We gave it a C
I’ve been meaning to write for some time now, just to see how things are going. How’s life with Mia and the kids? I admit it’s still a little hard to imagine you as a daddy — maybe that’s because you won’t pose for magazine covers the way Jack and Warren do — but I trust parenthood has provided some of the ”meaning” you’re always pining for in your movies. Speaking of which, I have to ask: Are you ever going to make another great film like Annie Hall, Manhattan, or Hannah and Her Sisters? I’ve just seen your latest, Shadows and Fog, and to be honest, it has me worried. For one thing, that title! Woody, you might as well have called it Gloom and Doom. As for the movie itself — well, frankly, it’s so tepid and ”small,” so shamelessly patched together from other works, that it’s like an unwitting parody of everything that’s ever gone wrong in your filmmaking.
What are we supposed to think when a director of your gifts resorts to doing cardboard knockoffs of the artists he admires? Watching Shadows and Fog is like playing Name That Source. Shot in black and white (naturally), the movie unfolds in the empty, twisting, fog-enshrouded streets of what looks like Prague during the ’20s (in other words, it’s set in Kafkaland). It’s framed as a murder mystery (a strangler is on the loose), and it features thumpy Kurt Weill music as well as the sharp angles and gaslight-in-pea-soup haze of German Expressionist cinema (in other words, it’s a nod to both The Threepenny Opera and Fritz Lang’s M). The stars, in addition to yourself, include John Malkovich and Mia Farrow as a squabbling pair of circus performers (they’re just like the couple in Bergman’s The Naked Night). There are also dwarfs (Fellini), a killer who waxes philosophical about death (more Bergman, this time The Seventh Seal), a house of wise, hearty prostitutes (more Kurt Weill), a creepy scientist who enquires into the nature of evil (’30s horror films), and so on.
There is also — need I say it? — a Great Cast. But isn’t this getting a little perverse, Woody, the way you cram your movies with juicy constellations of stars, only to give each one of them a few quick scenes? This time you’ve even nabbed Madonna (she has a cameo as a provocatively attired circus floozy — how original!), not to mention Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, and Lily Tomlin (they’re the hookers), John Cusack as a winsomely horny college student, plus Fred Gwynne, Kate Nelligan, Julie Kavner, Wallace Shawn, Kenneth Mars…
Woody, just listing these people breaks my heart, because you do so little with them. It’s almost as if the movie were about the casting; the only real suspense lies in waiting to see who’ll pop up next. I wonder if the reason you insist on giving all these terrific performers nothing more than hermetic little scenelets is so you won’t have to show any of them the entire script. Has your mania for secrecy grown so extreme that it’s now dictating the way you structure a movie?
I have to ask you, too, about Mia. Yes, she’s beautiful and sweet, and I know you love her, but Woody, she gives the same performance every time — that whiny, imploring voice, that halo of earnestness. And is it my imagination, or does just about every man with a speaking part in this film have less hair than you?
Shadows and Fog reminded me of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, your 1982 attempt at Woody Lite. Once again, you’ve cast yourself as a nerdier-than-usual version of the classic Allen loser; this time, your name is Kleinman, and you’re being hounded by a mysterious pack of vigilantes who order you to help find the murderer (only no one will tell you what to do — more Kafka). Once again, you pepper the screen with gags that are like ho-hum echoes of the anarchic wisecracks that made you famous. And once again, you sprinkle on philosophical tidbits that might have been plucked from fortune cookies. There’s enough third-rate pontificating here to fill a week’s worth of college-dorm bull sessions — soggy dualities like, Is man spirit or merely flesh? Does love come by luck or design? I half expected the credits to read ”Directed by Ingmar Bergman, from a script by Dick Cavett.”
Woody, it seems to me that you’ve decided, in middle age, to become a miniaturist. Maybe that’s your quiet way of rebelling, of defying expectations in the blockbuster era. In doing so, however, you’ve withdrawn into a world of polite, craftsmanly trivia. The Woody Allen films so many of us love — the funny, ripely romantic (and, yes, philosophical) ones — are anything but miniature. They’re bursting with life and wit and observation; they expand our sense of possibility. That same spirit was there in the Early, Funny days, when your explosively surreal jokes carried a liberating charge of glee and amazement. More than anything, Woody, I wish you’d surprise us again. You might surprise yourself in the bargain.