Monday, February 6, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.3: Woody Allen's Sleeper/Love and Death

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 last two “Early, Funny” films: Sleeper and Love and Death.

Sleeper Grade: 94 (A)
Bananas took Woody Allen’s Marx Bros. inspired, gag-a-minute approach to giddy heights, but Allen had intellectual aspirations as well. Sure, the director loved the Marx Bros. , Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton, but he also loved Stanley Kubrick and other more challenging filmmakers. 1973’s Sleeper paid tribute to Allen influences both old and new, and it gave Allen to show off his chops as an actor, writer, and first-rate filmmaker. The result is the finest of Allen’s “Early, Funny” films.
Miles Monroe (Allen) is a jazz clarinetist and health food store owner who wakes up in the year 2173 after being frozen for 200 years. Worse, the future is run by an autocratic, repressive government that chases after Miles. Miles meets up with Luna (Diane Keaton), a rather daffy poet as dependant on the government as everyone else. At first, Luna is frightened of Miles, who she refers to as “the alien”, and tries to turn him in. Eventually, however, the two band together with an underground movement to take down the government.
Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman are a bit more ambitious than Allen’s former co-writer Mickey Rose; Sleeper is another political satire, and like Bananas, it features silly training scenes, a left-wing group just as questionable as the right-wingers, and a skepticism that anything in politics ever really “works”. The film also features an early example of Allen’s love for Federico Fellini: Keaton’s Luna and her friends are a group of pretentious faux-intellectuals that would populate later Allen films such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. These characters are less poisonous than later examples, however, because the film shares the goofy tone of Bananas rather than the more intellectual (but still funny) tone in later Allen films.
Unlike Bananas, the film is far more in debt to 1984 than Duck Soup. The future is an Orwellian nightmare where men and women are fearful and dependant on the government. They’ve been placated with their telescreens and orgasmatrons. Anyone seen as subversive is persecuted and reprogrammed, if not exterminated outright. The ultra right-wing government is likely a stand-in for Nixon-era America: Woody tips his hand when he’s asked by a futuristic scientist who Richard Nixon was: “He was president, but whenever he left the White House the Secret Service counted the silverware”.
 Allen also brings in Kubrickian imagery: the future is filled with invasive medical procedures and “reprogramming” (A Clockwork Orange). Robots, many voiced by 2001’s Douglas Rain, serve. There’s references to a catastrophic war. The environments of the future are cold and sterile. Hell, drugs and sex are cold and sterile: characters get high off of an orb, and make love in the “orgasmatron”. Even the pets have been computerized. The film could also be seen as a precursor to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: the repressive government, for all their success, isn’t terribly efficient, and the attempts to capture or destroy Miles and Luna go terribly awry.
In spite of the setting, Woody keeps things fundamentally light with zippy pacing and zany gags. Sleeper is a tribute to silent era comedy, and the film is the best showcase for Allen’s prowess as a physical comedian. Early scenes involving his near vegetative state are outright hilarious in everyone’s exasperation in trying to control him. Stunts involving too-short ladders and faulty jetpacks recall Chaplin and Keaton. The film also introduces two other key influences on Allen: Benny Hill and Bob Hope. Hill, known for his slapstick comedy and sped-up chase scenes, inspires several sequences of Allen and Keaton evading capture, all with very little dialogue. Better still is when Miles, forced to evade capture, dresses up none-too-convincingly as one of the robot butlers; his glasses and general incompetence with household chores are hilarious giveaways.
Hope, known for his one-liners, inspires the now far-more-talkative Woody, whose passive-aggressive zingers are infinitely quotable. The Woody Allen persona was established in earlier films, but it’s far more developed here, and the quotes are far more revealing as to Allen’s psyche:
“My brain? That’s my second favorite organ!”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald…great writer…he was popular with college students and nymphomaniacs.”
“Norman Mailer, another great writer. He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School.”
“I was beaten up by Quakers!”
“The NRA, they performed a service. They gave guns to criminals, to shoot citizens.”
“I’m an atheist…I believe there’s an intelligence to the universe, outside of parts of New Jersey.”
If Sleeper gives the first hint to the depths of Allen’s neuroses and religious skepticism, it also continues Allen’s well-established interest in sex. Miles is slightly more altruistic than previous Allen protagonists…but he’s still doing things mostly for himself, and he’s heavily motivated for his attraction to Diane Keaton’s Luna. This was the first successful on-screen pairing of Allen and Keaton (1972’s Play It Again, Sam has aged very poorly), and the two have incredible chemistry together. It’s a classic case of two people who first hate each other, then tolerate each other, and eventually fall in love, and it’s a joy watching the two work together. Keaton was always a bit of a goof in her comedic roles, and watching Allen react to her sometimes bizarre statements and questions is priceless:
Luna: “Did you ever realize that ‘God’ and ‘dog” are the same word, spelled backwards? It really makes you think…”
Luna: “Would you like to perform sex with me?”
Miles: “Perform sex? I don’t know if I’m up to a performance, but I could rehearse with you…”
The two work as perfect foils for each other, and it’s easy to see how someone with as many intellectual pretensions as Miles could fall for the endlessly charming Luna. She’s surprised that he doesn’t believe in God, politics, or most scientific studies, but he does believe in two things: “Sex and death, two things that come once in a lifetime…but at least after death, you’re not nauseous.”

Love and Death Grade: 93 (A)
Sex and death were on Allen’s mind again for his next film; hell, it’s more or less the title. Allen’s follow-up to Sleeper is even more ambitious than its predecessor, and perhaps even more revealing as to where the director’s career was headed. Allen had hinted at his interest in great literature and European film in previous efforts, but they’re on full display here. The film marks a transitional period between the “Early, Funny” films of Bananas and Sleeper and the more mature works of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and others. The Woodman wasn’t just fooling around anymore; he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.
1812, Russia: Boris Grushenko (Allen) is a pacifist (read: coward) who takes news of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia as a chance to flee. He and his braver (read: dumber) brothers enlist in the army, where he accidentally becomes a war hero. Boris pines for his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), and the two end up marrying after a bizarre series of events. Boris is content to run from the French, but Sonja has a plan: the two must assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan).
Allen’s old influences are as present as ever, particularly in his Bob Hope-influenced one-liners (one of the best: “He’s the village idiot? What’d you do, place?”). But Love and Death most represents his chance to explore two of his biggest influences: Russian literature and the films of Ingmar Bergman. The film is filled with references to and spoofs of classic novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy: the narration (the first use of narration by the protagonist in Allen’s films) plays like a comical version of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s works, filled with absurdly tragic characters and situations. The high seriousness of Russian tragedy is spoofed in a scene in which a clear Anna Karenina stand-in rushes through explaining the complicated relationships of her family to a bored Keaton; without the gravity, the melodrama is hilariously overwrought. A duel between Boris and a rival is played for laughs rather than tragedy. An entire sequence involves Boris discussing the crazy happenings in his old village with his father, and anyone in the know will catch that they’re describing the plots of Dostoevsky’s works.
Allen takes a page from Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the film’s battle sequences; death abounds, and not even for a just cause. The film has the men run back and forth for their czars and emperors, dying at the will of a few men’s lust for power (Allen tips his hand in a not-so-subtle image of sheep racing back and forth). The battles illustrate the absurdity of war and death. The addition of literal cheerleaders at the battle site is a particularly nice touch. The film also shares the absurd training montages of Bananas and Sleeper, with another hilariously inept Allen character bungling his way through training. Best of all: a black drill sergeant verbally abusing Boris for not loving Russia enough. To Allen, Napoleon and the czar “are both crooks. The czar is taller”.
Mostly, however, Allen’s greatest filmmaking influence here is Swedish master Ingmar Bergman. Clear references to Bergman’s great films abound left and right: a young Boris chats with death (The Seventh Seal), only to be told that “they’ll meet again”. A goofy dream sequence spoofs Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Several images involving two characters’ faces show on screen together reference Persona (particularly in the scene involving Keaton and “Anna Karenina” late in the film).
Allen takes his interest in Bergman and Russian literature to explore several of his pet themes in more mature ways: religious skepticism and philosophy, guilt and morality, sex, and fear of death. Allen had hinted at his atheism in early works (Take the Money and Run) and first discussed it openly in Sleeper. Here, his character frequently asks: is there a God? If so, why won’t he reveal himself? He and Sonja have goofy philosophical debates as to God’s nature: she believes he must be real, where Boris needs a sign. When he finally gets a sign that God might be there, it’s a message from an angel that he’ll be saved from execution; it turns out to be wrong. Hilariously, one of Sonja’s lines shows what Allen thinks of faith: “I was praying”. “I heard someone else?” “I do both parts”.
Allen would later explore the nature of guilt and morality more seriously in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors (talk about Dostoevsky influence), but he addresses them in a more comic fashion as Boris and Sonja debate the morality of killing Napoleon. “Morality is subjective”, argues Sonja, but “Subjectivity is objective”, argues Boris. Boris argues that one should never kill a man, “particularly if it involves taking someone’s life”. However absurd, Allen’s interest in the subject is fascinating nonetheless: Boris “sees both sides of every issue”, and he can’t decide whether killing Napoleon would be justified. On one hand, he would save several of his countrymen. On the other hand, he’d be killing a man in cold blood. Boris, like most Allen characters, is indecisive, and he never makes a decision before he gets caught. Given more time, what would he have done?
Sex, as always, plays an important part in Love and Death. Boris is a complete coward, but he’s more than willing to fight if sex is involved. Sonja, however, is not interested in Boris, but rather his more manly brother (Tolstoy all over again). She sleeps around (Tolstoy!), and she only agrees to marry Boris because she thinks he’ll be killed in the duel; the look on Keaton’s face during the wedding is priceless. Sonja is visibly a Diane Keaton character, but it’s refreshing to see the actress play a more selfish variation. The two are motivated by “love” (read: sex) at every turn, and Boris’ agreement to help Sonja kill Napoleon is no exception.
At the end of it all, finally, is death. Allen tips his hat to Bergman early on as Death himself appears to a young Boris; he appears again later with a few of Boris’s friends. The two main characters both fear death and question its meaning; faith obviously plays a major part in her answer, lack of faith in his. Sonja claims that she’s “not scared of dying. She’s more frightened by it”. At the end of it all, Sonja escapes the French; Boris is not so lucky, and he goes off with death to find the ultimate answer.
It’s all pretty heady stuff, and Allen’s later explorations of the subjects would sometimes collapse into high seriousness and outright pretension. Love and Death has a light and playful tone however, and serious as the subjects might appear, Allen finds great comedy in all of it. He’s not trying too hard, and that’s what counts. The film’s ending marks one of the earliest examples of Allen breaking the fourth wall: in the ending monologue, he succinctly (and hilariously) sums it all up with a handful of immortal one-liners. “If there is a God, I don’t think that He’s evil. Basically, the worst I think you could say about him is that he’s an underachiever.” “Death is not the end, but a very effective way to cut down on your expenses”. “It’s not the quantity of your sexual relations, but the quality…on the other hand, if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into it.” With that, Allen pays homage to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal one more time as Boris and death dance off into the sunset.

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