Monday, February 13, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.12: Woody Allen's Radio Days/Another Woman

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1987’s Radio Days and 1988’s Another Woman.

Radio Days Grade: 73 (B+)
Given the major triumph of Hannah and Her Sisters, a film that summed up everything the prolific writer-director had covered over nearly twenty years, it’s no surprise that Woody Allen’s next film saw the director taking it relatively easy.  Radio Days, the director’s 16th feature, saw Allen returning to the semi-autobiographical childhood scenes of Annie Hall for a full-length feature based on his youth. There’s very little beneath the surface of Radio Days, but the wistfully nostalgic film is a deeply ingratiating lark and one of the sweetest films of the director’s career.
Allen narrates the story of Joe (Seth Green), a young boy growing up in a Jewish family in late 1930s/early 1940s Brooklyn. He lives with his loving but constantly arguing parents (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker), his eccentric aunt and uncle (Josh Mostel and Renee Lippin), and his hopeless romantic aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest). It’s the age before the mass availability of television: The Golden Age of Radio. Joe and his family deal with the Great Depression and the war by escaping to the beautiful music and stories of the radio, from great singers (a young Todd Field), radio serial heroes (Jeff Daniels and Wallace Shawn), and others. Joe lives and struggles poverty, religion, burgeoning sexuality, and other big questions, all while growing up in a “simpler time”. Allen contrasts Joe’s story with the stories of several radio stars and hopefuls, particularly Brooklyn girl Sally White (Mia Farrow).
Radio Days takes its structure mostly from Federico Fellini’s similarly autobiographical Amarcord. Both films feature boy protagonists but shift back and forth between several members of the community (or, in this case, those connected to the community by way of radio). Fellini’s films often told the stories of cynical misanthropes and the grotesques surrounding him, but Amarcord was a much sweeter, warmer (if still raunchy) work. So it goes for Allen, whose film focuses on a character not yet tainted by the world, able to wake up without overwhelming anxiety. As his mother says, “our lives are ruined, you still have a chance.” However insane his folks can be, everyone still cares about each other, and they all come together for the good times (New Year’s Eve) and the bad (the report of a little girl who died after falling down a well).
That last bit is especially important in establishing the profound connection between the people and the radio. Allen’s characters feel that they know the people they hear over the airwaves, from the sophisticated Irene and Roger to the Masked Avenger (hilariously played by Wallace Shawn) to Biff Baxter, the square-jawed American hero (Jeff Daniels). When something bad happens to an ordinary girl, it affects the people listening profoundly. Through the power of the radio, they’re connected.
That connection shows especially in two parallel stories: Aunt Bea’s search for a husband and Sally White’s hopes of radio stardom. Bea meets all the wrong men- married, closeted homosexuals, or otherwise undependable- but she never gives up hope. Sally hits all sorts of speed bumps- she’s fired from her job as a cigarette girl at the Copacabana for sleeping with one of the radio stars. She gets a job as a singer, but she’s soon fired. When she accidentally witnesses a murder by hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello), he feels bad for her and uses connections to get her an acting job, but it all falls through. Only through perseverance (and elocution lessons that change her rough Brooklyn accent to a more proper tone) does she finally make it. Bea never gets a husband through the course of the film, but that’s not saying she doesn’t have a chance. That said, Sally’s dreams come true, but that’s the glitzy show-business side of Allen’s film. Bea’s life is all too real.
Joe’s story, meanwhile, is filled with all sorts of charming anecdotes: Joe and his friends see a naked woman for the first time, only to find out she’s their new substitute teacher. Joe’s father is ashamed of his job (cab driver) , and he refuses to tell Joe what it is, as he wants his son to do better. Joe and his family spend the Jewish day of Atonement the proper way while their communist/atheist neighbor lives it up; when Uncle Abe goes over to give them a piece of his mind, he comes back doubting God and capitalism. It’s all a charming exploration of Woody Allen’s childhood and the things that would concern him for the rest of his life; it’s almost like Allen’s own version of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark’s autobiographical classic.
For all the film’s love for entertainment, both in the radio and the movies, there’s a certain sadness at the center of it (as it is with all of the best nostalgia-based films). These radio days meant the world to Allen and all of the people involved, and it’s a simpler time for everyone involved. Yet Allen spikes it with knowledge of the terrible things to come: loss of family, loss of faith, the knowledge that love doesn’t always work out. The family disparages Adolf Hitler as a man who wants to kill everybody without knowing how right they are.
Finally, there’s those wonderful radio performers, who gather on New Year’s Eve for the dawn of 1944 at the Copacabana, where a singer (Diane Keaton in the only film she appeared in with fellow Allen-muse Farrow) sings a sad tune. Farrow takes her friends (and new lover, Wallace Shawn) to the rooftop to greet the new year. They’re all together, but they muse that their work may be forgotten. Allen plays them out with narration about how much he cherishes those memories, but that with each year, their voices grow dimmer.
Another Woman Grade: 14 (D)
After a long decade of nostalgia-based treasures (Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose) and a major creative peak (Hannah and Her Sisters), Woody Allen decided it was time to go to serious dramatic work once more. Rather than return to the gorgeous balancing act of comedy and drama that was Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen chose to go full-drama for the first time since Interiors. September was an experiment for Allen, a Bergman/Chekhov/O’Neill inspired work that Allen wanted to shoot as a play on film. After a troubled production where Christopher Walken was replaced by Sam Shepard, Allen cut the film together and realized he hated it. He then recast virtually every part (Shepard was replaces by Sam Waterson, Charles Durning by Denholm Elliott, Maureen O’Sullivan by Elaine Stritch), filmed it again, re-cut it…and realizes that it still didn’t work. Allen was ready to go back and try it a third time, but it was too late: September was released to largely negative reviews and the worst-ever box office for one of Allen’s films (less than $500,000 gross). To this day the film is regarded as one of the director’s worst films; its reputation is so poor that it’s difficult to find a copy of it (hence why it won’t be covered here). Clearly determined to make a major dramatic film, Allen set forth on yet another Ingmar Bergman inspired project. The result, Another Woman, found slightly better reception than his previous effort, but the film is still largely considered an artistic failure. Were the film’s handful of  supporters (including Roger Ebert) right? Uh, no.
Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) is a philosophy professor in her early 50s. Marion is married, by all appearances happily, to the successful Dr. Ken Post (Ian Holm), whose teenage daughter Laura (Martha Plimpton) adores her. Marion doesn’t have the best history, however: she and Ken were involved in an affair before they left their respective spouses for each other. Marion’s first husband (Philip Bosco) died, most likely of suicide, after she left. Her brother (Harris Yulin) resents her, and her former best friend (Sandy Dennis) can’t stand her either. Finally, her current marriage is a passionless affair, and she’s haunted by the memory of Ken’s best friend Larry (Gene Hackman), who showed far more passion. Marion reflects on her life as she overhears the therapist next door working with Hope (Mia Farrow), a deeply depressed young pregnant woman to whom Marion feels a connection.
Another Woman is the A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to Radio Days’ Stardust Memories: a pale Bergman imitation following a much more lively Fellini imitation. In this case, Another Woman is mostly inspired by Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, another film which featured a cold intellectual who found out his family didn’t much care for him. Allen follows Marion Post through her reminiscences of her childhood and young adult life as Bergman did with Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) in his film, albeit with much less grace. Marion learns to regret how she treated  those who truly cared for her (her brother, her stepdaughter, her lost love) and vows to change her life for the better after she meets Hope, who finds her far more profoundly sad than herself. Hope at least has a child to look forward to; Marion aborted her only baby and gave up a chance for motherhood long ago.
Aside from some truly awful narration, Another Woman initially seems a less creaky Bergman knock-off than Interiors, no doubt due to Allen’s increased confidence as a director (along with the presence of Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist). Unfortunately, Allen’s script is truly awful. The man simply does not know how to do serious drama without resorting to laughable hysterics, portentous dialogue, and an almost comically serious tone. Like Interiors, this is a humorless affair. Unlike Interiors, which had at least a few interesting characters to inject some passion, Another Woman is completely made up of sad-eyed, disaffected WASPs whose neuroses register with less than a percentage of interest compared to those in the more balanced Hannah and Her Sisters.
What’s worse, Allen resorts to self-plagiarism with Marion’s ex-husband, an older intellectual who smothered his love with overwhelming affection. The story is clearly borrowed from the Barbara Hershey/Max von Sydow relationship of Hannah and Her Sisters, and it was a hell of a lot more convincing there. These characters are ultimately too thin and too dull to care about. Larry is more passionate than Ken, and that’s his character. Ken is dull and cold, and that’s his character. Rinse, repeat. The film even borrows a moving element from Hannah and Her Sisters to diminished effect here: the former film brought allusions to poetry and classical music (E.E. Cummings and Bach) with elegance and grace. The inclusion of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry and Erik Satie’s music feels forced (plus, it uses the same Satie piece that My Dinner with Andre used, to lesser effect).
Allen is ultimately less comfortable when he’s not bringing comedy to the table to balance the serious dramatic work. When he goes full-serious, he tries way too hard, with largely disastrous results. Fortunately, Allen had one more film on his agenda before the decade close out, and he’d balance the heavy tragedy with sophisticated comedy. The result: Crimes and Misdemeanors.

No comments:

Post a Comment