Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Deconstructing Woody

By Chris Herrington

JANUARY 12, 1998:  With a new film out, Deconstructing Harry – which promises to be a return to the intensely personal filmmaking style we came to expect from Woody Allen in the Eighties – the time is ripe for a look back at Allen’s recent filmography. What these other triple-billed (director/writer/star) films from the Nineties do is paint a fascinating picture of Allen, of his attitudes and beliefs.

Discounting the eminently forgettable Shadows and Fog (1992), a disastrous pastiche of Bergman, Fellini, and German Expressionist films (particularly Fritz Lang’s M), Allen opened the decade with Husbands and Wives (1992), a serio-comic relationship film in the vein of his Eighties classics Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, which may be his most personal film ever.

Husbands and Wives differs stylistically from the Allen norm. Employing a cinema-verite style of handheld camera, jump cuts, and pseudo-documentary interview scenes, the film implies that Allen, ever dedicated to European art cinema, may have made room for some Godard amidst his usual diet of Bergman and Fellini. His final collaboration with Mia Farrow, the film is now almost impossible to view without drowning in subtext.

Allen and Farrow play a couple whose marriage disintegrates over the course of the film (as their real-life non-marriage would), while Allen, as a college lit professor, plays at, but doesn’t consummate, a relationship with a young student played by Juliette Lewis. (In real life it was Farrow’s adopted daughter, and Allen didn’t show the same restraint as his film counterpart.)

The film, a meditation on monogamy and fidelity, is remarkable, at least in terms of Allen films, both for the honesty with which Allen confronts his views and for the self-critique that seeps into the film. Toward the end, after an hour and a half of desperate couplings and slow burns, everything comes spilling out. As Allen and Lewis take a cab ride together, they discuss his work-in-progress novel, which he has let her read. The content of the novel reflects the actions and issues of the film, as the film seems to reflect the actions and issues of Allen’s life. The book (like the film) views monogamy as merely a buffer against loneliness, not as sustained passion. “Deepening love and simultaneous orgasms,” Allen’s character writes, are myths. Allen’s message: Don’t expect too much out of life.

At first Lewis’ character flatters him, praising the novel (as Allen would presumably want us to see most of his films) for “all of the suffering and how you make it so funny.” Then she drops the act and turns on him, offering a critique that is on the money and that is shockingly, especially in comparison to Allen’s subsequent films, allowed equal prominence to the views Allen endorses. She denies the limited choice he offers between the “chronic dissatisfaction” of single life and the “suburban drudgery” of a monogamous relationship, denounces his portrayal of women as “retrograde and shallow,” and, when he balks, offers this response: “Triumph of the Will was a great movie, but I despised the ideas behind it.”

When Farrow’s and Allen’s characters break up, the denouement is no less harsh. “You use sex to express every emotion but love,” Farrow spits, in a bit of dialogue you can’t help but think may have spoken for their off-camera relationship as well. The film’s ending is just stunning, rivaling the final shot in Vertigo in its naked display of vulnerability and despair. It ends with Allen (not even his character, this is plainly Allen) in one of the talking-head interview segments. Asked about his book, the character says that he is going to abandon the confessional mode for a while. After a pause something extraordinary happens. The usual mechanical sad-sack routine we’re so used to seeing from Allen evaporates, and he meets the camera with a look of genuine panic. “Can I go?” he asks. “Is it over?” Then the camera freezes on that face for a moment, and the film ends.


Woody Allen (right) directs Edward Norton and Drew Barrymore in the 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You.

Allen did indeed then abandon the confessional mode, turning to a series of what were apparently meant to be light genre pieces. The first of these, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), is the most successful, both as an entertainment and as an escape from the personal torment of Husbands and Wives. A Hitchcock-cum-Thin Man comedy/suspense, the film succeeds, more than anything else, on the strength of the outstanding chemistry between Allen and Diane Keaton. The threat of infidelity and the reality of marital boredom bubble beneath the surface, but the characters get so caught up their amateur sleuthing that these issues are kept at bay.

The two genre pieces that followed, Mighty Aphrodite (1995), an attempt to recapture his earlier screwball comedy style, and Everyone Says I Love You (1996), an homage to the classic MGM musicals, were unintentional Trojan horses – minor works that reveal much more about Allen’s world view than he probably intended. These two films, taken together, show an alienation from humanity unparalleled in Allen’s previous work. A notorious name-dropper, Allen has always been self-conscious about his intellectuality, coming off like a bright, self-absorbed high-school student. But in these films the correct brand names of a generic upper-class/middle-brow pedigree are invoked ad nauseum, becoming a sort of a safety cocoon for Allen’s delicate conception of self. Eating at Le Cirque, naming children “Holden,” traveling a New York/Paris/Venice axis while mocking “ridiculous places like Cincinnati or Boise,” these films explore the childish, crass lives of the rich, sophisticated, and insecure. The films reveal Allen’s fear and loathing of the underclass like never before, every characterization infused with a cartoonish otherness.

The way these films deal with women and relationships is even more troubling. The genre elements in Every One Says I Love You sometimes work beautifully, with the untrained singing and dancing of the cast (especially Edward Norton) lending a poignancy to the material that more professional performers might not have. This could have been the people’s musical it was clearly intended to be, if Allen cared at all about people. But when the songs end and Allen has to deal with actual relationships, all of the charm dissolves. Allen’s writer engages in a Venice courtship with art historian Julia Roberts (Allen’s a great writer and a beautiful younger woman falls for him, shocking). It turns out that Allen’s daughter has spied on Roberts during a therapy session and knows her likes and dislikes. Armed with this information, Allen makes her fall in love with him by pretending to have the exact same interests. Never mind what this says of Allen’s views on the ethics of privacy – what about his view of love, which basically amounts to feeding another person’s self-validation?

Most disturbing of all is Mira Sorvino’s good-hearted prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite, a woman who, throughout the film, says stuff like “I can’t stand johns who come in, whip out a big dick, and start waving it around” or “You didn’t want a blow job, so the least I could do was give you a tie” with an air of completely child-like innocence. The gap between the woman’s actions and statements and how she seems to mentally process her situation is so drastic that you think she must have some form of mental retardation. Surely Allen doesn’t think this is a realistic portrayal of a woman in her situation? Then, sure enough, harkening back to Husbands and Wives, his famous Lolita complex in Manhattan, and the scandal of his off-screen life, Allen, 30 years her senior, becomes a father figure for the woman, trying to lure the woman-child prostitute from a life of “beatings and AIDS,” only to have sex with her and unknowingly fathering her child along the way.


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