punchline. It's not asking how a man can do this, but instead makes a point about the the absurdity of reason and the silliness of morality.

Examining Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point side by side represents a good starting point for understanding how Woody Allen has changed in both his storytelling and filmmaking interests. Some more signs of both his evolution and repeated tendencies are evident in his latest entry, which also piqued the interests of audiences. Allen makes no such grand statements regarding the absurdity of life or the triviality of rigid morals with Midnight in Paris. Instead, he tells a simple story a struggling writer who retreats into a fantasy world of literary past. Like in Match Point, the central character, Gil (Owen Wilson) is detached from his lover and her family, except rather than being tempted by the sexual prowess of a woman he is entranced by a world populated with famous literary figures and icons of art. The more he slips into this world —Paris circa 1920's— Gil becomes more estranged from the established structures of his life. Eventually, he comes to the realization that romanticism can be a corrupting force and that to focus on the great works of the past blinds one's ability to live in the present. By the end, he breaks off his engagement and takes to the streets of Paris in a move of bold romanticism that never quite feels genuine given how the film fosters suspiciousness for it.

Structurally and thematically, Match Point and Midnight in Paris serve as decent recapitulations of Allen's evolved style, which departs from some of his established tropes. Allen's most significant evolution (most significantly on display in Match Point) is that his films are more about the punchline. If you look at the endings of films Allen has directed in the last 10 to 12 years, most of cut to black after some kind of clever punchline mean to sum up the proceedings. Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, Cassandra's Dream, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; they all end on a similarly dark humorous edge. In terms of his broader approach, Allen still jumps from serious dramas of murder and betrayal (such as Cassandra's Dream) to farcical absurdist comedies (like Scoop). In these works the subtle differences in Allen's sensibilities become more clear when comparing them to his older films. His sense of structuring remains consistent in that he frequently provides closure or some kind of grand statement. Late Allen, however is less searching and more concise, and arguably more cynical. He is clearly still preoccupied with many of the same questions as he has been his entire career, but the sense of benevolence and romanticism that marked earlier films is largely absent in his recent fare. Allen is much more skeptical of such things now, which is bluntly stated in Midnight in Paris. And Even Whatever Works, which adopts a more positive approach toward the meaninglessness of life, does so rather half-heartedly.

Where Allen's earlier films offered a more probing and longing for meaning (despite their acknowledgement that the universe inherently contains none). His earlier films were more in search of something. The time period drom Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors, in particular, Allen often told stories with many characters and packaged themes through network narratives. This afforded him much opportunity for the big ending, often through montage of images over dialogue or music that thematically weaves the many threads of a given film together. Allen's observations mostly represented his own sense of searching and desire for meaning and/or happiness.

In recent years, Allen has stayed within the same structural and thematic frameworks, but examination of his recent films shows how he has modified these elements over time. This has resulted in films that are more direct with their messages, less ambitious, and by turn more cynical. Also, Allen attempts to assume less of a role of master narrator and more intimately observes a smaller group of characters. He is most effective when he is in neither a specifically dramatic or comedic mode, but hovering somewhere in the middle. In these works, underneath Allen's predictable stylistic tendencies are intimate portraits of aching souls looking for direction and trying to grasp their own identities. The two recent films most emblematic of this trend are Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. The characters in these films gain some kind of clarity through their experiences in eccentrism (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) or fantasy (Midnight in Paris). They are searching for something that they don't quite understand. Yes, many of the same markers are still there (such as a the character trapped in a loveless marriage), but Allen appears more interested in the yearning of these characters, most of whom gain understanding of who they are not rather than who they are. Allen's tendency to wrap things up tidy is still present in his later works, along with a penchant for quick punchlines. But these are counterbalanced by a sense of closure that opens up more pathways and questions that the characters may not be ready to face. Thus, the best of these films achieve a level of subtle reflexivity with the interplay of more complex characters and the typical structural elements that have long defined Allen's films.

In addition, these films indicate Allen's evolution in bridging his aesthetic style with the characters. A good example of this is the heightened sense of sexuality in his newer films. Historically, Allen hadn't dealt with sex very well. Despite being preoccupied with it, Allen's visual senses have always been better suited for framing environments and locations rather than depicting the interaction of individual characters. But films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point deftly visualize passionate, forbidden sense of sexuality. Allen shoots the sex scenes in sumptuous colors and lighting and forges an intimacy with the characters that he has never approached in the past. This heightened sense of intimacy is not just between characters but in how the characters are framed and presented to the viewer. This is a development in Allen's career that nary warrants a mention from critics but gives his films the feeling of being less distant and observational.

Allen may always be a slave to his old traditions and sensibilities, but he has played with them and developed them in ways that has allowed him to achieve a more intimacy with his characters. He will likely never put out a film that radically rewrites our knowledge and grasp of his work. The steadfast (and some would say stubborn) consistency in Allen's work leaves the filmmaker open for criticism, but it also has fostered a legacy that few filmmakers will can ever achieve, especially when considering the range of narrative and filmmaking genres with which he was experimented. Some viewers have no doubt tired of his visual approach and talky characters, but a closer consideration of the underlying themes, concerns, and inquiries into life that characterize Allen's work reveal a director who is more interesting for how he tweaked and advanced these elements in various ways. Despite owing much to the writers, artists, and filmmakers he often cites in his work, Woody Allen has nonetheless crafted a style that is uniquely his own and that continues to evolve both in spite of and through the very consistencies that define his work.

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