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Posts Tagged ‘Bananas’

Well, as you may have noticed, the awards season is in full swing and the Oscars themselves are nearly upon us. One of the main contenders, in terms of some of the acting categories at least, is Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest film. Of course, whenever the spotlight settles upon Allen these days one is inevitably reminded of the uncomfortable blot on his biography (and I’m not talking about Everyone Says I Love You). Even looking back into the most distant recesses of Allen’s back catalogue, you can’t quite dismiss from your mind the allegations made against the film-maker by his ex-wife, and it surely behooves any self-respecting, serious writer to make some comment on this matter, even if only to make their own position clear.

bananas

But anyway, off to those distant recesses for 1971’s Bananas, only Woody Allen’s second film as director, which finds him firmly in Early, Funny mode. Allen is playing his usual nebbish New Yorker, on this occasion named Fielding Mellish (not that it really matters: it’s Allen doing his standard schtick throughout). Fielding’s life as a tester of new inventions for a big corporation goes through a bit of a change when he gets involved with Nancy (Louise Lasser, another of Allen’s exes), a committed political activist. In an attempt to impress her he gets mixed up in the political travails of the small Latin American country of San Marcos, even joining the revolutionary forces attempting to overthrow the government there. Wacky antics ensue.

For anyone only familiar with Allen’s work from, say, the late 1970s onwards, watching Bananas would probably constitute a bracing slap in the face, for only the smallest signs of Allen’s distinctive style are present here. This isn’t just a straightforward comedy film – it’s a comedy film that is clearly prepared to leave no stone unturned, no avenue unexplored, no depth unplumbed in order to secure its laughs. Characterisation and plot are very secondary concerns, and let’s not even contemplate realism. From the pre-credits sequence, in which the assassination of San Marcos’ president is televised in the style of a sporting event (there is even a cameo by someone called Howard Cosell, who I am assured was a famous commentator at the time), to the – er- climax, when the consummation of Fielding and Nancy’s relationship is given the same treatment, this often feels more like a string of comedy sketches than a narrative film.

And, as a result, the film feels a bit all over the place – on paper it looks like Allen doing an attempt at political satire, but much of it barely qualifies as such. There is, for example, a droll slapstick sequence poking fun at the way people are prepared to ignore street crime as long as they are not personally threatened, which is simply in there because it’s funny. This sequence, by the way, is the one ensuring Bananas‘ existence as the subject of many a trivia question, simply because it features Allen on-screen alongside a 25-year-old, and uncredited, Sylvester Stallone. (Neither of them, at this point, is showing much sign of developing into a screen icon.)

There’s a lot of slapstick in Bananas, and a lot of sight gags of varying quality too. Allen’s trademark one-liners are thinner on the ground than you’d expect, too: in fact, the general tone of the humour in Bananas is so broad that it barely feels like an Allen movie at all. I know that Sleeper is supposedly Allen’s tribute to the work of Benny Hill, but it’s this film that features his least-discriminating, most dubious material – told to learn jungle camouflage, Allen disguises himself as a shrub, which someone else promptly comes and pees on, while after being told that the correct response to a snakebite is to suck out the poison, Allen encounters a distressed female rebel whom a snake has bitten upon the breasts – she is, of course, pursued around the camp by Allen and every other man there. Least comfortable of all is the punchline to a sketch where Allen pretends to be reading Time magazine while actually checking out the porno mag next to it on the shelf – buying it, he claims ‘It’s for research purposes – I’m studying perversion. I’m up to Advanced Child Molesting.’ By any standards, this is a dubious line, but in this case… well, let’s just say I’m prepared to bet it’s not on the Oscar tribute showreel.

The temptation, therefore, is to dismiss Bananas as not much more than juvenilia, someone still in the very early stages of discovering themselves as a film-maker. But this is still a film which is highly-regarded simply as a piece of comedy, and one could certainly argue that in its historical context it’s much less incongruous. The patchy mixture of wit and absurd slapstick isn’t a million miles away from the kind of thing that the Monty Python team were producing in the UK at exactly the same time (their first movie was released in 1971, as well), while you could equally well say that it’s in the same tradition as Duck Soup and other Marx brothers movies.

So, I think the best thing you can say about Bananas is that it shows Woody Allen trying his hardest to be a comedian rather than a film-maker. In comparison to even the next few films he would make, it’s inevitably a little disappointing, but this just speaks to their quality and Allen’s success in finding a more naturalistic outlet for his humour. Bananas is often a bit too silly to be really funny – as an Early, Funny film, it’s more the former than the latter.

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