Today on Blogcritics
Home » Filmmakers Who Matter: Woody Allen

Filmmakers Who Matter: Woody Allen

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

Beginnings

Woody Allen was born on December 1, 1935 in New York City. His parents were both born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Allen spoke Yiddish during his early years. He attended Hebrew school for eight years and then headed to public school. Allen was nicknamed “Red” because of his hair. He used to astonish fellow students with his flair for card tricks and was in point of fact a reasonably well-liked student during his seminal years.

Allen began writing gags for an agent, who sold them to newspaper columnists. Allen says that his first published joke was in a gossip column. By sixteen, he was discovered by Milt Kamen, who got him his first writing job. Allen’s proclivity for comedy was already perceptible and he promptly rose through the ranks. When he left high school, he headed for New York University and studied communication and film. Allen was ultimately expelled from school, however, and failed a film course.

After this, Woody Allen became a writer for American humorist Herb Shriner. By nineteen, Allen was already writing scripts for various television shows, including The Tonight Show. In 1961, Allen started a career as a stand-up comedian. He debuted at the Duplex in Greenwich Village and contributed sketches to a Broadway revue. During this time, Allen also wrote for the popular Candid Camera television show. He wrote short stories for magazines as well, including several for The New Yorker. By this time, Allen had begun the process of transforming his weaknesses into his strengths. This was the time period that gave birth to the anxious and fixated Woody Allen who is known so well today.

The 1960s

Allen began working on screenplays and in 1965 What’s New, Pussycat? was released to the world. Allen’s first experience with filmmaking was a less than constructive one, as many run-ins with producers and movie stars tore away at Allen’s script. He had a comparable experience during his uncredited rewrite of Casino Royale, the James Bond spoof, and decided that enough was enough. Allen made the decision to protect his art and ensured that he had total control of the films he worked on from that point forward.

Allen’s directorial debut was What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, a film experiment in which Allen re-dubbed a Japanese film with original comic dialogue. His second film was Take the Money and Run, a 1969 mockumentary that Allen starred in.

Subsequent films began to generate a buzz and Woody Allen quickly became well known. His early films were almost exclusively packed with slapstick and one-liners. Allen’s early films are also often considered to be among the more wholly comic of his work, as his later work began to take on more dramatic shapes and tones.

Turning Point: Annie Hall

Annie Hall is the film which many consider to be Allen’s finest work. It also marked a period of transition for the New Yorker, as the storyline was infused with drama and romance along with his comic wit. Allen starred in the film alongside Diane Keaton and Annie Hall scooped four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is a rarity for a comedy to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Annie Hall also started the modern romantic comedy trend, standing out as a film that was as much about the break-up as was about the romantic courtship. The characters were realistic, the dialogue was fresh, and Diane Keaton became a bit of a fashion icon for her style in the film.

The Sombre 1980s and the Comic 1990s

After Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen entered the 1980s in a bit of a sombre mood. His films had a more philosophical edge and were profoundly influenced by Bergman and Fellini, two of Allen’s favourite filmmakers. Allen’s films began to play as life imitating art, as characters in the film began to replicate the filmmaker’s mood and thoughts. His films became very compelling and he combined comedy and tragedy very effectively through this time period. A clear example of this would be Hannah and Her Sisters, the 1986 romantic comedy. Crimes and Misdemeanors, my personal favourite Woody Allen film, also takes place in this time period of philosophical exploration and highlights many of the common moral and ethical quandaries that Allen’s characters would investigate.

The 1980s would also include three films about show business, one of them becoming one of Allen’s personal favourite films (The Purple Rose of Cairo). The early 1990s continued Allen’s sombre tone, but the late 1990s saw a renaissance of Allen’s blithe comedy with the masterful Bullets Over Broadway and the musical delight Everyone Says I Love You. The 1990s would end with two derisive and dark films, however, as Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity took aim with sardonic meticulousness.

A New Century of Woody Allen

With the advent of the 2000s, it seemed that Woody Allen had turned over a new leaf. He started doing interviews again and returned to creating films that appeared to be strict comedies. The first example of this would be 2000’s Small Time Crooks. Allen’s next four films, however, would be considered box office flops and many critics began to write Woody Allen off as being extraneous and passé.

After 2005’s Melinda and Melinda, Allen trotted out one of his best works — Match Point. Match Point represented a return to the darker comedy that Allen had been tinkering with in the 1990s. Critics were back on the bandwagon and Allen was back in their good graces. He filmed 2006’s Scoop, which like Match Point starred Scarlett Johansson, and then made 2007’s dramatic film Cassandra’s Dream. Allen is presently working on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which stars Penelope Cruz and Johansson. Rumours run rampant about a lesbian sex scene between the two, which is a certain departure from Allen’s comparatively tame films. Time will tell if this film will represent a bold new phase in Allen’s career or if it’s all just a lot of hype.

Why Woody Allen Matters

Woody Allen’s films are among the most compelling comedies ever written. Even those films considered “flops” by box office and critical standards still contain an incredible amount of insight into this filmmaker’s frame of mind and psychological understanding at the time. Allen spent at least 30 years of his life in psychoanalysis and almost always works in a gag involving psychology in his films. The process of psychoanalysis was a way for Allen to unleash his personality, which immensely helped the characterizations within his films. Characters would be played by him or would be built around him, making his entire body of work a quasi-autobiographical notion of one man’s very fascinating life. Few other directors have so much of themselves built in to their work.

Allen’s understanding of wit, humour, psychology, philosophy, religion, and comic timing makes his films all the stronger. His characters are constructed with such care, down to the most delicate of details, and his plot lines traverse and entwine like a jazz composition. Even his more eccentric films have a certain chemistry and methodology that make them appealing. Allen’s ability to imbue his films with heart and soul is what makes his films special and it is likely what will make his films timeless, too.

Allen matters in a sea of ostentatious would-be auteurs because his films, even his worst films, have a certain profundity and a measure of care. When “comedies” today are influenced by popular culture and are driven by insulting gratuitous claptrap, Allen’s films influence popular culture and are driven by their own engine. His films don’t answer to others, others answer to his films. With clean and natural cinematography, a dazzling ability to write characters, and solid acting chops, Woody Allen is perhaps one of the most absolute filmmakers of all time. His films aren’t always great, but he embodies the filmmaker as auteur perhaps more than any other living filmmaker.

Powered by

About Jordan Richardson

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Nice overview, although you are too kind on the past decade. Since Celebrity, he had a lot of misses that were tough to sit through.

    I am not clear what “With clean and natural cinematography” means. “Natural” gives the impression they just used the lighting and location that they found.

  • http://www.myspace.com/x15 Douglas Mays

    How about ‘Bananas’? Ok, I love the guy’s works.

    What movie was it (I am needing coffee right now to remember the title) where it all takes place way in the future, in an escape scene Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (I think) find an old (hundreds of years old) Volkswagen in a cave. They hop in and THE THING STARTS RIGHT UP! “they really kenw how to make these things”. This is the film that had the ‘orgasmatron’ in it.

    anyway, Woody and his one liners really add fine detail which connects the whole message of his films.

    blah blah blah,
    DM

  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    Well, the thing about being “too kind” about the past decade is that it all comes down to opinion. I enjoyed “Small Time Crooks” as a light-hearted return to simplistic comedy, although it’s not a great film. I also enjoyed “Hollywood Ending” for the same reason, but that isn’t a great film either. “Match Point” is one of Allen’s best films and “Scoop” is a gentle comedy that is highly entertaining in its own right. It also should be noted that this isn’t particularly a film review, rather a directorial review and is meant to look at Allen’s work as a whole. That’s the reason I split things up into different typologies rather than simply resort to critiquing his work. I critiqued Allen as a filmmaker rather than simply critique his films. In context of that, I don’t think I was “too kind” simply by not mentioning what films I liked it didn’t like on a film-by-film basis. I didn’t flatter Allen’s work in the aforementioned period, either, so I’m assuming that you found it “too kind” simply by omission.

    As for “clean and natural,” I’m certainly not speaking in a technical aspect. I’m speaking in broader terms. Allen’s cinematography feels natural, it does not feel forced or overdone. “Natural” gives many different impressions, actually, and you’re welcome to your interpretation. In the context I was working, my original term was “unsophisticated,” which also contained a myriad of trouble in terms of definition discussion. I guess my folly was in thinking that the point was made clearly enough by saying “clean and natural” to describe his cinematography and direction.

  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    Douglas, I’m pretty sure the film you’re thinking of is “Sleeper,” but don’t quote me on that until I’ve been confirmed as correct.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “the thing about being ‘too kind’ about the past decade is that it all comes down to opinion.”

    That’s true, which is why my opinion is that you were too kind because I and many others feel it was Woody’s worst and you glossed over it with the line “many critics began to write Woody Allen off as being extraneous and passé.”

    There’s no confusion that this is an overview of Woody’s career, but if that’s your intent, all I am saying is you should be comprehensive and examine it fully. I am one of Woody’s biggest fans, but that doesn’t mean I ignore his failures, of which he has had a few. A combination of weak, repetitive stories and bad casting played a part. And if you disagree, state your case on why this has been a successful period for him and the critics were wrong.

    “I didn’t flatter Allen’s work in the aforementioned period,”

    You might want to go back and read what you wrote.

    “the film which many consider to be Allen’s finest work.”

    “His films became very compelling”

    “the late 1990s saw a renaissance of Allen’s blithe comedy with the masterful Bullets Over Broadway”

    I am just reacting to what you wrote, but that sounds flattering to me.

    I see your point about “natural” in the context of some of his films, but others, like Manhattan, Zelig, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, work because of the unnatural choices that were made by Woody and the many world-class cinematographers he has worked with.

    “Unsophisticated” used to describe the work of men like Willis, Nykvist, Di Palma, and Zsgimond would certainly be an incorrect word choice.

    If you are going alphabetically, I am guessing Altman is next up.

  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    “That’s true, which is why my opinion is that you were too kind because I and many others feel it was Woody’s worst and you glossed over it with the line ‘many critics began to write Woody Allen off as being extraneous and passé.'”

    No offense, but I chose to focus on what I chose to focus on and I chose the style that I chose. Had I wanted to perform a more in-depth exegesis, I would have. I chose not to. You may “feel” however you want about Woody Allen’s best or worst films. That’s the beauty of discussion, debate, and opinion. While I might agree that this particular period was the weakest time in Allen’s career, I chose not to note it for reasons that were my own. You may call it biased if you like, but it is an opinion piece and it is my opinion piece.

    “There’s no confusion that this is an overview of Woody’s career, but if that’s your intent, all I am saying is you should be comprehensive and examine it fully.”

    The degree to which I choose to be comprehensive is my choice because it’s my article. I am not attempting to meet your standards of comprehension, bias, or opinion. I am attempting to meet my own.

    “I am one of Woody’s biggest fans, but that doesn’t mean I ignore his failures, of which he has had a few. A combination of weak, repetitive stories and bad casting played a part. And if you disagree, state your case on why this has been a successful period for him and the critics were wrong.”

    My article was a matter of personal choice, again, and I focused on what I chose to focus on. I chose not to focus on the negative aspects of his career because I did not want to enter that territory. That is likely a flaw in the article and in retrospect I may provide more critique and less gushing. There are a number of “failures” in Allen’s career, most certainly, but I chose to look at what the films meant in a broader context by going through the various phases and highlighting *some* of the aspects. It is not comprehensive and it is not intended to be comprehensive. I do not agree with the notion, by the way, that critics are “right” or “wrong.” It comes down to opinion, once again, and not some sort of objective standard.

    “I am just reacting to what you wrote, but that sounds flattering to me.”

    The “aforementioned period” we were discussing, which according to your own post was “since Celebrity” was barely discussed. Celebrity was released in 1998, as you know. Since Celebrity, the films I discussed were Match Point (which I outlined the critical response to), Small Time Crooks (which I merely mention as being a return to straightforward comedy), and three others which I merely mention in name only. I also describe, briefly, the film he is currently filming. Besides Match Point, I see absolutely no flattery in the aforementioned period. The quotes you graciously highlighted were referring to Bullets Over Broadway, which was before Celebrity and hardly fits the context of the “aforementioned period” we were discussing, Match Point (which was a critical darling), and back in the 1980s, which is certainly before Celebrity and not at all in the “aforementioned period.”

    “I see your point about “natural” in the context of some of his films, but others, like Manhattan, Zelig, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, work because of the unnatural choices that were made by Woody and the many world-class cinematographers he has worked with.”

    Absolutely, it’s difficult to describe Allen’s entire catalogue of work with just one or two terms and perhaps my venture was a bit too bold.

    “‘Unsophisticated’ used to describe the work of men like Willis, Nykvist, Di Palma, and Zsgimond would certainly be an incorrect word choice.”

    It depends on how one defines “unsophisticated,” I suppose. Certainly my use of what was deemed to be the less confusing terminology was equally perplexing.

    “If you are going alphabetically, I am guessing Altman is next up.”

    I’m not going alphabetically, actually. This is strictly on the whim, as the quality of writing and lack of cohesion should suggest. :)

  • http://www.myspace.com/x15 Douglas Mays

    Jordan (#4). You got it. ‘Sleeper’. Thanx man!

    DM

  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    Happy to help, Douglas.

    @ El Bicho:

    A few more points to further qualify this discussion.

    Firstly, you’ll notice that I pretty much gloss over EVERY aspect of Allen’s career. The only film that gets more than one or two sentences in the overview is Annie Hall, which receives those extra sentences because I felt it to be the turning point in Allen’s career. So to represent that I gloss over the “negative” aspects of Allen’s career is to miss the obvious notion that I glossed over his entire career. This occurs because of the original context, which is “Filmmakers Who Matter.” The point is to discuss filmmakers who matter to me and to weakly attempt to articulate why.

    Second, I appreciate your critique. There will always be areas of a filmmaker’s career in which more comprehension would be worthy, but for the purposes of this concise survey I did not feel that succinctness (nor my purpose) would be served by a comprehensive exploration of his films. I could write essays about Annie Hall (I have), Zelig, and other films in his lush career. Maybe someday I will share some of these more comprehensive thoughts, but as originally said, the context of this piece is not the intended arena for that.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Don’t worry about El Bicho, Jordan. He gets cranky when he hasn’t had his cookies, but he’s a puppy dog at heart.

    I liked this piece. It is a bit fluffy, but I think the next one will be a little more in depth.

    There is a guy selling a Woody allen boxed set down the road which has every movie he has made up to Match Point. I keep eyeing it and wondering if it is worth the cash since I already own a lot of his films on DVD.

  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    Yeah, I agree with you on the fluffiness. Thought I’d try something different and broader than what I’m used to, so it’ll be a learning curve for certain.

  • http://londoninbrokenc.blogspot.com DukeDeMondo

    Nice work, Jordan. Woody Allen is my favourite film-maker of all ever. In saying that, the last few years have been something of a trial. Match Point i thought was woeful. It was a lifeless, limp re-examination of themes already nailed in Crimes and Misdemeanors and, to much lesser extent, Melinda And Melinda. Scoop, too, was atrocious. But yet there are still moments in each that have me smiling, and my God, a film a year since 1969 with more masterpieces to his name than most any other filmmaker you might care to mention – i think i can grant the man a bit of leeway. Sleeper, Love And Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Husbands And Wives, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Hannah And Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway… these aren’t just Woody Allen’s best films, they’re some of the best films ever made by anyone. For that reason I’ll still fall over myself to see whatever he puts out, even if the hits get that bit fewer and farther between. It’s not quite true to say a Woody Allen failure is still better than most other’s successes – I can’t think of any reason why a sane man or woman would be too keen on watching Shadows And Fog or Scoop very often, but each DOES have some fragment of what makes the man so damn special, and so aye, everything is worth seeing. God i waxed on at a terrible rate there… My apologies.

  • http://canadiancinephile.com/ Jordan Richardson

    Well, I quite enjoyed Scoop as a cute comedy. I like Scarlett Johansson quite a great deal and thought she was rather charming. I also found the dynamic between her character and Woody’s to be entertaining. Ian McShane from beyond the grave was also very funny. It was far from a masterpiece, but I found it enjoyable in a light, fluffy way. I thought it was still superlative to the majority of comedies produced these days, but judged against the rest of his filmography it’s certainly not all that strong.

    I also enjoyed Match Point. I found it keenly acted, well written, and the ending few sequences absolutely blew me away. The “social climber” aspect was very intriguing and played on themes from my favourite Allen film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, but did it with enough freshness and darkness that I thought it stood up strong as a unique film.

    I’m with you on granting him quite a bit of leeway, as you can probably tell from my article. I think his body of work is among the most impressive of all American filmmakers and there is, as you said, almost always something in each film that is worthy of note and worthy of a smile. He was an easy first-choice in terms of the subject (Filmmakers Who Matter) and some other cases might be a little more complicated to make.

    Thanks for your comment! Always nice to hear other opinions on great filmmakers.