My HD Starz and MGM channels offered up numerous Woody Allen choices a few months back. I just got to them on the DVR, and of the three films I decided to record – Interiors, Husbands and Wives, and Deconstructing Harry – Interiors was the only one I had seen. I was excited to fill in some gaps of my list of Allen films I have yet to see (there's still probably 10-15 on the list), and even though I didn't love all of the films, I was certainly glad that I experienced them. Coincidentally I recorded three films that share one thing in common: they're three examples of Allen paying homage to his master Ingmar Bergman (I swear I didn't plan this). One of these films is a brilliant tribute, the other a mediocre homage, and the third an uneven misfire that hangs loosely by a thread connecting it to Bergman.
Interiors is Woody Allen's first attempt at doing Bergman, and it's a lot more successful than his attempt at homaging other foreign auteurs that influenced him. And out of the lot of experiments that Allen released in the late 70's/early 80's Interiors is easily his most impressive (in both aesthetics and narrative) and intriguing (although I do think Zelig is vastly underrated).
The film is overtly Bergmanesque but it's not mere apery, it's a labor of love, something you can sense was necessary for Allen to make and his passion for his master is palpable. The film – a story about three sisters having to "deal with" their ailing, mentally unstable mother – has the same static, stark power found in something like Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage. The three sisters obviously have buried secrets and jealousies, and there is also some buried animosity towards their perfectionist mother (Geraldine Page in the best performance of the movie), who after being told in a matter-of-fact way by her husband (E.G. Marshall) at a family dinner that he is leaving her, is one step away from complete insanity. The three daughters also worry about their father's decision to so quickly re-marry, but that concern is interrupted one night by the almost vulgar and jarring introduction of Marshall's new wife played by Maureen Stapleton, who comes in with her bright colors (specifically her lipstick and red dresses and scarves), belief in "pedestrian" things like fortune telling (which is quite different for this pretentious family), and comments on the sterile, drabness of the house their mother decorated.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that there's nothing really thrown in for effect here. I like what Roger Ebert said in his original review for the film stating that the film has the starkness and simplicity of a "J.D. Salinger short story." Interiors does indeed work to a great effect because of that simplicity: the nuances and the moments of silence allow for the audience to contemplate what the hidden truths and buried hurts of this family might be. Yes, the silence is reminiscent of Bergman…and yes the film is "serious", but it's never boring or plodding. The film is Allen doing Bergman, but it's still Allen's film with his keen perception on things, only this time instead of Allen's attention focusing on the awkwardness or failings of conventional relationships Allen turns his lens upon a tortured family. I think it's one of Allen's best and most interesting films, and deserves to be considered one of the master's canonical films alongside Annie Hall and Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Husbands and Wives
With Husbands and Wives Allen is trying to do the avant garde thing employing interviews, zooms, shaky-cam, and jump cuts. I understand what he's doing and why he's doing it, but I think ultimately it's an experiment gone wrong, or more specifically an experiment that goes on too long. Had the film been even ten minutes shorter (preferably 20 minutes) I think it would have been more than something that comes off as merely tolerable, lesser Woody.
The dialogue, more often than not, feels like lesser Allen and so I think I was disinterested in a lot of the scenes and therefore noticing the camera work of Carlo Di Palma (Allen veteran and DP of Blowup)…which isn't a good thing with this particular film. The shaky-cam is only effective (like in a Dardenne film for example) when the material is wholly engrossing, and in this case this is some of Allen's least interesting material. The shaky, single shot that opens the film is interesting and jarring, succeeding in that verite style (the film is essentially a mix of fly-on-the-wall moments and confessional interviews by an unseen director) I think Allen is going for (channeling a little bit of Cassavetes as well as Bergman…which is to be expected when Allen ventures into the dramatic). But what makes it interesting is what the characters are saying, thus not drawing too much attention to the (lack of) style of Di Palma's camera. The film opens with Jack (Sydney Pollack who is the best part of this film…which is usually the case when Pollack shows up in a movie) and Sally (the always wonderfully neurotic Judy Davis who utters the film's most truthful and shattering line about long-term relationships when she calls it "a buffer zone against loneliness.") meeting Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) for dinner when before they leave for their evening out on the town Jack and Sally drop the bomb that they are separating. This shatters the "safe" universe of Judy who can't wrap her head around the idea of their longtime friends – a longtime couple – deciding to go their separate ways. This moment acts as the catalyst for a lot of typical Allen goings-on, only this time seen through a more subdued and "serious" lens. The film follows the four main characters as they embark on different journeys in hopes to find happiness; whether that happiness is wit someone else – someone younger – or whether that happiness is working on your vocation, or whether that happiness is realizing that the person you're with is the right person for you because you realize it's not all about "excitement" – sexual or otherwise.
The film has some wonderful insights and quips about relationships that we come to expect from the Woodman, but on the whole I felt the film wasn't the "underrated masterpiece" I was kind of expecting (especially based on some reviews I read when I saw the movie was going to be an HD option for me this month); however, it's a fine addition to the second tier of Allen films like Another Woman or Radio Days that don't get the attention that Allen's heavyweight films(Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the obvious Annie Hall)or more commercial pieces (his recent Match Point and Vickie Christina Barcelona). Husbands and Wives has its moments (I especially like when the older, aloof professor Gabe is totally oblivious about a potential relationship with a 21 year-old student and the relationship between Pollack and Davis) and the acting – especially by Pollack and Davis – is top notch, but it left me a little cold…not the kind of consistently keen observational or darkly contemplative stuff found in other "serious" Allen films like the aforementioned Crimes and Misdemeanors or Interiors. Regardless, if you're a fan of Allen and you're like me and haven't seen this addition to the master's oeuvre then you should at least check it out as it has moments of the typical perceptive Allen dialogue mixed with an interesting – if wholly uneven – verite aesthetic.
I understand the self-reflective reading one can take with this film, but I figured since it's 2010 that would be the most uninteresting thing to talk about in regards to Allen's film.
This self-loathing, interpolated tale about writer Harry Block journeying to his alma mater to receive an honorary award – remembering his accomplishments and his family and friends along the way – is loosely based on Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Through the Glass Darkly (the film is also reminiscent of 8 ½ with Allen's Block conjuring up all of the characters of his life as he struggles to work through his creative stagnation) albeit with an Allen twist: the school that's honoring him is also the school that kicked him out for not being serious about academics. That's probably the funniest thing about the movie. Unlike a lot of Allen's labors of love to his masters this one ultimately falls flat. Not only is this the weakest tribute of his to Bergman, but it's also essentially a rehash of his 1980 homage to Fellini's 8 ½,
Stardust Memories. This is probably the deepest and most public cut Allen has ever made – writhing and flogging himself for our amusement in a way he hasn't before – and the vulgarity begins to wear thin after awhile.
Block is having trouble thinking of ideas for a new novel (hence his name), and as the day of his honoring approaches he interacts with the real and imagined people of his life – fictional or not they're all characters. A lot of the detours didn't work (the film opens with a vulgar Judy Davis in hysterics, a horrible role for an always reliable actress; also the moment with Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci or Tobey Maguire getting a visit from Death) for me (although most are too short to be truly awful) and oddly enough the comedy felt too broad – too revue-style or Mel Brooksian for my liking – for an Allen film. Allen returns to his looser, more innovative style of comedy here that reminds one of his earlier, more anarchistic works like Annie Hall or Sleeper where the detours felt fresh, and even though they drew attention themselves at least they were worth paying attention to. In Deconstructing Harry Allen seems to get lost in all the meandering and interpolation, causing the film to feel like a series of shorts rather than a coherent film.
Deconstructing Harry feels oddly out of place considering it followed some of Allen's "tamer" films of the 90's, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I love You (one of my favorite Allen films), and Mighty Aphrodite. That doesn't mean it was doomed from the start just because Allen wanted to get vitriolic and depraved – hell, he deserves it after the public beatings he took in during the 90's – but this just isn't the kind of Allen I like, and the problems I had with his other 90's Bergman homage, Husbands and Wives, dissipate when I begin to think about this film as a whole…I just didn't like Harry and I didn't care to stick around with him for 90 minutes.
I can appreciate Allen's vision here, and I guess I understand why he's doing what he's doing, but I felt like the film was good in theory – a cathartic process via an appropriate Bergman template – but just couldn't rise to the level of Allen's other famous homages to European autuers Bergman and Fellini. Interiors is the best because it feels like a labor of love; Husbands and Wives felt like a necessary self-reflexive exercise with some really good moments that contain genuine humor and insights; Deconstructing Harry feels the most flaccid and paltry and overt out of the three with humor that feels too broad for Allen, who misfires with this one. I actually liked his Celebrity, which came out the next year, a lot more.