For this year’s annual winter marathon, we selected a director whose name had been bandied about before – Woody Allen. Allen presented himself as a perfect candidate because his career seems to fall fairly neatly into three periods, and we selected one film from each of these three periods for our marathon.
The first period is what I suppose could be called Allen’s Slapstick Comedy period. Though it’s not all slapstick, it has a distinctly non-serious feel. Allen got his directorial start overdubbing a Japanese spy film to turn it into a story about the world’s greatest egg salad sandwich recipe in What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and followed that up with Bananas, a comedy about a Latin American rebellion, Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, a risque adaptation of a book not really intended for a screenplay, and of course our first feature Sleeper.
Sleeper revolves around the story of Woody Allen’s Miles Monroe, a New York City jazz musician and health food store owner who was unwillingly cryogenically frozen (in tinfoil!) in the 1970s only to be revived 200 years later by an underground rebellion fighting against a fairly inept totalitarian society. The underground has been systematically attempting to unfreeze abandoned peoplecicles in order to gain an “agent” without a biometric profile in an attempt to infiltrate the mysterious “Aires” project. (Yeah, I’m not really sure whether the typo was intentional or not.)
Up until now, the underground has not had full success in reviving anyone, but Miles comes through alive if a bit wacky from the procedure (giving Allen fully ten minutes worth of slapstick screen time – at least it seemed like ten minutes). Eventually he comes back to earth and has the entire situation explained to him. He’s not terribly happy about the whole thing.
This might explain his hilarious insistence on lying about the identity of several contraband objects and photographs that the underground has recovered from the 1970s and hopes to learn about (though Miles probably doesn’t intend to apply a Canny edge detector to Lena when he secrets away the centerfold).
Before things can get too far, however, the government gets on the ball and raids the underground safe house. Miles is unsuccessful in his escape attempt with a miniature personal helicopter, which he blames on the Japanese.
But, he manages to hide out in a robotic servant transport van and fashions an ingenious disguise that fools everybody.
In fact, it’s so effective that he is put into the service of the socialite Luna (who holds a PhD in oral sex), played by Diane Keaton back when she was smoking hot.
Luna seems to have no clue that she’s taken in a carbon-based robotic servant, and a brief interlude with a party she hosts allows a bit more exposition of the society that Miles has found himself in. Miles should probably have paid more attention to the Orgasmatron.
Eventually, Luna attempts to return Miles to get a different head installed (apparently his first one wasn’t aesthetic enough) and Miles has to resort to kidnapping her in order to avoid having his second favorite organ ripped off of his body.
While in the wilderness, Miles steals some food from the strangest giant hydroponic fruit and vegetable farm ever, just to sustain his uncooperative captive. Luna very nearly succeeds in getting Miles captured (and his brain erased), but when the orange shirts announce that she’s to have her brain erased too, due to her close contact with Miles, she manages instead to escape with him temporarily.
Miles eventually is caught (due to the poor, though pleasurable, decision to hide out in an Orgasmatron) and is brainwashed, but Luna escapes and joins the underground.
The underground finally manages to recapture Miles, unbrainwash him, and Miles and Luna are sent to infiltrate a government facility. There, they are mistaken for doctors and placed on a very special and secret project – to clone the government’s leader from his nose, the only part of him that escaped a successful (but hushed-up) bombing intact.
Miles realizes that this is his chance to deal a blow to the headless government. Unfortunately, his first attempt to get rid of the nose fails kind of miserably.
His second attempt, with a steamroller, works much better. I still don’t know why there was a steamroller. Aquavolvo ex machina?
Anyway, that’s about it. Miles and Luna escape, Miles waxes philosophic about how it won’t matter even if the underground takes charge, because whoever’s at the top gets corrupted, and then they prepare to hook up. You know, the plot is really lame, but from front to back it’s really funny, so who cares?
So much for the Slapstick Comedy Period. Next, Woody Allen moved into his New York Neuroticism Period. Here, Allen abandons slapstick for much more nuanced films, though by and large they’re quite formulaic: Woody Allen stars as Neurotic Woody Allen in a movie set in New York where everybody talks a lot and behaves badly. Dialogue-driven dramedy, if you will. Annie Hall, which won Best Picture, kind of started the whole period off, with Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors also standing out. Our second feature, Manhattan, came only two years after Annie Hall and in my mind challenges for the best of the bunch.
Manhattan is filmed in black-and-white, and more than (at least most) other Allen films, plays very heavily on the visual aspects of the medium, starting with a fantastic montage of the city accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (In fact, the entire soundtrack is Gershwin.) I have it on good authority (Wikipedia?) that Manhattan was the first film to be released on DVD in exclusively the letterbox format with no full-screen pan-and-scan option, at Allen’s insistence.
The plot is fairly typical. As Manhattan begins, television writer Isaac Davis is embroiled in an illegal relationship with a high-school girl named Tracy played by Mariel Hemingway.
One day when out at a museum, Isaac and Tracy bump into Isaac’s professorial best friend Yale.
Interestingly enough, Yale isn’t there with is wife, but with another woman Mary (played yet again by Diane Keaton) whom Yale later confesses is his mistress. Mary spends quite a bit of time being a pseudo-intellectual snob and this (and not the fact that his best friend has a mistress) turns Isaac off completely. Frankly, she angered me a bit in dissing Bergman and specifically one of my favorites, “Winter Light” (more on that later) with this offhand remark:
It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, fashionable pessimism. I mean, the silence. God’s silence. OK, OK, OK. I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, all right, you outgrow it.
How dare she?
Still, despite his initial dislike for her, Isaac begins to spend more time with the insistent Mary after she begins to be neglected by Yale. It kind of starts out with their getting caught in the rain and escaping into a planetarium.
After Yale finally breaks up with Mary, he encourages Isaac to go out with her, and eventually Isaac breaks up with Tracy (whom he has encouraged to go on an acting tour in London) in order to be with someone his own age.
And everything is really super keen until Yale decides he wants to get back together with Mary and she ends up ditching Isaac to return to her old flame. This culminates in Isaac confronting Yale at the university in a scene that somehow revolves around a hominid skeleton.
But needless to say Mary appears to be gone for good, and Isaac begins to reflect on what he had, and threw away, with Tracy. He rushes to her home only to find her in the middle of leaving for the London tour he so recently recommended.
Few films end perfectly. Off the top of my head, I can think of two. One is Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light“, where following a day filled with a crisis of faith, the suicide of a parishoner, and a sexton’s incisive insight into Christ’s suffering, a Swedish pastor begins an afternoon sermon in front of a completely empty church. The other is Manhattan. Isaac Davis, after spending the entire film moving from one lapse in judgment to another, makes a last-ditch effort to win back Tracy as she prepares to leave for London. Her response: “Why couldn’t you have brought this up last week? Six months isn’t so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. Look, you have to have a little faith in people.”
Is there hope? Yes, but it’s on her terms, not his. Tracy – Tracy the exploited, Tracy the naïve, Tracy the plot device – graduates from the doormat to the hero of the film in one scene. She becomes the proverbial beacon of hope in the Manhattan of despair simply by embracing the world as what it is, and not as what she wants it to be. It could have ended differently. She could have caved in to Isaac’s desires, suborning her own story to him; she could have brushed him off and abandoned him like he abandoned her for another woman; but she does neither – she loves him, but she stands up for herself anyway. And Isaac can do nothing but smile wryly in his recognition of her independence. Perfect.
And with that, we leave the New York Neuroticism Period behind to get to the final phase of Allen’s career (so far), the It’s Not About Me Or New York Anymore Period. While it might not feature some of his best-received films, Midnight in Paris has gotten quite good reviews, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was fun to watch, if it was hampered by an out-of-place narrator. However, it seems that few will argue that the best of the period so far is our third feature, Match Point.
For the first time in the marathon our movie starred neither Woody Allen nor Diane Keaton and had very little humor. In exchange, we did get a whole face full of Scarlett Johansson (Allen’s current “it” girl) and a dose of darkness rare in Allen’s fare.
The film starts with a tennis match. We don’t see the players, we simply follow the ball as it crosses the net, over and over, until it hits the tape.
The main character Chris narrates:
There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.
We never get to see which side the ball falls on.
Instead, we meet Chris Wilton, a recently retired tennis pro who has taken a gig as an instructor in an upscale London tennis club.
Chris ends up being the instructor for Tom Hewett, and strikes up a friendship with Tom and the ridiculously rich Hewett family.
Chris quickly becomes a fixture in the Hewett household. He spends time with Tom and his American fianceé Nola.
He goes shooting skeet with Tom’s father Alec.
He meets and becomes engaged to Chloe Hewett, Tom’s sister.
And he has a bit of an indiscretion with Nola.
No matter, though. Tom and Nola’s relationship is doomed for reasons far beyond her infidelities (much of it relating to the matriarch’s undisguised hostility towards Nola) and they break up with the Chris fling still unexposed. Chris and Chloe get married, and Alec plays the nepotism card to get Chris an important job in his company. Everything seems to be going smoothly aside from Chloe’s difficulty in conceiving.
That is, until Chris runs into Nola again, and strikes up an affair. And gets her pregnant. And she’s got this strange notion that he’s going to leave Chloe, partly because he’s too weak to outright reject the idea.
What follows is a masterpiece of tension. You see Chris formulate the idea of killing Nola to hide the entire affair, and you watch him fumble his way uncomfortably through his desperate plot, which includes inept lies and an even more inept theft of a shotgun from the Hewett gun cellar. All the while Chris becomes more irritable and more preoccupied, such that any bystander must know something is wrong. He’s acting guilty before he’s even done anything
But finally, he breaks into Nola’s neighbor’s apartment, kills and robs her (jewelry and prescription drugs), and waits for Nola to come home – at which point he ambushes her in the hallway, making it look like she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He then hurries off to the theater a few blocks away where he and Chloe have tickets for a show – his alibi.
Still, the non-cold-blooded murderer in him continually tries to blow it. He nearly reveals either the gun or the spent shell casings on several occasions, and barely is able to return the gun without getting noticed. And then, when you think he’s nearly in the clear, he dumps the jewelry he stole from the neighbor woman in the Thames. Only, her wedding ring sticks in his pocket, and when as he’s walking away from the riverside he casually tosses it toward the railing…he doesn’t notice the let…
…and the ring falls back to the sidewalk.
Now you know what the whole opening scene was about, and you can only surmise that Chris has just lost.
Sure enough, Chris gets called in by the police as a person of interest. It appears that Nola kept a diary, so his claim that he hadn’t seen her for over a year doesn’t really fly. He plays the “I’m just an adulterer, not a murderer” card and begs the police not to tell his family, but it’s only a matter of time before the ring shows up, and it’ll have his prints on it, right? Besides, in the middle of the night one of the two police detectives figures it out. He pieces the whole thing together, correctly, he knows where to find the evidence, and he goes into work in the morning announcing that Chris is their man.
But his partner informs him that the crime was already solved. There was another shotgun robbery the night before, and the criminal was killed in the act. In his pocket…was the ring, neighbor’s initials engraved in and everything. And the police close the case, convinced that Chris was doing nothing other than fooling around.
Of course, had the ring made it into the Thames so it couldn’t be fortuitously picked up by just the right person, Chris would have lost. Woody Allen pulled off one of the greatest misdirects I can ever remember, making the one thing you thought was Chris’s fatal mistake his sole salvation. Beautiful.
Another notable thing about Match Point is that despite Chris being a nearly completely unsympathetic character, Allen manages to make you WANT HIM TO GET AWAY WITH IT. I can’t explain why, or how. But just like the extended tension and the misdirect, he pulls it off.
Match Point turned out to be quite a capper for a great marathon featuring three movies completely unlike each other.