Sunday, October 27, 2019

Formative Film 18: 'Love and Death'

'Wheat . . . lots of wheat . . . '

FORMATIVE FILM: An autobiography in movies

Love and Death
Dir: Woody Allen
Prod: Fred T. Gallo, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Poll
Scr: Woody Allen
Phot: Ghislain Cloquet

This was Woody Allen’s last film before he garnered spectacular mainstream success and critical acclaim with Annie Hall in 1977. Thus, it counts as the last of his purely “funny” films. In Annie Hall and after, there is always at least a hint of seriousness in his work. This can work profoundly well, as shown in Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors; in many other films, his wit is dulled, and his work slides into a deadly sense of self-regard.

That being said, if we roll back the years we find me, his most avid fan, eagerly awaiting the debut of his next comic masterpiece. I had already fallen in love with his nebbish persona in Play It Again, Sam and Sleeper.

His comic persona was certainly one I could identify with: the oddball, the smart but awkward weirdo with glasses and bad skin, trying desperate to understand a world not made for his benefit. It was carefully crafted out of Hope and Marx and Chaplin, and was the best-realized comic identity of the day. Woody Allen was a throwback to a classic comedic type — the poor soul, the perennial loser. “You’re the greatest lover I’ve ever had.” “Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone.”

American comedy was in transition. When Allen started working in comedy, comics wore tuxes and had jokes written for them. Allen was part of the wave of self-scripted, highbrow but informal comic minds of the 1950s and 1960s. Part of his appeal was his aggression. His repressed fury at the ridiculousness of life exploded through brilliant jokes. Disguised as a nerd, he was actually a rebel we could identify with.

In this film, Woody is Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward (“. . . but I’m a MILITANT coward”) who gets sucked into the Napoleonic Wars and comes out an unlikely hero. Meanwhile, he narrates the up-and-down nature of his lifelong romance with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton). Nothing quite works out for sad-sack Boris, who in the meantime cracks wise about the absurdities around him, existential and otherwise. (“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning.”)

Love and Death is a parody of pretentious seriousness, of, specifically, intimidating Russian literature and film. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are pummeled here, so is Eisenstein (and Ingmar Bergman suffers some blows to the groin). Great cultural moments are just there to set up the punchlines. Everyone in the film is oblivious to the silliness of it all — except for Woody and us. That wonderful sense of being in on it turns us into accessories.

The biggest gift the film gave to me was a sense of exuberance and possibility. I hadn’t seen this kind of anarchic energy on film since the Marx Brothers. Allen takes the trouble to make the movie look as legit as possible — the settings are opulent, the edits are ambitious, the camerawork is innovative (when it’s not mimicking its betters). All these choices make the film stronger. It’s half in love with everything it makes fun of, and that affectionate scorn lights up the film and makes it more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, as Allen’s career progressed, his movies became as weighty, airless, and pretentious as those he earlier mocked. It’s hard to age as an artist; sometimes you get stuck.

And as far as his personal life goes, I know that he may be a despicable human being. But his work still entertains me and lifts me up, so I still go back to it, and I still write about it. The list of great artists who are terrible people is long and getting longer every day. I have to separate the creative spirit from the mess of a person it inhabits. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be reading Dickens, or appreciating Shakespeare, or looking at Degas, or listening to Domingo.

It would be nice of our favorite artists were heroes, and that all art was ennobling. They aren’t and it isn’t. Monsters create beauty, and beauty often lacks the power to transform either its creators or its audience. The impulse that drives it is morally neutral. Nonetheless, our need generates it, and sometimes of great value comes of it — even though its source seems as impossible one.

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