A Note on Woody Allen arising from the reception of Blue Jasmine

I enjoyed Blue Jasmine very much; in fact I don’t remember Cate Blanchett ever being better. That last close-up of her welling at the fate she still doesn’t fully realise she brought on herself is extraordinary; as is the film as a whole; few filmmakers would dare take on such a downbeat subject about such a fundamentally unlikeable, self-deluded and superficial person much less end it on that note. The film is also extraordinarily fluid and confident formally with past and present melding into one another with ease and with subjective states of mind flowing equally fluidly into and out of external ones. It was a delight to see performers like Blanchett and Baldwin at their best, to discover new ones such as the charismatic Bobby Canavale as Chili and to re-discover or discover for the first time what once-famous names like Andrew Dice Clay could do (I’d never liked him until here). It is an extraordinary achievement from all concerned.

But I was also a little annoyed at the reception the film received. Anthony Quinn writing for The Independent notes, ‘To call Woody Allen’s new film a ‘return to form’ would be misleading, since his film-making in the last twenty years has been so erratic that it’s hard to know what his “form” might be anymore.’ Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote ‘Here it is: the real deal, an actual Woody Allen film, the kind we once looked forward to, took for granted, then despaired of ever seeing again. After all those false dawns, non-comebacks and semi-successful Euro jeux d’esprit, Allen has produced an outstanding movie, immensely satisfying and absorbing, and set squarely on American turf: that is, partly in San Francisco and partly in New York’. Paul Martinovic in Den of Geek wrote, ‘ It doesn’t help that he’s wildly, famously inconsistent: since the excellent early to mid 90s run that included Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, even the most fervent fan would be hard pushed to argue that his recent filmography has been defined by a long periods of mediocrity’. One could go on.

The collective and over-riding impression from the reviews (though you’d find exceptions and variations if you follow up on the links to the  full reviews above) is that since the early nineties, perhaps to the period of Husbands and Wives in 92 or perhaps to Bullets over Broadway (which I find a comic masterpiece) in 94, Allen’s output had been erratic and mediocre until Midnight in Paris in 2011. In fact, I too used to think something like that and, with a few exceptions, basically stopped going to his films. Then, a few years ago, I decided to brush up on my Allen since Husbands and Wives, systematically, in chronological order and I was truly surprised. Of course many of them ARE uneven but very few  comedies aren’t. His are more serious, more substantial, funnier about more important things than almost anybody else’s. And cumulatively they are as formally daring as the work of any Hollywood director perhaps ever: the use of a Greek Chorus  to open Mighty Aphrodite, the revue-style of Deconstructing Harry with the fantasy sequence in Hell, the filming of the same story in two modes that he undertakes in Melinda and Melinda, the play on the musical form in Everybody Says I Love You, the brilliance of the dialogue in Anything Else. One might well argue that these aren’t the equal of his experiments in Annie Hall, or Purple Rose of Cairo or Zelig. But that’s quite a standard against which to measure anyone’s work.

What I found seeing all of those films, again, and in order, is that almost all of them (Cassandra’s Dream, the only one I couldn’t be  bothered to  finish, being the major exception) made me laugh, a lot, and in unexpected ways. They were performed by the creme-de-la-creme of internationally renown stars and actors at or near their best (Penelope Cruz, Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Judy Davis, Goldie Hawn, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio…the list is endless) some of the greatest comic actors of the last fifty years showing they’re still masters of the situation, the timing, the inflection, and the punchline (Paul Giamatti, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Tracey Ullmann, Michael Rappaport, Elaine May, Jon Lovitz, Wallace Shawn, Dan Ackroyd, Danny DeVito, Larry David…again many others).

So perhaps it might be better to begin to think about how even at his worst, his non-best, and his near-best, Woody Allen, as all truly great directors, has things worth looking at, worth treasuring, and for critics to think to meditate on what their function is. From what I remember, describing accurately and evaluating convincingly are only part of the job. Introducing works to audiences, building audiences for difficult works, or works not guaranteed to please or that won’t please easily or that are only partly successful, these are also part of the function of a critic; and one could argue that it wasn’t Allen that failed by continuing to experiment, to develop, to at least try but the audiences and critics who failed him and failed that work.

There’s more that I need to think about but I thought I’d just remind you and myself of a few of my favourite moments from Woody Allen films in this so-called period of un-evenness and failure.

Goldie Hawn in Everybody Says I Love You (1996)

I’m not sure how this will appear in this form but I remember the collective intake of breath when Goldie Hawn begins to float. It’s sheer joy and one of those magic movie moments for the ages.

Woody’s vision of ‘Hell’ in Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen descends to hell in Deconstructing Harry.

Judy Davis in Celebrity 1998

Judy Davis seems to get a laugh from each line reading; I particularly love her ‘bovine’ and ‘vache hollandaise’.

Sweet and Lowdown 1999

Sean Penn gives one of his most endearing performances in Sweet and Lowdown; and a killer punchline.

Smalltime Crooks (2000)

Situation AND slapstick

Larry David speaking directly to the audience in Whatever Works (2009)

This is the earliest of these films, with the longest scene, which is why I’ve kept it until the end. But I didn’t know when to end it. Jus as one thinks of cutting, another great laugh comes along.

Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

The humour seems to come from the shock at  the way Mira Sorvino applies the Marilyn Monroe/ Betty Boop  voice to a new pornographic language.

We should all be so mediocre and uneven.

José Arroyo

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