Saturday, November 26, 2011

Watching Woody Allen's Films Can Be Really Kafkaesque

In November, the Castro Theater had a Wednesday night series called Woody Wednesdays. For three consecutive Wednesdays, they had a Woody Allen double feature. I caught the first two Wednesdays when they screened:

Annie Hall starring Woody Allen & Diane Keaton; directed by Woody Allen; (1977)
Hannah and Her Sisters starring Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine; with Max von Sydow, Sam Waterston, Woody Allen, Maureen O'Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan; directed by Woody Allen; (1986)
Crimes and Misdemeanors starring Woody Allen, Martin Landau, Mia Farrow & Anjelica Huston; with Alan Alda, Sam Waterston, Jerry Orbach & Joanna Gleason; directed by Woody Allen; (1989)
Deconstructing Harry starring Woody Allen; with Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Elisabeth Shue, Tobey Maguire, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, etc.; directed by Woody Allen; (1997)

I missed the final Wednesday night of the series where they screened Stardust Memories and Vicky Christina Barcelona.

I suspect the series was programmed to coincide with the two part Woody Allen documentary on PBS on November 20 and 21. I caught the first night of the documentary which ended with criticism of and backlash from Stardust Memories.

I run hot and cold for Allen's films. The four films I saw as part of Woody Wednesdays encapsulates my attitudes towards his films. I loved Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. I liked Annie Hall. I dozed off during Deconstructing Harry.


Annie Hall was the transitional film in Allen career as a director. Prior to it, Allen was known for broad comedies and Annie Hall is romantic comedy. At times, Allen applies a deft touch in showing the slow and inevitable disintegration of the relationship between Allen's Alvy and Diane Keaton's Annie. Annie Hall won an Academy Award for Best Picture, Diane Keaton won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Woody Allen won an Academy Award for Best Director. Obviously, Annie Hall was a well received film. My only nitpick is that Allen fell into rapid fire joke mode too often. Sometimes he delivered; sometimes the jokes fell flat. At times, it threw off the pacing of the film.

Still there were portions that made me laugh out loud. Christopher Walken shows up as Annie's younger brother who has dreams of crashing his car and creating a fireball - cut to a scene where Walken is driving, Keaton is in the middle and Allen is white knucked in passenger seat. A little overkill as Waken's soliloquy was enough.

Shelley Duvall shows up long enough for Alvy to bed her after which she announces, "Sex with you is really a Kafka-esque experience."

Annie requires some marijuana before having sex. It is unclear if it is before sex with anyone or just Alvy. Annie claims the grass relaxes her before having sex. Alvy rejoins, "Well, I'll give you a shot of sodium pentathol. You can sleep through it."

I will say that the film is very good on its own merits. Compared to some of his later works, I thought it didn't measure up. Annie Hall is often considered the seminal moment in Allen's directorial career but to me it seems like the end of his run of farcical comedy films. In some ways, I would think more of Annie Hall if it were directed by someone else. Annie Hall suffers in retroactive comparison to Allen's future films. That's unfair to Allen as he must have been growing by leaps and bounds as director in the 1970s and 80s.


Annie Hall was Allen's 7th feature film as a director. Many people consider it their favorite film by Allen. Hannah and Her Sisters was Allen 15th film. He filmed several acclaimed films between the two including Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Having seen all those films, Hannah and Her Sisters seems like the seminal film in his career.

His previous films (excluding Interiors) were clearly comedies but Hannah is a drama with out any of the gags from his previous films. The comedy in Hannah derives from the situations which were very realistic. Allen does yuck it up some when he is faced with the possibility of a fatal illness but even he tones it down some.

The main story is about Hannah's (Mia Farrow) husband, Elliot (Michael Caine) and the affair he has with Hannah's sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). The affair, which Hannah is unaware of, has an theraputic effect on Lee who uses it end one dysfunctional relationship and start another, presumably more stable, relationship by the end of the film. The effect on Elliot is more debatable. Elliot is not such a bad guy as he shows definite signs of guilt resulting from sleeping with his sister-in-law. All told, the entire family is dysfunctional (Hannah is exception although she enables bad behavior in others).

Hannah and Her Sisters is a wonderfully made film about flawed people living flawed lives; not unlike most of us.

For those who didn't know or forgot, Maureen O'Sullivan plays Mia Farrow's mother in Hannah and Her Sisters and was her mother in real life. Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter, is in the film as one of the extras during Thanksgiving scenes. Allen would gain notoriety for his relationship with Previn, 35 years his junior. The relationship allegedly began five years after Hannah was released.


Crimes and Misdemeanors is a much darker film. It's actually two films. One story deals with Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist and respected member of the Jewish community. A pillar of the community, Judah has a secret. He's having an affair with Anjelica Huston's character. She threatens to expose the relationship; he has promised to leave his wife. Judah can't stand the thought of the shame that would result so he engages his ne'er-do-well brother (Jerry Orbach) to set up a hit. That's right; the pillar of the community decides the best way to deal with the situation is to kill his mistress.

The other half of the film deals with Clifford Stern (Woody Allen), a struggling documentary filmmaker. Cliff's wife (Joanna Gleason) arranges for Cliff to get a paying gig filming a documentary of her brother Lester (Alan Alda), a successful and insufferable television producer. This requires Cliff to follow Lester to get candid shots and interviews. While filming, he meets Halley (Mia Farrow), a staffer for Lester. Alda hits a home run with his part. His pompous behavior irritate Cliff no end and the result is a first cut of the documentary which compares Lester to Mussolini and Francis The Talking Mule.

It's not until the end that Judah & Cliff meet and share a scene. By that point, Judah has "made peace" with what he's done and Cliff is hit rock bottom. The journey the two men take to get that point is entertaining and enlightening. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a very dark film which is fitting since it is based on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Strong performances from the entire cast, the anguish which Judah feels and the humiliation which Cliff endures makes this dramedy one of Woody Allen's best.


Deconstructing Harry has an interesting hook. The scenes keep shifting from Harry's (Woody Allen) life to Harry's novels. Harry uses his own life experiences to inspire his novels. It's kind of fun see these coarse, vulgar and embarrassing events transpire in the "fictional" realities of Deconstructing Harry and then see the "real-life" consequences of Harry writing thinly veiled accounts. At various points, Richard Benjamin, Tobey Maguire and Stanley Tucci play Harry's alter ego. At times, the film was funny and enjoyable.

Over 90 minutes, the plot device begins to wear thin and by the end, Allen is mixing the two universes in confused mélange. My main complaints with Deconstructing Harry is that it is much more crass than his typical films. Second, he becomes two literal and obvious in his humor. Thus we get Harry descending to hell a la Dante's Inferno. We are treated to Woody Allen and Billy Crystal (as Old Nick) trading flat quips, in deadpan style. I lost interest before that point but lost consciousness during that scene.

Deconstructing Harry is saying something serious and insightful about Allen's misanthropy and self-loathing but he tells the story with such literal interpretations that it is lost on me or more accurately, I could not sustain my interest long enough to grasp what he is saying. Woody Allen's comedy has a tendency towards the obvious as shown in his depiction of hell in Deconstructing Harry, his rabbi garb in Annie Hall or his caricatures of Lost Generation expats in Midnight in Paris. For my taste, it's a fine line that he crossed over by too much in Deconstructing Harry.

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