My problem with Woody Allen these days: It's the way his characters talk. Plus, a few thoughts on Andrew Sarris

to-rome-with-love

Image Credit: Philippe Antonello/Sony Pictures Classics

As someone who will always consider Woody Allen a god, I admit that I’ve been pretty grumpy about his movies over the past few years. The last one I really loved was Match Point, the addictively squirmy, London-set drama of lust and ambition and adultery and murder he made back in 2005. It was the rare thriller with a true Hitchcock edge — and, for my money, a more brilliantly insidious (and complex) variation on the themes of Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors. In the seven years since Match Point, however, the press, perhaps grateful that Woody, in his 70s, is still churning out a movie a year, seems to have stopped asking for him to be major again. Audiences, too, have grown freshly fond of Woody as a kind of sweet genius of cosmopolitan fables, a maker of luscious desserts that don’t pretend to be much more than desserts. And so you’d have to be quite a curmudgeon to knock these movies, right?

Well, I appreciated the airy escapist qualities of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but there’s a reason, in the end, that I couldn’t fully embrace that movie, or Midnight in Paris, or the new To Rome With Love. It’s not just that I’d like to see Allen do a film that didn’t feel like one of his clever/precious short stories stretched out to feature length. The trouble I have with Woody Allen’s movies these days, and have for quite a while now, is that the way the characters talk in them drives me nuts. They no longer sound like human beings. They sound like People Out Of A Woody Allen Movie — that is, they sound as if they’re reciting lines that have been implanted in their brains by a nervously over-articulate computer programmed in 1978. They kvetch, they analyze their anxieties, they drop references to Kierkegaard, they talk about things like “integrity” and “making love” (I sometimes get the feeling that the romantic ideal being sold by Allen’s movies is to make love…with integrity), and they do it all in naggingly complete, woefully unspontaneous sentences that bear almost no relation to actual human speech. I realize that a lot of great screenwriting is stylized, but the flow of talk in Allen’s movies has become weirdly airless — a stilted half-parody of Upper West Side self-consciousness, now exported to the great cities of the world. (What’s next — Starry Night in Stockholm?) Which may be why Allen, more and more, has so many of his characters break up all this prefab “intellectual” chatter with his one annoying concession to ordinary vocal rhythms. I’m referring, of course, to the Woody Allen Stutter.

You know the sound. It’s what happens when a highly polished and verbally dexterous performer, like Kenneth Branagh (in Celebrity) or Will Ferrell (in Melinda and Melinda) or the birdlike soprano machine gun Ellen Page (in To Rome With Love), has to act his or her way right into Woody Allen’s nervous, halting vocal patterns, which even he used to know how to underplay. Years ago, it was his way of undercutting his own wit, of making his one-liners sound as if they’d just popped out. In a way, the Woody stutter was Allen’s equivalent of the David Mamet rat-a-tat-tat sputter from the Glengarry Glen Ross era: a spray of verbal aggression cut with nattering self-doubt.

But if you listen to Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page enact their duels of art and attraction in To Rome With Love, it’s like the sound of two people who are reading (at gunpoint) the pre-Internet teleplay version of their own lives. No one talks, or thinks, like this any more. And maybe no one ever did. Because if you go back to Allen’s great films, like Annie Hall or Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters, everyone in them has his or her own voice. Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall was famously in-articulate: She didn’t so much stutter like a female Woody as curl apologies around exclamations and turn that into flirting. She created a flaky music of self-doubt. And there’s no movie that captures the bitterly idealistic, competitive jostling tone of New York conversation in the ’70s more than Manhattan. I may be mistaken, but I believe that was the last film Woody Allen ever wrote with a collaborator (his former chum Marshall Brickman). There may be a lesson there.

* * * *

Andrew Sarris, the legendary film critic who died Wednesday at 83, became known for the auteur theory, a vision of how to watch movies — especially those from classic Hollywood — that held that the director, no matter how many collaborators he may have had, was the true author of any film. Sarris, Americanizing a principle that had been launched in Cahiers du Cinéma by the French critics (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, etc.) who would go on to invent the New Wave, codified the theory in his invaluable book The American Cinema, published in 1968. Yet by the time I became a college film nut, in the late ’70s, the auteur theory was so thoroughly ensconced in movie culture that it seemed as bedrock a principle as the notion that the sun rises in the east or that the rain falls downward. That John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Michael Curtiz, or dozens of other directors were the full-on authors of their films was something that no one would think to question, any more than the fact that the novels of Dickens or Dostoyevsky had been written by Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Sarris’ auteur theory, to me, was never a theory. It was simply a fact.

I got to meet Andy during my freshman year, in 1977, when he appeared at the University of Michigan to give a talk on Robert Altman. Since I was already a passionate devotee of Pauline Kael, who I knew was his rival if not his arch-nemesis, when I was introduced to Sarris at a gathering after his talk, I couldn’t help but ask him about her. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he said, with what I would later learn was his trademark genial blunt weariness, “She and I don’t get along.” Which may have been a major understatement, but still, it said a lot about Andy and Pauline. As a critic, Andrew Sarris was one of the most gracious men I ever met. At screening rooms, his warm smile and deep-set, dark-circled eyes were always a welcome sight — he was like a very gentle Panda — and he brought a worldly common sense to everything he thought about movies that was a tonic in the age of film-geek fan gush. He was not a nihilist; he was a paragon of knowing civility. Whereas Kael, in person and in her writing, had a lot of nihilism in her. She was a flame-thrower who lived inside the church of her own opinion. In the end, I too found her impossible to “get along” with, yet that impossible belief in herself was, for some of us, more addictive than Andy’s beautifully courtly cinéaste wisdom.

I bring Kael up because these two so helped to define each other — when Kael attacked the auteur theory in her 1963 essay “Circles and Squares,” it put her on the map, but it also helped to put Sarris on the map — that it’s worth looking not just at their yin-and-yang differences but their secret affinities. As has often been noted, Kael herself became a rabidly devoted, at times excessive auteurist; for a while, her favorite filmmakers (notably Brian De Palma) could do no wrong. More than that, however, both critics, in the ’70s, became almost spiritually branded by the way that they each fitted into — and didn’t — the publications that showcased them. Kael became the most important writer for The New Yorker in part because her excitable prose broke the mold of the magazine’s propriety. That story, of course, has been told. What’s a lot less remarked upon is that Sarris’ relationship to his chief platform, The Village Voice at the scruffy underground height of its post-counterculture glory, was every bit as rich and contradicatory as Kael’s was to The New Yorker. In the ’70s and early ’80s, the Voice was punky-trangressive, and Sarris was far more conservative and old school than most of the writers there. Yet that worked for him. The Voice lent his classical insights, and his way of writing about old Hollywood as if it were still new, a hipster edge. The Voice made him seem very downtown.

As a Kaelite, I never felt like I wasn’t in Sarris’ camp — I always loved reading him — but if I had to define the key difference between them, it would be this. Though they were certainly both auteurists, Sarris, who made an auteurist fetish of starting off every review with the title of the movie preceded by the director’s name (“Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach is easily the most…”), explored a movie’s psychology by attempting to enter the director’s heart and soul. Whereas Kael, while she was certainly brilliant at analyzing filmmakers, wrote about the characters on screen — whether in a great movie like Mean Streets or a piece of pulp like Walking Tall — as if they were real live human beings standing right in front of you. She put them on the couch, with she herself playing the role of a thrillingly invasive shrink. That’s what was so uniquely compelling about Kael’s writing, even when you didn’t agree with her. She made movies as large as life. Sarris, for all his movie ardor, was a far more centered individual, and so he treated movies as movies. He saw them for what they were — no more, no less — and in doing so he got you to see them too.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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