June 05, 2011

Midnight in Paris


I have a very old two-album set of Woody Allen's standup routines called "The Nightclub Years," the actual vinyl discs, which I must confess I haven't listened to in years because, well, I've committed all the routines to memory so the jokes cannot be fresh. The classics are all there: Shooting the Moose; the kidnapping story where the FBI agents surround the house, realize they don't have any tear gas, and so stage the death scene from "Camille," with the result: "Tear-stricken, my abductors gave themselves up." And all the rest.

You can hear in these old routines a lot of the ideas that Woody subsequently used in his movies and short stories. The whole setup for "Take the Money and Run" is in one monologue where convicts on a chain gang escape captivity "disguised as an immense charm bracelet." In another Woody interacts in a fantasy with the Lost Generation ex-patriots living in Paris in the 1920's. There are a lot of references to Ernest Hemingway's boxing (people keep getting punched in the mouth), and the best line is kind of a throwaway: "Scott and Zelda returned from a New Year's Eve party. It was April."

He uses the ex-pat-in-Paris material in his new movie "Midnight in Paris." Beyond that, I won't say too much of a spoliation nature, because the developments caught me by surprise and that's most of the fun. The movie doesn't quite make it, unfortunately, and probably won't on re-viewing, if that ever happens. Sometimes I find that Woody's movies are better when seen a second time, years later. That happened with both "Celebrity" and "Stardust Memories," which I think are both very interesting movies. So arty you could even call them "films."

I understand that his movies almost never make any money. The stars work for Screen Actors Guild scale in exchange for a chance to take a leading role in a Woody Allen movie, and this usually pays off for them. They are given more interesting, and lucrative, roles after this rite of passage. I'm thinking specifically of Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the southern ingenue in "Whatever Works," another recent Woody effort with Larry David, and Wood went on to a big role in the HBO series "Mildred Pierce." And then Rebecca Hall, in "Vicki Christina Barcelona," which was in fact a very good movie and served as a launching pad for later starring roles for her. I first became aware of how good Will Farrell could be as a semi-serious, yet still very funny, actor in Woody's "Melinda and Melinda," another almost movie.

I've read that Woody Allen writes his screenplays long-hand in his East Side apartment, start to finish, on yellow lined tablets. Sounds about right. Most modern screenplays, "written" for 15 year old boys, are comprised mainly of three words: two have four letters, and one is a compound word with 12 letters, built on an extension of one of the four-letter words. That's pretty much it, for 90 minutes. Woody is still mentally in the 1930's and 1940's, as his soundtracks always suggest, and so his dialogue is slow, stately, precise and sometimes kind of stilted and mannered. His characters don't always sound like actual people talking, but then Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies doesn't really sound like anyone I know, either. Over the years his writing has become more the language of stage than screen, sort of a modern Noel Coward adapted for the movies.

It wasn't always so. The movies with Diane Keaton were more spontaneous and improvisational, but he's gotten away from that. A character like Owen Wilson in "Midnight" doesn't talk like a contemporary man, but then the movie's theme is a literal anachronism, so it works. It's very clever the way he has coached various actors to be him: Will Ferrell in the "Melinda" movie, Kenneth Branagh in "Celebrity," and now Owen Wilson in "Midnight." Whether they look the part of the nerdy shlemiel or not (and they don't), they bring it off: insecure, neurotic, self-analyzing. The only problem is that no one can really play Woody the way Woody did, and that now includes Woody himself. If the Woody of 30 years ago could have been the time traveler in "Midnight in Paris," instead of Owen Wilson, the movie might have been brilliant, and I suspect Woody Allen knows that. Must be kind of frustrating.

I've often thought that Woody Allen is about the only serious cinematic artist working in modern America. He's vastly underrated, in my opinion, and his true depth is usually overlooked. He works the existential themes of the great European intellectual artists, such as Camus, Sartre, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Ingmar Bergman; it's just that he does so in a comedic framework, so his movies are always evaluated on the basis of how many laughs they get. But all modern art has gravitated toward one essential theme (the only one left after the illusions of religion have faded away), the meaning of life or the absence thereof, and this motif runs through all of Allen's work. It's the subject of my favorite scene from his "serious" movies, the "Is life worth living?" monologue toward the very end of "Manhattan" (link above). He lays it all out there, what he's doing: the plot, the complications, the emotional dramas, are all created by his characters (these pampered, over-educated, Manhattanite sophisticates) in order to distract themselves from basic questions of mortality and existence. What really keeps one going, he tells his tape recorder, are just a few of the heart's delights, and Woody recites his. I can't think of another American movie maker who does scenes like that.

It's one of the reasons I think he's more at home in Europe now, where audiences will sit still for something other than the latest Kate Hudson/Anne Hathaway/Jennifer Anniston/Seth Rogen/Ed Helms schlock. Movies made in America aren't supposed to mean anything or clarify anything about life; they're simply sitcoms of about three times the normal length, and since many of them are now animated, they can be regarded as very long Saturday morning cartoons. At the marketing level, this works best for an uneducated populace. I tend to throw away a few hundred dollars a year watching these lousy movies, these cliche-filled scripts built on contrived situations replete with barf and fart jokes. I should probably reconsider that; I could probably support a family of four in West Africa with the money I'm spending watching movies like "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." (No, I haven't seen it.)

Now that I think of it, it's probably true that a lot of contemporary Americans don't know who the American ex-pats in Paris in the 1920's were, and are unprepared to get any of the gags or references in the movie. Yet still Woody writes the script. He works on the assumption that some people will understand some of what he's trying to say, and that's apparently enough for him.

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