The '70s and '80s were fertile times for Allen, heralding not only his earliest and, to many, funniest comedies, but the commercial and artistic breakthroughs of Annie Hall and Manhattan, the technical tour-de-force of Zelig, and the warmly nostalgic Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Entering the 1980s, Allen went on an artistic tear that few, including himself, have rivaled in terms of sheer variety and inventiveness. Working side by side with legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis from 1977 to 1985, the former TV writer and standup comic was definitely feeling his cinematic oats (even if he sometimes wore his influences too unabashedly on his sleeve).
This is the first time since starting this blog (18 months ago!) that I've witnessed such a large dump of one director's titles onto Instant. I have no idea if they'll be sticking around or will emulate the James Bond model of one-month-and-done. For those who can't stand the sight (or sound) of Woody Allen, or have a gripe with his personal life, well...you've probably already stopped reading this. But for fans and anyone curious about the director's early, often groundbreaking work, the following highlights should help you navigate a group of films which, while only a fraction of Allen's total, could proudly be called a complete filmography by just about anyone else.
Bananas (1971)Duck Soup, Allen foregoes character and plot for a political farce that's essentially an 80-minute stream of gags—starting with Howard Cosell (anyone here remember him?) doing play-by-play commentary at the assassination of a tinpot Latin American dictator. Then there's the Woody character, Fielding Mellish, a sad sack products tester-turned-bogus leader of a Cuba-like revolution, who makes Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times look like a mechanical genius. If there was ever a perfect example of Allen's earlier, broad-based comedies, this shaggy, often surreal, concoction is it.
Sleeper (1973)An impressive blend of Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, and the Woodman's own nerve-wracked sensibilities, this is probably the funniest and most accessible of Allen's early (i.e., pre-Annie Hall) comedies. It's one I revisit time and again—for the slapstick, the goofy futuristic costumes and sets, the classic Allen dialogue, the bouncy New Orleans jazz score, and perhaps best of all, Diane Keaton's game-for-anything performance as a blithe socialite of the future who discovers her inner rebel. Her impression of Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire is a thing of comic beauty.
Love and Death (1975)The jokes and allusions don't come any more rat-a-tat-tat than in this clever—and unlikely—mashup of 19th-century Russian novels and early Ingmar Bergman films (with ample nods to Groucho Marx). Lots of comic philosophical musings in the Allen manner, plus Woody at his Bob-Hopiest as a cowardly Russian soldier compelled by love to assassinate Napoleon. Includes one of my all-time favorite slapstick scenes in any movie, anywhere: Diane Keaton (her again) getting repeatedly bonked on the head with a milk bottle. The reactions of all involved as they try to laugh off what's happening are beyond priceless, finding the perfect convergence between the ridiculous and the sublime. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for people getting bonked on the head in fast-motion.
Interiors (1978)Woody once again tackles Bergman, while mixing in some Eugene O'Neill, but this time minus the jokes. Interiors is anything but a barrel of laughs (not intentionally, anyway), but the performances of the lead actresses—plus Gordon Willis' chilly, beautifully autumnal images—somewhat redeem it. As the first of Allen's attempts at Getting Serious it's too insistently gloom-and-doom, a problem he would start to remedy with Stardust Memories before fully mastering his trademark mix of comedy and drama in Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. (Although that still doesn't excuse September (1987) or 1988's Another Woman.
|Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith, Mary Beth Hurt|
Stardust Memories (1980)Underrated comic satire originally misinterpreted as biographical fan-baiting. Full review here.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)Imaginative, funny, and romantic with an underlying darkness. Reviewed here.
|A mini Seth Green|
Radio Days (1987)Period fantasy meets autobiography in this entertaining, anecdotal tale of one boy's worship of the exotic world of radio. Set in the early 1940s, before TV ruled the airwaves, this affectionate look backward tells of the glittering cast of characters—both in front of and behind the microphones—who daily informed and entertained an America at war. Seen mostly through the eyes of a family of working-class Brooklyn Jews, Radio Days is also a funny, wistful tale of childhood that, like so many of Allen's 1980s films, doesn't always pile on the big laughs but instead finds humor in character and behavior. It's a gentler, more unassuming approach to comedy, the kind taken by a filmmaker increasingly confident in his ability to lean less on his biggest strength. That said, there are some pretty funny standalone vignettes here, including the tale of a blind, one-armed, one-legged pitcher—who had a lot of heart.
Shadows and Fog (1991)Based on Allen's early one-act play, "Death," and influenced by the German Expressionist films of the 1930s, this is definitely one of the director's stranger, more obscure offerings. Combining a sprawling (often underutilized) cast with the claustrophobic environs of a fog-enshrouded Middle European town, this Kafka-esque tale is by turns funny, frightening, and introspective. It's Allen in a minor key, certainly, but assuming you realize that and are mostly there for the novelty, it has its pleasures. Not the least of those is the eerie black-and-white spaces—shot entirely on a soundstage in Queens—and blink-and-you'll-miss-'em star cameos (was that Madonna? Wait, I thought Jodie Foster was in this?). With the public and artistic uproar that would accompany the following year's Husbands and Wives, Shadows and Fog marked a distinct end to a fruitful period of experimentation in Woody's career.
|Allen with John Cusack|
New for October:Woody Allen Edition
Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex... (1972)
Love and Death (1975)
Stardust Memories (1980) - Review
A Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy (1982)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) - Review
Radio Days (1987)
Shadows and Fog (1991)