Love and Death
Here we have the last of Woody Allen’s “funny” movies, the sixth movie he directed. Not that he didn’t have tons of humor in his later efforts, it’s just that with his next one, Annie Hall, he started moving off in a whole new direction. Before that, it was jokes, cerebral one-liners, slapstick, insanity. He was in competition with Mel Brooks, not the writers and directors of romantic comedies. And of course his well-known love of Ingmar Bergman led him to make some very serious films indeed.
This is one of the most intellectual comedies ever made. Between playing a cowardly Russian and being shot out of a cannon and having a father who treasures a small piece of land (small enough to carry in his pocket, and build tiny houses on), he and Diane Keaton engage in impenetrable philosophical dialogue about life and death and love that apparently were lifted bodily from the works of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. And if that is so, they were the most fatuous, lame-brained, clueless, pretentious … let’s just say that at one point here Woody’s friend the village idiot attends a village idiot convention. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky would have felt right at home.
He throws everything into the mix. There are shots that will instantly recall the works of Eisenstein to any film buff like me. He sits writing a poem that goes “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Then he crumples it up, as “too sentimental.” Even a poetry illiterate like me recognized that as from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. There is a scene where two people are gossiping, and the things they say are a summary of the plots of all the books by Dostoevsky. In fact, the whole movie can be seen as a satire on Russian novels.
But there’s plenty of stuff from the old Woody, too. To me, his physical humor was always his weakest schtick. I could name a dozen silent movie comics who were much, much better than him. But it’s good for some chuckles. And there are some brilliantly off-the-wall scenes, like Russian soldiers watching a short play about venereal disease, or a black drill sergeant in full Russian regalia bawling Woody out. “You love Russia, don’t you, boy?” But the stuff that cracks me up over and over are his one-liners. The one I remember best from this one is when Diane Keaton compliments him on what a great lover he is. “Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone.”