Saturday, February 4, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.2: Early, Funny Woody Allen

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. Today’s entry covers his first three self-described “Early, Funny Films”: Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.

Take the Money and Run Grade: 75 (B+)
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? might have been Woody Allen’s first film credited as a director, but Take the Money and Run was the first Woody Allen Film. After having dubious creative control over his previous projects (and after Jerry Lewis turned down an offer to direct the film), Allen took directing duties over his zany script for a proper writing, directing, and acting debut. Take the Money and Run is the first of the films Woody Allen described in Stardust Memories as his “Early, Funny Films”, and while it doesn’t quite reach the giddy highs of Bananas or the ambitious depth of Sleeper and Love and Death, it remains an important film in Allen’s filmography.
Virgil Starkwell (Allen) can’t get much of anything right. He never found a place to belong. He doesn’t get along with his folks. He doesn’t fit in with anyone. He doesn’t have very many friends. He’s not athletic, nor is he particularly smart. He’s painfully neurotic. He takes pleasure in playing the cello, but he’s absolutely terrible at it. Virgil is a common thief, and he’s not very good at that either (an early scene shows him barely getting away with stealing a gumball machine). After trying and failing to become a master thief, Virgil meets and falls in love with Louise (Janet Margolin) and tries to make an honest living. With little experience and a criminal record he’s trying to hide, however, Virgil goes right back to stealing to get by…or at least trying to.
Where What’s Up, Tiger Lily? was too cluttered with too many disparate voices to work as a true Woody Allen film, Take the Money and Run is a much cleaner product. Featuring only two of the writers of the earlier film, Allen and childhood friend Mickey Rose, the film has a more consistent tone and establishes the witty, funny, neurotic voice of the man behind the art. It would be a mistake to call Take the Money and Run autobiographical, but Allen provides some personal information (he and Virgil share the same birth date of December 1, 1935), and the film dabbles in themes that would be featured prominently in later works (psychoanalysis, religious skepticism, obsession with sex, the absurdity of life and love) and in Allen’s own life. More notable still is that the film perfectly establishes the Woody Allen persona: bumbling, neurotic, self-deprecating, and a complete wiseacre. The film doesn’t dive into Allen’s soul the way his later films do, but it’s a damn good start.
The film is notable as one of the first examples of a mockumentary; the narrative operates under the pretense that the camera crew is following Virgil around as he fails as a career criminal, and it mixes in footage of “interviews” with Virgil’s parents, analysts, and other acquaintances. It’s an innovative technique that Allen would later utilize in films such as Zelig and Husbands and Wives, and which would become a popular subgenre in comedic films (This Is Spinal Tap) and TV shows (Arrested Development, The Office). The approach brings a directness to the most inspired gags (Virgil’s hilarious failure to rob a bank when his poor penmanship leads a bank teller to believe he’s threatening that he has a “gub” rather than a “gun”).
Allen would show more highfalutin influences in later works (most notably Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini), but here his idols are almost purely rooted in classic Hollywood comedies. The reliance on stunts is often reminiscent of Buster Keaton while Allen’s use of pathos in Virgil’s more down and out moments recalls Chaplin. Chaplin’s Modern Times shows up in a hilarious sequence in which Allen struggles with a laundry folding machine. The biggest influence, however, is the Marx Brothers. Allen keeps the gags and the witty lines coming at a rapid-fire pace while he spoofs modern films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke, as well as classic movies such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, all while Marvin Hamlisch’s appropriately zany score plays. He even takes the silly names of the Marx Bros. movies (Captain Spaulding, Rufus T. Firefly) to his own purposes for a suitably neurotic sounding man (Virgil Starkwell). The film doesn’t have much in the way of subtext, and upon further analysis it isn’t much more than a bunch of gags strung together; they’re inspired gags, however, and that’s what counts.
Bananas Grade: 92 (A)
Allen’s next film, 1971’s Bananas, takes  those inspired gags and Allen’s established person and voice and runs with it to new heights.The film concerns the misadventures of Fielding Mellish (Allen), a typically neurotic protagonist who has fallen in love with Nancy (Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser)…or at least in lust with her. Nancy is a social activist obsessed with a leftist revolution in the fictional South American country of San Marcos. Mellish’s self-centeredness and cluelessness when it comes to this issue causes Nancy to dump him, but never underestimate a man’s desire for sex. Mellish travels to San Marcos to get more involved, only to be persecuted by the government, get caught up in the revolution, and, through insane circumstances, become the new President of San Marcos.
The film, which is the last collaboration between Allen and Mickey Rose, takes a similar “string the gags together” that Take the Money and Run had. Unlike Take the Money and Run, however, Allen’s getting at something a little bit more ambitious. Politics plays a major part in the film, only no one involved has any idea of how to handle anything. The film’s opening details the assassination of the President of San Marcos…narrated by sports columnist Howard Cosell. Allen was far more interested in sports than one might associate with intellectuals, and his insinuation that politics has become a crazy, out-of-control game is a rather brilliant one. The right-wing are a bunch of autocratic monsters, but that’s not to say the super-left-wing are much better. The revolutionaries are a group of ragtag individuals led by a Castro-like leader of questionable sanity (a training montage set to another great Marvin Hamlisch score has Allen learning the tricks of revolution…badly). It’s through his insanity that Mellish bumbles his way into the presidency, and isn’t it so often in life that one man’s blunder leads to another blunderer’s success?
Nancy, furthermore, is a na├»ve, idealistic, not-particularly-bright idealist who barely comprehends the gravity of the situation in San Marcos. The right-wing are bad, the leftists are good, and that’s it. There’s some intelligent activists out there, but Nancy is the perfect fool for this narrative. This makes Mellish’s pursuit of Nancy all the more hilarious: she’s not a very bright girl, and her political and social interests are rather shallow. It’s all about sex, and sex is a subject that pops up everywhere in Allen’s filmography. Mellish is obsessed with sex, as seen in an early scene where he struggles to purchase a porno magazine while an uptight old lady shops next to him. He tries to play it off as something he’s researching, but he makes it worse by saying that he’s “up to advance child molesting”, a hilariously uncomfortable joke. It gets even better when he struggles to read the magazine on the subway, only to be accosted by a couple of thugs (including an uncredited Sylvester Stallone). It isn’t until Mellish becomes the president that Nancy becomes attracted to him, and even then, when she realizes it’s the same dork she dated earlier, her interest waivers. The absurdity of sex is highlighted in the film’s final sequence, as Mr. and Mrs. Mellish consummate their marriage in a very short bout of marital bliss…and Howard Cosell gives a play-by-play of the whole thing.
The gags here are cut from the same cloth as those of Take the Money and Run: inspired by Keaton, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers. The last group are the biggest influence, from the title (Bananas as a craziness similar to Animal Crackers or The Cocoanuts), the portrayal of politics as insanity (Duck Soup), and a Duck Soup-inspired courtroom scene in which Mellish goes on trial for treason against America, among other crimes (using the word “thighs” in mixed company). Mellish engages in Groucho Marx inspired wordplay (“this trial is a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham”) and obsession with sex (Mellish asks an officer if he ever slept with a girl with large breasts, just because). “J. Edgar Hoover” shows up disguised as a large African-American woman. A man describes Mellish as a “warm, wonderful human being” only for the court to read it back as a “rotten, conniving, dishonest little rat”. Miss America shows up and calls Mellish a traitor for having differing, “subversive” opinions. The absurdity reaches its peak as Mellish, acting as his own attorney, calls himself to the stand (“does the password ‘Sapphire’ mean anything to you?!”). It’s Allen’s own Marx Bros. movie, set in modern America, and when it comes to politics, we’re all a bunch of morons.
Everything… Grade: 30 (C-)
Allen got ambitious again with his next film, the awkwardly titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Based on the self-help sex manual by Dr. David Reuben, the film gives Allen a chance to play with one of his favorite subjects, sex, in the most comically absurd ways, and allows Allen to parody the very idea that a self-help manual could be used as a how-to guide for sex. The film shares the same chaotic spirit as Allen’s other Marx Bros. inspired films, but somewhere in the film’s conception, something went terribly awry. The film was a financial success, but it marks Allen’s first artistic failure.
The film does not have a traditional narrative, but rather is a series of sketches on the subject of sex. The only way to talk about the film to address them one by one. Each sequence will receive its own grade.
Do Aphrodisiacs Work?  (Grade: C-): A court jester (Allen) tries his best to entertain the boorish king (Anthony Quayle), but to no avail. The jester’s father appears as a ghost, Hamlet-style, and inspires the jester to seduce the voluptuous queen (Lynn Redgrave). The jester goes to a witch doctor and picks up an aphrodisiac. He seduces the queen, only to get his hand caught in her chastity belt (put on so that no man but the king could have her) as the king comes to bedroom for a roll in the hay.
The jester’s jokes are described as unfunny. It’s an appropriate description. Allen’s jokes are supposed to be terrible, but they’re a complete bore rather than being amusingly bad (as, say, Fozzy Bear’s were in The Muppets). Nor are they offensive to the king on a base level (as in Mel Brooks’ The History of the World Part I). They’re just lousy jokes, and it’s depressing to see a comic talent such as Allen be painfully unfunny. Worse, the juxtaposition of Shakespearean characters with dirty jokes is mannered, forced, and unfunny. Allen was at his best making witty one-liners about sex. Outright smuttiness, not so much.
What Is Sodomy? (Grade: A-): Dr. Ross (Gene Wilder) has a successful practice in New York, but his world is turned upside down as one of his patients, an Armenian, shows up and proclaims his love…for a sheep. The man is upset, as his beloved sheep has grown fickle and bored in their relationship. Ross is appalled…until he meets and falls for the sheep himself, leading a ruined practice, a divorce, and loneliness after the patient takes the sheep back.
This sequence is the high point in the movie, as it never goes for outright smuttiness the way any of the other segments do. Wilder, one of the greatest comedic actors who ever lived, plays the part completely straight, first shocked, then deeply in love, then ashamed, and finally distraught. It’s all hilarious, yet strangely moving.
Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?  (Grade: C-): Fabrizio (Allen) is an Italian with a wife, Gina (Louise Lasser) who cannot reach orgasm. He finds that the only way she loosens up is by having sex in public.
This segment is an oversexed spoof of the Italian films Allen had fallen in love with, particularly those of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni (Woody wears some Marcello Mastroianni inspired sunglasses). It’s admirable that he’s trying to do something more, but it’s an early example of Allen trying way too hard to emulate another filmmaker’s style to little effect.
Are Transvestites Homosexuals? (Grade: D): Lou Jacobi is a happily married man who loves to wear women’s clothing, which leads to wacky hijinks as he’s accidentally locked outside and has to report his stolen purse. “D” is for DIRE.
What Are Sex Perverts? (Grade: C-): A spoof of the game show What’s My Line? in which Regis Philbin and others try in vain to guess a man’s fetish (he likes to expose himself on subways), and later a rabbi gets his wish to act out his fetish (bondage while his wife eats pork). This segment is at least interesting in conception, but it isn’t especially funny. When it gets to the second half, it’s painfully unfunny.
Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate? (Grade: D+): a researcher (Allen) and a journalist (Heather McRae) meet the mad scientist Dr. Bernardo (John Carradine), who carries out bizarre experiments and has a sex-slave type servant named Igor. The two escape only to find one of Bernardo’s creations, a giant female breast, escape and wreak havoc on the countryside. Allen finds a way to stop it: use a giant bra. This spoof of old B-movies is colossally unfunny and suffers to an even greater degree of unfunny smut than the first segment.
What Happens During Ejaculation (Grade: B-): The film ends on a relatively strong note as a man has sex with a woman. The film concerns a Fantastic Voyage type journey in which the little men controlling the man’s brain (including Burt Reynolds) and penis must work together. These parts aren’t that funny, but Allen provides a bright spot as a sperm nervous about what will happen to him as…well, you know.
Overall, the film is a most laughless affair in which Allen poorly addresses one of his favorite subjects. Early, Funny Woody did a better job in the margins of Bananas, and would do an even better job in Sleeper and Love and Death, his next two films.

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