Woody Allen
Woody Allen. His films can be amusing or interesting, but hardly ever are they moving. Photo by AFP
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“What a letdown,” someone said to me after the screening of the new Woody Allen movie, “To Rome with Love,” which opened the Jerusalem Film Festival earlier this month. “Yes, it was embarrassing,” I agreed. “No,” she said, “it was mostly sad.” I found the film more of an embarrassment, but I knew what she meant. She found it sad that a filmmaker she admired had turned out such a feeble work.

For many people, both here and around the world, Woody Allen can do no wrong. They like even his weaker films, finding in them testimony of his genius and reason to go on loving him. I understand them, too. If you like a creative artist, you connect even with his weakest work. A wise friend once told me about a weak film by a director I liked more than he did ‏(I remember it was Joseph Losey but I can’t recall which film‏): He said I would enjoy the movie more than him because I would be able to connect with it more, and he was right.

As for Allen, even when I enjoyed and even admired some of his films, I never connected to his work the way I did with the work of many other directors. No new Woody Allen film ever stirred my curiosity the way every new film by Roman Polanski or Clint Eastwood does, for example ‏(I am deliberately choosing directors who are more or less from his generation‏). And that is not because Polanski and Eastwood don’t make comedies, as many people will probably say, thinking that film critics are put off by entertainment.

There are other reasons for my attitude, and I will try to set them forth in this article. My aim is actually to explain why Allen’s downfall in his new film did not really come as a surprise.

There are many good sides to Woody Allen’s work. He follows his own path and goes his own way, without reckoning with the changes that have taken place in the film industry since the 1960s, when he made his first movie ‏(“What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” from 1966‏). He makes low-budget films which, even if they fail, do not affect his ability to make his next film.

He works a great deal and works fast, so if one film is disappointing, there is another on standby. I have always been a fan of directors who work in this way, such as France’s Claude Chabrol and Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Allen also often made me laugh. I remember affectionately how he is turned into a rabbi as a result of a medical experiment he undergoes in jail in “Take the Money and Run” ‏(1969‏), and marches in a parade with a cello in the same film. Nor will I forget Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” ‏(1992‏) suggesting that a work by Gustav Mahler be abridged. Or Dianne Wiest as an arrogant theater star in “Bullets over Broadway” ‏(1994‏), who dramatically keeps demanding of her young suitor − a novice playwright who wants to express his love for her − “Don’t talk.”

Allen has been doing his thing, and doing it his way, for nearly 50 years, and that’s terrific. The problem is the way he chose.

Hostility and surprise

I met Woody Allen twice, both times with other reporters from various countries. The first time was in 2005 after the release of “Match Point” − the first of the films he made in England and one of his most interesting works of recent years. ‏(The second time was after a Cannes Film Festival screening of “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” in 2010.‏)

In the 2005 meeting, I twice got the feeling of a certain hostility toward me on his part. And not because I am from Israel − he did not ask where each journalist was from. The first time − a reserved hostility − was when I asked him whether in “Match Point” he was referring consciously to the British cinematic tradition in which members of the working class will do anything to clamber up the social ladder. A notable example: Jack Clayton’s kitchen-sink drama “Room at the Top” ‏(1959‏). Allen replied affirmatively, but I got the impression that he did not enjoy admitting this and thought I was accusing him of imitation in some way.

The second instance of hostility was more acute. He talked about the characters in the film and emphasized particularly their dubious sides. I then asked him whether he felt any love, or even a degree of identification or empathy, for the characters in “Match Point” or in his films as a whole. “No!” he replied decisively and aggressively, and gave me a surprised look, as though unable to understand the source of this weird question from the stranger sitting to his right.

In fact, apart from a few cases – such as the character of Tracy, the high-school student played by Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan” ‏(1979‏) – I never got the sense that Allen feels anything for the characters in his films. It’s easier for him to ridicule them than to love them or identify with them; and if not to ridicule them, then to treat them with condescending remoteness. ‏(I will return to the issue of condescension in Allen’s films and ignore the fact that the most empathetic female character in his whole oeuvre is an adolescent girl.‏)

Reaching the summit

My first film experience of Woody Allen was “What’s New Pussycat?” ‏(1965‏), made by the British director Clive Donner. This was Allen’s first screen appearance, in which he played an amusing supporting role of a typical nebbish, and for which he wrote the screenplay ‏(though he would later allege that Donner had completely twisted it out of shape‏).

I enjoyed the film very much and saw it a few times. Today I find it a little archaic but still with some very funny scenes ‏(particularly those featuring Peter Sellers, who plays a psychiatrist who is wackier than his patients, and Paula Prentiss as a stripper who is also a poet with suicidal tendencies‏). Motifs that would appear in films directed by Allen ‏(especially those dealing with men-women relations‏) are already discernible in the movie.

The first films that Allen directed − notably “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas” ‏(1971‏) and “Sleeper” ‏(1973‏) − were very funny. As I did not know then what direction his career would take, I thought at the time that Allen lacked the cinematic comic audacity of, say, the actor and director Jerry Lewis. ‏(I did not see Allen’s first film as a director, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” until some years later.‏)
“Love and Death” ‏(1975‏) was an amusing pastiche at the expense of 19th-century Russian literature. However, despite a few excellent scenes, the film was somewhat tiresome.

And then, in 1977, Allen released “Annie Hall,” which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. Allen won the award as best director and shared the Oscar for best original script with Marshall Brickman. Two years later came “Manhattan,” whose screenplay he also cowrote with Brickman. Since then, Allen has been at the summit, admired in almost every country ‏(and idolized in France‏) as one of the most important contemporary filmmakers.

Thirty-five years on, “Annie Hall” remains Allen’s most complete film. The conceptual and emotional limitations that characterized most of his films are less visible here. It is also more complete in terms of the shaping of the characters and their relation to each other. It is also one of Allen’s few films to say something enduring about the relations between men and women.

Much of the film’s success is due to the shaping of Annie’s character and to Diane Keaton’s performance in the title role. Her “La-di-da, la-di-da, la la” became part of our collective memory and still evokes a smile. “Manhattan,” too, has its virtues, but has the same flaws that constrict Allen’s work and prevent him, in my view, from occupying a truly significant place in the history of cinema.

Between those two formative works, Allen made his first serious feature, “Interiors” ‏(1978‏). Beginning with the title, it sounds and looks like a parody of “serious high art” that Allen could have written at the outset of his career. ‏(In fact, I find some of his published writing to be among his most successful work.‏) One of Allen’s idols, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, had already entered the picture, so to speak, in a parodic scene in “Love and Death.” In “Interiors” he penetrates more deeply but this time with abysmal seriousness, to the point where − despite a few impressive scenes, performed by a fine ensemble cast − the film sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

Bergman also looms large in Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” ‏(1982‏), which is some sort of homage to the Swedish director’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” ‏(1955‏) − one of the most brilliant and moving comedies in the history of cinema. Before this, in 1980, Allen’s “Stardust Memories” had been a form of homage to the 1963 drama “8 1/2,” by the Italian director Federico Fellini, another of his idols.

Does Allen say something truly meaningful about the sources of his cinematic influence and admiration in these films? Doesn’t the paleness of “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” compared to the brilliance of “Smiles of a Summer Night,” attest to Allen’s limitation as a filmmaker of intellectual capability? That is a sweeping judgment. Nevertheless, Allen, in his cinematic references, often resembles the archetypical figure of the shallow New York intellectual; indeed, the same type of intellectual whom Allen likes to mock in his films, especially when embodied by a woman ‏(Diane Keaton and Judy Davis played such roles in some of Allen’s films‏).

Lack of emotion

From here it is a short step to the central problems in Allen’s work. Allen has directed more than 40 films and, in addition to “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” there are a few that I respect and like: “Zelig” ‏(1983‏) was sophisticated; “Broadway Danny Rose” ‏(1984‏) was amusing, not least due to a fine comic performance by Mia Farrow. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” ‏(1985‏) was based on a good idea ‏(though there are movies that addressed the blurring of boundaries between cinema and life in more sophisticated and more subtle ways‏). “Radio Days” ‏(1987‏) was likable, though not much better than the autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy of plays by Neil Simon, only without the feeling of the stage works. “Everyone Says I Love You” ‏(1996‏) was a weird but sympathetic attempt to make a musical film without actors who possess musical ability ‏(with the exception of Goldie Hawn‏). “Sweet and Lowdown” ‏(1999‏) wasn’t bad. “Match Point” was an estimable drama, and “Midnight in Paris” ‏(2011‏) was enjoyable, if only because it recalled the fine skits Allen wrote at the start of his career.

But in addition to those films there were also “September” ‏(1987‏), “Shadows and Fog” ‏(1991‏), “Mighty Aphrodite” ‏(1995‏), “Celebrity” ‏(1998‏); and, in the first decade of this century, “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” ‏(2001‏), “Hollywood Ending” ‏(2002‏), “Anything Else” ‏(2003‏), “Melinda and Melinda” ‏(2004‏), “Scoop” ‏(2006‏), “Whatever Works” ‏(2009‏) and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”

What is it that bothers me in these and other films by Allen? There are a few things, all of them connected in some way to that aggressive “No!” I got when I asked him about his attitude toward the characters in his films.

To begin with, there’s an absence of emotion. With only a few exceptions, Allen’s films can be amusing or interesting, but hardly ever are they moving − and a work without emotion is a flawed work. Second, a sense of condescension. In most of his films, Allen portrays the social and cultural milieu of which he is a part; many times he observes it with irony and ridicules it, but he never includes or implicates himself within it. He views it from a condescending distance. But in the films in which he himself stars, he dotes over his beloved neuroticism.

Third − and this stems from the first two problems − he treats his characters as marionettes. He maneuvers their story, life and fate remotely and from above with a brute force that lacks identification, empathy, feeling and, as noted, love. In my view, a creative artist who does not like his characters, or at least feel something for them other than condescension and criticism, cannot, by definition, be an important artist.

This problem vitiates his weak films but also his best work, such as “Hannah and Her Sisters” ‏(1986‏), one of Allen’s most acclaimed films, for which he won a second Academy Award for best original screenplay; “Another Woman” ‏(1988‏); and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” ‏(2008‏). The feeling is that Allen is ready to move his characters in whatever direction he wishes, to invest them with every trait and area of interest he deems fit, but without these elements truly stemming from the characters as he shapes them.

Trivial pursuits

Yet another problem is that Allen is not a deep thinker. This is most apparent in the films in which he tries to address serious ideological and moral issues, notably “Crimes and Misdemeanors” ‏(1989‏) and “Husbands and Wives.” Neither is a trivial work but, when examined in depth, display little complexity.

Allen throws out names like Chekhov, Rilke and Kierkegaard in his films: The kid has an education. But he usually does so with a degree of irony, as though afraid to commit to his own knowledge. Maybe this is because he is aware that his knowledge is not much deeper than that of his characters, while the allusions to these thinkers vests his films with a pretentiousness that is meant to stimulate esteem among his fans.

A recurring theme in his latest films, since “Match Point,” is the role of luck in human life and the question of random fate. But does he really say anything meaningful about these subjects?

The same holds for Allen’s proficiency as a filmmaker. He is not without skill, but the use he makes of plot structures, touches of fantasy and surrealism, camera movements, the blurring of the boundaries between reality and imagination and so forth, is not the most original or sophisticated we have seen on the screen. I often find his choices constrained, and sometimes downright tiresome. Yes, we can talk about the use of parallel time planes in “To Rome with Love,” and about the transitions the film makes from the concrete to the imagined. But can that save the film’s stories from their banality and lend depth to the themes it seeks to address?

Nearly all the actors in Allen’s films − who sometimes seem to be plucked from a cocktail party to which Allen has invited the hottest actors of the moment − speak “Woody Allenese.” Few are spared this coercion. I was appalled to see the British actor Kenneth Branagh become Woody Allen in “Celebrity.” We take this phenomenon as self-evident, but isn’t it a sign of unpleasant coercion and megalomania? And I haven’t yet mentioned Allen’s attitude toward women in his films. Few women receive respectful treatment at his hands in his screen works.

This brings me back to that first meeting with Allen. I do not usually ask personal questions in such encounters. However, a colleague from Poland asked Allen about the state of his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, who was the adoptive daughter of Mia Farrow − Allen’s partner for more than 10 years − and the conductor-composer Andre Previn.

“It is the best relationship I have ever had with a woman,” Allen replied, “because she is not my equal.” He said it simply, directly and without an iota of embarrassment. I remember only that my mouth gaped metaphorically in astonishment at the answer.

Throughout “To Rome with Love” I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat. After all, this was a movie by Woody Allen, who provided some of the jokes I like to quote ‏(like the one in which he said academics are like the Mafia − they kill their own; or that as a boy he bought pornographic books in Braille and rubbed the dirty parts‏). Still, I was not surprised. Therein, perhaps, lies the sadness the woman spoke of when she said, “What a letdown.”