Interview: Alex Sheremet on Woody Allen (Part 1)

Posted on August 31, 2015 at 3:33 pm

Copyright 2015 Take Two Publishing
Copyright 2015 Take Two Publishing

Alex Sheremet is the author of Woody Allen: Reel to Real, an in-depth exploration of the work of one of the most prolific and singular directors in history. He generously took time to answer my questions. Part 2 will be published on September 6, 2015.

What elements do you find in Woody Allen’s “early funny” movies that show up in his purely dramatic films?

There is both a break and continuity within his films, but the most important thing to know is that, even in the ‘pure’ comedies, there is still the pretense of something deeper. While I think this has been overstated, it’s true that- say- Sleeper has a running social commentary even in scenes that seem just for laughs. For instance, when Luna (Diane Keaton) is bent on becoming an artist, yet recites nothing but bad poetry to anyone who might listen, it is quite similar to Woody’s take on the arts in Interiors, Manhattan, and many other films, where the talentless are obsessed with things they can never have. To Woody, this would still be a human ‘type’ even in a post-apocalyptic future. It refers to a mode of being- a set of feelings and inclinations- that are prevalent not only in the American upper crust which he so often skewers, but everywhere else too. The difference is that today they can be recorded, and Woody Allen’s films are a great record of things that (oddly enough) critics so often accuse his artistry of.

I’ve often thought that Woody’s early comedies are the best gag-driven works in cinema. Yes, Take The Money And Run, Bananas, and Love And Death are all flawed in the sense that a barrage of jokes has an artistic ceiling that a truly great dramatic film does not, but they are stellar works within their own genre. By that same token, many of Woody’s dramas (Crimes, Stardust Memories, and Another Woman, in particular) are at their own cinematic apex, as well. I know of no other artist that has mastered ‘pure’ forms and could so fluidly go between them. This, to me, implies an artistic need that Woody has to master a number of forms rather than simply being known for one or two. Look at Ingmar Bergman’s comedies- not very funny, are they? Or Federico Fellini’s style- he’s among the world’s best film-makers, no doubt, but the closest he’s come to a pure comedy is Amarcord, which Woody used as a model to utterly better with his own film, Radio Days.

In fact, the closest filmmaker to Woody that I can think of (at least in terms of sheer diversity) is Werner Herzog. Some might be surprised to hear this, but what they have in common is an ability to do pretty much whatever it is they want to: faux documentaries, dramas, comedies, and the like, with about the same number of great films to their names. It matters not that their style and their content are so different. The point is that they do whatever it is they’re able to do at the highest levels, and quite consistently at that.

Over the past ten to twenty years, my impression is that it is more important to Allen to make a film every year than to make a good film, that he would rather be filming than refining the script. Do you agree?

Yes. But to be fair, I don’t think Woody would be able to do better films now even if he’d take twice the time. I mean, he’s always made about a film a year- this isn’t really his way of pushing himself. It is simply how he works. He’s made multiple masterpieces one after the other, and I’m sure that has to do with youthful ability- when one’s energy AND mind are at their peak. Sure, he’s made excellent work with Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, but when they’re followed by a string of mediocrities (or worse) for 10+ years, I assume it has more to do with being 79 and the inevitable creative drop-off rather than any conscious decisions on his part. His best days are probably behind him and there is little he could do about it- especially if he truly does believe that the last 8 years were in any way a success and therefore worth emulating.

Allen famously gives very little direction. Which actors do you think have worked with him most effectively?

Woody has been very lucky in the way that he was able to get a number of great actors early on, especially during his more serious turn with Annie Hall. As a comic duo, Allen and Diane Keaton were great- and I don’t think there is a better comic pairing than the one found in Love And Death. You see dozens of little tics- the way Keaton might look at the camera, or roll her eyes unexpectedly, the way her hands might move when dealing with Allen, as well as Allen’s own ripostes to such. There are so many details, within, that most actors don’t ever seem to think about but that go on to define Diane Keaton. In this way, she’s always seemed to have great instincts, which precludes any real need for direction. It’s the same with lots of professions- give a great worker a few good tools, and they’ll do far better than a mediocrity with lots of instruction.

The same can be said for Sam Waterston, Dianne Wiest, Geraldine Page, Mary Beth Hurt, Martin Landau, Mia Farrow and the much-neglected Gena Rowlands. In fact, I’d argue that the best performance, in any Woody film, is Rowlands in Another Woman. There are expressions that she makes that are so hyper-realistic that they can’t even be deduced as a reaction to one or two things, but whatever plenum of facts and emotions that a situation calls for in real life. This is hard to do, obviously- how can one reasonably channel the full import of a thing while being privy to only one part of it? Yet she does it, over and over again, and few talked about this when the film came out. That’s changing, however, in the same way that Mia Farrow’s performances in Woody’s films have earned her much praise two or three decades after the fact, at a time when both of their careers have effectively come to a standstill.

You are a defender of some of his least popular films, “Interiors” and “Celebrity.” What are audiences missing, and why?

Interiors was unjustly regarded as an Ingmar Bergman rip-off, but such an accusation is possible only when looking at the film’s patina. Yes, it’s dark both literally and figuratively; yes, it’s a slow, methodical look at family relationships; yes, some of the dialogue is flushed with the sorts of poeticisms that turns Bergman’s greatest scripts into great literature even if they’re asked to stand alone. But beyond this, the concerns are wholly Allen’s, not Bergman’s. Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is American to core, down to her child-like leisure and inability to grasp the difference between desiring a thing she cannot have, and using this lack as a measure of her own self-worth. That ‘Joey’ type is practically a creation of the 1960s-70s, safely within the American milieu, and has only intensified now precisely in the ways that the film depicts.

Supporting characters, such as Flyn (Kristin Griffith), are given a depth- a function that goes beyond mere function, but realism- that most leads rarely have. Scenes such as Geraldine Page entering the dimly lit church- entering her ‘interiors,’ in a sense- capture a psychotic break so vividly that it’s way up there with any other depiction of illness one can think of. Michael’s (Sam Waterston) inability to deal with the ‘artsy’ but talentless type- in fact, his very inability to comprehend what is an illogical conflict, gets at the sort of illusions and miscommunications that tail many relationships. Our inability to REALLY know Pearl’s (Maureen Stapleton’s) intentions, despite the clues, also complicates both her character, as well as others’ varied reactions to her. Woody’s refusal to show Renata’s (Diane Keaton) child more than once or twice despite her ostensible importance to her marital problems is a deft move that says much- with not all of it obvious.

And so on. Yes, a few of the film’s lines could have been tweaked; a couple of symbols are too obvious or clunky, but we’re talking, maybe, 3 or 4 minutes of screen tine interspersed between 90 minutes of greatness. As for the charges of ripping off of Persona’s imagery, with the 3 women standing in one shot in the end? Ingmar Bergman’s use of the image was both visually different (that is, a composite) AND ironic. It is a comment upon the percipient than on the characters, who are mostly ciphers. Woody’s use of the image is neither lesser nor greater than Bergman’s. It is just 100% opposite in both execution and effect. I am shocked that this isn’t brought up more often. It is probably because critics tend to look for reasons to justify their aesthetic positions as opposed to looking at the evidence, first, and drawing conclusions then.

Assuming that it’s true, however- assuming that Woody’s dramas are nothing more than Bergmanian rip-offs…. why would it matter, anyway, if they are well-executed rip-offs? Had Shakespeare not written Hamlet, and a contemporary writer penned it, instead, it would be still logically be a great work of art despite having all the typical Shakespearean hallmarks. Yes, it might be less fresh, today, but great art almost by definition ages well, even if it might not do so indefinitely. And while I argue against the charge in the book, in detail, I feel half-hearted about it mostly because it is just so irrelevant. It is almost as if making a great work of art in the vein of another great artist is a dishonor rather than a great difficulty that’s been overcome. It’s just so silly and is little more than a charge made by non-artists (or wannabes!) who simply have no idea how influence, much less artistic creation, even works.

Celebrity is a lesser film than Interiors, but still unfairly maligned. I just haven’t seen many logical complaints, and the biggest one seems to be that Kenneth Branagh is “playing Woody,” as opposed to his ‘own’ character. First- so what? Whatever he’s playing, he’s playing it well, which counts first. Second, there is NO WAY that Woody would have pulled off Kenneth Branagh’s persona, himself. Remember that the film is only a comedy about half of the time. If Woody were to play this character, it’d be a farce from beginning to end- and a completely unbelievable one, at that. Branagh’s conflict, within, is that he’s trying to enter the superficial celebrity world and do typical celebrity things as a means of finding purpose. He cannot, however, and while he strikes out with women, they DO give him attention- he’s good-looking, after all, and has just enough success to turn a few heads, no matter how short-lived. For this reason, the film brims with subtleties, such as the wonderful flirtation scenes between Branagh’s character and Winona Ryder. Had Woody even attempted this, the two character’s clear sexual tension, the give-and-take of not knowing what might happen would simply not occur. It would be the sexual tension of Jade Scorpion– funny, perhaps, but ill-serving Celebrity.

Allen is not known as a particularly visual director, beyond working with top-quality cinematographers. but you write about some examples of visual storytelling that are often overlooked. What are some examples of his use of images or colors to tell the story?

The charge that Allen is non-visual is not only a cliché, but an unjustified one at that. Even in early films that are far more dependent on gags than much else, there are visual tricks that one can still recall well after the films are done: the way that the two leads’ conversation gets obscured by leaves and foliage in Bananas, almost casting doubt on their relationship, the dozens of visual allusions to other works of art in Love And Death, or the strangely daring camera work in parts of Sleeper, panning away from characters’ faces and letting their bodies or a room’s lighting to tell the story.

These are the more simple examples, of course. The further you go into his filmography, however, the deeper these visuals become. Interiors, for example, has a wonderful scene wherein Geraldine Page’s character is about to commit suicide. She is shown taping all the cracks in her apartment- using black tape, then white when she runs out of black. She then reclines on the sofa- her dress is mostly black with a bit of white. The scene outside is white stars and city lights against a black sky. In other words, the thing becomes a kind of cosmic funeral, as if she’s at her own wake. And even in death, she must keep everything clean, well-proportioned, and properly colored- a comment on her psyche which says more than even the film’s dialogue.

Another Woman, too, is perhaps one of his most visual films. You see Marion (Gena Rowlands) entering her own ‘interiors’ by following Hope into back alleys and streets, and it is clearly no longer something in the outer world- this is metaphor for the many things happening within. The appearance and disappearance of her mother gives her childhood an air of irreality- that things are not precisely as they’ve been described, simply because the memory (as related to us) is just so perfectly colored. Such things barely last a few seconds, and if they’re not noticed, they’re gone, and it seems that the original charge sticks. Crimes And Misdemeanors is similarly filled with these touches- from Martin Landau’s sudden fear over watching a sunset, as if God is behind the clouds, to the way that Dolores’s assassin (unseen at the time) first steps out of a car to observe the scenery over a bridge, thus enriching him as more than a mere thug. Or take a film like Stardust Memories, which is SO dependent on visuals to characterize, dispute, repel, and so on, that it utterly needs its fractured qualities. Recall how Charlotte Rampling’s character, Dorrie, gets about a minute of jump-cuts to show what a psychotic break must feel like? Or the way that Sandy’s (Allen) apartment’s décor shifts according to the mood he’s in? Or the way that Sandy expresses his love for Dorrie by focusing NOT on Sandy’s loving gazes, but at Dorrie’s far less legible ones? This is not any less ‘visual’ than a Malick or a Herzog film. It is visuals that work on a different set of axes, and quite well, at that.

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