Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Woody Allen Essay (and Top 10)

A nice article on Woody Allen talks about some of the philosophical themes in his works (Is Woody Existentialist, Nihilist or Pragmatist? Discuss.). I also found what he says about his comedy very interesting (which is quite true, at least for his brand of humour):

I think that had I been better educated, I could write poetry, because a writer of comedy has some of that equipment to begin with. You’re dealing with nuance and ear and meter, and one syllable off in something I write in a gag ruins the laugh. . . . In actual one-liners, there’s something succinct, you do something that you do in poetry. In a very compressed way you express a thought or feeling and it’s dependent on the balancing of words.

I think I have seen more than 80% of his work (the percentage makes sense in his case because his oeuvre is really huge and still going strong). Some major gaps are his "unfunny" films like Interiors or September. I was thinking of making a favourite 10. So here it is:

1. Hannah and Her Sisters: This is also one of the best "New York Movies" ever made.
2. Love and Death: Not one of his sophisticated comic-dramas but certainly that makes me laugh the most.
3. Annie Hall
4. Manhattan
5. Husbands and Wives
6. Radio Days: Woody at his warmest, sweetest and most nostalgic. He isn't a nihilist after all.
7. Crimes and Misdemeanors: Ok, may be he IS a nihilist.
8. Bananas: Another non-sophisticated film but full of laughs from start to finish.
9. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy
10. The Purple Rose of Cairo

(link via bookforum)


puccinio said...

Well comedians have always been poets. Right from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin through Preston Sturges and Jacques Tati. Woody Allen on the other hand always feels more like a novelist than a poet to me. His films are really like novels in the density and depth, even the humour which is based more on allusions to high/low culture.

I also don't think he is a nihilist. An existentialist definitely who's concerned with the state of morality of the world but just because he shows people who are essentially nihilist that doesn't mean he himself is one. He wouldn't continue working on cinema if he did.

Like the end of 'Crimes & Misdemeanors', where 'SPOILERS' the Martin Landau character decides to take refuge in the fact that he is "seen" as a pillar of the community, a good husband and father and a great doctor and a charitable man. That's an essential nihilist position because he has let the role that society sees him in as his role in toto. Well actually his character is in bad-faith from the start and the film is about him sorting out the less compromising "bad faith" - lover, Judaism, murderer, doctor.

I am not really a huge fan of Woody Allen, I like some over others. My favourites are "Annie Hall", "Manhattan", "Crimes & Misdemeanors", "Match Point", "Another Woman", "Broadway Danny Rose", "The Purple Rose of Cairo".

Still a pretty talented and funny guy when he finds his rhythm.

puccinio said...

You know I wish Woody Allen gets better American critics than someone like this Leonard Davis fellow from that "Common Review" piece. Talking about Woody Allen dealing with "big subjects" and the like and then that crack about the folly of taking comedian seriously and the usual joke about Jerry Lewis being big in France.

Well I'm sorry but Jerry Lewis was one of America's greatest satirists in films like "The Ladies Man", "The Nutty Professor", "The Bellboy" and many others and a major influence on directors like Godard, Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese(who worked with Jerry on the sublime "The King of Comedy").

In any case what's the big deal about seeing Bergman, reading Dostoevsky or pontificating about Kierkegaard? That doesn't make you a great comedian or artist.

Most of America's greatest comedians came from working-class environments like vaudeville or Broadway or Carnivals and they didn't need to quote Shakespeare to be funny. And if you won't to be serious about Woody Allen using the fact that he's an "avid reade" is a dumb cliche way of going about it.

Alok said...

He was talking of a specific kind of one-liners or a comic routine. Like poetry (or indeed like a novel, or any work of art) it should have a "structure" and a "form"...everything should be in its right place otherwise the whole wouldn't work or it wouldn't be more than just the sum of the parts. It is definitely true for all those great comedians you listed. Something magical comes in and makes these familiar jokes mysterious, profound and lasting.

Match Point and Crimes and Misd. are only two harsh films in his oeuvre otherwise he is pretty consistent in his position that meaning can be found in human action and responsibility however insignificant they are. Even in Crimes and Misd. the martin landau character isn't entirely unaware of the responsibilities and repercussions of what he did. The story ends there but who knows he might have suffered and atoned and even achieved some kind of grace. The fact that it makes you think about these things itself is a proof that it is not a work of nihilism.

puccinio said...

Judah Rosenthal achieving "grace". "Grace" isn't a concept in Judaism in any case. That's a Christian, more specifically Catholic concept.

Grace is for that Country Priest in the Bresson film about his Diary.

To me Judah will continue his life and never look back and maybe never even think about it again. The film was made in the Reagan Era remember where the US President either presided over or ignored the fact that thousands were suffering from AIDS and he didn't do one thing, not even talk about the disease until it was too late...maybe because most of them were gays. The 80's was filled with that decadence of American society where money, class, status was all that mattered and that continues even today.

One thing that few give Woody Allen credit for is that he's a political film-maker. Not that he directly engages with politics but the way he deals with people and society. Like ''Match Point'' is about people rather being lucky than being good. There's a very Langian sensibility in that film.

The fact that it makes you think about these things itself is a proof that it is not a work of nihilism.

Exactly. The final lines from that video of that philosopher who dies confirms that, "Events happen so unpredictably that human happiness doesn't seem to be written in the universe...but some people take comfort in their families, their friends or maybe the hope that future generations might know better". Well that was 1989, "Match Point" is mid-2000s and about that future generation. No change.

It's also Woody Allen's first contemporary film in a fairly long time. Most of his work in the 90's takes place in the recent or distant past or in fantasies like "Everybody Says I Love You"

Alok said...

I used grace as an ethical term, not necessarily christian one. I meant remorse, acknowledgement of guilt and forgiveness. It all presupposes something like "moral law within" which in christian terms would be faith in Christ. I was actually reading an article on christian grace earlier today, i didn't understand much but it was on my mind.

So many dark events from history (and indeed from around us everyday) make us doubt the existence of this Kantian dictum of "moral law within" or at least human being's ability to rationalize past it... but there was something in that character which made me feel that he will suffer and atone for what he did... Will see it again and find out what i think of it now. I haven't seen it in a long time.

Jason A. Smith said...

This is an interesting discussion on Woody Allen and the Lennard Davis article in "The Common Review." We at the magazine are always happy to see that our articles are provoking this kind of thoughtful exchange. Care to address the author of the article regarding his failure to take comedians seriously or make some general comments on the article overall? We'd be happy to publish your thoughts and I'll send a few copies of the magazine to you upon publication. E-mail Jason: smithj@greatbooks.org