Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My Log 324 Oct 22 2012: Imagine! 44 Woody Allen films in repertory, the life’s work of a cultural icon

Cover of "Broadway Danny Rose"
Cover of Broadway Danny Rose
Woody Allen
Cover of Woody Allen

The cinema right under where I live in Montreal is running a season of all 44 of Woody Allen’s films. I have been looking forward to it immensely, but having seen four already, I am finding it so far a bit of a damp squib.

The first film shown, Take the Money and Run, was made in 1969, when Allen was 34, and was, I thought, a pretty poor effort, especially when one remembers that by that time he had already had several successful plays performed on Broadway, had written a few books, and was making a lot of money writing jokes for various TV shows. In other words, he was already a seasoned professional.

On the basis of my low opinion of that film, I decided to forgo Play It Again, Sam, and took a rest for a few days, not bothering to have another look at The Front, which I remembered as a good film about the Hollywood blacklist in which Allen played a person who offered his name to blacklisted, established writers, to allow them to continue to work, and Annie Hall, his romantic comedy set in Manhattan, and dealing with the love life of that city’s intellectual, angst-ridden thirty-somethings, and the film that marked the high point of his collaboration with Diane Keaton.

So the next one I took in was Interiors, made in 1978, but already his tenth film. In other words, this guy had already made as many films as most directors make in a lifetime, and he was experimenting with various styles, this one being a sort of homage to Ingmar Bergman, that deals with a semi-hysterical family of three sisters whose lives are plagued (although they would never have described it this way) by a guilt-tripping mother.   Something about this film seemed to me not to wash: from Bergman, such themes seemed to represent his view of life. Somehow this seemed like an effort by a filmmaker to pretend he was a intellectual, and one as emotionally-wrought as Bergman.  Although the companion with whom I saw the film was ecstatic, personally this was another of the films that I didn’t really like.

Okay, on another six years (and five films) to one of my all-time favourite Allen films, Broadway Danny Rose, which I saw last night. I had seen it at least three times before, but this time it seemed to me even greater than on earlier occasions. Danny Rose’s story is told by a bunch of old Broadway professionals who are sitting around eating bagels in a delicatessen and get to swapping yards about the pathetic career of this figure of fun. Danny is the worst of agents, who always represented the worst of acts --- a one-legged tapdancer, for example, as well as the world’s worst ventriloquist, a stuttering Venezuelan whose act was so terrible it had even been booed by a hall of five-year-olds. Then there was the guy who made animals from balloons for whom Danny prophesied a great future, and the washed up Italian crooner who had a hit thirty years before, and whom the film catches just when he is in the middle of a nostalgia revival that is getting him more gigs than he can handle (on cruise ships, for example, and women’s service dinners.)  He is a fat, self-pitying, drunken wreck, but Danny Rose is devoting himself selflessly to his cause, on the assumption that everything in life is personal, that life is meaningless unless your every action is not  impregnated with a personal affection and concern.

Part of the deal with the crooner is that he is cheating on his wife with a tough blonde (played wonderfully by Mia Farrow) whose two brothers happen to be enforcers for the Mob. Faced with his biggest gig yet, the crooner announces he cannot perform unless the blonde is present, but she is angry with him for something or other, and Danny offers to “be your beard”, in other words, to find the blonde and persuade her to accompany him to the performance.  So begins the juice of this beautiful little movie, when Allen meets Farrow and together they undergo a series of madcap adventures that culminate in their turning up at the performance, which is a triumphant success.

The blonde has been bugging the crooner to change managers, because her view is that Danny Rose is doing nothing for him: so after the success of his concert the crooner drops on Danny the news that he is proposing a change in management, something that, in a memorable scene strikes Danny like a thunderbolt: how can anyone be so disloyal, so greedy, so ambitious that their personal relationship has meant absolutely nothing to him?

So the move comes to its climax, where Danny Rose is serving a Thanksgiving dinner of frozen turkey to the various pathetic acts he still represents. Arrives the blonde, who has been worrying ever since she failed to speak up for Danny when the crooner dumped him. She has come to apologize to him, offering to be friends with him; but he has been so hurt he rejects the offer, and she walks away. Surrounded by his pathetic friends, he thinks it over, runs after her, and the movie ends on this happy note, a series of scenes that could bring the tears to anyone’s eyes.

What a great movie!  I can hardly wait to the screening of another of my favorites, Radio Days, later in the week, another exercise in Allen nostalgia. After all, when a guy writes, and directs a movie a year for 44 years, it stands to reason they are not all masterpieces. He may have made some clunkers, but he has also made some wonderful films, and in my lexicon of these we are moving inexorably to the delightful Vicky Christine Barcelona, the movie which brought him back to the top rank, made in 2008 (when Allen was 73) and a movie that I have already seen with delight at least three times.

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