Posts Tagged ‘Mia Farrow’

Imagine my shock: it is, the calendar informs me, September at the moment, and likely to remain so for the rest of the month. So, what better time to absorb and cogitate upon a film so deeply concerned with the month of September that it is, in fact, actually called September?

Reader, I have to inform you that there is a con going on here. September is not about the month of September. It’s not even set in September – at one point towards the end of September, one character says words to the effect of ‘Ooh, and it’s not even September yet’. Is this some dark situationist prank from director Woody Allen? September actually takes place in August. What an outrage, likely to sow confusion and distress amongst film-goers everywhere.

You know, I’m tempted to say ‘…if only September were actually that dramatic’, because while Allen’s 1987 movie is certainly a drama, it’s one of those dramas in which – to the eye of the casual or inattentive viewer, at least – not very much at all happens that you could actually call dramatic. But it is, at least, something of a departure from the norm for a director who occasionally seems to have been intermittently remaking more or less the same film for nearly forty years now.

September takes place in a house in the countryside in a fairly remote part of Vermont – don’t get too excited about this departure from Allen’s normal New York City milieu, the entire movie was shot on a soundstage in, you guessed it, New York – where a woman named Lane (Mia Farrow) is coming to the end of a period of recovery, following an initially-undisclosed personal crisis. Her best friend Stephanie (Dianne West) is there to support her, while also present (if somewhat less supportive) is her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), a faded Hollywood star, and stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Hanging about the place are Howard (Denholm Elliott), an older man who is a teacher, and Peter (Sam Waterston), an aspiring writer.

It’s a bit hard to describe the premise of September without spoiling the whole plot, because the whole focus of the movie is on initially presenting this group of characters and then gradually uncovering the relationships between them and the events in their pasts which have shaped them as people. It’s also the kind of movie where very quick and allusive references are made to characters’ back-stories right at the start, which are not expanded upon until much later in the story, which demands a certain degree of trust and patience on the part of the viewer. Just what is the scandalous event in Diane and Lane’s past which Lane is so very keen not to see raked over in Diane’s proposed memoirs? What exactly has Lane come to Vermont to get over? You have to wait until well into the movie for these things to be elaborated upon, and even then the most you sometimes get is a strong implication.

In the end this is, at heart, not very much different from many Allen movies, concerning a group of well-off and articulate people operating on a level somewhat removed from quotidian turmoil (Lane is planning on moving back to New York but can’t decide if she wants to be a photographer or an artist), with an underlying theme not exactly calculated to warm the soul. Warden’s character gets a cheery scene where, as a physicist, he announces that the universe ‘doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s all random, resonating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever. I’m not talking about the world, I’m talking about the universe, all space, all time, just temporary convulsion… I understand it for what it truly is. Haphazard. Morally neutral, and unimaginably violent.’ (On the whole I think I prefer Allen’s one liners.)

On a personal level this basically manifests as a high ambient level of misery and personal unfulfillment amongst all the various characters. Howard is in love with Lane, but can’t bring himself to tell her. Lane is in love with Peter, but has been hurt too many times before to be remotely proactive about it (well, unless you count arranging to go and see Kurosawa’s Ran with him – personally it’s not really my idea of a date movie, but I can well imagine Woody Allen disagreeing). Peter himself has fallen for Stephanie, who is unhappily married but can’t imagine leaving her children. All of these plotlines, along with that of the constant tension between Lane and Diane, work themselves out over the space of a concise 82 minute running time (it does perhaps feel a mite longer while you’re watching it), leaving you with an undeniable sense of a group of people realising that, perhaps, their best years are behind them, with only the autumn of their lives yet to come (hence, I’m guessing, the title of the movie).

And the craftsmanship of the writing and performances is really undeniable – Allen has clearly set out to tell a certain type of story in a particular way, and largely achieved his goal. Although not without a certain degree of struggle. Actors who’ve worked with Allen have occasionally grumbled about the director’s perfectionism and insistence on a contractual clause obliging them to be available for any reshoots he deems to be necessary. There is also the story that, having completed Manhattan, Allen was so unimpressed with the finished movie that he asked the studio for permission to scrap it and make an entirely new film for free. Something similar appears to have happened with September – having completed the film, the director decided that he wasn’t happy with it, so rewrote it, recast some of the parts, and made it all over again. (The Sam Waterston role was originally played by Sam Shepard, which I find a little ironic as I’m always getting those two actors mixed up. Apparently, it was even Christopher Walken playing Peter for a bit, which would have been much less confusing for me.)

Of course, you could argue there’s a fine line between perfectionism and self-indulgence, and if so then September is surely a rather self-indulgent piece of film-making, with its very stagey style and formalism. Why set out to make a movie which is, to all intents and purposes, just a very thinly disguised stage play? If you’re going to make a movie, then make a movie. On the other hand, if you’re going to make a movie pretty much every year (as Allen has been doing for nearly half a century now), then coming up with new material and new approaches must inevitably become a bit of an issue for you, so you may well end up either repeating yourself endlessly or doing very odd things just because you’ve never done them before. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if Woody Allen’s enviable work ethic and productivity aren’t partly to blame for the inconsistent quality of his films. September is admirable on its own terms, but I’d struggle to say anything much more positive about it than that.

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Everyone has a comfort zone, and I suppose they’re entitled to it: it’s part of human nature to simply want to relax and take it easy sometimes. This is as true of film-makers as anyone else, if not moreso. Indeed, if we consider a field considering so many specialists of different flavours, in a way it’s more than usually commendable to be one of those individuals who’s willing to push their creative boundaries once in a while.

Most people, inasmuch they’re aware of the massive bulk of the Woody Allen back catalogue, would probably tend to peg his films as primarily contemporary and metropolitan, before going on (if they were especially well versed) to make a few well-chosen comments about the common motifs and themes of his various films: nice guys often finish last, it’s often completely acceptable and normal for fantastically attractive young women to get into relationships with physically unremarkable but very cultured (much) older men, there’s always time for a discussion about existentialism, and so on. And this is generally true. However, it does overlook the sheer range of settings and genres he has covered in his movies – he’s done rather accomplished sci-fi, historical pastiche, mockumentary, thriller, broad comedy, a (fairly dire) musical, and many other things, and it’s fair to say that some of his most successful films come from amongst these excursions into parts unfamiliar. Historical fantasy seems to be a particularly rewarding seam for Allen: his last really big hit, Midnight in Paris, was arguably in this genre, as is one of the best films from the middle period of his career, 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Purple Rose is set during the Great Depression (pedants would insist no earlier than the second half of 1935, though this is really the wrong kind of film to break out that sort of attitude for) and focuses on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappily-married and rather incompetent waitress working in New Jersey. (Allen himself stays behind the camera for this film, though it does hail from the period when he was more often found acting in his movies than not.) Her job is chaotic and her home life (married to Danny Aiello’s unemployed, unfaithful jerk) is miserable. All her pleasure comes from visiting the local movie house, which she does over and over again.

Well, basically things go from bad to worse, and when she’s actually sacked she virtually takes up residence in the cinema, watching one particular escapist romance, The Purple Rose of Cairo, numerous times back-to-back (you could still do that in British cinemas when I was a lad). Eventually, partway through the film, Tom (Jeff Daniels), a supporting character, starts addressing her directly about her obvious love of it. Moments later he walks out of the film and into the ‘real world’ in order to talk to her more directly…

Pictures, statues, and so on coming to life have been a bit of a staple of romantic fantasy since the genre began, but normally the existence of the fantasy lover – or at least their true nature – remains a special secret of the film’s protagonist. What makes The Purple Rose of Cairo so distinctive and indeed powers the film along to some extent is the way in which it absurdly and systematically undermines this convention: everybody notices it when Tom walks out of the film.

People in the theatre audience scream and faint. The other characters in the film are outraged and yell at him to come back, because they can’t finish the scene without him. The theatre owners place angry telegrams to the film studio in California, insisting they keep better control of their characters – and the spectre looms of other iterations of Tom leaving different showings of the film. As things threaten to spiral out of control, the studio sends Gil, the actor who played Tom in the film (Daniels again, naturally) to go and reason with him and get him back into the picture somehow so things can begin to get back to normal. But will Gil prove susceptible to Cecilia’s charms as well?

As you can probably tell, something by one of the Russians this is not, but as a (fairly) extended piece of whimsical drollery it is really very charming, as Allen grabs a ridiculous idea and pursues it towards a number of logical conclusions. I have to say that the central love triangle between Farrow and the two Jeff Danielses didn’t much grab me, not because Daniels is ever less than solidly watchable, but because I usually find Mia Farrow to be a less than captivating screen presence and this film is no exception. (Plus, there’s a scene where she has to fake playing the ukulele, and I have to say it’s the worst fake-uke-playing I’ve ever come across.) Indeed, I’m almost tempted to suggest that the real joy of this film is in all the incidental jokes and dialogue happening around the periphery of the main story – Tom wanders into a brothel and is utterly bemused (brothels don’t exist in film world in the 30s, naturally), while the maitre d’ of a restaurant in the film, upon learning he’s no longer obligated to keep acting out the role prescribed for him, instantly reinvents himself as a flamboyant tap dancing star.

Not quite, though, because the nature of that central relationship (one woman and two versions of the same man – one real, one fictional) is a perfect metaphor for Allen to consider the complex relationship between reality and fantasy and what we really want in our lives. Is it better to try and live in the real world, or escape from it into some fictional paradise? The standard Hollywood answer would probably be the former, naturally, but Allen is daring enough not to stick quite so closely to the approved answer. He even goes further and gives his frothy, silly fantasy one of the most painfully downbeat endings of any of his films – though again it’s not quite as simple as that, and the film has one final moment of transcendent joy to offer, courtesy of Astaire and Rogers (Fred is thanked for his assistance in the closing credits). In the end, the film doesn’t offer a simple or easy message – life will hurt, it seems to assure us, but look on the bright side: going to the movies can take the edge off this.

Woody Allen is such a noted misery these days that even such a qualified note of positivity feels like a great revelation, and this is probably one of his most likable films, as well as playing to his strengths as an absurdist playwright and a lover of nostalgia. The Purple Rose of Cairo  may be a very slight movie (rather less than 90 minutes long), but it’s overflowing with ideas and jokes and never less than a pleasure to watch. It’s as good an argument for a director staying well out of his perceived comfort zone as any that I can remember, and definitely one of his best films.

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My DVD rental supplier seems to be stuck firmly in Woody Allen mode (perhaps it would help if I topped up my list with films by people other than him and Jason Statham) and this week they have sent me his 1983 movie Zelig. This was one of the very first Allen movies I saw back in the 80s, preceded only by Sleeper, I think, and so I had little conception of what a ‘Woody Allen movie’ was. Viewing it again now, though, it’s easy to get a much stronger sense of what an odd beast this film is.


Zelig retains the familiar Allen font and a soundtrack making use of classic standards – but much of the music consists of specially-written pastiches, which is a clue to the kind of film it really is. These days it’d be called a mockumentary, but I’m not even sure that word existed thirty years ago. Set in the late 20s and early 30s, it purports to be the story of Jazz Age celebrity Leonard Zelig.

Zelig rises to prominence for unusual reasons, to say the least. Following a troubled childhood, Zelig seems to be living a normal, if undistinguished life as a clerk in New York City in the late 1920s, until his disappearance prompts a police search. He is discovered working in a Chinese laundry, which is a little surprising, but not nearly as much as the fact that he also appears to have become Chinese. Removed from the laundry and taken to hospital, he rapidly transforms into a Caucasian man and adopts the mannerisms and demeanour of a doctor. In short, he is a human chameleon, automatically changing his appearance and personality to blend into any social milieu.

Zelig’s rise to fame leads to his exploitation by unsympathetic members of his own family, but he ultimately finds himself in the care of psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow in the period material, Ellen Garrison in the present-day sequences). Fletcher believes that Zelig’s condition is simply the expression of a deep-seated desire to conform, and that by reinforcing his own sense of self he can be ‘cured’. A deeper bond also begins to form between the two, but the path of true love never runs smooth – especially when half the couple has dozens of other identities in their past…

Even in a body of work as sizeable and diverse as Woody Allen’s, Zelig is still a bit of a standout – at first sight, at least. 1983 was early days in terms of the development of the mockumentary as a major narrative form in its own right, but this film nails it in virtually every respect – there is a deadpan voiceover, talking-head present day interviewees intercut with faked period footage, artfully adjusted period materials, and so on. Apparently Allen used original cameras from the 20s to film a lot of Zelig, and artificially aged the negative (adding scratches and so on) to add to its authenticity. The film’s attention to detail throughout is painstaking, and even the sequences in which Allen is inserted into newsreel footage alongside historical figures like Babe Ruth and (inevitably) Hitler are impressively done.

The film’s premise is just too outrageous for anyone to mistake this for a genuine documentary, of course – the fact that Allen’s well-known face keeps popping up doesn’t help much either. A review of the film from many years ago was pretty much on the money when it said Zelig was ‘more hypnotic to watch than actually funny’, but Allen still can’t resist throwing in some off-the-wall visual gags and cracking one-liners, even though his presence in the film as an actor is quite limited. The film’s nostalgia for the Jazz Age is also, with the benefit of hindsight, something of a running theme in Allen’s filmography.

Nor is it much of a surprise, given this is 80s-vintage Allen, to find Mia Farrow present as Zelig’s love interest, although her presence is even less than Allen’s. It’s the format of Zelig which is the star, in many ways – it’s certainly not the story, which is a slight thing and largely explains the brevity of the film (only about 75 minutes).

The odd thing about Zelig, a light comic fantasy if ever there was one, is that it is oddly susceptible to serious interpretation, for all that this would probably make Allen quail. On a personal level, some have argued that Zelig is an exaggerated fictionalised version of the perennially self-effacing Allen. Certainly some of the film’s comments on the appeal of conformity have an inarguable truth to them. One might even push the boat out and suggest the film is making a more general point about assimilation – but here I think we are in danger of breaking a butterfly on a wheel. It’s quite hard to pin down exactly what kind of film Zelig is, beyond the simple fact that it’s a mockumentary, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s a very accomplished and watchable one.


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There’s a long old spectrum when it comes to comedy and drama – at one end you will find things which are utterly broad and/or frivolous, at the other are things which are completely bleak and harrowing, and it’s quite possible to pitch something at any point along that line. There’s no neat cut-off point where comedy ends and drama begins.

Which is, I think, curiously illustrated by the filmography of Woody Allen over the last forty odd years – here’s a film-maker who started off making some of the most knockabout comedies imaginable, and then proceeded to make a long trek towards the realm of serious drama, covering just about every intervening mixture of the two. Allen’s reputation these days is that of the great misanthropist, but even so one occasionally comes across a film which is so strikingly dark that it’s still a surprise.


Bringing us to Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which opens by looking not entirely dissimilar to any of Allen’s other affluent-New-Yorkers-have-trying-personal-crises comedy-dramas. Martin Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, a celebrated doctor and philanthropist, whose happiness is unexpectedly endangered: for some time he has been having an affair with a younger woman (Anjelica Huston) and now she is threatening to tell his wife – the fact she is privy to some questionable financial dealings he’s been involved in is also a concern. With his mistress insistent and refusing to listen to reason, Rosenthal is forced to contemplate resorting to extreme measures in order to secure her silence.

Running in parallel with this is the story of Cliff Stern (Allen), who as you’d expect is in many ways another iteration of the classic Allen character: neurotic and intellectual. This time around he’s a struggling, unhappily-married documentary film-maker who unwillingly accepts a job making a hagiographic profile of his wife’s insufferable brother Lester (Alan Alda), a pretentious TV comedy producer. He finds this fairly dreadful job is made more bearable by the presence of one of the associate producers (Mia Farrow), with whom he is much taken. But Lester seems equally interested in her, much to his chagrin…

The story with Allen is recognisably cut from the same cloth as earlier films like Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, but the plotline with Landau is something new and strikingly different: not to put too fine a point on it, someone is murdered, and a bloodied corpse appears on screen. The juxtaposition between the two is wrenching, and it’s only in the closing stages of the film – this is the only point at which Landau and Allen meet – that the connection between the two is clear, and it is a thematic, philosophical one rather than anything more grounded in the narrative.

As I say, Woody Allen’s intellectual bent is well known, with his admiration for Ingmar Bergman being especially obvious. Watching Crimes and Misdemeanors, however, the main influence seems to be the great Russian authors whom Allen so cheerfully lampooned in Love and Death. The main plot with Landau is essentially a restatement of the theme of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – that of the effect of guilt on a criminal, and the ramifications of a universe without an underlying moral structure. (This is debated at some length by various characters in the course of the film.) Crucially, however, Allen’s conclusion is the opposite of Dostoyevsky’s – and here perhaps I should include a small ‘Spoiler ahead!’ alert – in that the film appears to suggest that the virtuous go unrewarded and the guilty go unpunished, with moral rectitude providing no guarantee of lasting happiness.

Most of the time, however, the film isn’t quite as heavy as that sounds – while the Landau plot is more of a drama than a thriller, it’s still very engaging, and the scenes with Allen are mostly as witty and charming as anything else he’s done in this vein (although at one point, not relevant to the plot in any way, he gives himself the line ‘A strange man defecated on my sister’, which must hold some kind of record for sheer oddness). Even the Landau material is not without a few of the classic Allen tropes, chief amongst them being the one about the learned and virile older man who is irresistible to poorly-educated and attractive younger women (one has to wonder about the extent to which Allen is mythologising himself up on screen at this point).

That it remains very watchable and even gripping throughout is mainly a tribute to the strength of the performances. Landau is simply very good as Rosenthal, nimbly avoiding the melodramatic pitfalls offered by the part, and there are also moments which remind you what an extremely accomplished straight actor Allen can be given the right material – there’s a moment near the end of the film where he’s suddenly confronted with the fact that his worst nightmare has come to pass, and his utter shock and despair all appears in his face, no dialogue being necessary. Even the performers in less-developed roles, like Huston and Alda, manage to avoid making them into caricatures.

Crimes and Misdemeanors isn’t a film you would sit down to watch strictly in order to be entertained – the conclusion is just too downbeat, for one thing – and I would imagine that many people will disagree with the thesis of the film on principle. But the writing is solid, the performances are excellent, and the film articulates its arguments with some deftness, in addition to finding the balance between real drama and more comedic elements. Definitely towards the top end of the Allen canon.

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Either strange cosmic forces of synchronicity are at work, or someone at my DVD rental package company is reading this blog: having recently complained (very mildly, I thought) about the random nature of our relationship, and the occasionally odd juxtapositions of successive movies, I have just been sent two Woody Allen movies in a row. If Manhattan, Zelig or Love and Death turns up next I think I will be justified in assuming that someone is having a laugh (if by some miracle my DVD-packer really is reading this, please send Tiptoes instead).

Anyway, the movie that came was Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s 1986 movie. My knowledge of this film was basically limited to remembering that Michael Caine won an Oscar for it, and various behind-the-scenes tidbits gleaned from his first autobiography – being dragged back to New York for reshoots, finding Allen’s domestic arrangements a bit bizarre, feeling uncomfortable about having to do an (I kid you not) fairly graphic sex scene (this didn’t make it into the movie), and so on. Actually watching it, however, I found the film to be very familiar, albeit in a retroactive sort of way.


Allen’s then-partner and muse Mia Farrow plays Hannah, a fairly successful actress, married to Michael Caine’s financier. The movie concerns two years in her life and the lives of those around her, mainly (as the title of the movie would suggest) her two sisters, played by Dianne West and Barbara Hershey (before she became Judge Dredd’s boss – yes, I know I’ve done that joke previously).

Not a great deal happens to Hannah herself; she is depicted as the strong, mostly silent lynchpin of the family. However, Caine finds himself besotted with Hershey, who is already involved with a much older man (Max von Sydow – one of several tips-of-the-hat to Ingmar Bergman in the film), and they begin an affair. West is struggling in her own acting career and has a number of problems, mostly connected to her own insecurity. She frequently borrows money from Hannah to fund her latest attempt at a career change, embarks on troubled romances, and so on.

The film’s other major plot thread concerns Hannah’s ex-husband, played by Allen himself. He is a TV producer and lifelong hypochondriac who is suddenly and shockingly confronted with his own mortality, which leads him to completely reassess his life and priorities. Allen being the performer that he is, this is the most openly comedic element of the film, with the scenes of him contemplating becoming a Roman Catholic or Hare Krishna inevitably seeming comic.

Nevertheless, there’s an introspective, serious undertone going on here, which does carry across into the rest of the movie – and the confrontation-with-mortality angle seems to me to be illuminating too. For all that the title suggests that this is a film with a female perspective, it seems to me that it’s actually more about the male mid-life crisis (Allen had just turned 50 when he made it) – if it’s about women at all, then it concerns them in terms of their relationships with the men in their lives: Caine and Allen both have relationships with more than one of the sisters, one of the main elements of the West story is an unhappy love affair, and so on.

In the end I’m not quite sure what the film is actually trying to say: on the face of things, everyone ends up reasonably happy. Nevertheless you can certainly discern some of the misanthropy that’s become a feature of Allen’s more recent work here if you look for it – the most successful, sensible, and well-adjusted of the three main women is cheated on by her husband with one sister, and endlessly sponged-off by another.

It’s all well-played, though, and engagingly written, but the stories aren’t particularly affecting and for me it lacked the playfulness and inventive wit of some of Allen’s earlier films. What’s very noticeable about Hannah and Her Sisters in terms of its place in the Allen canon is that the structure and tone of the film is very similar to that of many of his more recent offerings: everyone is affluent and metropolitan, the film switches back and forth between the different personal and romantic entanglements of a small group of connected characters, and so on. Having already seen films like Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I instantly understood the kind of film this was going to be. It’s certainly fresher and more accomplished than any of those, but it shares many of their flaws – strong performances and formal quirkiness don’t really obscure the fact that this is a film with a limited perspective that isn’t really as profound as it perhaps thinks it is. And – it goes without saying for an Allen movie – a few more jokes wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. But then I always did prefer the Early, Funny ones.

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