Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 11/5/2012)
The Oxford Mail and the Phoenix Picturehouse have come together for the 6th Oxford Film Festival. This year, the focus will fall on Woody Allen, with six classic features being screened between 13-18 May.
Born in Brooklyn, Allen Stewart Konigsberg began performing as a magician in the Catskills at 16. Having submitted jokes to various New York columnists as a kid, he bounced back from flunking NYU by writing gags and then scripts for television, most notably teaming with Mel Brooks on shows for Sid Caesar. However, he also earned a brace of Emmy nominations for penning specials for Caesar and Pat Boone with Larry Gelbart.
In 1960, he reinvented himself as stand-up comedian Woody Allen. But, having co-scripted the unrealised comedy, The Film-Maker (1963), with Marshall Brickman, he made his acting and screenwriting debut with What's New Pussycat? (1965). He took his first directorial credit with What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), which used newly dubbed dialogue to spoof Senkkichi Taniguchi's Bond rip-off, Keg of Powder. But it was Take the Money and Run (1969) that initiated the sequence of features notable for their parodic plots and sharp one-liners that made Allen's name. However, he later distanced himself from them, referring to them in the Felliniesque Stardust Memories (1980) as 'the early funny ones'.
Films like Bananas (1971) and Love and Death (1975) also saw Allen develop into a fine comic actor, who invariably played characters tortured by intellectual, sexual, religious and professional angst. Indeed, he became so convincing that audiences and critics alike began to assume that there was a correlation between the on- and off-screen personas, especially as he had been romantically involved with his most frequent co-star of this period, Diane Keaton, who excelled in Allen's masterpieces, Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), the first of which brought him Academy Awards for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
In 1978, Allen demonstrated a more serious side in Interiors. But comedy remained his forte during a 12-film association with new partner Mia Farrow. However, a darker edge appeared in Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992), which presaged the storm of bad publicity that greeted news of Allen's affair with and subsequent marriage to Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
Over the next few years, Allen scored occasional hits, like Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999). But it was only with Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) that he regarnered a modicum of critical acclaim, but the old inconsistencies have continued to dog him since, with the Oscar nods for Midnight in Paris (2011) contrasting with brickbats for his hugely disappointing London movies and muddles like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and mixed reviews in the Italian press for his paean to the Eternal City, To Rome With Love, which will be released in this country later in the year.
The Oxford Film Festival selection is drawn exclusively from the period before 1992, when Allen hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons and distributors and critics pointedly turned against him. There's no question that the pictures produced over the last two decades have been of variable quality. But Allen remains a consummate film-maker, whose comic genius is sustained by a reverential understanding of auteurs like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, which continues to inform all facets of his work.
Only two prints were struck of Woody Allen's directorial debut, Take the Money and Run (1969), and it took Vincent Canby's New York Times review to secure the film an audience. Even then, seven years were to elapse before the production company turned a profit on its $1.53 million investment. However, Allen did much better with Bananas (1971), in which he starred as a gadget tester who fakes a fascination with Third World politics to impress intense activist Louise Lasser and finds himself enmeshed in the civil disturbances splintering the fictional South American republic of San Marcos.
Loosely based on Richard Powell's novel Don Quixote USA and originally entitled El Weirdo, Allen's second outing as writer-director-star is an erratic concoction that overcomes its lack of continuity and coherence to pack in satirical, surreal and slapstick gags at a frantic pace. The first cut ran for two hours, but Ralph Rosenblum persuaded Allen to excise some 37 minutes of footage (with the casualties including an attack on the guerillas' camp by a rumba band and a parody of Bob Hope entertaining the troops) and the celerity and brevity go some way to disguising the mediocrity of some of the material.
Opening and closing with sequences in which sportscaster Howard Cosell commentates upon the assassination of the President of San Marcos and the consummation of Allen and Lasser's marriage, this is a film about America's tendency to trivialise everything for mass consumption, whether it's the advertising of cigarettes or the reporting of a major political story.
It's also a satire about dissemblance in a society in which nothing lives up to expectation and no one fulfills their promises. Like the Execusisor machine, revolution seems to offer an easy solution to the problems of a developing country, but President Carlos Montalbán's pledge to reform simply results in the imposition of twice-hourly underwear changes and Swedish as the national language. Only in such a cockamamie world could a man in a fake Castro beard (who couldn't even successfully buy a porn mag, let alone deter subway muggers back in New York) become an icon.
Although there are fine homages to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sergei Eisenstein and Harold Lloyd, this is a scattershot offering full of apolitical mockery. Yet, Allen frequently patronises Latin America and not even the scathing assaults on the State Department quite atone for his careless choice of clichés and caricatures. But he would learn from his mistakes and, in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he stumbled upon the nebbish persona that would become his screen trademark.
Despondent after being abandoned by wife Susan Anspach, Allen takes the advice of his movie hero, Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy), and reluctantly allows himself to be cheered up by his best friend Tony Roberts, only to find himself falling for his wife, Diane Keaton.
This engaging adaptation of Allen's hit 1969 stage play was inspired by his impending divorce from second wife, Louise Lasser. However, he would veer off into the future (Sleeper, 1973) and the Napoleonic past (Love and Death, 1975) before returning to this archetypical New Yorker in Annie Hall (1977). Ironically, an east coast union strike forced Herbert Ross to shoot the picture in San Francisco, but the Bogie-dependent loser is essentially the template for Allen's Manhattan Man.
Perhaps just as significantly, the Broadway production also brought Allen into contact with Diane Keaton. He had only agreed to a casting call to appease producer David Merrick, but was instantly struck by the kooky Californian and began to rework the scenario to her advantage. Indeed, so intense was their personal and professional attraction that, part way through the 453-performance run, Keaton briefly moved into Allen's apartment, where he was in the process of reworking the screenplay for Take the Money and Run.
Woody was initially content for either Dustin Hoffman or Richard Benjamin to play the lead, as he still saw himself primarily as a comedian rather than an actor. But the success of Bananas persuaded Paramount to stick with the original stage trio of Allen, Keaton and Tony Roberts - although this was to be the last time that Allen would allow another director to handle one of his screenplays.
Allen opened out the play by adding a couple of party and disco sequences and some self-lacerating reveries involving his ex-wife. However, the storyline retained its original three-act structure and this staginess is occasionally intrusive. But he was still able to imbue the action with a passion for cinema, not only through the memorabilia in Allen's apartment and Bogie's ethereal appearances, but also through the clips from Casablanca that reinforced the central celebration of movies as an escape from the pressures of daily life.
Everyone from Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky to Groucho Marx and Bob Hope was cited in Love and Death, a variation on War and Peace that places special emphasis on herring and wheat. Opening with a teasing lampoon of the encounter with the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) and even pausing for a piece of knockabout business borrowed from Charlie Chaplin and the occasional pastiche of Sergei Eisenstein's montage technique, this is like a cross between an anecdotes from one of Allen's stand-up routines and the offbeat short stories he had written for The New Yorker and had collected in volumes like Getting Even (1971) and Without Feathers (1975). Handsomely photographed by Ghislain Cloquet on location in Hungary and France, this was easily Allen's most ambitious picture to date and it remains among his favourites.
When Napoleon Bonaparte (James Tolkan) marches into Russia at the head of the Grand Army, militant coward Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) finds himself drafted into the Tsar's forces and he becomes and accidental hero when he is fired out of the cannon in which he is hiding and takes out four enemy generals. Countess Alexdrovna (Olga Georges-Picot) and Natasha (Jessica Harper) are intrigued by him, but he only has eyes for Sonja (Diane Keaton), the widow of a fish merchant who only agrees to marry him because she thinks he is going to be killed in a duel with Anton lvanovich Lebedokov (Harold Gould). Realising she is stuck with a man she doesn't love, Sonja decides to make the best out of a bad job by persuading Boris to pose as a Spanish nobleman in order to assassinate Napoleon.
From the moment the young Boris (Alfred Lutter) asks Death if there are girls in the afterlife, this splendidly anarchic romp teems with choice quips. However, such is the growing maturity of the writing that even the darkly introspective discussions between Boris and Sonja are stuffed with debunking philosophical and literary allusions. Moreover, they are delivered in such a deliciously deadpan manner that they almost become as amusing as the more customary interjections about sex, insecurity, Judaism and the peculiar charade that is existence.
Along with the rest of the supporting cast, the excellent Keaton plays it unblinkingly straight, leaving Allen to revel in his alter ego's gleefully anachronistic misadventures. However, not all the material is entirely original, with the misfiring attempt to amuse a monarch recalling the jester's equally fruitless efforts in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (??), while the military training sequence is indebted to Bananas. Nonetheless, this marks a significant step forward in Allen's directorial development, as he places as much emphasis on the visual as the verbal and he would achieve the perfect balance between the two in Annie Hall.
Having considered a whodunit and a story set in Victorian England (threads that would resurface in the early 1990s in Manhattan Murder Mystery and Shadows and Fog), Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman created a madcap comedy entitled Anhedonia after the psychological condition that prevents any form of enjoyment. However, the first cut from for around 150 minutes and Allen was unhappy with the efforts of editor Ralph Rosenblum and assistant Susan E. Morse to trim it down by an hour. By all accounts, a French Resistance reverie, a sports fantasy and parodies of An Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) were among the elements to be discarded. But the revision enabled Allen and Brickman to realise that the story focus should fall on comedy writer Alvy Singer's fraught relationship with torch singer Annie Hall. Thus, even though they struggled to devise a satisfactory ending, they were finally heading in the right direction.
Nevertheless, Allen was reluctant to abandon entirely the sort of scattershot humour that had characterised his `early funny' films. Consequently, on one of Alvy and Annie's early dates, cultural commentator Marshall McLuhan appears in a cinema foyer to humiliate a droning bore (Allen had wanted Fellini, but he refused the cameo). Elsewhere, Alvy has conversations with passers-by who seem to have an intimate knowledge of his life and problems, while a later discussion with Annie is accompanied by subtitles that translate the euphemisms they are using. At another point, Alvy has an out-of-body experience after trying marijuana, while the screen splits as the pair consult their shrinks to emphasis the growing gulf separating them. Indeed, Alvy even appears in cartoon form so he can confront the Wicked Queen from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), whom he blames for his inability to understand women.
Partly inspired by Allen's own long-dormant affair with Keaton, the romance is also rooted in recognisably everyday incidents and traits. The awkward chat at the tennis club where they first met, the thrill that Alvy feels on seeing Annie sing `It Had to be You' and the inept attempt to cook lobsters in his kitchen have a credibility and intimacy that makes his fling with a Rolling Stone journalist (Shelley Duvall) and his disastrous marriages (to Carol Kane and Janet Margolin) seem as misguided as her liaison with music producer Tony Lacey (who is played in the most disarmingly naturalist manner by singer-songwriter Paul Simon). Even the appalling trip to Chippewa Falls to meet her family - complete with an anti-Semitic grandmother (Helen Ludlum) and a suicidal brother (Christopher Walken) - seems cosy compared to the soulless meetings in Los Angeles, as she makes a new life for herself and the only use Alvy has is to remove spiders from her bathtub.
Keaton won the Academy Award for Best Actress and Allen was also nominated for his performance. However, more than adequate compensation came in the form of Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. Many film-makers, including Allen himself, have since attempted to duplicate Annie Hall's romcomedic spark. But it remains the gold standard and established Allen as one of America's foremost auteurs. Perhaps seduced by a critic claiming he had created the comic equivalent to Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage (1973), Allen attempted his own chamber drama with the underrated Interiors (1978). But he demonstrated with Manhattan (1979) that it was possible to achieve a potent mix of wit and pathos.
Yet Allen was so distraught at seeing the rough cut of what many consider to be his masterpiece that he asked producers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe if United Artists would consider destroying every frame if he did his next film for them for free. However, thanks to editor Susan Morse, this paean to his home town emerged as Allen's most effortlessly European feature.
Dissatisfied with his lot and uncomfortable in his relationship with teenage drama student Mariel Hemingway, Allen's burnt-out TV writer begins work on a novel. However, he quickly becomes besotted with Diane Keaton, a neurotic intellectual who is having an affair with his best friend, Michael Murphy.
Accompanied by George Gershwin's sublime Rhapsody in Blue, the shots of the fireworks over Central Park, of Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and dawn coming up over the skyscrapers may seen quintessentially New York - and some have even claimed the picture as an East Coast equivalent to Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai (1948). But this is, in fact, Allen's take on Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), with his character discovering the empty decadence of the city's chattering classes in much the same way that Marcello Mastroianni realised the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Rome's elite.
Filmed by Gordon Willis in Panavision on Technicolor stock that was printed in monochrome, this is not just Allen's most beautiful film, it's also the most personal. The absence of colour reflects Allen's disillusion with both his career and the circle of friends with whom he has surrounded himself. They are all writers - Murphy is working on a biography of Eugene O'Neill, Keaton is a critic and columnist and ex-wife Meryl Streep (who left him for her lesbian lover) is writing a feminist tract on their marriage that he knows will lead to his socio-sexual humiliation. Moreover, their conversation is peppered with allusions to creative artists, from Strindberg and Kafka to Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Groucho Marx.
Yet, Allen consistently denigrates the one person who offers him an escape from all this shallow pretension and he only realises Hemingway's importance when he includes her in his charming litany of crucial pleasures. Typically, the critics chose to castigate Allen for choosing a 17 year-old blonde as his soulmate. But she symbolises the energy and excitement that he had forgotten existed within his privileged enclave and her parting exhortation to have faith in people is the solution to his emotional and artistic crises.
Allen's output in the early 1980s was patchy, with the sour diatribe on celebrity in Stardust Memories (1980) contrasting with the Bergmanian frivolity of A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), the sly satire of Zelig (1983) and the unabashed nostalgia of Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). However, the decade also saw Allen attempt to return to weightier dramas, as he sought to provide Mia Farrow with suitable showcases for her talent. But, while September (1987) and Another Woman (1988) lacked conviction, Allen produced one of his most mature screenplays for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina that `all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way' and Allen always claimed the Russian's novel was his primary inspiration for this bittersweet saga. Yet, its focus on a triumvirate of siblings recalls both Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and Allen's own Interiors, while the linking of autobiography, show business and family celebration also echoes Ingmar Bergman's late masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander (1983).
Indeed, the film referencing continues when Allen (whose neuroses and hypochondria had briefly driven him towards Catholicism) finds salvation in the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup (1933). Yet, for all its screen antecedents, the use of voice-overs and the 16 chapter headings give the action a distinctly bookish feel.
The acting, however, occasionally tends towards theatricality, with Michael Caine being particularly guilty of deliberated delivery in his Oscar-winning turn. In mitigation, however, he found Allen's working methods less than conducive and was reined in when he attempted to be more overtly comic. Max von Sydow and Barbara Hershey were likewise told to stick to the grand design when they suggested an alternate reading of the showdown between their disenchanted lovers.
Along with Allen, Mia Farrow seems most comfortable with the tone, although she was less than amused to discover just how much of their own lives Allen had slipped into the screenplay. The brain tumour related to the director's own scare during Manhattan (1979), while he conceded that the three male characters reflected facets of his own personality. But Maureen O'Sullivan (Farrow's real-life mother) refused to play opposite her daughter unless some of the more blatant references to Mia and her sisters, Tia and Stephanie, were removed.
Several scenes involving Caine and Hershey's affair were also cut. But, ultimately, Allen had to add the climactic dinner after friends at preview screenings objected to the ambiguous Interiors-like ending. The resulting picture was his most mature work to date and his witty, literate screenplay deserved its Oscar as much as Dianne Wiest's superbly realised Best Supporting performance.
In this section
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 18/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 18/4/2013)