Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Three Films by Woody Allen (and Ingmar Bergman)

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 HarryInteriors 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.

This is all brought to the forefront in one of the film's best scenes when Stapleton discusses a play that the family has seen. As the characters played wonderfully by Diane Keaton and Richard Jordan, Mary Beth Hurt and Sam Waterston, and E.G. Marshall all discuss the themes and intellectual subtexts of a play about the ambiguities of war crimes (at least that's what I gathered the play was about) Stapleton interrupts with her rather blunt and pedestrian assessment of what they saw. For her there is no ambiguity…she asks "you cared about the rat?" And Jordan replies with a smirk…"it's not that simple." She replies…"I don't know, I guess you're either a rat or you're not." This lack of metacognitive thinking baffles the family and they give her a pity smile and move on with the evening. She is seen as not just a simpleton but as a "Vulgarian", a woman they think is beneath their father's status…obviously the daughters do not approve of this new woman in their fathers life. For Stapleton's character the interpretation of the play is much simpler, and it's a refreshingly blunt insight for a family that goes on and on with their pretensions, for a family that needs new life breathed into it. Allen even takes the metaphor further when he has Stapleton breathe life into Hurt's character as she almost drowns in the ocean. It's the intermixing of the vulgar with the aesthete, and as we see Stapleton's red scarf wavering against the drab beach weather it's the moment that signifies her initiation into the family. As one mother passes (the drab, sterile mother), a new one enters by literally breathing new life into her step-daughter.

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.

When Allen's film focuses its attention on this specific quandary – the idea of long-married couples seeking "something else", and how that "something else" is often not what we think it is – that is when the film is its most interesting. However, I think the film kind of meanders a bit, and I didn't find this rendition of Allen doing Bergman as interesting as his 1978 film Interiors. Husbands and Wives isn't as overt an homage as Interiors was (Allen's doing Scenes from a Marriage here, and in one scene he does an eerily similar scene that comes from Bergman's film when Judy and Gabe argue about a reluctance to share poetry, only the genders are flipped in Allen's film), but the major difference between the two films is the style: Interiors allows for contemplation through silence and a subdued aesthetic, Husbands and Wives is appropriately more talky; however, I just didn't care for a lot of the interview segments. I felt like they kept stunting and interrupting the real Allen movie that was trying to come out from under the weight of the verite style that almost sinks this film. That style is one of the main reasons I didn't find myself as interested in the psyches of Jack and Sally or Gabe and Judy as I did with the three sisters and their unstable mother in Interiors. Also, where Allen's playfulness with the medium and his use of asides works in something light and breezy like his use of the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite, it just doesn't feel like it meshes here with the material he's presenting. I would have much rather just followed these characters around New York and seen how their lives unfolded instead of watching them being interviewed. Sometimes these things work in Allen's film (like the footage of the philosophy professor in Crimes and Misdemeanors) and sometimes they don't…what I always appreciate about Allen is that he's willing to try.

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.

Deconstructing Harry

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 guess the point is that I'm not supposed to like Block, but if Block is supposed to be Allen then I just can't buy it because I have a hard time not liking Allen when he plays the lovable loser he so often portrays. Block doesn't seem like a charming or witty guy – at least not compared to other Allen characters – and perhaps that's why the film just didn't work as a whole for me. But there are some great moments. I liked when Harry reminisces about his meeting Elisabeth Shue in an elevator in the film's sweetest scene, and a moment that is eerily reminiscent to a moment from one of his books (and sometimes we're not sure what it is we're seeing as the lines between reality, fiction, and memories are often blurred). I also quite liked the moment where one of the characters from his book (Robin Williams) is feeling like he's losing his focus on life, so when the character – an actor – is on set and ready to shoot he appears in soft focus to everyone. He goes home and his wife (Julie Kavner) wonders what's wrong with him (his children taunt him that he's "out of focus"), and by the next morning it has gotten worse and realizes that he needs to see a doctor. Later in the film Block becomes "out of focus" and "soft". Moments like these, and the film's charming and recognizable cast, liven up this dour and self-deprecating film (Shue is really a beacon of light throughout) that never rises above "okay." The last moment of the film – where Harry realizes that his art is perhaps a necessary evil – contains the best and most appropriate self-reflexive line when Harry's narration informs us that "writing saved his life."

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.


  1. Sydney Pollack was so great in H & W--I mean, that scene when he drags his girlfriend out of a party because she's blathering about astrology to his friends? Ouch!--that when he died, I was saddened not because he wouldn't direct anymore films but because he wouldn't *act* in them.

    This is an amazing post, although I definitely liked H & W more than you did. In the theater that shaky cam was deeply unsettling; I didn't like the film much but it grew on me thru' the '90s watching it over and over on VHS. It's got some of Mia's best acting. Haven't seen it in some time though; wonder if it'd hold up for me.

  2. Personally I love all three of these films and think to just see them as Bergman tributes is maybe not given them full credit, especially when September and Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy lend themselves more to Bergman then I think Husbands and Wives or Deconstructing Harry do. Despite that you raise excellent points on all three films and it is interesting to see why you disliked these two films that I like very much. Great post.

  3. Husbands and Wives flaws are made up for with Sydney Pollack's epic fight, "GET INTO THE FUCKING CAR YOU INFANT!"

    I like Deconstructing Harry more then most people. To me I see it as both a criticism of Allen's persona and Phillip Roth' work, which puts him well outside of Allen's comfort zone.

    I still need to see Interiors. But for my money anything that serves as a punchline for one of Kid's In The Hall's greatest jokes can't be discounted.

  4. Hey Guys ---

    Sorry I haven't been able to respond in full. Things have been crazy for me lately. I just wanted to send this comment to say thanks for reading and for the kind words in regards to the post. It was fun to write and think about, and you all bring up some great points about these "different" kind of Allen pictures.