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Bananas

Skittish Metabolisms

 

Bananas isn’t so much a film as a pub discussion hypothesis with a bit of money behind it. Imagine, it proposes, if a guy lacking political nouse fell in love with an activist and gets dumped because something is missing in their relationship. He would do what every love grieving lost cause ought to do; take off to a banana republic and get caught up in revolutionary politics.

This wasn’t Woody Allen’s first film, though it might look like it. Speaking to Stig Bjorkman in Woody Allen on Woody Allen, he says he felt more confident on the picture than he did on his debut, Take the Money and Run, but “the big break for me came when I made Annie Hall” – his sixth film as director.

Now in the interview with Bjorkman, Allen speaks interestingly about rhythm in his work, and not only or especially comic rhythm. “I feel that [it] has to do with the natural biological rhythm of the filmmakers…” he says, as he talks about the differences between Scorsese, Paul Mazursky and himself. When he adds that his films are short because “I just run out of story impetus after a certain time” this is especially true of Bananas. Like a number of other popular comedy filmmakers of the decade, including Mel Brooks, Woody at this stage was offering the sort of comic logic that wasn’t especially about story but about situation. This was hardly an exclusively seventies issue in relation to the comic film, and we may note that in classic cinema where screwball comedy usually played up the development of the story in films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, at the same time the Marx brothers would “use”, in the words of the critic Andrew Horton, narrative as only “a loose excuse for holding together moments of comic business.”

Here we have Allen using narrative as an excuse for holding together the moments of comic business as if aware both on a formal level, at this stage in his career (which would go up to and partly include Annie Hall), and on a general metabolic one, that his work was always more inclined towards the pace of the gag over the development of the story. As he says “film-makers reflect their own rhythms, their own metabolism.”

There were exceptions to this orientation towards the gag in the early work but it wasn’t until Annie Hall that the gag was incorporated into the weight of the story as the film ends with emotional heft. The joke the narrator tells in voice-over is less funny than metaphoric: a guy goes to his psychiatrist and says his brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken. The psychiatrist asks why he doesn’t turn him in and the guy says I would, but I need the eggs as Alvy offers a comment on relationships, and especially the one we’ve been witnessing throughout the film between Alvy and the titular character. This is pushed further into the characterisational in Manhattan, where there is a decent gag at the beginning about moral obligation as Allen asks what everyone would do if they saw a man drowning: would they jump in and save him? Allen’s character concludes by saying it’s not really a question he need ask himself as he can’t swim, and it is almost over-heard rather than telegraphed. Here the humour is contained by the milieu, by the verisimilitude of four characters sitting having dinner in Elaine’s restaurant in New York. In each instance Allen seems willing to forgo the joke to deepen character, as if there were a tension between immediate comic gratification, and the development of people and place, and moved towards the elaboration of the latter.

In Bananas that is clearly not so. Indeed editor Ralph Rosenblum notes in his book, When the Shooting Stops…, “because Woody’s comedies are based on a continuous stream of jokes and skits, a larger than usual portion of our editing work entails a search for the moments that work and a careful weeding out of the ones that do not.” This is clearly the comedy of situation over the comedy of the story, as Rosenblum indicates that on Bananas the point wasn’t so much to find a development of the story, but to string together the best possible gags.

Yet there is a potential comic narrative through-line in Bananas, and it consists of the political story that it ends up utilising situationally rather than satirically. It might seem like we are playing with words, but there is an interesting comment by Peter Lev in his book American Films of the 70s – Conflicting Visions, where he says a film released around the same time as Bananas, Joe, was halfway betweena Right-Wing vigilante movie and an examination of the life of an ordinary Joe that the title invokes, and would have “required the skills of a Stanley Kubrick” to turn the film “into a liberal social satire.” Lev doesn’t develop this point, but presumably he is talking of the sustained comic logic of a Dr Strangelove, the sort of comic logic we might assume Bananas potentially could have also been interested in pursuing. As Bjorkman notes, Bananas “was made in 1971, during a period when these kind of revolutionary uprisings were a fact in many Latin American countries.” Allen replies when Bjorkman asks him about this that he doesn’t really see himself as a political person – that he’s 99 per cent liberal democrat. There is no sense in the film that he has worked out an absurdist political logic that could be steadily developed throughout, and would show comic and political absurdity coming together to reveal the deeper problem of the political entanglements.

To help explain this more clearly let us think back to Kubrick’s movie, and also Gillo Pontecorvo’s great 1970 film about political manipulation in the Caribbean, Burn! What we have in the comedy of Kubrick and the anger of Pontecorvo is an accumulation principle rather than the situational: in each instance the comic and the dramatic build out of internally logical positions. John Russell Taylor notes for example in Directors and Directions that it was a small leap from the straight Paths of Glory to the comic Dr Strangelove. “From this dramatic presentation of the absurdity of war, the absurdity of life, it was only a couple of steps to Dr Strangelove, in which this pervasive absurdity has been allowed to permeate the whole structure of the film, creating not so much a farcical drama as a dramatic farce.” In Burn! Pontecorvo shows the mercenary William (Marlon Brando) Walker helping the blacks to overthrow the oppressive Portuguese not for the purposes of black liberation, but for corporate takeover. Liberation is only a way station towards greater exploitation. If Taylor can talk of Dr Strangelove taking the farcical drama and turning it into dramatic farce, is this not what Allen potentially could have done with Bananas – as it details, like Burn!, the political instabilities of a ‘banana’ republic?

Allen offers not a sustained critique that could lead to the satirical accumulation of Dr Strangelove, but the situational fascination with the absurd juxtaposition, as if aware of  his metabolic limitations. Where Kubrick works from the irrationality of man to the rationality of machine, from the mad US general determined to protect the country’s vital juices, as he sets in motion a nuclear attack, to the impersonal technology that once set in motion cannot be switched off by human agency, Allen goes from one sequence to the next as if looking for the biggest gag rather than the most coherently funny through-line. At the beginning of the film a country’s coup is detailed as though it is a sporting event, with the American commentator saying to the dying leader, “Sir, you’ve been shot, when did you know it was all over”. The way the question is phrased, it could have been the sort of question a defeated boxer might be asked, and throughout the scene Allen has played up the idea of a military coup as not only a media show but a sport’s event. This though is less an opening gambit in an exploration of American sporting values superimposing themselves upon Latin American politics, than a good joke that gets dropped when it runs out of energy. There may be a theme here about a US pleasure principle more important than Latin American despair, but Allen doesn’t sustain it into satirical critique. If Allen decided central to US Latin American policy was that the political was analogous to the sporting event, that Latin American dictators and communist leaders were puppets in the hands of American politicians, and the best way to capture this essential irrelevance of the political struggle in the face of American hegemony was to show power struggle as perceived sporting event, Allen could have created a sustained satire. Indeed it could have reflected an article in Life magazine in the late sixties where the writer says “…the discontent of poorer nations does not threaten world destruction. Shameful as it undoubtedly may be, the world has lived at least two-thirds poor and one-third rich for generations. Unjust as it may be, the power of poor countries is limited.” Basically the political instability of such nations needn’t worry us any more than the outcome of a sporting event we watch with curiosity but a broader sense of disinterest.

Allen however doesn’t critique such a position – he reaffirms it. The gag works because of the sort of assumption made by the Life magazine commentator. When Allen says “From our point of view the governments of Latin America have never seemed to work too well. The United States of America, relatively speaking, has always had a stable government,” and adds “so it’s always seemed strange to us how unstable these countries were. They’ve changed leaders and policy so frequently”, it seems consistent with the Life magazine position. It is a sort of baffled awareness but one that needn’t cause the US too much concern. The analogy between coups and sporting events is a good one, but Allen would have created a more purposeful comedy and a politically challenging film if he had thought through the political position and seen the sort of logic at work in such a casual perspective. The film may as Time Out points out be a homage to the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup, but there is an un-thought through political position as well, no matter if Allen predicates the film on what he believes can be an apolitical subject.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to criticize Allen for his naïve politics, but it is partly this position that would seem to lend itself to the skittishness of the story. Basically the narrative impetus rests on Woody trying to alleviate his sexual frustrations and get the girl: Louise Lasser is the woman so seduced by women’s Lib and radical politics that there isn’t much space left for Allen to seduce her with his dubious charms. As he tries to woo her with gags, she is more interested in being seduced by politics, and when they split up she tells him there is something missing. As Allen’s Fielding Mellish details all the possible things he perhaps lacks, Nancy (Lasser) concurs that he is inadequate in all the areas he details, but it is still something else. It is almost as if this is autocritique: that Allen runs through his weaknesses and still there is a missing element; as though he knew Bananas, for all its amusing moments, didn’t have enough to sustain a comic feature just as Mellish lacks qualities to embark on a relationship. Bananas is what would be called a gagfest, but by a further analogy it’s a little like the idea of getting a woman into bed with humour, but that you hope she stops laughing when she gets there.

There are funny moments here, like the early scene where Mellish is a guinea pig for an office work-out, where the busy executive can work all hours of the day at his desk but still find time to exercise. Though obviously indebted to Chaplin’s Modern Times, this could have functioned well within the context of capitalism where ‘time is money’, and could have worked as antithetical to the cliché at the other end where in Latin America ‘life is cheap’. Instead it is no more than a funny gag as Mellish proves incapable of keeping up with the machinery that expects him to row back and forth from his desk, to pick up phones that allow him to exercise the biceps, and toss back basketballs that are thrown in his direction. In another amusing moment Fielding is about to get Nancy into bed and, putting on some talcum powder, ends up covering himself in the stuff. If the former gag echoes back to Modern Times, the latter brings to mind Woody’s incompetent date preparation in Play it Again, Sam, and the joke in Annie Hall, with Alvy Singer sneezing into a fortune’s worth of cocaine. In both Play it Again, Sam, and Annie Hall, though, they feel much more integrated into the film’s form than in Bananas, and in commenting on references to Chaplin and also Allen’s future work, it helps sum up the lackadaisical nature of the exercise.

There is always the danger of churlishness when writing about comedy with a straight face, but what we’ve tried to indicate isn’t that one finds Bananas humourless; more that its humour is so sporadically developed, so un-integrated into a broader whole, so lacking in the evolution of its own jokes from one scene to the next, that it is a comedy about politics but doesn’t come close to political satire. For a film to utilise political realities without acknowledging the reality of the politics is a form of both political and comic naivety. At one stage in the  book with Bjorkman Allen says, there are a number of American critics who “gush tremendously over populist junk films…but to extol them the way they do and to find meaning in them is not right.” By the same token better to admire the excellence of Annie Hall and the genius of Manhattan, and damn Bananas with the faintest of praise as no more than a string of gags with string being the operative word. In sustained satire the jokes are roped together and strongly integrated; in Bananas are they  not anxiously, tenuously sustained?

 

©Tony McKibbin