Monday, August 18, 2008

Woody in Barcelona

For a long time it was difficult for critics to gauge the value of a Woody Allen film without recourse to the director/writer/actor's off-screen persona. Allen's absence from most of his recent films - or perhaps just his absence from the tabloid headlines, at least relative to his presence there in the 1980s and 1990s - has removed one of the crutches many critics once relied upon to understand his work. But I'm starting to suspect that this over-reliance on the extra-diegetic Woodman became a recurring motif of Woody reviews for a more intriguing reason: Despite the fact that Woody Allen is an undeniable auteur, he is, in another sense, not really one.

Let me explain what I mean by this admittedly outlandish statement by first explaining what I do not mean. I do not mean to suggest that Allen's work lacks recurring themes, narrative motifs and stylistic tropes that constitute a coherent and deeply engaging oeuvre. This consistency has only become more apparent, and more interesting, when one considers how adept he is at hopping to and from different genres, covering the romantic comedy, the musical, the psychological drama, and even suspense with admirable dexterity (the suggestion that he directs effective suspense films is, admittedly, more than a little awkward when one considers Cassandra's Dream, his worst film, but Match Point more than makes up for it). But despite these consistencies, a recent quote from Woody suggests why I think each new film - especially each new film he's made in the last decade or so - has always felt like something of an autonomous event, cleaved from any relationship to the director's personal or artistic history. In responding to an interviewer's question regarding whether or not his new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was influenced by Whit Stillman's Barcelona, Woody suggests the following:
No. I had no interest in it in relation to this film. I watched it and enjoyed it years ago when it came out, but it had no… I was just fumbling around for an idea that I could do in Barcelona amongst various notes I have at home, ideas on scraps of paper. And I came up with two girls going on a vacation. And then Penélope Cruz called and said she heard I was doing a film on Barcelona, and she'd like to be in it. After we met, I then started to think, "How could I accommodate Penélope? What does she suggest as a character?" And that led me to her character. And so the thing formed in a completely different origin. (From The Onion,
Or, in other words, the origins are more immediate, having to do with practical issues surrounding the source of both budget and the nature of the lead actors. Of course, every filmmaker faces such practical, enabling constraints, but relative to certain other filmmakers who seem rather self-consciously aware (both aesthetically and in terms of their public persona) of their status as auteurs, Woody seems to disavow his own personal history and the history of film at every turn. (I wouldn't stake my life that this has been true across the board, but even in the one interview written around the time of the release of Interiors in the edited collection Woody Allen: Interviews, Allen doesn't even mention Ingmar Bergman).

Granted, whether or not my thinking here is convincing might be pretty closely tethered to how far you're willing to go in considering the director's "biographical legend" - or the director's apparent lack of interest in his own biographical legend and the way it is situated within film history - as a factor in your understanding of film. After all, just because Woody disavows his own history, and the history of film and his relationship to it, doesn't mean we have to, as I've already suggested above. His greatness as a director is related directly to how his best films become even richer when seen as an entirety that develops out of a love for both comedy and European art cinema. But his attitudes towards history do, I think, color our experiences of his recent films shot outside of New York. What I mean is how the writing of his characters seems so completely separate from any sense of those characters as having emerged from a history or society larger than they are. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Rebecca Hall (Vicky) and Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) play young Americans visiting Barcelona; they both become infatuated (Vicky after initial resistance, Cristina immediately) with the painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Cristina's relationship with the latter becomes complicated once Juan Antonio's ex-lover, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) returns to his life after her most recent suicide attempt. The tourist status of both Vicky and Cristina seems to absolve Woody from explaining how, or why, these characters became what they became, beyond what we're told in a rather perfunctory voice-over narration (by Christopher Evan Welch) that is neither very funny nor terribly revealing. (Another way of putting it: does the voice-over reveal anything that Hall or Johansson - both of whom are very engaging in this film - are unable to reveal through their facial expressions, movements, gestures or inflections? I don't think so). I think this is the case because whenever Woody's script touches on aspects of their personal history that might initiate larger ideas into the film (i.e., Vicky's status as an American graduate student studying a culture whose language she does not speak; Cristina's prior existence as a maker of short films) it discards them almost immediately. The approach is more problematic when we consider the characters of Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, who seem to function as extensions of the exotic landscape rather than autonomous human beings. (Although it's been said that this film could have been made in any city, I doubt Bardem's and Cruz's characters would have successfully made the trip, and this perplexes me even further regarding what attracts Woody to these characters in the first place, beyond the sense of exoticism which they offer).

The film has some great pleasures, of course. I've already mentioned Hall and Johansson, and Bardem's performance in and of itself almost turns the motif of linguistic barriers, which Woody treats only lightly elsewhere in the film, into something electric in those dynamically tense moments in which Juan Antonio admonishes Maria Elena to speak in English when in Cristina's presence. But I was left spending most of my time thinking about the film's evasive relationship to its setting. It might be that this is a problem which colors all of Woody's recent films made in other countries. In both Match Point and Cassandra's Dream, Allen is undeniably interested in social class, but less as an object of analysis and more as a shorthand through which to explain the characters' histories and psychologies. This is less a problem in Match Point, because it's such an effectively constructed piece of genre cinema and because Woody is more at ease with the upper-class milieu of London than its working class in Cassandra's Dream. All of this is not to suggest that Allen has simply deviated from an earlier, more productive tendency in which he more fully explained the origins of his character's backgrounds and the implications of those origins; like Eric Rohmer, he's always been more interested in the way people talk and think, which requires, by necessity, a focus on the moment as it is lived and as it is directed towards the future rather than as it emerges from the past. But Rohmer's contemporary-set comedies hardly ever left the comfortable environs of bourgeois France and the milieus within it which he knew well; when he left that milieu it was almost as if he was aware his approach to contemporary stories wouldn't work outside of it, resulting in the lightly modernist play with history in Perceval and The Marquise of O..., for example. In Allen's best films the love of New York palpably ingrained in the images seems to explain everything about the characters even before a word of dialogue was spoken between them. (Annie's move to Los Angeles in Annie Hall carries great dramatic and comedic weight in purely visual terms). Without that closely knit relationship with the setting, Allen's writing has to fill in the blanks. (Egads - I'm close to suggesting Woody is a weak writer. Of course not. I only mean to suggest here that Woody perhaps needs his milieu to be a great writer, which he is, most of the time). When his writing is not quite up to snuff, the film itself can survive when everything else is reduced to the cool machinations of genre, as in Match Point. When things get a bit more messily human, even in a relatively engaging film like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody just seems a little out of his element.

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