I have my ups and downs with Woody Allen. In the early '90s, his career was in the pits with his all-time worst films Alice (1990) and Shadows and Fog (1992), ponderous, pretentious, mostly witless movies. A film in which he only acted (alongside Bette Milder), Scenes From a Mall (Paul Mazursky, 1991), was a terrible misfire. But then, with Husbands and Wives (1992) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), I thought some life, fun and complexity, had found their way back into Allen's creative work. I still feel that, for all his talent as a writer and performer, Allen is not an especially good or even proficient director. I find his style plodding, repetitive, constricted and not very expressive. But even those who are not big fans of Allen have to admit that some of his films, like Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), are memorable and individual.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994) is neither with the best nor the worst films in Allen's career; it is in the middle range, with Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and a few others. It is an enjoyable, funny movie, but more conventional and less playful than Manhattan Murder Mystery. It has the slightly stately, picturesque, warm-orange-glow period flavour of Radio Days (1987), and a colourful ensemble cast with some Allen regulars like Dianne Wiest and John Cusack. Less usual for Allen, the script has a generic, second-hand feel to it.
The situation is classic: a young, idealistic playwright, David (Cusack), gives his play to a Hollywood producer, Julian (Jack Warden). He gets a big star, Helen (Wiest), who wants her part rewritten; he gets financial backing from a gangster, Nick (Joe Viterelli), who demands that his ditzy girlfriend be included in the cast. Everything starts getting out of his hands. Besides dealing with all the tantrums, liaisons and crack-ups happening on and off stage, David has to match wits with a laconic criminal, Cheech (wonderfully played by Chazz Palminteri), who turns out to be quite a playwright himself. In all, the film is somewhat of a cross between Naked in New York (Dan Algrant, 1994) and Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955).
It is funny. Watching Bullets Over Broadway, I realised that one of the best aspects of Allen's wit has remained virtually unchanged since he began his comic career. It is a certain kind of banter and interaction in his films that expresses complete personal paranoia: things happen that confirm to the hero his suspicion that no one has ever liked him or values anything he has ever done. In Bananas (1971), his second film as director, there is a scene where Fielding (Allen) and Nancy (Louise Lasser) look back on their failed relationship. Fielding tries to console himself in a typical fashion by saying, "Well, at least the sex was great." Nancy goes silent and thoughtful, and then comments in a clear, unemotional way, "No, well, actually, it wasn't that good. Really, it was pretty lousy", and so on. No matter what they talk about for the rest of the scene, Fielding keeps coming back to this casual bombshell: "It was lousy? All the time the sex was lousy?"
There are gags like this all the way through Bullets Over Broadway. After David's play has been rewritten by Cheech, Sinclair gushes: "The first draft was tepid and cerebral, but now it's passionate!" David cannot shake the "tepid and cerebral" description from his mind in a hurry. And there is a wonderful turning point in the plot where Cheech first expresses his ideas about changing the play during a rehearsal. David puts on a petulant turn, shouting grand rhetorical lines like, "Now I have to listen to the suggestions of a sub-literate gangster?" But when he looks around the room for confirmation, he realises that everyone is in fact in solemn agreement with the sub-literate gangster.
This theme of self – of a paranoid self desperately needing reassurance and rarely ever finding it – is at the heart of Allen's art. Zelig (1983), one of his best films, is about a guy who wants so much to be accepted by anyone he encounters, he takes on their physical characteristics. In a brilliant reversal, there is a moment in that film when the doctors announce that Zelig has been cured – he has become himself, and no longer does he have the pathological compulsion to flatter and agree with people. Meanwhile, we see him talking in a cultivated, civilised way with a group of gentlemen, expressing his own, unique opinions on various topics. But suddenly, he begins bashing into his conversation partners, for now Zelig has gone to the other pathological extreme, and must maintain complete disagreement with anyone he meets.
In the decade preceding Bullets Over Broadway, Allen tended to displace these expressions of personal, existential malaise onto a moral and ethical plane. Like the stories of Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1988), Allen films such as Crimes and Misdemeanours and Shadows and Fog are built on moral problems and dilemmas: Is murder ever justifiable? Can we ever be free, and if so, what would this freedom actually mean? Can we hope for anything, have faith in anything, or are hope and faith simply vicious delusions? Bullets Over Broadway is a light comedy but it is one of Allen's little essays about art and life. It asks: are works of art more elevated than the banalities of everyday life? Should artists be regarded as more special, treated as more privileged than normal people?
David spends the whole of the film striving to be taken seriously as an artist. When he lets Cheech rewrite his play, he unleashes a monstrous artist, someone who will go to any lengths to see his vision realised. All around David, bohemian friends chatter about how artists "create their own moral universe" which is beyond normal morality. They argue whether it would be better to save the life of one ordinary person or the last remaining copy of Shakespeare's plays from a burning building. Eventually, Bullets Over Broadway even gets to the old question driving many a Paul Cox movie: is it better to make art, or simply love another human being? The ending of the film is, in this regard, a little surprising and beguiling, as Allen's endings sometimes are.
Allen worries neurotically about all these big questions, over and over from one film to the next. His difficulty in ever finally answering any of them is perhaps due to his own contradictory position in the world. He is a reclusive celebrity with a very public private life; a serious artist in a mass entertainment industry; a moralist who knows how immoral or amoral life must sometimes be. Maybe that explains the cruelty, the misanthropic element that occasionally surfaces in Bullets Over Broadway: the endless gags about how people are uneducated or fat or old, the constant humiliation of all the characters, the rough jokes where mobsters casually rub out someone and then talk about what to eat. The world is a stage and the stage is a world in Bullets Over Broadway, like it was in some old Hollywood musicals, or Ernst Lubitsch's classic World War Two comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942), or Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). But the sparkle and the pathos of those old films have disappeared from Allen's human comedy, and even a morsel of life-sustaining wisdom seems harder and harder to come by.
© Adrian Martin March 1995