Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dick On Woody

I've been reading Woody Allen: A Life In Film, which prints the full interview with Allen that Richard Schickel did for his documentary. Having already seen the doc, I was more interested on the lengthy essay Shickel includes.

I disagree with it violently, but it's well worth reading. Schickel thinks Woody's early films are overrated but his run of films in the 80s and early 90s are almost unparalleled in cinematic history. I'd say the opposite is true. Once Woody started moving away from his one true talent--comedy--he moved toward numerous bad habits: arty shooting style, obvious and rambling dialogue, shallow characterizations, poorly constructed plots. Schickel either ignores these deficits, or doesn't believe they exist.

Shickel makes some good points, even if we differ on the quality of the films. He notes, for instance, that Woody often relies on magical realism. I'd never thought about it before, but a quick review makes a solid case--Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, New York Stories, Alice, Shadows And Fog and others feature a magical world intruding on everyday life.

On the other hand, I was often taken aback by Schickel's parenthetical comments. For instance:

Between 1924 and 1967 [Charlie Chaplin] made only ten movies, less than one-third the number Woody created in a similar time frame and, masterpieces (A Woman Of Paris, The Circus, City Lights) aside, not necessarily a better body of work overall than Woody's--more aspiring perhaps, but not better.

So Schickel has a chance to list some Chaplin masterpieces and he picks these three? City Lights, sure, but no Gold Rush, no Modern Times? Instead, A Woman Of Paris, an interesting feature that doesn't star Chaplin, and doesn't really compare to his best work? And The Circus, the one feature he made at his height that doesn't quite compare?
Later, we get:

Yes, to be sure, [Woody] has made other, essentially humorless films (September, Another Woman, Sweet And Lowdown).

Sweet And Lowdown is essentially humorless? It's a comedy, and a reasonably regarded one at that.

Writing on how The Purple Rose Of Cairo has movie characters jump on and off the screen, we get:

By using this marvelous device (first toyed with, less consequentially, by Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.) he was of course making one of his boldest magical-realistic assaults on his audience's expectations.

I think Sherlock Jr.'s use of this device is far superior to Woody's. Keaton effortlessly and brilliantly places it into his story, while Woody's labored metaphor can't even match Keaton from a technical standpoint, even though he's working 60 years later.

PS The only part of the essay I'd skip is the final section where Schickel defends Woody's personal life. Even if his argument were good, it wouldn't be relevant.


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