Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Don't Speak...Just Write

"Does a man possessed of true artistic genius create his own moral universe?"

In keeping with Comedy Week, and inspired partly by some comments scattered around the net, let's look back at Woody Allen's movies.

Several of the titles that popped up as people's favs prompted surprise..."Stardust Memories", "Crimes And Misdemeanors", "The Front" (a film Allen only performed in)...when we're all used to hearing the usual suspects: 'Annie Hall', 'Manhattan', and 'Hannah And Her Sisters'.

So I'll keep the ball rolling with my surprise pick...'Bullets Over Broadway.'

Now keep in mind I've been a big fan of the Woodman since I caught his comedy/mockumentary about a career loser criminal, Take The Money And Run, on late night television sometime in the 70's. And then read all his books. And then watched Sleeper and Bananas and Love And Death and Play It Again Sam and became a big fan of his 'early funny films'. The first first run movie of his I saw was Stardust Memories in 1980 (where he pokes fun at the fans of his early funny films) and for some reason, I was a little turned off (perhaps being a partying university student just looking for yucks and..yes, being a fan of his early funny films).

A few years later I went to a rep theatre double bill screening of Annie Hall and Manhattan...and was unabashedly back on board the Woody bandwagon again. 'Annie Hall' to this day remains one of my all-time favourite movies. And not just because it was slick and sincere and romantically sweet yet damn funny...but because it utilized an enormous amount of creative film making techniques to give meaning and coherence to a disjointed narrative. Flashbacks, subtitles, split screens, breaking the 4th wall, animation, linear yet non-linear - just like life and love (...because we need the eggs).

I went to and enjoyed every Allen film after that up until the late 90's. Some stand out... 'Purple Rose of Cairo', 'Zelig', 'Hannah', 'Oedipus Wrecks', 'Mighty Aphrodite', 'Crimes And Misdemeanors'... I even liked 'Deconstructing Harry' quite a bit. Eventually though, I grew rather tired of Allen's 'character'. He's never been a slouch as a director however, and while he evolved into the more dramatic long takes, he did always play outside the box. Even when he faltered, you had to love him for trying. But the writing always sang!

Which brings me back to 'Bullets Over Broadway'. The film was his first where he essentially wrote the lead role of David Shayne for himself (or a younger version of himself) and then cast someone else in the part (John Cusack). It took some getting used to, and was hard at first not to see Cusacks performance as an imitation, but the film was ultimately better for it.

"I don't write hits, I write art. My plays are written specifically to be unproduced."

It took a common theme in Allen's work, the artist's struggle between art and commerce, and explored the morality of artist whose will to create accepts no compromise. It opens with this "mock-moral" question: "Which would you save if you rushed into a burning building and could only save one: an anonymous human being or the only remaining copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare?" The result is a hilarious comedy and a witty portrayal of some of the dangerous temptations waiting for artists when they have opportunity for fame and fortune.

Sheldon Flender: [bragging] I have never had a play produced. That's right. And I've written one play a year for the past twenty years.
David Shayne: Yes, but that's because you're a genius. And the proof is that both common people and intellectuals find your work completely incoherent. Means you're a genius.

Allen transposed it to the roaring 20's where Shayne, a young playwright, gets his big break. He can produce his play, but only because the tab is being paid by a mobster...the catch being his girlfriend has to co-star in the production. Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly) is wonderful as the mobster's tart who can't act. And she's always accompanied by her bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), a working class gangster, who begins to make comments about how he'd rewrite the play to jazz it up. Cusack begrudgingly listens, applies the notes, the play is better for it (or at least more entertaining), and yet his morals and belief in the material and ultimately himself are severely challenged. Who is the 'true artist'?

David Shayne: "Oh my God, I sold myself out! I'm a WHORE! I'm a PROSTITUTE!"

Let it be said that the supporting cast are all stellar. Dianne Wiest plays the aging starlet, Helen Sinclair.

She slays every moment she's on screen, like when she and Cusack enter a speakeasy to discuss the role:

Helen Sinclair: Two martinis, very dry.
David Shayne: How'd you know what I drank?
Helen Sinclair: Oh, you want one too? Three martini's please.

Wiest won a Supporting Oscar for her performance, one that was richly deserved. She tells it like it is when Shayne shows her his rewrite.

David Shayne: You thought my first draft was c-cerebral and tepid?
Helen Sinclair: Only the plot and the dialogue. But this...
David Shayne: Was-was-was there nothing in the original draft that you feel was worth saving?
Helen Sinclair: The stage directions were lucid. Best I've ever seen... and the color of the binder. Good choice.
David Shayne: Thank you. I've always had a flair for stage directions.

And of course there's her mantra..."Don't speak."

Anyway, 'Bullets' is memorable to me for two reasons. One is the movie. The other is the night I saw it. It was late '94 or early 1995. I'd recently picked up and moved to Toronto, but was starting to question my decision. Art. Commerce. Life. Living (as in not making one). What am I doing? Why am I here?

The movie opened. I'd read some decent reviews, and so in a spur of the moment decision, struck out on foot for the theatre. It was playing in the Canada Square Cinema (which is sadly no more, isn't it?) at Yonge and Eglinton. It was a beautiful winter night. Crisp. Cool. A light fog was just rolling in. I hustled down Roselawn Ave. and made it there just in time. Slumped down into a seat and watched the movie. Loved it (it helped there was a full house and lots of laughers). But was also moved and affected by it.

And as I walked slowly home, now engulfed by the thick white fog (just fog, not Shadows And Fog), I was filled with some kind of surreal inner peace. I realized all 'artists' have this debate and struggle and inner turmoil. But it was going to be okay. Because I'd seen it was possible to remain somewhat true to one's calling creating art while also being entertaining.

That wasn't the moral of Allen's story, but it was the message of the movie. I was going to be okay.

Thanks for that Woody. Don't speak...but keep on writing.

SONG&ARTIST? "They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there's always magic in the air
But when you're walkin' down that street
And you ain't had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere..."


David Bishop said...

Whenever I get depressed about the inevitably of my death, I reach for Hannah and Her Sisters - closely followed by Duck Soup.

Anonymous said...

We watched Bullets in Film Theory 101. I can't remember what the point of the lecture was but I remember enjoying the film very much.

Good Dog said...

It's Crimes and Misdemeanors for me. Bullets comes after, with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Bizarrely, when I see a WA film in the UK I get a (relatively) funny one, when I go to his movies in the US I get Shadows and Fog and Deconstructing Harry. Which is a bit of a joke.