Case Against Woody Allen
Here’s one of the worst moments in one of the worst films of the early ‘90s. Three famous actresses – Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates – are sitting around a table pretending to be prostitutes. The director has obviously said to them, ‘ad lib a bit of hearty, seen-it-all woman-of-the-street talk’. This results in a lot of hollow sounding, lusty ho-ho-ho-ing, and various indistinct remarks about men, life and sex. This bit of business goes on and on purely for the sake of a particularly ostentatious camera movement. Ever so slowly, the camera pans around and around this circle of ad-libbing women, taking in long stretches of murky grey, before tipping up or down to capture a face in awesome close up.
This scene, which made me want to immediately flee the cinema, appears in Shadows and Fog (1992), written, directed by and starring Woody Allen.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Allen is, in many respects, talented. He has always been a skilled comic writer and performer. One of the few good bits in Shadows and Fog has him, in one half of a shot while something else is going on, trying over and over to perform a simple magic trick, and failing hilariously. Furthermore, I am not going to say (as many ex-Allen fans do) that he should have stuck to comedy, and never tried drama. He can try whatever he likes. My problem with Allen is simply this: I don’t think he’s a very good director.
To be fair,
I think right now, in 1992, is an easy time to be against Allen – maybe it’s
even becoming fashionable.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of Allen’s directorial style. I think it would be hard to locate anything more inert, static, clumsy and uninteresting than Allen’s way with a scene. The ponderous camera moves; the studied manner in which actors walk in and out of frame; the ugly framings through doors or bookshelves; the dead moments where action runs out … such suspect signature touches regularly spoil for me the best of Allen’s scripts, such as “Oedipus Wrecks”, his episode of New York Stories (1989). At every other level of film style, it’s the same story. The tidy, leaden colour schemes of the decor that never modulate with the story; the music which – whether it’s the rinky-tink comedy music of Marvin Hamlisch or the somber art tones of Kurt Weill – comes in at exactly the same, overbearing moments.
And please, no more admiring references to Shadows and Fog as an authentically German Expressionist film. Allen’s actors pose stiffly so their eyes catch the line of the light or the shade; every new character is academically presented as an off-screen voice; fog covers everything in a desperate attempt to infuse mood and atmosphere into the proceedings. Those old Germans, Murnau and Lang, never directed anything like this.
The problem with criticising a director you don’t like is that it’s so easy to fall into thundering, normative pronouncements like: ‘Woody Allen doesn’t know how to direct a drama!’. In fact, there is hybrid form between comedy and drama that I find somewhat appealing in Allen’s work, even though it’s only a glimpse, an embryo of what this form could be. I could describe it as Allen’s unusual mixture of art film and TV sitcom. When, in Shadows and Fog, Allen enters Donald Pleasance’s morgue-like laboratory, he darts a look off-screen and says something like: “So the maid hasn’t cleaned up the used fingers yet?” This is a pure sitcom gag, worthy of Cheers.
Similarly with the casting: Allen loves his weird ensembles mixing TV actors or stand-up types with heavy, dramatic players. As a formal idea, it’s interesting. But I don’t think Allen is a director who serves his actors at all well. There’s a scene in Shadows and Fog with John Malkovich emoting his character, Madonna behaving herself, and Mia Farrow squawking hysterically between them; all of them look completely at sea, undirected. And I will not soon forget the shot near the end of Interiors (1978) where, one by one, the actors enter the frame to produce a hysterical gush of close-up emotion. How could any self-respecting actor who has seen that film ever entrust their performances to such a director? Here, as in much else, Allen is indeed a very pale reflection of his all-time hero, Ingmar Bergman.
If there’s anyone on the contemporary art cinema scene to whom Allen deserves to be compared, its Krzysztof Kieslowski of Decalogue (1988) fame. Both directors have the same, grim self-consciousness, the same relentless, single-minded ideas about stylisation. And both directors have moved towards devising stories that are like existential parables or ethical puzzles, of the kind which are put to students in first year philosophy classes. Allen’s best film to date is in fact a formidable achievement of this sort: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) works because, for once, Allen finds a way of separating and interrelating the art movie and sitcom strands of the story in a way that is both meaningful and powerful.
Shadows and Fog, on the other hand, is neither meaningful nor powerful. Actors like poor John Cusack (as a lusty, brooding, radical student) flop into comfy chairs at the local bar or whorehouse to announce the deep thematic of the film: it’s about the paradoxes of freedom, how one person who is set free will love, while another will kill; and how most of us are afraid of ever being free. So the film alternates between death and sex, sex and death; and finally, in one of those appalling would-be Magic Realist scenes that Allen has lately become so fond of, his character makes a burning life decision.
wonder that the problem of absolute freedom plays on Allen’s mind. There is no director
*my book Phantasms (1994) contains an appreciation of my favourite Allen film, Husbands and Wives (1992)
© Adrian Martin August 1992