Monday, August 18, 2008

Director Series: WOODY ALLEN

(in celebration of Vicky Cristina Barcelona)

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA marks Woody Allen’s 40th feature film. In honour of the little man with the enormous influence, Black Sheep Reviews presents its first ever director series. Allen has always strived to produce one film per year and while working all the time might alleviate some of his neuroses with mortality, it doesn’t always make for great cinema. Still, there is no denying Allen’s unique cinematic voice and his place amongst the greatest directors of all time.

His recent offerings have been spotty at best, with exceptions like his aforementioned latest as well as the modern masterwork, MATCH POINT, standing out as reminders of his genius. And so Black Sheep Reviews looks back for a moment at three of his most distinguished offerings, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986), ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979), while still looking forward to what Allen has planned for the future.

As a writer, Allen gets to take all of the thoughts in his head and throw them up on the screen for the world to over analyze. In HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, he gives us a handful of characters and lets us into their heads instead. The simple argument there would be how all of Allen’s characters are essentially extensions of his own psyche but this particular film is so feminine that it transcends his trademark intellectual masturbation. Hannah (Mia Farrow) has it all, or so it would seem from an observer’s point of view. She left a successful acting career on the stage to have children and raise her family. Her sisters on the other hand (Dianne Wiest and Barbra Hershey) can’t seem to get it in line and rely heavily on her stability. Only, while she picks up their messes, she keeps her own inside and everyone assumes that she’s just fine. Even Allen makes the same mistake, as he doesn’t give her as much screen time as the others, presuming they need the attention more. Just because you can take care of yourself though doesn’t mean you don’t have fears. Luckily, anything can be rationalized away in our own heads.

From the internal to the explicitly external nine years prior, Allen gave the world his masterpiece, ANNIE HALL. For me, there is no other picture that has better captured the dynamics of a difficult relationship than the story of Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). At this stage in his career, he felt that he wanted to take steps toward more deeper, personal films. The fourth wall is constantly being broken, split screens allow characters to comment on each others’ dialogue without having to be there, and Allen even elevated his cinematic approach with long, continuous shots with characters coming in and out of the frame. Allen chooses to reveal the details –good, bad or transplendent – of the central relationship entirely out of sequence. This way, we get to see all the parts as one, allowing for a more profound understanding of how these two individuals came together and what eventually drove them apart. Allen has never been more celebrated than with this film and never has he deserved it more. His decisions are brave and his honesty is refreshing and revealing. ANNIE HALL is timeless.

Two years after winning the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for ANNIE HALL, Allen gave us MANHATTAN. It is no secret that Allen is a devout New Yorker and he opens this film as though it were a cinematic love letter to his hometown. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is the soundtrack to the opening sequence, which, in charcoal tinged black and white, frames countless New York spots, both known to tourists and known to locals only. The whole while, Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, narrates in voice over about how he and the city are intrinsically linked in order to establish the first chapter and tone of his book. What follows is the fodder of that book – an exploration of the ethical decline of perhaps humanity, but more specifically, New Yorkers. It is Davis’s belief, and one that he is not immune to, that Manhattanites create dramatic scenarios in their lives in order to avoid feeling anything genuine with themselves or another person – that Manhattan itself offers so much distraction that one isn’t capable of returning one’s focus back to what is right in front of them. This is, after all, where one can find all the answers if one can stop long enough to look.

Woody Allen likes to make his quips about the banalities of television or the superiority of New York over Los Angeles or the ridiculous nature of awards. He comes across as neurotic, overly cerebral and pessimistic but when you really spend some time with him, or at least the versions of him he gives us in his films, you realize that this isn’t entirely true. He is in fact overly neurotic and only slightly cerebral. Kidding, it’s just a little a joke for one of my favorite jokers. In all seriousness though, to call him a pessimist is prematurely dismissive. After all, would a pessimist keep trying as hard as Allen does to understand?

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