Sunday, July 03, 2005

Film: Another Woman

A single word with which you can describe Woody Allen: intelligent. Everything else, including his sense of humor, erudition, knowing of film language, comes from his indisputable intelligence. His was one of the most brilliant, most prolific and consistent career in American filmmaking, he manages to make almost two films a year, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but never bad and always worth seeing. I’ve heard of a saying that American film can be divided into Hollywood, independent scene, and Woody Allen.

And yes, his work is that unique. His special relation with “Orion” production house was long and fruitful until they bankrupted (not because of him) – so common that when we see the “Orion” logo, we intuitively expect to hear a well-known jazz soundtrack with which Allen’s movies usually begin. Working on small budgets, Allen manages to keep stabile place is industry even when his comics aren’t financially successful.

Yet, a lot of people don’t like him – not so much his films, as him as a person:

People hate that he appears in every movie of his – yet, a lot of directors favour one actor through the entire career: Jack Nicholson acts in almost every Bob Rafelson movie. Claude Chabrol casts Isabelle Huppert always. Clint Eastwood’s silent stranger was as much trademark of his directing efforts as is Allen’s little neurotic man; As is Chaplin’s little tramp; To add to that, Woody doesn’t cast himself when his comedic persona doesn’t fit movie’s atmosphere (“Interiors”, “Another Woman”, “Purple Rose of Cairo”); In later films, he also casts younger actors in a role that he’d play earlier in career (“Anything Else” unexpectedly casts Jason Biggs as Allen’s younger alter-ego, “Alice” casts Mia Farrow as his female version).

People hate him because he talks about his private neurosis in all his movies – yet the range of neurosis seem unusually wide for one man to handle, and those are very common neurosis that many people can relate to. It seems, rather, that people attach results of his researching of Freud, to his personality. And even then, his films are always deeply personal and honest – qualities that other directors rarely achieve.

People hate him because he married step-daughter of his ex wife. Without even considering righteousness of this act, if we were using personal life as merit to value of one’s work, we would have to dismiss Charlie Chaplin and Roman Polanski as well – both of them prosecuted until they left U.S.A. and continued working abroad.

People hate Allen because he scores prettiest women in his movies. This is, however, not true; In most of his films (including “Annie Hall” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”), romance is far from happy ending and it ends with him walking off the stage all alone.

People also hate him because he’s short and ugly, yet he was romancing some of the most desirable actresses of their time. Strangely enough, whenever Woody Allen is brought in conversation, someone, sooner or later, says “How does he manage it?”

But enough about that. Let’s talk about business.

Allen started his career in early sixties as a stand-up comedian and writer for other stand-up comedians (Get his early performances taped – it’s worth it; You know how he experienced oral contraception? He asked a girl to sleep with him and she said “no”). He was in a generation of stand-up comedians who entered film and TV space through the main entrance, and opened those doors to many stand-up comedians who would do that much later. Among this generation were Mel Brooks and Bill Cosby. What differed Allen from others was, not only sophisticated wit, but also film erudition: Allen was close observer of European cinema, and he soaked discoveries of great oversea directors like a sponge. This knowledge granted him important place in film history, even when he’s not relying on his sense of humor.

Allen entered film world with what was amusing joke rather than serious film: re-dubbing of minor Japanese spy film, with Allen’s comedic script that had very little with original script; Even though film was rather funny until it loses steam in the second part, it’s intermissions with Allen that were the funniest. In one at the beginning, he explains that “Gone with the wind” was made the same way – re-dubbing the Japanese movie; In second one, interviewer asks him if he would summarize the ever-complicating plot in short, to which he answers just “No!” (Coincidentally, at the same time, Allen co-wrote the script and acted in a supporting role in a spectacle James Bond parody “Casino Royal”, a mess of a film but still funny at moments.)

Allen followed directing several light but hilarious comedies of various genres through 60ies and 70ies; Including sometimes too slapstick “Bananas”, Buster-Keaton-influenced SF “Sleeper”, notorious “Everything you always wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask)” (one of rare feature films based on non-fiction book, actually an eponymous sex guide), and of course, first wade into “serious” comedy, “Love and death”.

Following “Love and Death”, was 77’s “Annie Hall”, seriously-toned comedy recording a relationship of Allen’s character with confusing, neurotic, immature, but never boring, Allie Hall – played by Dianne Keaton. At first advised not to make this, “serious” movie, Allen was awarded with two Oscars: original script and best director. I remember reading somewhere that Allen was not at the ceremony – he simply wasn’t interested in Oscars. And I cannot blame him. Anyway, “Annie Hall” was recently voted fifth on a list of best comedies of all times – a clumsy evaluation as any other such list, it shows that “Annie Hall” remained in memory.

“Annie Hall” was a turnaround point, as Allen started making more seriously toned films, more subtle and finely crafted films from that point – including some that don’t have comedy elements at all (“Another Woman”, “Interiors”, one of two intersecting storylines in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). His output was rock-steady through eighties. In nineties and later, quality of his work started varying more, but so did his themes and genres. Critics consider “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, “Hannah and her sisters”, “Bullets over Broadway”... peaks of his career. People rather like “Purple Rose of Cairo”, satiric film-buff fantasy. My personal favourites are “Zelig”, “Crimes and misdemeanors”, “Shadows and Fog” – circus-serial-killer-noir often dissed by critics, and of course, the title film.

Now, talking about the intelligence from the beginning, is displays in various elements of his writing: take his family dramas that often include numerous characters and complicated relations between them; His comedies, in which he shoots jokes so fast and so straight-faced that it’s very easy to miss them and take them as gibberish; The methods he uses to un-usualise his scene, including talking to camera or involving passers-by into his inner thoughts, both first applied in “Annie Hall”.

Allen’s erudition is shown, besides film knowledge, in intensive erudition of his high-class intellectual characters; It is interesting, though, that Allen often portrays this intellect dry and useless, as opposed to fresh energy and life force of those of his characters that wouldn’t know how to discuss Kierkegaard. Such conflict we can find in “Annie Hall”, between intellectual Alvie Singer and his lover Annie Hall. Similar conflict is portrayed in one scene from “Interiors”, where Mary Beth Hurt’s character finds that her soon-to-be step-mother doesn’t level up to her intellectual criteria. It is undoubted that Allen belongs to the first group, but his affection seems to be in the second group. Therefore, his films never bear elitist or judgmental message.

His erudition also spans to field of music, particularly jazz – jazz soundtracks seem to be his trademark, and so it his appreciation of great jazz players (In “Mighty Aphrodite” he suggests his wife to give their child a name Django – after Django Reinhart, greatest jazz guitarist of all times); However, in his dramas, he prefers to use chamber classic music.

And what of his film language? It’s heavily Bergman-influenced, particularly his dramas. “Stardust memories” bears Felini’s mark, in its surreal imagery that breaks under the layers of character’s frustration. Like Bergman, Allen puts an interior space surrounding characters in a good use; Uses it to enrich a scene, otherwise lacking in action. His still shots rely on composition of the frame, including several different planes, characters in the middle, walls in the background, carefully placed furniture, and, very often wall or door frame cutting in close to the camera. Intersection of different planes grants the still shot dynamism. Composition is still an important element in scenes with movement, where Allen finds always new clever ways to follows characters with camera, as they move through narrow, stage-like spaces of their apartments.

Take, for instance, particularly beautiful scene in “Another women”: Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) moves through the hall followed by her husband Ken (Ian Holm) as they argue about marital issues. They are, as I said, walking through the hall, moving toward the camera, wading from the lit room into the thick darkness of the hall. As she arrives to the light switch, she lights on, which opens a new part of the scene (previously in dark) to a viewer’s eyes: a space in which Marion can now move. As she moves, she slowly enters the remaining dark area, as she did before, until the next switch. This repeats several times as the hall is long, Marion and her husband, are, while arguing, slowly lighting on the entire scene, from one end to the other – or, given that the camera is at one end of the hall, from the middle toward the edges, the light expands.

Now, “Another woman”, often compared with Bergman’s “Wild strawberries” because of the similar territory it examines. Marion, successful university professor, is adjusting to her second marriage with Ken, while being in the middle of complicated family relations that are so typical of Allen: She tries to reconcile contact with her brother and at the same time to make friendship with new step-daughter, Laura (Martha Plimpton), to comfort her old father and to calm down her old lover Larry (Gene Hackman) whose passion is not put out yet. Marion is considerate, mature, even too straight-faced. Movie is narrated by her, Marion, which allows Allen very quick intro into all connections.

Now, that’s nominal setting, but the plot is much cleverer: While writing a new book, Marion rents a separate apartment where she can work in peace; Instead of peace, she gets sounds of psychiatric sessions, echoing from the neighbor apartment. That little voyeur wakes in her and she gets especially interested in story of depressive, suicidal pregnant woman named Hope, played by Mia Farrow. That triggers a sort of self-discovering emotional journey that Marion goes through, featuring a series of episodes from personal life (some rather unpleasant), all while earsdropping on these private sessions.

We get to see some of greatest Allen’s imagery put into use of Marion’s emotional journey. Specially powerful are dream sequences, while Marion doses off in her working apartment; One dream includes entering the psychiatrist’s office and openly listening to Hope’s confession. Then, Marion’s father (John Houseman) enters the office and proceeds with his session: apologizing for everything he thinks he’s done wrong in his life, including pushing his daughter too hard and never managing to make contact with his son; Marion, of course, stands above him and listens to the confession; The old, decaying man doesn’t seem to be aware of her presence.

Dream proceeds to a rehearsal stage where actors are replaying scenes between Marion and her husband; Then, through a scene from her earlier life, Marion gets to talk with her first husband, who committed suicide (and this might be the most moving moment of the film). Many other times, through reality or dreams, Marion gets to hear people talking about her, saying things that she was not intended to hear. In one of last sequences, Marion gets to know Hope and takes her to drink (this is, like the rest of the film, supported by Marion’s narration). Then, for the last time, Marion listens to Hope’s session from the next apartment, as she talks about her meeting with Marion.

“She is a lot like me, hides her feelings a lot”, says Hope. Then tells about how their meeting ended with an unpleasant event: Marion spotted her husband with another woman at the other side of the restaurant; Yet, Marion never mentioned this event earlier, through her narration that follows the film. Why did Allen decided to let an outsider, Hope, tell us of this event, and not Marion herself? She hides her feelings a lot, she’d never tell us such painful story herself – not even as a narrator of the entire story.

Finally, the film ends with yet another insight into other people’s view of Marion; she reads a book of her old lover, Larry, with a character namely based on her. The description of her character in this book gives a clue, if not a solution; Intellectually self-observed like she is, she missed on more things in life than people who, well, just live it.

Driven by Gina Rowland’s powerful performance (Allen leaves us enough time to observe expressive lines on her aged face), with suiting classic music in background, “Another Woman” is a perfect film. The film hasn’t got a single laugh in it, in fact, it might make you let a tear or two, and you don’t even have to be a kind of person who cries at movies. But the most surprising thing to those familiar with Allen’s usual work is, he does drama as good as if he did nothing else but dramas all his life. In fact, much better, it seems, than early, goofy comedies. Which reveals the true nature of Woody Allen, one of greatest American directors – who just happens to be funny, sometimes.


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