Noted Films

film 5 of 5


Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

I remember being very impressed by this in my youth. It was funny. Sometimes it was shockingly so. Sometimes the shocking wasn’t comical at all. As I tried to process all of this I understood that Allen was making a serious comedy, and if his film was frank to the point of overly, then in this it was also addressing important realities and possibilities. If some people go too far, then cones of silence aren’t the right solution either. I figured that it was important to overhear, if not actually witness or participate in some things. More, the film was so beautiful. This was true—still is—in obvious black and white or film-compositional ways. But I also found the film direction to be beautiful, and appreciated how the staging and framing were so ambitious and complex and effective. (At this point I kind of wonder if Mr. Willis isn’t largely responsible for much or most of that visual beauty.) Also, and this might have been the most important part for me, the film was so cultural, intertextual, so seemingly, thrillingly erudite. The writer/director, through his characters, was referring to history and literature and film in ways that were really expansive and even multiplicative. I recognized a lot of references, and was pleased with the possibility or likelihood that this recognition, this being initiated, was only likely to continue and increase.

Today? Woody Allen is still funny. There are a couple of standard methods by which his comic effects are achieved. Like the old one, two, and anomalous three structure. Not quite mannered, because it works. Also,  Manhattan is still beautiful—nothing new to add on that front, except that its NY encomiums seem kind of rote, and the musical intertextuality is pretty heavy-handed. (“But Not For Me” is sure a stunner, though.) Still, this is a terrific looking film.

As for mature subject matter, that part is still true, but with considerable problems. I am now an old guy. Is it annoying to add that I am an old guy with kids? Annoying or not, I look on and find that rather than being daringly open, the whole now looks like a bunch of awful people behaving awfully. This kind of thing can be valid, but in order for that to be true a few other things have to be in place. There has to be a diagnostic component, and maybe a hint of the therapeutic. There has to be anger (Swift), or maybe mercy (Thackeray, or Eternal Sunshine…). Naturalism is good—it’s quite valid to accumulate data, to multiply the physical details, to trace the trajectories of physical impulse and the consequences of pursuing same. There’s sociology in that, and implicit morality too.

None of all that is happening here  The psychology is simply, plainly deviant—narcissism, isn’t it, and probably borderline personalities?—but there’s little of reflection, none of reform in the portrayal. Is anyone noticing the Soon-Yi Previn echoes? Charlie Chaplin erred in that direction too, and considerably (is Allen daring to copy the end of City Lights at the conclusion of his own movie?), but still. At least Chaplin’s films were chaste. (Yes, the heaven sequence in The Kid. My point still stands.) As for Jonathan Swift (or add Henry Fielding, etc.), though Allen’s characters storm all about, the author doesn’t seem to have any moral outrage at all. He doesn’t seem at all troubled, or even to have a clue. There’s certainly no sense of a higher standard of behaviour, and the various resolutions of the various plot strands seem pretty cynical. (That Michael Murphy character…) So where Swift is righteously angry and poignantly despairing, with this Woody Allen we get a punily nihilistic misanthropy. No love, in other words, and not much deserving it either!

Finally, there’s the intertextuality, which now seems almost entirely strained, or at least mostly strained. With a few exceptions Allen is urging some pretty in-apt correlations, reaching for unearned connections, or just generally showing off. That kind of thing can happen and has happened to all of us, but at some point, say by the time you’re an Oscar-winning filmmaker in your mid-forties, there should get to be some meat on those bones. All in all, based at least on this sampling, Jonathan Rosenbaum was right.

Here’s that link: