(Just a quick one tonight…)
Recently I’ve been on a bit of a Woody Allen binge. I’m not sure how I’d managed it, but until a few weeks ago I hadn’t seen any of his films. After having watched Manhattan (1979), as well as his most recent releases Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, I’m wrestling with some mixed opinions.
I’m biased towards the kind of films sometimes criticised for not having much plot, a view which could justifiably be levelled against Manhattan. Although I see film as a form of escapism (or do I mean procrastination?), I also believe it is a means for reflecting experiences of the real world. As he writes, directs and acts it seems Allen’s films may take a lot from his own life. There are definitely similarities between his character Isaac in Manhattan, and his appearance as Jerry in the much later To Rome with Love. I don’t think I’m justified in slating his skill as an actor after seeing so little of his work but it does seem clear that neuroticism, extravagant hand gestures and wittery dialogue are commonplaces of his performances. However, these qualities are certainly part of his charm.
And each of these films are also charming, albeit in very different ways. The exploration of the dramas within a relatively small social circle in Manhattan make for engaging and amusing viewing, even if many of the characters are somewhat unlikeable. Isaac’s relationship with 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) is a controversial topic which receives little judgement from the directorial perspective.
For me the most interesting aspect of the two later films is Allen’s treatment of realism. Despite the focus on contemporary American characters in the modern world (well, largely), Allen shows little regard for the usual confines of reality. In most cases, this is no bad thing. For example, To Rome with Love sees a man’s older self inexplicably appear in order to shed light on his current situation, whereas Midnight in Paris allows protagonist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) to enjoy the Paris of the 1920s by night. Time knows no bounds. Despite my geeky enjoyment of Allen’s penchant for metatextuality, or Midnight in Paris’ inclusion of literary and artistic greats such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso, sometimes his whimsical techniques fail to hit the mark.
The various narratives of To Rome with Love are ‘united’ by the framing device of a Roman traffic conductor who claims he can see all from his (2 foot high) perch. This character is also allowed to break the fourth wall, a practice I’ve never seen work as effectively as it does in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). However, in both To Rome with Love and Midnight in Paris Allen has created brash and memorable characters. For instance, it’s great to see Rachel McAdams play a nastier variation on her usual powerful romantic lead/girl-next-door type in Midnight in Paris. Perhaps it’s Allen’s great character writing which helps draw such great casts to his projects.
My mind is far from made up, so I intend to continue my exploration of Woody Allen’s extensive back-catalogue. Watch this space.
As promised, I followed this post up with my thoughts on Allen’s 2008 release Vicky Cristina Barcelona.