Saturday, April 30, 2011

Words words words

The late Woody Allen, the one who wrote and directed Take the Money and Run, Annie Hall and Bullets over Broadway once had as fine an ear for idiomatic American comic dialogue as any of this contemporaries from Sid Caesar University such as Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, etc., etc. Sadly, this enjoyable filmmaker died and someone calling himself Woody Allen is making all-star tax-shelter movies in Europe without scripts, style or indeed any idea for a movie.

Last year this imposter turned out something called You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010) which ostensibly poses the question: Can you predict the future? The answer is no. Any questions?

There is the usual Allen mix of scads of miscast stars (Antonio Banderas plays someone named Greg. Can you imagine Antonio being Greg? Or indeed any Spanish man named Greg?) an old man justifying his romance with an inappropriately younger woman, a failed artist or two, some pointless adulteries, a half-baked criminal act, the fear of discovery of which will drive much of the film, and as has been the case for the last 10 years, a foreign location to make his international investors happy, and because Manhattan is kind of sick of him tying up the streets for his snooze fests.

But his films are not bad for all the usual reasons that films are bad, such as there was no reason to make them or the filmmaker is inept. Neither is true here. Woody Allen has simply stopped writing scripts. He writes down ideas for scripts, with detailed notes of what the lines should be, but seems to have forgotten to write actual dialogue that could be spoken by actors who are trying to create the illusion of a character.

Starting about 10 years ago (that was the year of Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Allen's uncontested rock-bottom worst movie), instead of writing lines, his characters speak their unconscious intentions, what actors and directors call the subtext of a scene. "I have decided to leave you because you remind me of my lost youth and the impossibility of retrieving my lost youth." "Well, then, I have become an alcoholic due to your emotional abuse and neglect, and am sinking ever further into a morass of self-pity." "Don't blame your terrible decline on me; I am in search of that moving principle that once guided my entire existence." "I'll blame what I like you, because I am the embittered representative of a generation who was lost and lied to."

Mind you, this is not actual dialogue from an Allen film. There's no way I could remember such dreck, and nobody quotes this crap on line. You can't find a Woody Allen quote online any more recent than 1995, the year of Mighty Aphrodite, his last really good movie. But New York feels obligated to support Allen year after year, like making a contribution to the Planetarium. You don't go anymore, but you'd hate to see it gone.

It's not unusual for comedy writers to lose their touch, especially with dialogue. It happened to Billy Wilder and to Blake Edwards. My hypothesis is that once they become Hollywood celebrities, they don't encounter actual humans talking anymore. As William Goldman wrote, "In time they write plays about their agents." And in Woody Allen's case, he profoundly hates being around other human beings, which many might consider a disqualification for writing about them. It's not that he'll be mobbed as a celebrity -- if the portrait of him in Wild Man Blues is to be trusted*, this guy would rather lock himself in a closet with a TV so he can watch the Knicks than do anything, including write and direct movies.

And it shows. And believe, anyone who can still devote any brain cells to following the Knicks... he's done.

(Yes, I know he has a hit in the theaters currently, something about imagining he's in Paris with Hemingway. But from what I hear, it's as stilted as ever--he's just come up with a story that justifies the stiltedness.)
* And why should it be? Allen seems to have agreed to participate in it just to reassure everyone that it's OK to marry your stepdaughter.

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