Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Poetry of Woody Allen

I watched Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome with Love, a few weeks ago, and I was nothing but disappointed. Alec Baldwin should make any film watchable, but his role was so strange it bothered me throughout. He was both a character in the story and some sort of omnipresent life force who would appear out of nowhere to give one of the other characters advice about love and life. I guess Allen was attempting to resuscitate the Bogart character in Play It Again Sam (1972)--in both films only the male character can see the Baldwin/Bogart character; he's invisible to the women. On the whole, I've been pleased with most of Allen's recent films: Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) were masterpieces and Midnight in Paris (2011) was great--maybe not a masterpiece but very good. On second thought, despite my mad love for Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Whatever Works (2009) was pretty terrible and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) no better. Allen's problem is that he is so prolific that he doesn't seem to want to slow down to refine his work. It's either hit or miss for him.

After watching Rome, I decided to revisit some classic Allen films, including Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Husbands and Wives (1992). I guess I was second-guessing how highly esteemed Allen is. I mean, how is it possible that the same person who wrote and directed Celebrity (1998) also did Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)? But after re-watching those classics, my doubt was alleviated and I was fawning over Allen once again. While I still absolutely love Annie Hall and Manhattan, I was especially taken by Hannah and Her Sisters. It's a moving and dramatic film about love, adultery, loss, and death.  But its power lies in its balance between drama, philosophical profundity, and humor. It's true that the main story follows Hannah, her husband, and the affair her husband has with one of Hannah's sisters.

But the subplot with Allen's character makes the film beautifully poetic. Allen plays Hannah's ex-husband, a television producer and severe hypochondriac. While he is with the doctor for a routine phisical, the doctor finds something he wants to check out. It might be cancer. The possibility of this throws Allen into a tailspin of paranoia and existential dread while he waits for the test results. He visits the doctor again, finds out that he does not have cancer, and leaves the doctor's office literally jumping and skipping for joy. But suddenly he stops. And in that moment, that perfectly paced and edited moment, he realizes that while he is not going to die of cancer, he will die eventually, and this fact fills him with more dread. He then spends time turning to religion, testing out different denominations other than the Judaism he was brought up with: Catholicism and Hari Krishna. Not surprisingly, these options don't work out for him but add lots of classic Allen moments. Ultimately, he learns the great lesson about life--that life is a struggle, that death is inevitable, but that we can all find some measure of happiness despite these ineluctabilities.

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