Download as PDF Download PDF

Anaemic Craft

Whatever Works


It is a common enough criticism to say a filmmaker churns films out, but recent Woody Allen works like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris are ‘churned’ films, and perhaps we can say a film that has been churned possesses craft but lacks substance, establishes characterisation but without nuance, and develops its story without thematic underpinning – the latter a point we’ll address in the closing remarks with the aid of Tzevtan Todorov’s notion of the ‘secret’. There have been other filmmakers more or less as prolific as Allen, including Eric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman, yet the films were not churned out:  their craft did not lack substance, their characters did not lack nuance and their stories were not lacking in thematic gravitas.

But of course, so far all we have offered is empty opinion; can we not go further and analyse what is missing from Allen’s recent films, all the while accepting the films are not bad, especially, merely…watery? What are the characteristic of a diluted work made by a filmmaker who is at same the time an efficient craftsman? Let us first of all throw a few clichés around that might all stick to Allen’s recent work. Not only does he churn his films out, he also knocks them off and tosses them out. He is past his best and treading water. All perhaps true, but not really getting us any closer to the problems the films themselves possess, and that is why we want to look at story, character and theme to search more closely for these weaknesses.

There is a passage in a Norman Mailer interview in Paris Review where he thinks craft can only do so much, and that while it often gets a writer out of tricky situations, it is dangerous to rely too heavily upon it. “I think of craft as being a bit like a St Bernard dog with that little bottle of brandy under the neck. Whenever you get into real trouble the thing that can keep you warm long enough to be rescued.” Maybe because an artist relying too heavily on craft does not explore the voice but instead assumes the facility of it, and creates dramatic situations out of which he knows he can easily extrapolate a full narrative. No matter if as a consequence he offers narrow characterization and plotting with weak tension. In the weakest of the three films, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen sets in motion a story about a frustrated, slightly bored, struggling writer (Josh Brolin’s Roy Channing) who becomes fascinated by the exotic young woman (Frida Pinto’s Dia) across the way. Roy’s story is the most plot-driven of the various narrative strands that also include Roy’s wife who wants a child and starts to have feelings towards her art gallery boss, her father who marries a working-class gold-digger, and her mother who seeks emotional sustenance from a clairvoyant. The writer’s situation is the most plot-driven because it possesses the most conventional tension, the highest number of hypotheticals. Here are a few of them: will Roy get a date with Dia, will the publisher agree to publish his book, will he leave his wife for Dia, will Dia split up with her fiancé? Most importantly of all, perhaps, will Roy when it looks as if a writer friend has died, manage to publish the friend’s great new novel as his own, or will his ruse be discovered?  Next to this narrative strand the others look like they lack drive. Sally (Naomi Watts) wants a baby and would like to start a gallery, but there is no suspense in these scenes, no moment in the film where it looks like she might have a baby (which would create tension around whether she will or she won’t), and the idea of the gallery comes too late in the film to generate the sort of narrative purpose that Roy’s writing career has. Equally the other main characters in the film, Sally’s parents, lack dramatic arcs. The father (Anthony Hopkins’ Alfie) leaves his wife because he wants to remain young and takes up with a woman, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), but Allen doesn’t even attempt to give emotional subtlety to Charmaine, and consequently robs her of any dramatic function.  It is absolutely no surprise when she embarks on an affair with a young man her own age; it is merely an instance of when. In Dia’s case, we might at least wonder whether she will stay with her fiancé or start seeing Roy – it seems much less inevitable than that Charmaine will go off with another man. Certainly Dia’s role is insubstantial, but it at least isn’t dramatically inevitable. Charmaine is both poorly characterised and a character possessed of no dramatic suspense.

Woody Allen may be, according to Jane Graham in The Guardian, “cinema’s most redoubtable star magnet, still able to lure the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Anthony Hopkins despite a series of box office flops, a fading reputation and a ruthless maximum wage limit.” As his casting director Juliet Taylor says, “People don’t ask about the money any more…and we’ve never made an exception. If a movie star wants to go to London and stay in a really good hotel, they’ll have to use their salaries to do it.” Yet not only does Allen fail to give money and actors textured roles, as we’ll explore shortly, he doesn’t even give them always dramatic ones either, parts that can keep an audience guessing as to their most superficial motives, or the opportunity to be surprising within the role. Charmaine isn’t just a one-dimensional character; she is also mono-dramatic. She is a dramatic cipher, serving no more a purpose than to show Hopkins’ Alfie how wrong-headed he happens to be in leaving his spouse for the vital life. Dia is a cipher too, but at least one possessed of a mild moral dilemma and a choice that could go either way: to go with Roy or stay with her fiancé.

In the Austin Powers films, Michael Myers amusingly casts Michael York as the character Basil Exposition, the figure given the task of explaining various plot points when the audience needs a bit of a plot catch-up. It is a role no actor wishes thrust upon him,  yet is still slightly better than having the sort of un-arced, dramatically one-dimensional role Punch plays here. This isn’t only a one-dimensional character but undramatically one-dimensional too. Now many a baddie in a film may be one-dimensional, but they nevertheless impact strongly on the narrative as their devilish actions force the hero to react to them. Whether it is kidnapping a loved one, threatening to blow up a building, to kill the hero’s colleague, the audience might not care much for the specifics of the villain’s childhood (which again Myers’ is good on where we have an encounter session where Dr Evil talks of his childhood in Belgium), but at least we muse over whether he will succeed in blowing up the building, hurting the loved one or killing the buddy. He is one-dimensional but dramatically suspenseful. Allen has a habit in his recent work of creating characters who are not only one-dimensionally villainous, but also suspenseless. This isn’t only so in Punch’s case in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but also evident in Midnight in Paris, where it comes as absolutely no surprise that the central character’s fiancée has been having an affair behind his back. Allen doesn’t even set it up as a dramatic possibility; merely as a convenient revelation.  It allows the leading character to split up with his morality intact and opportunities galore.  Why actors would be so keen to work with a director who gives them neither psychological nuance nor dramatic purpose is a mystery – especially given the pay scale.

Thinking more specifically of the psychology, does Allen, even in the characters he gives dramatic purpose to, offer us figures that are dimensionally interesting? One thinks not. Roy is a failed writer. One book did quite well, but the film proposes this gave Roy false hope in establishing himself as a novelist after he gave up medicine to pursue the artistic life. Here Allen doesn’t go in for too many shades of grey, as if the mechanics of craft are more important than the dynamics of psychology. For the purposes of the story Roy has to be a frustrated, failed writer. He has to be a failure because it means he cannot support a family and his wife goes without the child she desperately wants. And his frustration means that he is more interested in looking out the window at Dia than getting on with the book. But the nuances of why his first book was a success and the rest failures seem to interest Allen less than how quickly he can sketch the problem and create easy narratives out of the failure and despair. This is literally empty craft if we think of what is within a character that can create problems for a well-told story. One may muse over whether if Allen had focused more on Roy’s internal crisis (for it is clearly a crisis he is in the middle of), then could he have so readily moved from internal problems to external situations? Allen may so often admire Bergman for his psychological acuity, but this is hardly Allen’s Scenes from a Marriage. These are at best sketches of a marriage as Allen gives us short-hand marital grief over the long-hand emotional battles Bergman offers. Now some may say do we want internal skirmishes in what amounts to a comedy, and if we say not necessarily that isn’t the same thing as saying we want emotional compounds, emotional simplifications that add to the clichéd nature of a person’s life. Allen’s problem in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is that the characters are compound clichés, cliches that lead us to feel they are sketched rather than etched.

If for example Roy was someone whose first book was a fluke because it dealt with the difficult choice between a medical career and writer’s one but that was the only subject of any complexity he could write about, then Allen could have given us a sense of it being Roy’s crisis, and not a cliché of the writer in crisis. By the same reckoning, if Sally had only recently come to the realization that she wanted children, or wanted them after Roy’s new career had taken off, and now realized that his success is unlikely to be repeated, then we could see a bit more clearly the psychology of Watts’s character. It would have been based on personal decisions and not social ones. Allen’s problem here is that by excavating the personal nuance he arrives at the social cliché. This means that Sally’s frustrations can be projected onto her new boss (Antonio Banderas) at the art gallery where she works, and Roy’s onto the beautiful young woman across the way, but it is the very superficiality of character that creates predictability of situation. So if we can say a character like Charmaine has no dramatic arc, even Roy and Sally have little dramatic interest. Their characters are not complex enough to create deep narrative choices but only superficial ones.

Let us imagine, though, Roy and Sally as complex characters, and notice how consequently the film would lose dramatic pace (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger moves quickly and smoothly through its story), but gain in dramatic tension. Imagine if we knew more about Roy’s literary crisis, knew that his first book was a success because of the reason listed above, and actually it takes another life changing event to produce another meaningful novel. He would be a novelist not of the imagination, who can spin stories out of nothing, but a writer who works from his own internal dilemmas. The film could have arrived at an interesting paradox where the only way Roy can make a living as a writer (and support the family Sally so wants) is by throwing that domestic life into turmoil and calling into question the marriage at the point where he could finance it. And imagine Sally as someone who herself could finance a child only by starting her own gallery, but who in the process of doing so sees that while she now has enough money for a child she doesn’t have the time required to have one. Here character and story could move at about the same pace, but Allen’s approach is to move the story along to the detriment of the characters, and this results in a failing never far from even many of Allen’s better films: insensitivity.

The most extreme examples are people like Charmaine here, Mina Sorvino’s prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite, and the health-freak lover in Husbands and Wives, characters who fall easily into the prejudicial as their class status is mocked and their educational inadequacy unequivocal. Yet it isn’t especially whether the character is presented as likeable (Sorvino happens to be) or not (Charmaine here), but whether one feels Allen has given character and situation their due. For example, the women in Midnight in Paris are given parts not characters, and we use the term parts in the sense of the part that serves the whole. In Midnight in Paris, the fiancée is the aggressive materialist who doesn’t get her partner’s creative ambitions and reckons he should keep tossing out the scripts that make them so much money, while the woman Gil (Owen Wilson) falls for as he enters a time-warp back in Paris in the twenties is the haunted figure who has many lovers but can teach Gil about the path not taken, while the sweet, young antique dealer can turn up conveniently at the end of the film and looks like she and Gil will start becoming romantically involved. These are parts not characters because their narrative function makes so much more sense than their characterisational motives. We have no idea at all who antiques dealer Gabrielle is except that she seems a pleasant and sensitive young woman who makes herself available to Gil. In such an instance we have emotional insensitivity which isn’t at all prejudicial. She is presented as clearly likeable, yet without any dimensional motivation whatsoever.

A character like Gabrielle fits well into Allen’s anaemic craft, into the obligatory scene of romantic renewal that makes us well aware that Gil’s fiancée is a woman not for him, and there are plenty others out there that might be.  But Allen’s craft seems so often untroubled by the issue of an audience believing anything they haven’t been given reason to disbelieve. Now there are different levels we can say of suspension of disbelief. It is unbelievable for example for a character to win a court case without us seeing reasons for that victory, or for a character to get the girl without any of the qualities that might make the man attractive to the woman. But these would be examples of what we will call textual disbelief: where very superficially we cannot see the evidence for the actions within the story. In each instance these would be examples of bad craft, but sub-textual disbelief is harder to discern, and might even initially look like good craft. Taking into account the notion of the obligatory scene in the ‘well-made play’, where one expects certain events to take place because the playwright has created the grounds in which they will happen later in the play, so Allen’s recent work is full of obligatory scenes consistent with the ‘well-made film’, yet the good craft is weakly nuanced.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona we know that Vicky (RebeccaHall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) will embark on wild affairs with a man who is himself wild: an artist (Javier Bardem) who possesses an even wilder and possessive ex artist-lover (Penelope Cruz). When the gun goes off in the third rather than the second act this isn’t quite Chekhov’s dictum (there has been no gun in the first) but it is consistent with the tempestuous relationship Bardem and Cruz’s characters have always had. Superficially it makes sense, but sub-textually one feels clichés masquerading as characters. This is the Latin temperament meeting artistic waywardness and Allen isn’t afraid to allow the clichés to pass for plot motivations when Cruz’s character becomes especially unhinged near the end and catches her ex in a clinch with Vicky. Cruz may have said in an interview in the film’s trailer that she played the character straight, but it plays mainly humorously on the screen, and surely it is not only in Woody’s comic timing that the character becomes absurd. When Cruz storms around her studio, throwing paint on the canvas, the one-dimensionality of the role demands the relative three dimensionality of humour imposed upon it. Is it really the case that actors work with Woody Allen thinking they are creating characters of depth and texture, and it is only in the editing suite that Allen turns it into the comic?

While this might be so in films like Manhattan, where the comedy is subdued, and Stardust Memories, where the humour is absorbed into jaundice, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris the characterization seems deliberately designed to deny the depth that might call the humour into question. In Stardust Memories, Charlotte Rampling’s character is so haunted that she absorbs humour like a black hole drawing in energy; in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz’s role as Maria Elena is not tragically absorbent but comedically kinetic as her melodramatic bent eats up scenery and pushes the story forward: whether she is trying to kill Bardem’s Juan Antonio or sleeping with his lover, the tone is not quite funny but too weakly sketched to pass for the serious either. When Juan Antonio keeps telling Cristina how wonderful Maria Elena is, again the film seems caught between the humorous and the serious, and only Vicky, occasionally allowed a sense of perspective, gets to be funny.

In the three films we are addressing here it is as though Allen’s craft is working on auto-pilot and so the lighter the characterization, the easier it is to get characters into and out of situations without wondering too much about their psychologies. We see this in how easily Allen resolves the break-up between Gil and his fiancée in Midnight in Paris. The relationship is on the rocks because of what we can immediately notice are irreconcilable differences, but these differences seem so clear right from the beginning that we may wonder what they were doing together in the first place. On Gil’s part it seems sexual; on hers financial. But she comes from a rich family and Gil’s a successful scriptwriter in Hollywood – a place where sex can’t be that hard to come by. In casting, say, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Manhattan, or Rampling in Stardust Memories, Allen creates complex characterisation through presence, and subsequently needs a higher level of craft to justify decisions the characters make within the film. When Keaton is torn between Allen’s Isaac and her married lover in Manhattan, we feel a crisis that goes beyond the scene: she seems not simply to have exited stage left, but lived the character beyond the frame. It is this existence that perhaps counters the kinetic. The character is too weighted to give herself over to the lightness of the farcical, where the fiancée in Midnight in Paris, Charmaine in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, all move with the density of a stage prop over that of a real object.

If many recent Woody Allen films resemble farce, it lies in this relative weightlessness where people and objects, characters and props, seem easily removed from the stage. Woody Allen’s set-ups now often resemble scene setting over milieu inhabiting. When in Annie Hall the characters meet at the end on the street in New York, even when they eat at a wholefood restaurant in Los Angeles, the milieu absorbs the characters in a space that is greater than its dramatic purpose. In the more recent work (and this includes dramas like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream), the space isn’t so much a location as a backdrop, a means with which to create the sort of plausibility cinema needs to make it look ‘real’, but without much interest in the space as an encompassing milieu. When Mailer talks about the limitations of craft in the Paris Review he does so by adding, “one is, after all, trying to capture reality.” Late seventies Woody Allen would probably have concurred, but maybe not the more recent one.

In a recent Sight and Sound (Apr. 2011) interview Allen says: “I feel I’ve always progressed. I’ve always made the films I wanted to make that year, and the films I made later were better than the ones I made earlier. Manhattan and Annie Hall were quite popular, but they were not as good as, say, Match Point. Which was a better film than both those films. Midnight in Paris I think will be seen as a better film. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a better film than those I made years ago.” He is not alone in at least part of this assessment. In a New Yorker review of Midnight in Paris, David Denby says ““Midnight” is not a richly developed character study, like “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or even “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,”” suggesting he believed that at least the earlier two had the depth we’re denying them. Meanwhile in Film Comment, Amy Taubin believes Match Point is “perhaps his most expressive ever in its use of camera to inflect and shape narrative.”

However, if we disagree on both counts it is because the characters are as functional as the space, and yet from a certain point of view this still reflects craft; however it is craft without shade. To explain further let us take Denby’s belief concerning characterization and Taubin’s idea of the expressive camera to show why we think these contribute to anaemic craft, with the aid of further remarks by Richard Combs in Film Comment. “There’s no concretized place in Match Point,” Combs says, “only a series of locations adding up to a general world of affluence…” while in Deconstructing Harry, “the real problem here is the failure of any of these fictions to make it through into art, to become “really” fictional”. Now where Taubin sees an expressive camera, we’re more inclined to agree with Combs that the camera films spaces functionally, even predictably, to push the story. This is so in Match Point where he gives us the architecturally and semiotically common-place, using locations around Covent Garden, Sloane Square, and Richard Rogers’ ‘gherkin’. When the two leading characters played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson, are in bed together, Allen cuts from the couple in bed to the camera discreetly moving towards the window and out towards the delicately falling snow. Even the scene where the couple first kiss in the pouring rain, in the middle of nature, feels like a movie kiss, with nature a pathetic fallacy pointing out how their passion is pouring out of them. As they start to have sex in the field one might be inclined to think pneumonia more than passion if any hint of the reality principle kicks in. The expressive both architecturally and semiotically (in terms of location and character) in each instance seems too close to cliché, as if Allen hadn’t looked for a new way to express locale and passion, but a decidedly old way. The shot of the couple in bed may remind us of any number of classic Hollywood films where the camera cuts to a burning fire, while the scene in the field may bring to mind the more plausible scene on the beach in From Here to Eternity, with the waves churning and reflecting the characters’ passions. The locations aren’t those of a psycho-geographer mapping a city; more the accidental tourist seeing the major sights.

Yet if this is the expressive form Taubin talks of, what about the character study aspect Denby invokes? Is Johansson not another of Allen’s recent passionate, tormented women: like Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Marion Cottillard’s haunted muse in Midnight in Paris? Even when a character is given a potential dilemma, like Dia in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the emotional complexities of a woman suddenly cancelling her engagement as she falls for another man is played out by Allen in one scene of cultural conflict between the English fiance’s family and Dia’s. There is nothing of the complex indecision found in Annie Hall or Manhattan, where in the latter Diane Keaton’s character Mary vacillates between Woody Allen’s character and Michael Murphy’s. When Combs says there is no concretized space in recent Allen films, we might add there is little by way of concretized character either. They are pawns in Allen’s fictional universe, lacking the mobility of knights and queens as Allen plays a stale game of chess.

Yet Allen’s films are entertaining, very watchable and still pass for ‘intelligent’, and the central purpose of this article hasn’t been to condemn Allen out of hand, but to get him to reveal that hand: to show how his weak characterization and spatial half-heartedness give the films the pace of entertainment but not the lingering possibilities of art. This is not to attack older films for their studio settings and their insistent need to move the story along, nor is it even categorically to attack a modern film for doing the same thing if we feel the film is in a dialogue with what cinema is capable of and not simply accepting what it was capable of. In Cassandra’s Dream, Match Point and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen comes to London with none of the acuity European filmmakers going to the States offered in the seventies, nor even Allen in his own city at the time. If Antonioni in Zabriskie Point, Schlesinger in Midnight Cowboy and Herzog in Stroszek managed to search out the unfamiliar, Allen seeks refuge in the norm. In a piece in Cities in Transition, the filmmaker Chris Petit (who would often work with that great psycho-geographer of London Ian Sinclair) talks of living off Kilburn High Road in the early eighties. “…and one week a film crew took over the street to film Pinter’s Betrayal. For the adulterous lovers’ flat they used the equivalent to the top floor room that I worked in.” There was so much cable that it was as if “a giant squid had taken over the street” and “the clumsiness of this invasion was out of all proportion to what was finally shown in the film.” As he notes that even a couple of establishing shots managed to misread the area, he wonders whether this matters. “Yes, actually, because everything that followed seemed false and the film lacked the confidence to transform those locations into an alternative reality.”

Now these needn’t be the sort of alternative realities where a filmmaker like Bertrand Tavernier uses Glasgow for a sci-fi (Death Watch), or Terrence Davies the same city as a stand-in for early 20th century New York (The House of Mirth), but merely requires the desire to transform a city with the singularity of one’s own vision rather than the assumption of one. When Denby says that in Midnight in Paris “Allen begins the film with conventional views of the Place de la Concorde, Montmartre, and so on. He seems to be saying, ‘Yes, these are clichés, but they’ve become clichés because this is the most beautiful place on earth,'” it is reflecting this fascination with the already established and lacks that dimension of enquiry into character and space that some of his earlier films possessed.

Interestingly, Allen says in an interview with Buzzine: “that [the writer in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger] Josh is a typical character that I would write – someone who fancies himself an artist and struggles with it, and doesn’t live up to his promise. I feel like that’s the autobiographical strain in the movie. I also feel it’s autobiographical with Anthony Hopkins. I feel I’m older, probably close to his age, and these problems of life, more in the past than in the future, torment me all the time, and that is a problem that recurs in all of my movies, or many of them, since I got older.” But this is autobiography as composite, as if the character traits are so superficially autobiographical that they lack singularity and arrive at the generic.

To conclude it might be apt to talk of Allen’s endings in some of these recent films, and to suggest that there is little “sense of an ending”. At the end of Midnight in Paris the film ends with Gil bumping into the young antique dealer he’s visited several times; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger with it looking as if Roy’s friend might wake up from the coma, and consequently the publishing world will realize that Roy’s great novel isn’t Roy’s at all but his friend’s. Vicky Cristina Barcelona concludes with Vicky going back to her married life and  Cristina still wondering what she wants with hers. But it is as though the incident over a gun going off allows the film to come to its head: where earlier Cristina leaves Maria Elena and Juan Antonio to it, after she tries to kill Juan and Vicky gets shot in the hand. Vicky’s break from them has a dramatic high point that allows Allen an easy conclusion. Maria Elena’s internal chaos results in narrative neatness as Vicky, like Cristina earlier, walks away from the mad love in Spain, where hot tempers flare up melodramatically. What makes the craft so anaemic in these endings is one feels Allen has run out of that old saw, inspiration.

Edison might have said genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration but is that really true when it comes to art? If there is too much perspiration and not enough inspiration do we arrive merely at anaemic craft? In recent Allen is he too concerned with how things fit together rather than the underlying texture of feeling that creates meaningfulness? Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris work like pieces in a DIY kit, but we don’t expect thematic underpinning from that most modest of craft items: the do it yourself box from Ikea.

Central to what makes a work meaningful, though, is the thematic that rises out of the story, its secret perhaps, a word Tzvetan Todorov uses in a fascinating essay on Henry James in The Poetics of Prose. As Todorov talks of the ‘technical’ element of composition, he also sees such an element as merely one ‘line of force’ in James’ In the Cage and sees another one at work also. “The first movement is a horizontal one, composed of events…oriented towards the future: what will the relation between the captain [Everard] and the young woman become? In the second, this interest is oriented towards the past: who is Everard? What has happened to him?” Allen’s recent work lacks a sense of an ending perhaps because it lacks, in Todorov’s terms, a secret, an underlying sense of exploration that compositional craft on its own cannot define. Recent Allen films have craft aplenty, and from a certain point of view he is correct to say his films have become better. But the very best ones like Annie Hall and Manhattan possess a secret line of thought, as well as a textured sense of space, and a perplexity in the face of character, that the recent films, whether tired (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), or quirkily engaging (Midnight in Paris), do not possess. Has Allen’s recent oeuvre too readily settled for what Allen admits to and exemplifies in another recent aesthetic capitulation that we have discreetly decided not to address: Whatever Works?


©Tony McKibbin