Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Films of Woody Allen

We enjoy having an informal film festival every now and then. We pick a director and we watch all his films, more or less in order. It’s a fascinating way of watching an artist evolve. So far we have done the Coen Brothers, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock.

So who’s next? After a bit of discussion, we settled on a Woody Allen Film Festival.

Woody is unique among modern directors. For about forty years now he has been turning out one film a year. Like everyone, even Hitchcock, even Kurosawa, even Kubrick, they vary in quality and appeal, though of course we all have our different tastes and probably don’t agree on which are the best and which the least.

What you begin to realize as you watch the credits from one film after another (almost always a black screen with white lettering, and the same typeface after forty years or so, with some music behind it) is that Woody is the nearest thing we have ever had to a cinema repertory company.

Anyone who has followed his career knows that he has gone through certain “periods” in his work. There was the early, slapstick and gag period. There was the Louise Lasser period. Then there was Diane Keaton, and Diane Weist, and Mia Farrow (ending in disaster). Lately he seems to be casting Scarlett Johansson a lot.

But the same names appear over and over in what is called below the line (actors are above the line, their salaries not typically included in the budget figures). These names range from the producers (Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe, Jack Rollins) to the production designer (Santo Loquasto) to the editor (Susan E. Morse for twenty years, then someone else) to the casting (Juliet Taylor). If there is original music or arrangements, it’s usually done by Dick Hyman. And the list could go on and on. Every year for more than forty years Woody has assembled this small group of friends and made a movie. This is so un-Hollywood it’s almost impossible to believe that it can be done. No one else working is able to make a movie every goddam year. Not Scorsese, not the Coens, not Spielberg, not Cameron. In Hollywood, greenlighting a picture is a project worthy of Dwight D. Eisenhower assembling the troops for D-Day. These days budgets commonly exceed $100,000,000, and often go as high as a third of a billion dollars. Even a “little” picture can entail negotiating an agreement with seven or eight production companies and cost $50,000,000, if you include star salaries.

Woody Allen goes at it differently, and the results are staggering. Some film director whose name I can’t recall was talking about Ingmar Bergman, whose approach to movies has obviously been Woody’s model. The director said that when he goes to make a movie, he arrives at the studio and works with a hundred enemies. Bergman, he went on, gathers a dozen friends and makes his movies.

As I said, he has made a small number of what I think of as stinkers (Don’t Drink the Water comes to mind), and a number of films that failed to move me, but he has made an incredible number of films that I would rate from superb to masterpiece.

And he does it with big stars! The hottest people working in films, from all over the world. Big stars call him and beg for him to find a part for them, and they work for Screen Actor’s Guild scale wages. (Some of them would work for free except SAG won’t let them.)

What is his secret? Actually, he has two of them, and there’s nothing secret about them. First, he gives them an intelligent script that they can get their teeth into, even in the small parts. He has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay thirteen times, and won twice. (I think he should have won more, but I’m sure the stuffy old Academy was miffed when he didn’t show up to pick up his award for Annie Hall.) He has been nominated for Best Director six times, and won once.

Second, he breaks all the rules with actors. He respects actors, and lets them have a voice in their dialogue. If they have a better way to do a scene, he lets them run with it. There is a lot of improvisation. The result: fourteen people in his movies have been nominated for an acting award. Winners: Diane Keaton, Michael Caine, Diane Weist (twice!), Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz. Notice that five of those six awards went to women. Female actors are pretty much unanimous in saying he is the best male writer of women’s parts in the business. No wonder the biggest names in Hollywood love to go wherever Woody wants to take them.

We have had great fun with this Festival. Only a few times were we bored, and only once did we really hate a film. He’s got a new one coming out this summer, Blue Jasmine, with Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Bobby Cannavale, and … wait for it … Andrew Dice Clay! I’m really looking forward to it.

(LATER) And as we near the end, I want to mention three things that I have noticed that Woody Allen does which endear me to him enormously:

1) He never lets his actors mumble or whisper! He feels that dialogue is meant to be heard and understood. What a concept! His actors always speak plainly, and aloud.

2) He never indulges in fancy, distracting camera moves. Such stuff has its place with a Hitchcock, a Kubrick, or the Coens, but it is so overused by others it makes me sick. You will see no shaky camera work, no extreme close-ups, no rapid zooms or pans. In fact, his fanciest shot is usually a simple tracking shot, with actors walking toward the camera. His normal shot is to just set the camera up and let it roll. Actors walk in and out of the scene. Sometimes there is no one in the frame. This works so well I wonder why more directors don’t do it? I guess they think it is too “stagey.”

3) He never uses superfluous visual effects. No overexposure, no jump cutting, none of that. He will use SFX, if the story calls for it, but it’s magical things, like the ghosts dancing in Everyone Says I Love You. Which makes it even more magical, in my opinion.

4) The music is always first-rate. He seldom commissions a score, though Dick Hyman has arranged a lot of music for him. The only actual score I can recall him using is by Philip Glass for Cassandra’s Dream, and that worked very well. Otherwise, he picks music he likes, and his likes and mine are very close. You will hear no Rock, which is okay with me. You will hear a lot of jazz and swing, and some classical.

And so, on to the movies …