Woody Allen Tag

Review: Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Many consider Hannah and Her Sisters one of Woody Allen’s best films. Some call it his best. I find it an incredibly uneven affair. It does have undeniably strong sequences, scenes, and moments that represent tremendous growth in Allen’s skill as a filmmaker, but it also has some off-key and sometimes embarrassingly lame elements that keep it from achieving a satisfying balance. And it’s about 20 minutes too long.

 

Allen really hit his stride as an actor’s director here. He’s able to draw effective performances out of a large and diverse cast, ranging from the Studio Era stylings of Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan to the Bergmanesque gravity of Max von Sydow 

to the looser, more indie vibe of Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey—both of whom are exceptional, especially Hershey. Even Carrie Fisher is something other than grating for a change. The one person who can’t seem to find the right groove is Michael Caine, who has his good moments but who seems determined—like Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity) and Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society)—to do some kind of Woody impression. It doesn’t work.

 

And then there are Allen’s cringe-worthy efforts to begin dismantling his own persona. I understand that he didn’t want the nuanced version of the Woody character to detract from the more dramatic plot lines and hoped to use his character’s misadventures—mainly his scramble to find a religion he can buy into—as comic relief. But while occasional lines land, his scenes just aren’t funny. Allen always had a pitch-perfect ear for comedy, so he had to have known the bits set at the ersatz SNL were hopelessly

HANNAH AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s most ambitious but uneven films, it does perfectly capture New York in the mid ’80s and features a still impressive performance by Barbara Hershey.

 

PICTURE
Carlo Di Palma’s subtle cinematography needs that slight pop that Blu-ray-quality HD just can’t provide, but is pleasing here nonetheless.

 

SOUND     

Nothing very adventurous happens sonically, which is as it should be.

flat. I remain baffled by what he was going for here, and how he could have so readily abandoned a painstakingly molded character that had not only served him well but had become an unparalleled vehicle for expressing, mocking, and dissecting the age.

 

To return to Barbara Hershey for a moment, films like Boxcar Bertha and The Stunt Man had given her a reputation as something of an indie-film bimbo, so it was heartening to see her get the chance to play a fully fledged, non-objectified character and run with it. Ultimately, this film doesn’t revolve around Farrow’s Hannah or Caine or Allen or Wiest but Hershey, who stands firmly at its emotional core and brings it a substance and energy it might have been lacking if the role had gone to someone else. It’s a great loss for the movies that she never again got to play a part this good.

 

People were pleased but not necessarily surprised when Allen was able to create characters who evoked the world around him in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, but they were shocked to find he could craft well-rounded and not-so-predictable roles like Hershey’s—or 27 years later, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine.

 

Like a lot of people, I had assumed the ugliest decade in American culture was the ‘70s, so it was a jolt to be reminded that the ‘80s were actually worse. Most of the characters here look like they got their clothes at the Salvation Army, and there’s an elevated sloppiness to the whole culture that’s, in retrospect, kind of repugnant. Of course, some of this was unique to New York, which was just emerging from its nadir in the mid ‘70s and making the grunginess of midst-of-being-flipped neighborhoods like SoHo chic in an effort to inflate real-estate values. But the scene near the end where Allen comes across Wiest in a Tower Records, with its salmon and teal cutouts, glandular lettering, and Barry Gibb posters, reminded me 

we all would have been better off if the ‘80s had never happened.

 

Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma deserves great praise for taking the streets, storefronts, walls, and doorways of the older, decaying New York, the affluent shabbiness of downtown lofts and sprawling Upper West Side apartments, and the carefully cultivated disregard for personal appearance and making it all look beautiful. I doubt any other film has ever better evoked November in New York. This Blu-ray-quality HD download is an acceptable viewing experience, but Di Palma’s shooting style is so subtle that there are moments here that look flat when they should have an understated but distinctive pop.

 

Di Palma is also important because he helped dispel the myth that a lot of Allen’s greatness as a director came from using Gordon Willis as a crutch. By this point, Allen had developed a basal aesthetic and technique he was able to successfully translate from film to film regardless of who was doing the shooting, giving lensers like Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, and Javier Aguirresarobe the latitude to enhance his material without having to prop it up.

 

This is the film where Allen began to be accused of what was called at the time yuppie porn. There’s some justification for that because Hannah did help lay the 

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

groundwork for more unfortunate later works like Match Point. But the greater sin on display here could be called “assimilation porn,” which he paid a disproportionately high price for in the anti-Semitic backlash to his custody trial, when the seemingly hip but inherently conservative New York and Hollywood elites he showcased so well turned on him so viciously.

 

While it’s not possible to put Hannah and Her Sisters in the highest tier of Allen’s work, that’s not to say it can’t be a gratifying experience. Most of the characters are well crafted, most of the performances click, most of the presentation was satisfying, and he almost perfectly captured New York at that moment in time. Only Allen’s uncertainty about what to do with his own persona keeps it from coming together into a more fulfilling whole.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Of all of Woody Allen’s many films, The Purple Rose of Cairo deserves to be in, or near, the Top 5. I doubt anyone has ever treated the subject of mass-produced fantasies and their consequences as incisively. And Allen does it without turning it into the type of cold-blooded, too-clever-by-half intellectual exercise that tends to rule the roost today.

On an initial viewing, Purple Rose can seem lightweight, in a charming and quirky kind of way. It’s Allen’s most successful attempt to translate the style of his S.J. Perelman-type short pieces for The New Yorker to the screen. But while those pieces, hilarious as they often are, tend to be little more than a kind of absurdist riffing, here he manages to interweave a decent amount of earned emotion with the absurdity; and when he veers into sentimentality, it reinforces his critique of pop fantasies and comes with a bite.

 

While Mia Farrow gives what might be her best performance, it’s Jeff Daniels who walks away with the film. It’s hard to imagine the one-note Michael Keaton pulling off playing two similar yet very distinctly different roles, let alone looking like a Hollywood actor from the ‘30s. And yet 

CAIRO AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s best, it’s probably the strongest critique ever of the consequences of our cultural need to escape into fantasy worlds.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—on par with his work in Manhattanholds up surprisingly well in this Blu-ray-quality HD download

 

SOUND     

Dick Hyman’s slick and soulless score is the weakest thing in the film.

Daniels aces it, also bringing a bland Midwestern quality to his portrayal that makes Gil Shepherd’s eventual betrayal of Farrow that much more affecting.

 

Without that last-mentioned turn, the film would have been little more than a very funny confection. But Allen’s movies, as he emerged from his mid period, began to display a maturity, a grounded and often troubling depth, he’s never gotten enough credit for. If he had opted for anything resembling a traditional happy ending, Purple Rose would have been little different 

from the fluff it both embraces and skewers. Shepherd’s all-too-human duplicity is a bracing jolt that throws the dangers—and irresponsibility—of the easy retreat into fantasy into context. Nobody can stop you from escaping into fantasy worlds—something the culture industry has shifted into hyper drive to encourage since the grim turn of the century—but it always comes at a hefty price.

 

And you have to wonder if the contemporary masses aren’t so thoroughly indoctrinated, so caught up in the endless, indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-referential, and insanely lucrative exercises in overgrown child’s play, for anything like this to even begin to resonate anymore, if Allen’s point isn’t utterly lost on a world that just wants to be left alone with its toys.

 

After landing that blow, though, Allen does cheat a little with an unfortunate shot of Shepherd looking wistfully out a plane window as he flies back to Hollywood from Farrow’s bleak corner of New Jersey. That moment seems to let Daniels’ character off the hook way too easily. It’s not that Allen shouldn’t have gone there but something more ambivalent would have rung truer.

 

I need to pause for a moment to acknowledge Danny Aiello’s performance. An actor all too often typecast, Allen plays off from that here, taking an archetypical abusive goon and making him, if not palatable, at last understandable. Consider the distance from Sylvester Stallone in a black leather jacket beating up old ladies on the subway in Bananas and you have an accurate gauge of just how much Allen grew as a filmmaker. And Aiello takes the opportunity and runs with it, without ever breaking a sweat.

 

Dianne Wiest deserves similar praise. If she hadn’t been able to bring depth to her portrayal of a roaming prostitute, Daniels-as-Tom Baxter’s sojourn in a bordello would have been little more than an extended cheap laugh. But she and Allen give her a basal dignity that keeps her and her fellow co-workers from becoming objects of ridicule.

 

And now we once again come to Gordon Willis. It would be impossible to decide which film represents his best work for Allen, but I would have to put Purple Rose really near or on par with Manhattan. He doesn’t really do anything bravura here, but it’s all strong. How he and Allen were able to take 

a closed-for-the-season amusement park in the autumn chill and turn it into a subtle metaphor for the film itself and for the torpor of America in the middle of the Depression remains both stunning and sublime.

 

As with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the cinematography holds up surprisingly well in Blu-ray-quality HD. Most of the subtlety is retained, only occasionally marred by excess noise and grain. Patches of bright light remain a problem, but not

much can be done about that until the increasingly distant day when this film gets lifted up to 4K HDR.

 

The most egregious problem is the shots in the film-within-the-film that were radically enlarged on an optical printer. Allen obviously shot all of these as masters and then decided in editing that the other characters in the frame were too distracting. I don’t remember these images being this grainy and blobby when seen in a theater, but here they look like somebody spliced in some degraded VHS footage.

 

The weakest thing about Purple Rose is Dick Hyman’s score. It’s unfortunate Allen leaned so heavily on Hyman in his films because, while he was a technically proficient musician, his work tended to be slick and soulless. Fortunately Allen’s material is strong enough to not be unduly weighed down by the seemingly arbitrary and often incongruous cues, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have cobbled together the entire soundtrack out of vintage music instead.

 

Many of Allen’s films are about characters who easily—and often, too easily—slip into fantasy worlds, and many of his protagonists are haunted by fantasy projections of the past. Key films like Annie Hall and Stardust Memories show

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Allen himself, thinly disguised behind fictional monikers, having a hard time, by his own admission, separating fiction from reality. His condition, which at one time was seen as an aberration, has since become desirable, is now accepted as the norm. While he frequently played that tenuous hold on reality for laughs, he never fully accepted it, and Purple Rose remains his most trenchant look into what has become the very heart of the culture.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories (1980)

Having considered a handful of Woody Allen’s most significant films, we now approach his most problematic work (that is, the most problematic for anyone who’s not a prisoner of the irredeemable present). Allen had been on a roll with audiences after Annie Hall and Manhattan but ran into a massive wall with Stardust Memories, which effectively alienated the broader 

following he’d created with those two earlier films and left him with the small but blindly devoted fan base that would allow him to keep making movies for the next four decades. As perverse as it sounds, it seems possible—even likely—he deliberately created Memories to offend, in a maybe too successful effort to cull the herd.

 

I wondered in an earlier review why Allen soon abandoned his nimble, well-rounded, creatively fertile persona to portray a thin caricature of himself in later films. The answer might lie here. Being too honest about himself and his perceptions created a backlash that might have been both personally traumatizing and a threat to his career. With his Zelig-like need to be accepted, Allen might have decided that, rather than continue to mine that hugely and uniquely fruitful vein, he should play it safe—or at least safer—from now on.

 

Some have called Stardust Memories his best film. It’s undeniably a great movie—it takes tremendous talent and 

MEMORIES AT A GLANCE

Allen’s most challenging film—the one that alienated his wider audience, permanently reducing him to cult status—and still one of his best.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black & white cinematography—like Manhattan but with more bite—holds its own in Blu-ray-quality HD but lacks the necessary subtlety only 4K HDR can deliver. 

 

SOUND     

Yes, there’s a gunshot this time, but the movie is mainly dialogue and vintage jazz, all of which would have sounded fine in either mono or stereo.

dash to go this picaresque and be this unvarnished and ambitious and still pull it off—but it just doesn’t hang together as well as the equally audacious Manhattan. And I think the fault might lie in the relationships he chose to portray and his too facile casting of his partners.

 

Allen tends to go for the Flavor of the Month with his actors, and while Charlotte Rampling might have photographed well, she just doesn’t have the chops to be believable as his deeply disturbed love interest. Marie-Christine Barrault fares slightly better as his more grounded alternative but, again, there’s just not enough depth there. Jessica Harper almost makes her part work,

but she’s not a significant enough screen presence to care about. While Allen was likely just staying true to his actual situation, and famous directors undoubtedly do tend to flit from one stimulating but superficial relationship to another, the film needed a deeper emotional resonance there to balance its incisive but ultimately wearying examination of celebrity.

 

I don’t want to give the impression I don’t like this film—I do. I just wanted to pinpoint where it sags. Stardust Memories shows a fierce courage—and Allen paid a huge price for going there. Many felt he was too brutal on his fans, but that misses the point. He’s mainly exploring why we manifest the worlds we do and his intense dissatisfaction with his current state, which he was largely responsible for. The suffocating fans were just an inevitable extension of that.

 

It’s got the loosest structure of any his non-gag-driven films, with a “meet the director” weekend at a seaside resort supplying the armature for him to hang his diverse impressions on, and he makes it work well. The problem (to the degree it is a problem) is that people assumed it would be fun to be inside Allen’s head for 90 minutes and were thrown to find the experience jarring, even disturbing. It’s as if he took another stab at the deeply subjective, free-associational original premise for Annie Hall (called “Anhedonia”) and this time succeeded in landing all the blows.

 

And let’s not forget that Stardust Memories is a comedy, and a funny one—his conversation with a bunch of street-wise aliens (“I have an IQ of sixteen hundred and I can’t even understand what you expected from that relationship with Dorrie”) might be the best bit in any of his films—but there’s not a single comic moment that isn’t deliberately troubled by darker currents—which is what makes the film so brilliant but also what threw audiences so hard.

Allen does somewhat balance, or at least temper, his unflinching take on his realty with a deeply bittersweet romanticism, which he sees as a necessary buffer while realizing that retreats into fantasy always come at a price (something he would explore with far more nuance in The Purple Rose of Cairo). That romanticism permeates the film, in how the Allen character treats his relationships, in the Django Reinhardt-inflected jazz soundtrack, and especially in Gordon Willis’s cinematography, which tightens the more epic style of Manhattan and gives it more bite.

My comments about how Willis’s images fare in this Blu-ray-quality HD download will sound eerily similar to my comments about his work in Manhattan. Everything looks good, but not as good as it should, and Memories really does need the subtlety of all the captured steps of grayscale to help soften the impact of the deliberately harsh material. The movie is perfectly watchable in this form—although intense pools of bright light are so harsh they’re distracting—but it would be not just better but a different experience in 4K HDR.

 

Stardust Memories remains a challenging film—partly because none of Allen’s other movies have pushed the audience so hard. In hindsight, it was the pivotal moment in his career. One of the running gags is his fans’ preference for his “early, funny” films, a sentiment he acknowledges and, through Memories, says he’s OK with because he knows that’s all behind him now. Time has since affirmed that judgment, exposing those early efforts as products of the cultural moment with not much long-term worth while revealing the many strengths of his mid-period work.

 

But this was also his first movie in years without Diane Keaton as his leading 

Stardust Memories (1980)

lady, and although her presence can be felt in the Rampling character, his inability to make the romantic relationships convincing does weigh Memories down. This is pure speculation, but it seems likely Allen would have continued doing far more adventurous work if the public hadn’t turned on him so viciously after this film. Looking to regroup, he likely assumed having a leading lady was key to remaining a viable director—which is when a very eager Mia Farrow appeared.

 

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Michael Gaughn’s 4K HDR Wish List

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List

Trying to come up with a reasonably brief list of titles worth upgrading to 4K HDR is as maddening as lopping off hydra heads. Once you have one nailed down, up pops another equally worthy contender until you feel like you’re going to be devoured by the damn things. So what follows is far from exhaustive and is being put forth knowing full well there are scores of other titles that should have made the cut as well. To help keep things manageable, I’ve limited the list to:

 

♦  Movies from before digital filmmaking went mainstream. These are the efforts most likely to benefit from 4K HDR, if done right.

 

♦  Ones where the elements are likely to be in decent shape. As we’ve said often, UHD can work wonders but it can also be merciless at revealing flaws, so there’s little point in prioritizing titles that will just leave you asking “Why?”

 

♦  Movies as vital and relevant as anything of more recent vintage, as opposed the kind of musty old museum pieces that are easily filed away under “Classics”.

 

And there’s one other criterion: There seemed little point in pushing titles based on their popularity. Blockbusters and fan favorites will inevitably get leapfrogged to the front of any upgrade queue because, while they rarely reflect well on the filmmaking art, they’ve got the built-in advantage of fan rabidity to help ensure ROI.

 

I’ve instead focused on movies based not on their box office but their influence—especially their influence on other filmmakers. These tend to be the films that innovate instead of replicate, that are more likely to be the (sometimes awkward) expression of an individual viewpoint than of a corporate collective. “Big” movies tend to be able to fend for themselves, while more human, inherently, not accidentally, creative efforts need all the advocates they can get.

M.G.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

All of Douglas Sirk’s subversive soap operas from the mid ‘50s should be upgraded immediately. Their influence on filmmaking has been undeniable and huge; by being so true to their era, they’ve aged well; and they’re still reliable roadmaps to how to effectively screw with the system. All That Heaven Allows goes to the head of that list, though, thanks mainly to the genius cinematography of Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus), who might have done his best work here, somehow both respecting the subject matter while puckishly revealing its cheesiness.

 

THE BAND WAGON

Technicolor from the ‘50s can look garish if not handled right—partly because the original films already looked pretty gaudy and even the slightest misstep can push that completely over the line. Of course, Technicolor got goosed hardest of all in musicals, many of which have such amped-up palettes that they can be painful to watch now. (I pity the poor tech fool who gets assigned The Pirate.) But The Band Wagon is often considered the best musical ever not only because Comden and Green’s script opts for wit over jokes—an intelligence that tends to spill over into the production numbers as well—but because Vincente Minnelli deployed his Technicolor resources with taste if not always with restraint. Upgrading The Band Wagon could give it an unfiltered immediacy it hasn’t had since the day of its release.

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
BARRY LYNDON

Given the phenomenal job Warner Bros. did with The Shining, it’s impossible not to be antsy to see what they’ll do with what might be the most masterfully photographed movie ever. Clockwork Orange is due out over the next few months, but that won’t give us many clues about how Lyndon will fare, since Kubrick went deliberately low-fi for Orange. But if they can pull this off, it could easily become the reference disc for judging films from before the digital era.

 

BRAZIL

How can you not? Terry Gilliam, with this film, created a style that influenced practically every film and cinematic TV series since. The trick would be upgrading it while staying true to its very deliberate messiness. This is not a film you want looking like it was shot yesterday.

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
CONTEMPT

Not only is Raoul Coutard’s cinematography brilliant, but this film—and specifically, the look of this film—has been so influential that it deserves to be pushed to the top of the Godard list. If you want to cut straight to what was coolest about the look and feel of the ‘60s, watch Contempt. Godard was mocking epics shot in widescreen (in the film, Fritz Lang famously says widescreen is only good for shooting snakes and funerals), but makes an indelible case for it here.

(A quick digression: Foreign films tend to be treated like the Miss Congeniality of lists like this—and I’m pretty guilty of that here as well. Their influence on filmmakers, though, is on par with—and often exceeds—the influence of the stuff from their squeaky-wheel American cousins. But because they’re not big, loud, and stupid, eager to slap you on the back or punch you in the face, we don’t offer them up for consideration as often as we should.)

 

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

How do you pass over the film that single-handedly defined noir? People are still reinterpreting, and outright stealing from, John Seitz’s groundbreaking cinematography to this day. As films like Psycho and Dr. Strangelove have shown, it can be a gamble whether older black & white films will hold up under the upgrade process. But Indemnity was a prestige project for Paramount, so hopefully there would be a decent source to work from.

 

THE GENERAL

Silent films tend to be as easily overlooked as foreign films but many of them are as visually compelling as anything shot today. Singling ones out for upgrades can be a tough call, though, because who knows what kind of shape the elements are in? I’m throwing The General out there because it’s as much an exercise in style as it is in genius comedy—like Matthew Brady photos come to life.

 

THE LONG GOODBYE

Robert Altman’s both affectionate and cynical reimagining of Raymond Chandler continues, like Once Upon a Time in the West (see below), to be hugely influential, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s deliberately funky cinematography could look gorgeous in 4K HDR (despite the flashing). A lot of films aim for grit—this one has it on display in every frame.

 

MANHATTAN

There are at least 15 Woody Allen films from Annie Hall on that deserve to be done in 4K HDR, but given the opprobrium that’s been heaped upon him it’s likely to be a struggle just to get couple of them upgraded. It might seem to be perverse to be pushing for what has become, decades after the fact, his most controversial film, but this is his most ambitious and satisfying work and Gordon Willis’s widescreen black & white cinematography, which isn’t particularly well served by the current HD incarnation, could look spectacular in UHD.

 

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
OR
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN

John Ford was such a consummate filmmaker that at least one of his films needs to be bumped up soon—but which one? The obvious choice would be The Searchers, but that

seems too obvious. I’d opt instead for either one of these—partly because they don’t carry as much extraneous baggage as Searchers so you can appreciate Ford as an artist without getting dragged into faux notions of myth. (If we were just talking about visuals, a case could be made for the Greg Toland-lensed Long Voyage Home, but that’s not really Ford at his best.)

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

The influence of Sergio Leone’s epic, cheeky western is pervasive (Tarantino wouldn’t have a career if he couldn’t constantly pillage this film) and its reputation grows with every year. It’s not the most subtly photographed movie, but 4K could make it sublime just by staying true to its sheer widescreen filminess. And then there’s that Morricone score . . .

 

VICTOR/VICTORIA

Blake Edwards was a solid but only occasionally brilliant filmmaker, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and even The Party would all seem like good candidates for upgrades. Many film enthusiasts would vote for The Great Race, and parts of that would look spectacular, but it’s just too ungainly a film, and not that funny. Victor/Victoria is solid, beautiful, and the laughs still work—4K HDR, in competent hands, couldn’t help but enhance the experience.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Fast forward 30 years from the last Woody Allen effort I reviewed, 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and you arrive at Blue Jasmine, his best late-period work and the film that nabbed Cate Blanchett a Best Actress Oscar. That at first glance it can be difficult to see the common DNA between these two movies shows how much Allen evolved as filmmaker over the decades and helps dispel the jaundiced myth that he is little more than an assemblage of mannerisms treading in a  rut.

 

What isn’t a myth is that Allen has struggled ever since his break with Mia Farrow after 1992’s Husbands and Wives. He earned much praise for Match Point (2005), but that film is ultimately undone by its implausibility, and its success can mainly be attributed to the public’s fascination with the bright, shiny Scarlett Johansson. Midnight in Paris (2011) was celebrated as

a return to form, and made Allen a crapload of money, but it’s basically a lazy recitation of his greatest hits that’s ultimately thinner than a cup of fast-food coffee. Wonder Wheel (2017) earned Kate Winslet some kudos (but the real standout is Jim Belushi, who’s so good it’s shocking) and the film almost works, if you’re willing to roll with its early acts, but is ultimately a noble failure.

 

Of the later films, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Vicky Christina Barcelona, the dramatic sections of Melinda and Melinda, and, much more modestly, Cafe Society, join Blue Jasmine as the ones worth a good look. (I’ve been trying to see the Sean Penn vehicle Sweet and Lowdown for years, but it flits in and out of circulation so arbitrarily that I’ve never been able to seize the opportunity on the rare occasions when it’s bobbed to the surface.)

 

Jasmine exists at a higher level than any of his other late-

JASMINE AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s late-period masterpiece looks exceptional in this Blu-ray-quality HD presentation.

 

PICTURE
Aside from some overdone gold tinting added in post, the film features a restrained but still sumptuous presentation that holds up well in HD.

 

SOUND     

Lots of dialogue, some NY and San Fran atmospherics, and some tasteful jazz cues, all well-presented—in other words, a Woody Allen movie.

period work, on par with the much earlier Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. But it’s not easy to pin down why everything suddenly clicked here. Unlike his other masterworks, it’s not a comedy, although it does have some humorous touches. The Allen persona is nowhere to be seen, even in surrogate form. And even though he has an incredibly uneven track record with dramas, Allen shows an effortless command here.

 

I suspect many would attribute its success to Blanchett, but that shows a fundamental ignorance of how movies work. She didn’t write the script, plan or execute the shots, or labor in the editing room. Without that elaborate support—which is essentially the entire edifice of a film—a performance, no matter how good, isn’t worth bupkis. I think the success of Jasmine, and the reason Allen rose to the occasion, can be actually attributed to class. But I’ll get to that.

Blue Jasmine exhibits a bounty of great acting, and it’s not really possible to appreciate the film without first considering Allen and actors. From the late ’70s on, and even in his subpar efforts, Allen has offered a place where actors can show their abilities without fear of being humiliated, relegated to reciting genre clichés, treated like the director’s marionette, or subjugated to green screen. Because he provided an oasis, a place where an actor’s abilities were treasured and given room to flourish, a tremendous diversity of talent flocked to his projects—that is, until Me Too happened (but we’re not going to go there again).

 

(It’s ironic, by the way, that someone with no traditional training turned out to be the best actor’s director of the last half century.)

 

What’s always intriguing about Allen is that he can get me to appreciate performers I can’t stomach elsewhere. I wouldn’t want to spend a nanosecond with Andrew Dice Clay outside the boundaries of this film, and yet he’s perfectly cast here. Pretty much the same can be said for Louis C.K., who’s insufferable as a comedian and elsewhere only borderline acceptable as an actor (he does do a strong turn in American Hustle, though). Here he shines. Ditto for Alec Baldwin, who’s become a caricature of himself over time but rises above his limitations in Jasmine.

 

Other standouts: Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire

brings depth and some surprising twists to what could have been a thuggish performance as Sally Hawkins’ boyfriend. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who out and out stole Men in Black 3 as the pixieish multi-dimensional alien Griffin, is far more understated but still strong here.

 

As for Blanchett: As one of those performers, like Penn and Streep, far better at “acting” than acting, I’ve always found her work rough going—her attempt to play Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator was so cringeworthy I wanted to avert my eyes from the screen—but she is perfectly in sync with Allen’s material and makes a potentially unsympathetic character compelling. And while Blanchett got most of the attention, Hawkins—another actor I could usually take or leave—I think actually bests her here.

 

The two weak spots in the chain are Peter Sarsgaard, who just doesn’t bring enough heft to his role as the aspiring diplomat, and Alden Ehrenreich as Blanchett’s son, who barely registers as a presence.

 

About the whole class thing: Allen has taken a lot of heat over the years, some of it justified, for being overly enamored with Upper East Side society. And a lot of his portrayals are so fawning they take on a peepshow quality for almost every human being on the planet who wasn’t to the manor born. But the 2008 recession caused him to put all that in perspective, and Blue Jasmine is a perceptive, even biting, look at the great class divide that doesn’t have an ax to grind for either side—and thankfully doesn’t fall into the oppressive cliché of saying the members of the lower classes are forever doomed to do

themselves in. It’s his ability to pull from his vast experience with both sides of the class equation without peddling an agenda that allows him to go deeper than most mainstream attempts to fathom the issue.

 

(Let me pause to note that Allen is one of the last filmmakers left from the era before you had to be a member of the top one percent to gain admittance to Hollywood, when lower-bred outsiders were at least tolerated as long as their movies made money, when they could still have a voice.)

 

Blue Jasmine looks really, really good in Blu-ray-quality HD—which I suspect can be attributed to the existence of a DI. I was hard pressed to find any serious flaws—not that you can’t find problems if you really want to hunt for them, but nothing that was happening with the images ever pulled me out of the film, which is all that should matter at the end of the day. My one criticism is the introduction of too many golden tones in post. Yes, I get where they were going with that, but I still suspect that future generations are going to look at the early efforts of digital filmmaking and want to slap us silly for not being able to resist fiddling with the knobs.

 

And now I once again come to the pointlessness of talking about the audio in a 

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Woody Allen film. It’s not like he’s making silent movies and audio doesn’t matter—few directors rely as heavily on dialogue—and it’s not like the mix doesn’t help create atmosphere in the scenes; and it’s not like music cues don’t have a huge impact in his work. The point is that the audio is in modest service of the material, as it should be—there are no bravura flourishes that would make you exclaim “Nice audio!” So let’s just say that it works, and works well.

 

You don’t need to know anything about Allen’s other films to appreciate Jasmine, but saying that at this moment in time sounds defensive and weak. Allen has created a tremendous and unparalleled body of work, one that deserves to continue to be appreciated. Few directors are capable of making movies that are as human, and Blue Jasmine, as a sophisticated and unsparing study of pride and vulnerability, might be his most human effort of all.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

For some probably very Freudian reason, I forgot to mention in my Annie Hall review that the HD version that recently became available on Kaleidescape makes a mess of the famous subtitle gag during Alvy and Annie’s first extended conversation together. That mistake can’t be attributed to Kaleidescape nor to whoever it is that turns out the lights over at MGM/UA these days. It’s been in every home release of the film I’ve seen. I’m pointing it out here in the hope that somebody will finally get it right when Hall (hopefully—and hopefully soon) makes its way to UHD. I’m also pointing it out as an example

of the kind of tone-deaf changes tech people with (presumably) good intentions but stunted creative instincts can introduce into a film.

 

Here’s the problem. Woody Allen carefully sets up the gag at nine minutes into Hall when Alvy refuses to go in to see Bergman’s Face to Face because Annie showed up at the theater after the movie started. (“Jesus, what did you do, come by way of the Panama Canal?”) He then suggests they go see Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity instead. When Annie says, “I’m not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” Allen cuts to the beginning of the Ophuls film.

 

Anybody who knows Bergman’s movies knows they’re in for an almost continuous stream of subtitles while the actors chat and brood in Swedish. And in the days when people had to go to revival houses to see foreign films, Bergman became synonymous with subtitles, since no real cinéaste would even consider seeing a dubbed version of one of his films. Allen then reinforces that reference by showing 

the titling in the Ophuls’ movie, which looks typically rough and washed out, then hits the same note again later on with some subtitled footage when Alvy again drags Annie to The Sorrow and the Pity to avoid spending the evening with Paul Simon.

 

But when we get to the gag with Alvy and Annie talking on the terrace of her apartment, the subtitles are sharp and bright and, strangely, colorful (in yellow, no less). Far more video- than filmlike, they’re eons from anything you’d have seen in any art house of the time. By beefing them up for readability and the proclivities of the masses at home, some drone-like schmuck killed Allen’s gag—a transgression that’s persisted for decades.

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke
The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

Hairsplitting? A teapot tempest? Much ado . . ? The hell it is.

 

If this was a single transgression, that would be one thing, but the examples of tech guys deciding to “improve” films in post are legion, with their efforts ranging from “enhancing” titles to mucking around with the original color timing (now referred to as grading) to scrubbing away grain to that most heinous of crimes, colorization. And the potential to inflict grievous harm becomes more and more acute as the technology becomes more and more sophisticted. The problem—and it is a problem—comes down, I think, to the deeply mistaken notion that this is a tech problem when it’s actually a matter of taste. And, let’s be honest, most tech people—like people in most professions and, well, most people—lack meaningful taste, at least taste on par with the most accomplished filmmakers. It’s not unlike that well-meaning dope who’s running around Europe screwing up all those frescoes.

 

But that’s only part of the problem, because the current culture displays an unparalleled arrogance that shows a consistent contempt for the past arising from the mistaken belief that today represents some kind of signifiant leap forward, beyond being just a haphazard collection of often dubious technological improvements. This has led to the frequently cavalier treatment of older titles under the ignorant assumption that “we” somehow know better than “they” did. (It doesn’t help, of course, when contemporary filmmakers keep fiddling with their movies after release, resulting in things that are rarely a net improvement—but a great way to generate yet another revenue stream.)

 

Somebody needs to come up with the filmmaking equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and then get the vast and continually swelling hordes of techies to swear to it, on pain of death, before they’re allowed anywhere near any older films, classic or otherwise. I can tell you from experience that hardly any of these guys know how to tell a good joke—but they sure know how to ruin one.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

It’s got maybe the worst title ever and probably the worst ending of any Woody Allen film, but wedged between the opening-title card and that third act that got away is one of Allen’s best films, an almost perfectly balanced ensemble piece that’s probably the best evocation ever of midsummer, which is especially amazing when you consider how much Allen hates the country.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was his first film with Mia Farrow and kicked off the diverse and more subdued but still fecund era that followed the tremendous creative explosion of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories. Allen shot Sex 

Comedy simultaneously with Zelig, which he now admits wasn’t such a great idea but led to two amazing miniatures. He and Farrow would then do such standouts as Broadway Danny Rose (one of his best), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the superb but troubling Husbands and Wives. After their all too public breakup, Allen would spend the following decades wandering in the woods, producing far more misses than hits, but occasionally conjuring up gems like Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and Blue Jasmine that, at the end of the day, still give him a higher overall batting average than any other first-rank filmmaker.

 

What makes Sex Comedy different from almost every other one of his films (and there are a lot of them) is that he apparently decided to start by capturing a certain time of year—the feel of the peak of summer—and then build a movie around it. He and Gordon Willis had already done 

SEX COMEDY AT A GLANCE

Ignore the awful title and ending and bask in the warm midsummer glow of Woody Allen’s most underrated film.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—some of his best—comes across surprisingly well in HD, which faithfully conveys most of its nuances.

 

SOUND     

Ensemble dialogue, the sounds of summer, and an all-Mendelssohn score presented in a fine, but not flashy, stereo mix.

something similar with Manhattan, where no other film has done a better job of evoking the feel of the Upper East Side at night. You’re not just watching the people stroll the streets—you’re right there with them, which creates an irreplaceable bond with the characters.

 

Here, you’re placed in the midst of the country that sits just on the cusp of the city—more specifically, Westchester County, just north of Manhattan—which is conveyed in such a way that it feels like both the city’s complement and dialectical other. 

This is some of Willis’s best cinematography, which is saying a lot, managing to capture that elusive sense of warm days, abundant nature, and lingering light. There is a reliance on day for night, which creates some unevenness toward the end but is only really egregious in a shot of Tony Roberts leaving the front of the summer home to go off into the woods.

 

I was pleasantly surprised by how well Willis’s images came across in Kaleidescape’s Blu-ray-quality HD presentation. The subtle gradations are for the most part there and it’s possible to get lost in the frame while being only occasionally distracted by blown-out bright spots like shots of the full moon. Of course, this film would likely look superb in 4K HDR, which would pull out the wealth of detail in the fields, the interiors, and especially the period clothing but I have no significant nits with how it looks in its current incarnation. (And, given where this movie stands in Allen’s body of work, and his current status in general, it’s not like Sex Comedy and 4K are likely to cross paths any time soon.)

 

Sex Comedy marks a big step forward in Allen’s evolution as a director, displaying a new maturity with his handling of the cast. Mary Steenburgen, José Ferrer, and Farrow all give nuanced, engaging performances that help reinforce the heady atmosphere of the film. Allen is even able to make Julie Hagerty shine within her very limited range. The one false note is Roberts, who was always 

tolerable when relegated to playing Allen’s sidekick but just isn’t that good of a film actor and whose beats always feel a little forced here. But nothing he does is enough to ever disrupt the ensemble’s seemingly effortless momentum.

Allen shows an increased mastery of film technique as well, with that new-found confidence carrying over into a growing reliance on lengthy master shots, which reinforce the movie’s ensemble nature while also lending it an appropriately pastoral rhythm. The Allen of his earlier films would have never been able to pull off the extended exchange where Steenburgen confronts his character about lying about Farrow, which is brilliantly blocked and performed.

 

This is pretty much the last film where Allen allowed his character to be well-rounded and witty, for some reason opting to just spew jokes via a borderline caricature from that point on. I’m not sure why he wandered off down such a self-defeating path—it’s obvious from the documentary Wild Man Blues that he was still capable of ringing resonant changes on the persona he’d so carefully created—but Sex Comedy sadly represents the swan song of the Woody who defined an era.

 

Now, about that ending: Allen does an unimpeachable job of establishing the atmosphere, then setting the tone, then introducing the characters, and then setting the various interactions in motion, fleshing out the characters along the 

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

way. And all of that is so delicious and, yes, charming that it makes it that much more dispiriting when you have to deal with the train wreck of the final act. My surmise—and I’m really winging it here—is that working on Zelig at the same time prevented him from seeing the flaws in the Sex Comedy script and likely kept him from doing the kind of reshooting that allowed him to elevate many of his other films from pedestrian or confused to extraordinary.

 

Had he been able to solve the puzzle he created for himself, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy would have easily ranked up with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah in the mass mind. But anyone who hesitates because of what they’ve heard, or who have heard nothing at all about this film, is missing out in a big way. This is what a great movie feels like when it doesn’t feel the need to strut its stuff. It’s so light and energetic and infectious, it’s like a bracing tonic—the cinematic equivalent of a good saison. It moves and feels like no other film. It’s Woody Allen’s most underrated work—and it’s a much needed infusion of summer light during what has been, in more ways than one, the darkest time of the year.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Manhattan

Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen has said his biggest regret is that he’s never made a great film. I’m not sure what his criteria are for determining that but by any yardstick I’m aware of, Manhattan is a great film, undeniably (to use a much abused and poorly understood term) a classic. It’s so strong it might even survive the efforts to erase his career, even though it’s frequently waved around as Exhibit A in the culture wars.*

 

Manhattan is Allen’s most ambitious work, the movie where he completely rose to, and exceeded, the level of those ambitions. It and Annie Hall are his fullest films. No matter how good any of his subsequent efforts have been, they’ve never 

been as generous, don’t have that same sense of abundance, of flowing over. In no other film has he been as familiar or confident with the material.

 

And yet Allen pleaded with United Artists not to release Manhattan. He’s never really explained why. It could just be that he doesn’t have a good perspective on his own work, which would help explain (and I’m not being facetious here) the shortcomings of many of his films.

 

While this is his fullest movie, nothing really happens in it—or it at least it seems that way if you’ve become addicted to melodrama and its crippled stepchild, adventure. But if you focus intently on each of the characters and can establish some common ground with them, their decisions and actions become significant and the film becomes a kind of intimate epic, with Manhattan, fittingly, as its landscape.

MANHATTAN AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s most ambitious film, probably his best—and, for completely irrelevant reasons, still his most controversial.

 

PICTURE
While you can appreciate Gordon Willis’s widescreen black & white cinematography even in HD, this is one of those classics that’s overdue for a UHD upgrade.

 

SOUND     

Smart, witty creatives talk to each other for 90 minutes. There is no gunplay.

In any other city, this congruity between a handful of people and the totality of the urban environment would seem forced, but Manhattan being confined to an island allows Allen to put a frame around the action—literally. Doing a comedy in both 2.39:1 widescreen and black & white ran the risk of being gimmicky but Allen and Gordon Willis pull it off, partly because the framing 

is a constant reminder of the city’s island status and mostly because it firmly establishes everything in the film as an extension of the Allen character, sealing the connection between individual and larger environment.

 

And the variety of the widescreen compositions is dazzling, ranging from macro—the Walker Evans-ish cityscapes to a massive fireworks display in Central Park South to the justly famous image of the 59th Street Bridge at dawn—to micro: a group of creatives chatting at a reception at MOMA to the long take of Allen and Mariel Hemingway strolling through SoHo with Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy to Allen glimpsed at a distance through the slats of Venetian blinds as he sits on his terrace. By each composition being so apt and by creating such a seamless flow between them, Allen instills the sense that these people are New York (or at least best embody a certain, admittedly romantic, notion of the city.)

 

Maybe the most successful composition is the post-coital one of Hemingway laying on a couch in a pool of light from a wall lamp, bottom frame left, as Allen comes down spiral stairs almost in silhouette frame right. He and Willis turn an upscale apartment into a grand stage set with the feel of a palace without losing any of the intimacy—no small feat.

 

Their evocation of the Upper East Side at night, of walking down deserted streets with most of the businesses closed for the evening as taxi cabs continue to stream down the

avenues, is so convincing it’s uncanny. No one has ever done a better job of capturing the energy constantly simmering behind the hushed roar, the sense of possibility, of New York after dark.

 

This was Allen’s first comedy with traditionally structured scenes and a sustained narrative structure, and he applies the lessons learned in the labored Interiors well. He wasn’t yet accomplished as an actor’s director, though, so while he and Keaton have no problems holding the frame, Murphy, Hemingway, and Anne Byrne (in a woefully underwritten role) don’t register as strongly as they should.

 

But those are quibbles. The film is so dynamic and so spot-on that it has a life of its own that makes its flaws seem inconsequential. That’s exceedingly rare in movies, and in a more just world, only those films where the cup runneth

consistently over would ever be considered classics.

 

And now to the awkward part: Being able to savor Willis’s cinematography is a big part of experiencing Manhattan but the current release is in HD and watching it on a 4K display will only make you ache to see it properly presented in UHD. Once you get past the opening montage, the irritating distractions of the upsampled high-def presentation are minimal and you rarely find yourself pulled out of the film (with one glaring exception). But that opening is so essential—and seductive—that it’s hard not to wince every time a large, uniform bright area in the frame becomes a gnat infestation.

 

That glaring exception: The last three shots of Allen and Keaton walking through an exhibit at the Hayden Planetarium are so contrasty and over-processed they look like community-access chromakey. This isn’t even close to how those shots look on film. Many of Allen’s films deserve to be upgraded to 4K HDR but, given his current pariah status, that might take a while. When it finally does happen, though, Manhattan should be at the top of the list.

 

I know I’m a broken record about this but what can you really say about the sound in a movie where people basically just talk to each other for 90 minutes, offering a

Manhattan (1979)

blissful retreat from the aural assaults we’ve unfortunately come to prize from surround sound? The all-Gershwin score sounds fine—although I wish Allen had been able to get just about anyone but Zubin Mehta to do Rhapsody in Blue.

 

The big question about Manhattan is why, having developed his character, his persona, and the city so fully, in a way that suggested so many more creative possibilities, did Allen essentially retreat? After Annie Hall and this film, he never really went down that path again. His character is in the forefront of Stardust Memories, but that’s not really a New York film. And while he explores similar territory in Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives, he reduces his character to secondary status, to a kind of comic relief that almost makes him superfluous. I’m not saying he should have just kept churning out Manhattan retreads, but there’s an unshakeable sense that we all lost something vital when he decided to close that door.

Michael Gaughn

 

(* I’m going here reluctantly, which is why I’m relegating these comments to a footnote, but the whole “You shouldn’t watch Manhattan because Allen’s character has a relationship with a 17 year old” thing has become such a flashpoint that you can’t mention—let alone praise—the film without addressing it. Let’s just leave it at this: There’s been a lot of smug commentary along the lines of “Audiences at the time of the film’s release didn’t have a problem with that relationship but we, from our morally superior viewpoint in the present, do.” First off, audiences at the time did have problems with that relationship, which Allen deliberately introduced into the film to make them squirm and to get them to rethink what defines a relationship—something we no longer seem capable of doing unless it’s framed in terms of a bland and stultifying androgyny. Second, when a certain entitled subset of society hopelessly confuses fiction with reality and then feels it can put fetters on expression and decide what can and can’t be portrayed, we are indisputably at the end of empire.)

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Annie Hall

Annie Hall (1977)

It’s impossible to talk about a Woody Allen movie without having to first weigh in on the ongoing efforts to vilify Allen and obliterate all traces of his career. He’s been spattered with so much bile by Hollywood types like Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page who’ve blindly bought into the Me Too herd mentality that there are fewer and fewer people even willing to approach his films let alone consider them objectively.

I’m hoping to do an appreciation of his career where I can go into all this a little more. What I would ask for the moment is that you try to ignore that grating cacophony of squeaky wheels and appreciate the works of one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s for what they are.

 

Annie Hall is known as a romantic comedy—a perception that had a lot to do with it snagging a Best Picture Oscar. The problem is, it’s not really a romantic comedy—at least not for me.

 

That I’ve never found Diane Keaton to be very attractive, or a very good actress, has helped me develop a different—and I think more accurate—take on the film. Annie Hall is actually a very ambitious, incisive, and candid attempt to capture the essence of a particular culture at a particular

ANNIE AT A GLANCE

Pigeonholed as a romantic comedy, Annie Hall is actually an ambitious attempt to find hope in the darkness of mid-’70s New York.

 

PICTURE     

Some of master cinematographer Gordon Willis’s most subtle work, it looks flat—but not unwatchable—in HD.

 

SOUND     

This is a Woody Allen movie. There’s not a lot of music, there aren’t any surround effects. People just talk, with intelligence and wit. And you can hear them just fine.

moment in time via its embodiment in a particular personality—and that personality is not Keaton.

 

There had to be a reason why Allen suddenly shifted away from all of those gag-driven early movies that served as his film school and allowed him to build the fan base he was able to ride for the next four decades. And there has to be a reason why he suddenly went from being a good-enough comedy director to a fully fledged and inspired filmmaker.

 

And I think the answer lies in this exchange from the film:

 

“The failure of the country to get behind New York City is anti-Semitism.”

 

“But, Max, the city is terribly run.”

 

“But we’re not discussing politics or economics. This is foreskin. . . . Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks at New York like we’re Left-Wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.”

 

New York City had pretty much imploded in the wake of the social upheaval of the ‘60s and was in a wretched state by the mid ‘70s. Very much like the way it’s portrayed in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it had become a kind of repository for all of the

country’s sins. This was probably the city’s darkest period, years before the unfettered avarice of the ’80s turned Manhattan into a playground for billionaires and Brooklyn into a day-care center for their kids.

 

Allen’s identification with the city was so strong that this all had to have sent him reeling. Knowing that it was the prime source of his inspiration—and of his creativity in general—he needed to work out what it meant to be a popular entertainer trying to create within a metropolis that the rest of the country was treating like it had the plague.

 

That’s what Annie Hall is really about—Diane Keaton was just his Trojan Horse, a way to open some doors and to make sure the studio got its money back.

 

The movie comes very close to being a drama. Just slightly shift the emphasis of almost every one of the scenes and it becomes a sobering look at people desperately trying to define themselves at a time when there were very few reliable guideposts to lean on. Had Allen approached the film that way—although he wasn’t yet that good of a filmmaker—Annie Hall would have been wrenching instead of hilarious.

 

Consider how Allen treats his own character—which is the same as saying, how he treats himself. This is not a very flattering portrayal—miles away from the narcissism he’s too often accused of. Alvy Singer displays a lot of bluster, and uses his jokes as his armor, but you can tell the guy is hopelessly lost—which Allen expresses through the movie’s loose, improvisational structure, trying on different styles and techniques and attitudes to see what will stick.

 

But that shouldn’t be mistaken as Allen himself flailing from behind the camera. Just consider the famous scene of him and Keaton on line at The New Yorker, where Allen humiliates the pontificator by dragging a seemingly 

embalmed Marshal McLuhan into the shot. It’s a nuanced and logistically complex near-3-minute single-take piece of bravura comedy filmmaking that only a self-assured and truly inspired director could have pulled off. And that’s just one example among many.

 

True, this isn’t the film Allen set out to make, and a lot of Annie Hall did come together in the editing room. But the list of genius directors who’ve confided that the real filmmaking happens in the editing is long. And they’re not wrong.

Annie Hall (1977)

Allen started out with a film that was true to his intentions but was all cake and no icing, and he sweetened it just enough to make it palatable for his audience, which was expecting another Sleeper. In the end, he found himself named King of the Romantic Comedy with a couple of Oscars left at his door—an experience he likely wasn’t expecting and that probably scared the bejeezus out of him.

 

Annie Hall was Allen’s Rhapsody in Blue—a loosely structured, jazz-inflected work that announced that he had ambitions that went beyond being a successful pop performer. And, as with Gershwin, he was never able to do anything quite that fluid and 

intuitive again, instead trying on different genres defined by others with decidedly mixed results.

 

But Hall holds up. A surprising number of the jokes and gags still land, his approach to the material and the scenes remains fertile unexplored territory for other filmmakers, and the way he took the careening wreck of New York City and turned it into the most vital and romantic place on Earth still clicks. The City owes him a statue—but then some group of Yahoos would come along and demand that it be taken down.

 

Talking about seeing the film in HD is difficult. Gordon Willis’s cinematography is known for being dark and bold, but it’s very subtle, almost documentary-like here. In HD, it feels flatter than it should—not unwatchable, just flat. And then there’s the weird dilemma of having to separate the shots where he deliberately and beautifully exploited grain—like the famous shot of Annie and Alvy standing on a pier at twilight with the East River bridges arrayed behind them—from the ones that are overrun with grain because the elements for the transfer probably weren’t the best.

 

As for the sound—come on, this is a Woody Allen movie. One of Allen’s greatest

Annie Hall (1977)

strengths as a filmmaker is the ability to make his material compelling without relying on CGI, aggressive editing, explosions, or other gratuitous effects. This is moviemaking stripped down to its essence, and it can be cleansing to get caught up in a piece of cinema that doesn’t depend on its ability to mercilessly abuse you.

 

Forget that this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Forget about the Oscars. Forget about the well-heeled mob of Hollywood conformists bleating for Allen’s blood. Approach Annie Hall as an adventurous and innovative and unusually honest piece of filmmaking and you’ll get the chance to experience—or re-experience—one of the best American films of the final quarter of the last century, the movie that helped start the wave that brought New York back from the dead, for better or worse.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Husbands and Wives

Amazon Husbands and Wives

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

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

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