Director Profile: Woody Allen

Being one of a collection of movie directors whose work I particularly like and why.
Woody Allen
Best known for: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)
Most emblematic: Annie Hall
Widely considered the best: Hannah and Her Sisters
Most underrated: Melinda and Melinda
Personal favorite: Blue Jasmine (at least, right this second)
First one I ever saw: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). In theaters: Magic in the Moonlight

Favorite actors: Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, himself.
Recurring themes and tropes: Anxiety. Sex. The healing power of adultery. May-December romances. New York. Other great cities/regions and their specific character. Psychoanalysis. Existentialism.
Elements of style: Traditional jazz soundtrack. Always the same title cards/fonts. Dialog-heavy scripts. Experimentalism.
Reputation: Prolific workaholic. Has nothing to say to actors. Has a creepy personal life.
Appreciation: Ah yes, that creepy life - marrying his adopted daughter, allegations of child abuse, all that stuff - but though I may cringe hearing about it, or even seeing it addressed in his work (looking at you Hannah and Her Sisters), I tend to separate an artist's life and work. And yet, I can't deny his work IS filled with personal philosophies I can't possibly agree with, namely that his characters are always cheating on their partners, and it always brings them closer together somehow. Is that some branch of psychotherapy I don't know about? Wishful thinking on his part? I don't really see it happening around me in the real world or anything!

So why do I return to Woody Allen's films again and again? Well, though they are often variations on the same basic themes, they are for the most part witty and well-written, simply but well made, imaginative, and have depth. I certainly respect that he's so prolific. Where the turnaround for a normal director is upward of 2 years, Woody Allen churns one out every year, usually alternating between more dramatic and more comedic films. So if one isn't so great, you don't have too long too wait for another one. And if the same themes are explored, it feels like an unfolding conversation across a body of work. Again, the films' proximity tends to help.

I particularly like his sense of place. Where the story takes place is at least as important as who the characters are (even though the characters are universally well-drawn and then acted). He used to specialize in New York, and before the 2000s, his films were called odes to the place. In more recent output, he's given that treatment to Paris, Rome, England, Barcelona, Provence... And in each case, the spirit of the place inhabits the movie, directs its characters, becomes magical and mythical. Take the journey back through time in Midnight in Paris, or the powerful nostalgia of Rome in To Rome with Love allowing a man to meet his younger self, or the abandon to passion and unlogic in Gaudian Barcelona, or even the two sides of the tennis court represented by grimy London and the upper-class countryside in Match Point. Woody Allen's films are equal parts inspired by those cities and their "vibe", and perhaps older films and stories that as indirect templates (A Streetcar Named Desire for Blue Jasmine, for example).

And I love me a maverick director who's keen on breaking the rules (though doesn't feel he MUST). Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex is far from a traditional film, though comedies more often had a sketch approach back then than they do now, but Annie Hall completely breaks the mold by being a story expressly TOLD and thus unreliable as a narrative. Every time we've seen it since (and even Allen himself has done it, like in his Schrodingeresque Melinda & Melinda), it's always been in the shadow of Annie Hall. Flights of complete and unexplained fancy are par for the course in his films, whether it's a character walking out of a movie screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, time out of joint in Paris or Rome, or UFOs in Stardust Memories. These twists are more theatrical than outright fantastical, which gives them all the more delightful and unexpected. I love that stuff. And as long as Woody Allen wants to make movies, he can make his characters sleep around all he wants, I'll be checking them out.

But how do YOU rate Woody Allen?


Toby'c said...

In the immortal words of Ned Flanders, "I like his movies, except for that nervous fella who's always in them."

My personal favourite of the eighteen I've seen is Deconstructing Harry.

First I saw was Annie Hall, in April 2012, which I mainly remember because of the other movie I rented and watched the same week, Tangled.

The first and only one I've seen in a cinema was Magic in the Moonlight.

Most underrated for me (going by IMDb scores) are Magic in the Moonlight and Bananas.

Incidentally, if we were to count movies he starred in but didn't direct, the answer to everything above would be AntZ.

Green Luthor said...

Personally, I'd probably go with "What's Up, Tiger Lily?", but that's also likely in large part due to being a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan...


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