Monday, September 1, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Woody Allen

Woody Allen vs. Hal Hartley

Woody Allen is a bit of an unusual case for me. I’ve seen more films by him than any other director in this series (about 20) and I count at least five of his films amongst my favorites (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Stardust Memories” and “Zelig”). Given that, it does feel a little odd for me to be saying I’ve never really liked him, but let’s just say I think he’s rather overrated.

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is with Woody Allen the actor. Like John Wayne, he is only capable of playing one role: himself. There are minor variations, but really it’s always the same sputtering, neurotic, egotistical intellectual. Always Jewish. Always a New York native. Always part of the arts and entertainment milieu. Always inexplicably and somewhat creepily partnered with gorgeous women. It just gets old after a while.

It hampers his scripts whenever he writes himself in. He becomes overly focused on himself, but with too much familiarity for introspection. It’s closer to stealing the spotlight: hoarding all the jokes, crying out for sympathy and fantasizing that everyone finds his shtick charming, witty and magnetic. In his ensemble films, this creates an imbalance that leaves the other roles serving as sounding boards for developing Allen’s character and setting up his retorts. At their worst, his films collapse into alternating autobiographies of self-congratulation and self-pity.

At their best, his films are insightful investigations of modern society that can be both humorous send-ups and searing indictments of romance, art and philosophy. I think this tends to work better when Allen confronts himself head-on (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories”) or stays behind the camera completely (“Purple Rose of Cairo”). I’d place his parodies (“What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” “Love and Death,” “Sleeper”) and his ensemble tragicomic films (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Husbands and Wives”) somewhere in the middle. At the bottom would be his attempts at traditional drama (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Scoop”). Like most critics, I see his best period as taking place in his first two decades, with the most recent ones sliding into an abyss.

Woody Allen, along with Federico Fellini, tends to be one of the first highbrow auteurs that budding film nerds gravitate towards. It’s not hard to see why. His films are funny, dialogue-driven and full of clever references to literature and art. His immersion in the intellectual world can be as refreshing as that first year of college exposure, especially if you’ve been raised on mind-numbing blockbusters. Yet in terms of drama and comedy, style and form, he remains accessible.

My problems came after that early glow of discovery faded. I began to sense that the drama was contrived and superficial, as if all of the non-Allen characters were just pawns destined for mockery and tragedy. Then, too, I felt something ingratiating in the jokes and references, like a class clown who craves attention and laughter and doesn’t know when to stop. This is all very intuitive unsupportable stuff of the kind I usually avoid, like when critics complain that a director is insincere. I wish I could put it in more concrete terms. It’s a bit like admiring how clever and sarcastic an older kid is, and then one day realizing that they’re just a self-centered snob.

Given his popularity – especially amongst people quite similar to myself – I’m sure I’ve already pissed off a ton of readers, so I might as well go one step further. Here it goes: I don’t agree with Allen that Manhattan is the center of the universe or the sole owner of art, architecture, theater, fashion, liberalism, the immigrant experience, multiculturalism, trendiness, romance, crime, national tragedy, coincidences, taxis, cafes and the rest of culture in general. I get it: you love NYC. That’s awesome for you.

Hal Hartley is also a New York native and a director of highbrow indie comedies notable for their character interactions and clever dialogue. I was introduced to his work long after Allen, but immediately became a fan. When I asked Katie why we both like Hartley more than Allen, her answer was immediate: “He’s our generation.” Maybe that’s it in a nutshell. Allen was considered more hip in the 1970’s than Hartley ever rose to in the 90’s, but Allen’s star has largely set while Hartley may still have a couple comebacks left.

Hartley’s sense of humor is more understated and modest than Allen’s. Hartley is part of the wave of American deadpan comedians that includes Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, all of whom were influenced by Woody Allen (especially with regard to the mixing of humor and heavy drama) while managing to find distinct voices. I think each of them exceeds Allen in creating distinct characters, often rejecting naturalism outright, as with Hartley’s absurd prose and stilted delivery. It probably helps that they don’t risk the conflict of interest that can emerge while acting and directing.

Hal Hartley’s also one of the rare directors who frequently works with suburban settings, which I probably unconsciously relate to better than Allen’s lively urban spaces. Hartley’s characters cover the spectrum of intelligence, but are always treated respectfully rather than condescendingly. We come to like characters who are eccentric poets, unsuccessful geniuses, earnest ditzes or quiet loners. When Hartley makes nods to older films he does so with visual echoes that possess their own beauty and atmosphere, rather than the shortcut of having cultured characters constantly dropping references.

So is it a generation gap or a difference in talent? The former, as I think Allen easily holds his own in cinematography, staging and (at his height) writing. Both Allen and Hartley have had triumphs and flops, but both have proven themselves in my eyes on several occasions. I’d say my greater love for Hartley and the other deadpanners is predominantly based on taste.


Molly said...

I think you make a lot of good points here. I've seen a lot of his films, and I've always been fond of Woody Allen myself, with a particular (and possibly undefendable?) weak spot for "Everyone Says I Love You." But, for the reasons you've listed, I can only stand him in small doses. The repetitiveness of the roles he gives himself and of his movies generally (Hey, is this the one where she leaves him for Paul Simon or the one where she leaves him for Alan Alda?) quickly becomes exasperating, and some of his more recent films - "Small Time Crooks" comes particularly to mine" are throw-up-your-hands irritating.

Molly said...

that would be 'mind' - not mine"

FilmWalrus said...

Shhhh... don't tell anyone that I like "Everyone Says I Love You" too.

Mad Dog said...

I think the differences between Allen and Hartley are less generational and more prolificy. Although Hartley's probably going to reach Allen's output at this rate, his filmography (after a quick IMDB fact check) is only about half of Allen's. Of course it stands to reason that if a guy makes about a film a year, most of that is going to be stuff that shouldn't bother to exist. I think if Allen could stand to sit on his hands a few years and wait for some actual inspiration, we might see more "Purple Rose of Cairo"s and less "Deconstructing Harry"s. But then again, I haven't seen any of Hartley's films, so who knows? He could blow Allen out of the water.

So at the end of the day I don't make any point at all. :V

FilmWalrus said...

Hartley's career has been much shorter, but I'm doubtful that even given enough time he can manage the longevity of Allen. Hartley's best period may already be over, and there are admittedly fewer widely regarded masterpeices in his oeuvre so far than in Allen's. And while I'm being all doom and gloom, I'll mention that Hartley has proven he can slump, too, as with "No Such Thing" and "The Girl from Monday."

I think my favorites are "The Unbelievable Truth," "Trust" and "Fay Grim." The latter I reviewed and see as hopeful sign of resurgence.