Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Weekend viewing

Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971)
I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, but I'm actually not that crazy about his "early, funny" movies, or at least not the ones I've seen (pretty much just this one and Sleeper). Like Sleeper, this is a rather haphazard collection of slapstick bits and sight gags hung on a thin plot with some mild political commentary. It's a little more pointedly satirical than Sleeper was, especially in the opening scene featuring Howard Cosell doing play-by-play on an assassination in a small South American country (a stand-in for Cuba). The bits were hit and miss, although some were very funny, and I did like how all the South American revolutionaries behaved like neurotic New York Jews half the time. The best scene, though, had nothing to do with the South American revolution plot: It was Allen being dumped by his girlfriend, played by Louise Lasser, as she casually named off all his shortcomings while trying to put her finger on why exactly their relationship wasn't working. A very funny glimpse into the more typical Allen scenes of future films.

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
Serendipitously after I so enjoyed Dreamgirls last week, this classic musical showed up at the top of my Netflix queue (although really the two films are quite different). Despite my genuine enthusiasm for Dreamgirls, I still find musicals often tough to get into, and this one grabbed me a little at the beginning only to lose me completely in the last third or so. I liked the allegory for the decline of Fred Astaire's career (although this is the first Astaire movie I've seen), I liked the classic "That's Entertainment!" number, and I liked Nanette Fabray as the spunky comic-relief redhead. I was less crazy about bland Cyd Charisse as the love interest, and the abandonment of the already thin plot at the end for a bunch of random set pieces that relate to each other in only the loosest of ways. I did like the dancing, but I feel like a little of that goes a long way for me, and I sort of tuned out after a while. I preferred the last Minnelli musical I saw, Gigi, which had more substance to its plot and characters. This is basically just an excuse for Astaire and friends to goof off and have fun, which is fine for dedicated fans of his, but not enough to hold my interest.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Here's another one of those classics that presents a viewing experience full of waiting for famous lines to be uttered, which is something I find unavoidable. At the same time, this is a very satisfying noir with a plot that actually makes sense and has some interesting political ideas (it's hard now to fathom anyone being neutral in WWII and seeing Nazis as just another political group, but undoubtedly it was not uncommon). Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains are all wonderful, and, even though I loved Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, you can see how this film was genuine and passionate in a way that Soderbergh's film school exercise could never replicate.

Tango (Carlos Saura, 1998)
This one is a musical, too, in a way, although there isn't any singing. The description of Saura's film makes it sound like a straightforward drama about a divorced director working on a show about the tango who falls in love with his star, the girlfriend of a powerful gangster. But it's actually an oddly impressionistic presentation of that story, with a blurred line between fantasy and reality, a weird meta element that finds Saura purposely showing his camera in mirrors around the dance studio, and long dance sequences meant to tantalize the senses and illuminate...something. My senses were mostly confused and bored.


NSpector said...

Hi. While I view Woody Allen quite differently now that I am (nominally) an adult, coming from a superficially similar background, he was, in my childhood and adolescence, a sort of distant but still related member of my emotional family; i.e., fond feelings despite annoyance about his bad table manners and perpetually adolescent world view. I imagine many American Jews, particularly from New York, feel similarly.

That was a not really necessary preamble to my question to you: Have you seen Annie Hall? I ask because it has more of a balance between the gag humor that you seem to be disappointed by, and the more integral character-revealing (sorry for my improper terms --don't know the right ones) humor that you point out as the exception in Bananas.

For me, Annie Hall, while still able to make me laugh almost as much as ever, remains troubling for the reasons that all of his work does. It is, however, I feel, the most successful comedy he made that does not rely largely on gags.

I guess though, now that your post has made me think more about this question, for me in some ways, I prefer the very early more slapstick pictures, probably exactly because they have less of the endless Woody Allen woe-is-me-in-this-godless-world tail chasing.

On the other hand, Annie Hall is almost like a newborn babe to me compared to what I see as the near Nihilism that he's spouting now.

But I know I'm in a small minority of super uncool gushy romantics when it comes to my Woody Allen feelings. And I'm sure many would think I am over-simplifying, or just plain misreading him.

Josh said...

I have seen Annie Hall, and it's one of my favorite movies, by Allen or anyone else. I think you're right that it's a great balance of jokes and character-building. I'm not saying I don't like Woody to be funny, just that I prefer the jokes in a more structured, character-based context that offers more than pratfalls. Not that pratfalls don't have their value.

I do like nihilistic Woody, too, though, in stuff like Husbands and Wives and Match Point, because I'm a bit of a nihilist, too, and his depiction of that worldview definitely appeals to me.

NSpector said...

Yes, I realize now that when I read "early funny" movies (That's out of Stardust Memories, right? How funny that way back then there were already "early funny ones."), and that you'd only seen Sleeper and Bananas, that I was automatically including Annie Hall in that group because in my mind it marks the beginning of the end of the early funny ones, being the reactionary that I am. But, of course, it's really quite a different animal than what you are calling the early funny ones. And, of course, a film critic has seen Annie Hall. How silly of me.

I read over what I wrote earlier and I see that I was too cranky about the movie. Annie Hall is an extremely good film. I think my later negative feelings about him -- his films as well as, I must admit, his personal behavior -- have been unfairly sullying a movie that really is, for me, with my particular sensibilities, his best work. The elements of his world view (and his Woody-centric view) that would soon come to overwhelm his work with what I complained about above, were all there in Annie Hall, but tempered in a way that is almost lovable.