A programming guide for Woody Allen video night
”We enjoy your films — particularly the early, funny ones,” a series of well-meaning fans say to an embittered director in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. And that pretty much sums up the public’s view of Allen in the ’80s. As the director moved away from his early slapstick style (Take the Money and Run) and neurotic romances (Annie Hall), his audience has narrowed. But these more serious movies of the past decade embody some of his best work; as his films have grown more subtle, he has developed into America’s most personal and original (not to mention prolific) filmmaker. His latest, Crimes and Misdemeanors, hit video stores recently; any of the following would complete a fine double feature.
Stardust Memories (1980) Proceeding from the theory that humor is an expression of repressed anger, Allen wryly unburdens a torrent of simmering rage in this testy and cathartic film. As a famous director reluctantly attending a retrospective of his work, Allen vents his disgust at barbaric fans, idiot relatives, obsessive girlfriends, actors, studio executives, and assorted crackpots. Composed in black and white as several films within a film — with flashbacks, hallucinations, and intricate homages to Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut — Stardust Memories masterfully examines the tension between artist and audience. Grade: A-
Zelig (1983) Allen first used fictional documentary as a structural technique in Take the Money and Run (1969), but he raises the device to a dizzying level of expertise in this parody of a 1920s documentary. Zelig is an impressive but uneven chronicle of a human chameleon who changes his appearance and personality to blend in with the people around him. The movie not only appears to have been shot in the 1920s, it reinforces the illusion by inserting Leonard Zelig (Allen) into actual newsreel footage from the period. With Mia Farrow as the doctor who treats and loves Zelig, the fable examines the challenge of fitting into society without losing one’s individuality. Grade: B
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Joined by the most impressive cast of his career, Allen confronts age, death, and family conflicts in a soap opera filled with pain and sadness. Although ambitious and skillful, it’s also overloaded and lugubrious. Hannah lacks a strong protagonist through whom the audience can interpret the action. None of the characters locked in endless battle with their miseries is especially appealing, and some are downright distasteful. Even the upbeat ending seems more like a truce than a resolution. Grade: C+
Radio Days (1987) Allen temporarily shelved heavy drama to take a warm and funny sojourn back to the days of his youth with a delightful batch of anecdotes related to that venerable entertainment center of the past, the family radio. Marveling at both the creators and the consumers of radio programs through the recollections of a bratty Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Allen narrates a seamless quilt of bittersweet vignettes about indiscreet stars and nutty neighbors, crooners and spinsters, nightclubs and living rooms. You don’t have to have lived through World War II to enjoy this treat. Radio Days will transport you there. Grade: A+
Broadway Danny Rose (1984) Allen and Farrow continue their magical screen partnership in this downcast comedy, a sentimental screwball romp about friendship, betrayal, and guilt. Rose (Allen) is a small-time personal manager, a harmless hustler enthusiastically promoting the dregs of borscht-belt show biz. Misadventures ensue when his star crooner, Lou Canova, insists that Danny escort his mob-connected mistress (Farrow) to an important engagement at the Waldorf. Although the laughs are tempered with a seedy undercurrent and a lump-in-the-throat ending, Allen has rarely been funnier. Grade: A
Another Woman (1988) Adultery, which has become a frequent theme in Allen’s recent work, gets an in-depth examination in this disturbing but ultimately uplifting drama starring Gena Rowlands. Allen’s absence from the screen removes any trace of frivolity, leaving the ensemble of introspective intellectuals on their own to work out their rampant emotional problems. Rowlands’ exquisite performance carries viewers along, slowly crumbling the attractive surface of her successful existence to reveal the depths and roots of her unhappiness. Watching this comfortable life fall apart is harrowing, but learning that it can be repaired is Allen’s rejuvenating gift. Grade: A-