I know, I know—I just wrote about Cafe Society. And there’s a contemporary cinema worth acknowledging too. (Right?) But I’m working on something that’s got me scrambling to refamiliarize myself with the Allen canon, and streaming isn’t making it easy. There’s not a lot of his work available online at the moment, and most of it’s not what I want to plumb. Husbands and Wives is.
It’s almost impossible to believe the best Allen films ever got made—let alone gained a following—they go so strongly, and sometimes aggressively, against the grain of mainstream movies. But his core instincts as an entertainer, and his need to ingratiate (remember Zelig—and Zelig?), help ensure his best films are pleasurable and engaging no matter where they decide to go.
Husbands and Wives is a known quantity, so there’s no point in rehashing the plot or talking about its groundbreaking technique. So let’s talk instead about this persistent bullshit about Allen not knowing how to direct actors. (It’s like the old—and completely wrong—saw about Billy Wilder being a writer who happened to direct.) And yet there are more exquisite performances in his films than in the films of any other American director. Explain that.
The scene where Sydney Pollack tries to get his flakey girlfriend to get into his car before she embarrasses him is one of the rawest and truest things ever shot. And it didn’t happen by having an incompetent director set two actors loose and tell them to figure it out for themselves.
Pollack was at best a mediocre director—a mainstream hack. He looked humiliated in Tootsie and completely lost in Eyes Wide Shut. So why is he so good here, and so well integrated into the fabric of the film? It’s long past time to give Allen his due.
Di Palma’s cinematography is so subtle that the demons of streaming come close to shredding it. That doesn’t mean it can only be enjoyed on the largest possible screen in the grandest possible setting—there’s something intimate about it that makes that kind of setting almost antithetical. But it deserves respect, and streaming almost feels like a dis.
As brilliant, and almost perfect, as Husbands and Wives is, it can’t be Allen’s best film—it’s about 15 minutes too long and lacks the startling sprightliness of his best work. But it’s substantial, and true, which puts it so far outside the mainstream that it feels, deliciously, like sacrilege. It’s more mature, nuanced, and, in general, accomplished than Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it’s not better. Sometimes, vitality aces all.
Movies are almost impossible to make, and are harder to make the more mainstream they are. So it’s not a matter of taste but simple statistics: When you look at the number of innovative, provocative, engaging films Allen has made, and how consistent but also responsive his aesthetic has been across the decades, he’s probably had the most successful career of any American director ever.
I know that’s hard to believe, but think about it. Then try to dispute it.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
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