Friday, September 08, 2017

an Atlantic Monthly case that Woody Allen has been slumming it not just over the last twenty years but for his entire career (no argument here)

I vividly remember only a handful of moments from Woody Allen films, mainly just the scene where Allen is trying to be a cellist in a marching band, which I thought was very funny when I managed to see that scene on TV.  And I saw a handful of his films between high school and college.  But by the time I graduated from college it struck me, for some reason I couldn't articulate at the time, that Woody Allen was an inveterate slummer or slacker as an artist.  I mean, I grant the man is an artist even if I don't particularly enjoy what he does at this point.  That's not even counting his personal conduct issues even if we could say that as the behavior of men who were lionized as entertainers and artists and thinkers cannot be entirely and permanently extricated from the works that made them popular or revered. 

Well, somebody over at The Atlantic Monthly decided to make the case that Woody Allen's inveterate slumming through making films is why he is so regarded.  The cycle in play is that he's prestigious enough to work with actors keep working with Allen and the actors are prestigious enough that Allen gets to bask in the glow of the grade A stars who keep working with him even if it turns out that his film-making process takes the path of least resistance at almost any and every given opportunity.
Though Allen, now 81, has maintained his frenetic pace of one feature film a year since 1982, his more recent output has been generally, yet gently, judged a disappointment. His best films of the past 20 years—Match Point, Blue Jasmine—are solid but overrated, perhaps because so many of us dream of a return to his early form. (A. O. Scott of The New York Times, who accurately described Match Point as Allen’s “most satisfying film in more than a decade,” then couldn’t resist hyperbole: “a Champagne cocktail laced with strychnine.”) The rest run the gamut from middling—Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris—to genuinely bad: Scoop, Whatever Works, To Rome With Love. While the former have a habit of garnering plaudits anyway (Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for best original screenplay), the latter are often politely ignored in discussions of the overall quality of his work.
The upshot has been that Allen’s stature as an important filmmaker (unlike his personal reputation) has proved surprisingly sturdy—despite the withering self-assessments he offers every so often. In an interview during the filming of Match Point, he described himself as “functioning within the parameters of my mediocrity,” and went on to note that if he were ever to make another great film, it would be “by accident.” False modesty? Some, no doubt. But we would do best to take his words at face value.
For years the evidence has accumulated: Allen is an astonishingly lazy director. Often this fact gets a positive spin, as when he is described as “an actor’s director”—code for the reality that he offers his performers little or no guidance and tries to complete every scene in as few takes as possible. Here, again, Allen is bluntly honest. “I’m lazy and an imperfectionist,” he explained in a 2015 NPR interview. “Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence.”
But once again, Allen himself is ready with the most astute diagnosis. “I’m not a curious person,” he noted in that 2015 NPR interview. “I’m not curious to travel … I’m not curious to see other places, I’m not curious to try new things.” During the fertile years in which he forged his reputation, he pursued themes very close to home, with films that were set almost exclusively in his native New York City and frequently dealt with the fields of comedy or show business. More recently, he has worked in locales—London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona—he evidently knows only from the perspective of an unenthusiastic tourist. Match Point was knocked for its unfamiliarity with London; To Rome With Love looks as though it was shot with a copy of Fodor’s in hand.
Early in his career, Allen was often his own star, and his distinctive patter—the phobias and neuroses and literary references—worked effortlessly in a way that it does not when it emanates from the mouths of his various surrogates since then. And the filmmaker who these days has so little contact with his actors used to have his female stars close at hand: Between them, his longtime love interests Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, and Mia Farrow starred in 22 out of 23 consecutive films during his heyday.

That last paragraph quoted gets me thinking of how guys like Joss Whedon seem like one-trick ponies whose reputations get bolstered by working with women who are more talented and inventive than the dialogue that gets written for them.

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