I remember sitting in the basement, what must have been late at night, in the early/mid 1970s. The TV was on, I was alone, and enthralled in the work of a man who’s career now spans 50 years and an incredible 60+ films: Woody Allen.
The movies of Woody Allen have always spoken to me. I think it is the self-deprecation and the erudite humour that has always appealed to me. To paraphrase one of the Pythons, its him looking in the mirror with a dictionary and insulting himself. I’ve always believed in the addage that comedy comes from putting an exceptional person in unexceptional circumstances (and drama vice versa) and in Allen’s case, he is the exceptional man… which is such a contradiction I can’t help but be seduced by it.
I realise that tackling a prolific director such as Allen is beyond both my time and my ability, so I’m going to limit my scope. One of Allen’s first transitions as a film maker came in the jump from his ‘Slapstick’ Period spanning from 1969’s ‘Take the Money And Run’ (that film I was watching in the basement in the early 70s) to 1975’s pseudo-intellectual-bashing masterpiece ‘Love And Death’.
Then came ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) and all of a sudden Woody Allen was a grown up film director.
I’d like to look at those two films – ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Annie Hall’ – in closer detail.
Love And Death
I was walking through the woods, thinking about Christ. If he was a carpenter, I wondered what he charged for bookshelves.
‘Love and Death’ tells the story of Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward…and well… Woody Allen. Forced to enlist in the Russian Army, he accidentally becomes a hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Returning a war hero, he tricks Sonja into marriage when she believes he will die in a duel. When Napoleon invades Mother Russia, Sonja convinces Boris to attempt to assassinate him. All of this is a pre-tense for philosophical double-talk and slapstick humour, with homages to Eisenstein, Bergman and the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure.
As with all of Allen’s work, the central focus is on the script, not the camera. ‘Love and Death’ has a very 1970s feature feel about it. Most scenes run over 3 minutes, with the standard, workman-like approach of master, two-shot and medium being intercut. This being a comedy often the ‘punch line’ of a scene, or joke, is done in close up. As I say, most of the scenes are shot like this. Most… but not all!
The battlefield scenes evoke ‘War and Peace’. Allen’s use of Russian classical music – especially Prokofiev – mimicked Sergei Eisenstein (who used the same music).
Death, from Bergman’s ‘Seventh Seal’ turns up in a comedic role. Bergman is present again in the final scene, an obvious nod to Persona (which would be used again, without the humour, in Allen’s Interiors).
‘Love and Death’ is a satire on Russian literature and the motion picture epic – and it contains elements of both. Allen’s often surreal humour allows him to pull in references across the ages – from a Marx Brother’s physical slapstick piece set in a Russian boudoir, to a black drill Sergeant reminiscent of the Vietnam era war films of the time.
Above all else, ‘Love and Death’ is a comedy, perhaps the funniest of Allen’s early work, and one that solidified both his writing and on-screen persona as a pseudo-intellectual,neurotic, smart-ass. It’s classic Allen.
But the problem is this: it’s easy for me because it’s flamboyant; it’s not real at all [Lax, pg 68]
One of the reasons Allen can be so prolific is his speed. He has infamously said he can finish a screenplay in four to six weeks. Writing is part of the process of film making, and his judicious use of time gives him options.
In his June 1974 interview with Eric Lax, right at the time he was deciding whether to make ‘Love and Death’ or another unnamed project, he talks about a move in direction, that would most definitely end up in ‘Annie Hall’: a move to ‘the real’.
I’d love to get to the real thing, because that would be the biggest departure for me [ibid]
And get real he did
You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life
Annie Hall, Allen’s most financially successful film until 2011’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, straddles a period in his film making between farce and trying to pull more ‘reality’ into his work. Watching the film back to write this posting, I was struck by not only the differences between Allen’s previous film (‘Love and Death’, see above) but also by the similarities! Both films start with Voice Over. Both films start with childhood to frame the following story. Both films deal with dealing with unrequited love.
The differences are in essence fewer. Annie Hall substitutes ‘Love and Death’s satiric Russian tragedy backdrop from current day New York City. It’s as if Allen finally feels comfortable enough as a film maker to be able to capture ‘real life’ on screen.
The other difference is the editing.
Allen is known for keeping a tight crew around him and using it on every production. His first editor, his ‘editing teacher’ as he once called him, was Ralph Rosenblum. Rosenblum worked with Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin before settling in next to Allen in the editing suite for six films, starting in 1969 with ‘Take the Money and Run’ and ending in 1978 with ‘Interiors’ (Rosenblum declined to edit 1979’s ‘Manhattan’ and for the next 20 years Allen worked with Susan Morse, Rosenblum’s assistant editor). Rosenblum was known for his French New Wave-like style and Allen openly admits that he learned a lot not just about editing, but about crafting a story in the editing room, from Rosenblum. Incredibly, ‘Annie Hall’ was not focused on the Allen/Keaton character’s relationship, but was originally about Allen’s internal dialog. It was Rosenblum who recut the film, hi lighting the Annie Hall character. Rosenblum won the BAFTA for his work on Annie Hall.
The editing in Annie Hall keeps us at a distance. Gone are the close ups on the punch lines. In fact, gone are many of the cuts. There’s an outstanding seen where the Singer (Allen) is in the bedroom with his first wife (Carol Kane) where the camera tracks around the bed and the characters move in and out of frame. The scene ends with Singer talking to the camera, commenting reflectively, from the future as it were, on what we’ve just seen.
Nothing like that had been seen in a Woody Allen film before, but it became a staple of Allen’s cinema after Annie Hall.
There are more scenes shot in master, as if we were watching them ourselves. To quote British producer Duncan Kenworthy (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) “for comedy to work properly, you must believe in the characters and let the humour shine through. At the end of the film the audience should feel it has just watched a documentary”. This is the approach taken, perhaps pioneered in screen comedy, by Allen.
Annie Hall won 4 Academy Awards in 1977 – Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Keaton) and Best Picture – beating out ‘Star Wars’.
It was fascinating for me to watch these two films back to back – in essence, watch them as Allen made them – and note the astonishing differences, and equally astonishing similarities between them. To see Allen grow as a film maker – before your very eyes as it were – is also an incredible experience. It is like Allen ended a chapter, knowing that he had done all he could, or wanted to do, with the slapstick genre and moved on to a more introspective work. In future years, of course, he would move further in to more serious films and then start investigating other dramas and periods.
These two films represent high points of two of Allen’s many genres. Picking ‘the best’ Allen films has always been impossible for me. The list is too long. But these are a great, educational, introduction that can be used as a jumping off point for moving forwards and backwards through his career. I still watch these films every few years. They are now like good friends that still make me laugh and think.
- Eric Lax, Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking , Vintage, 2009
- Tim Adler, The Producers, Methuen Publishing, 2004
- Robert B. Weide, Woody Allen – A Documentary, 2012