Free Film School #124: Woody

Woody Allen splash

Welcome back to CraveOnline's Free Film School, my precious students. Kick back, sip on a nice cup of strong tea, and let's get to some learnin'. Today's topic: Woody Allen.

Woody Allen is pretty well-known to just about any average film-goer, largely for his quality, but likely just for his sheer ubiquity. Over the course of his career, Allen has directed 46 feature films and several shorts, and he is, at age 77, wrapping production on yet another one. That's about a film a year since he started making them. And while not all of his films are classics, I admire his overwhelming tenacity. And, well, some of his films are classics, and a working knowledge of at least some of Allen's filmography is something of a must for most aspiring film students.

I'm going to point to some of his best, try to put a finger on his personality, and stress how influential this dude was. Pay attention. You're gonna get some pretty awesome movies.

Allen is one of those rare directors – like Hitchcock or John Waters – who is just as well-known for his off-screen persona as he is for his on-screen work. He started his career in joke-writing and stand-up comedy, and his persona developed through the Borscht-belt sensibilities of comedians like Sid Caesar. Allen's personality is that of a neurotic, Jewish, New York nebbish, timid in demeanor yet bafflingly charming, always obsessed with sex, and constantly self-deprecating. Allen has appeared in about half of his own movies, and he always plays the same type of character, i.e. he plays Woody Allen.

Sleeper

Allen's wry and self-aware sense of humor has informed the world of filmmaking and perhaps even influenced American culture in subtle and profound ways. Allen first began his work in the 1960s, right when slapstick humor was sort of falling out of favor in the public eye. Looking at a lot of the films of the 1950s, broad slapstick humor – reminiscent of Vaudeville – seemed to be old hat. Like it had been deemed old-fashioned. At best, it was included in children's films, but was not intended for adults anymore.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Woody Allen stepped in with a wave of slapstick humor that was, to use today's terminology, done ironically. I'm sure Allen found slapstick to be very funny, but his early slapstick films like What's Up Tiger Lily? (1966), Bananas (1971), and Sleeper (1973) seem to possess that wry, self-aware quality I previously mentioned. Part of the joke is that these films have the audacity to even do slapstick. These movies set Woody Allen up as a stellar new American talent, and a man to watch.

He made good on his promise. In 1977, he made Annie Hall, still often considered his best film. Annie Hall cemented what we know as the Allen style, and introduced the neurotic, relation-obsessed director we would follow for the next several decades. Annie Hall is, on paper at least, a romantic comedy about a neurotic (Allen) who falls in love with the titular ditz (Diane Keaton). But more important than the romance are the personalities on display. It's about the way a relationship moves amongst modern-day New Yorkers. That they fall in love is not nearly as important as how the relationship changes who they are. The film is also sprinkled with little magical moments, as when Diane Keaton leaves her own body to read a magazine when she and Allen make love. It's romantic, hilarious, and a very good comment on the way modern romance operates.

Annie Hall

Annie Hall won four Academy Awards in 1977, including Best Picture (famously beating Star Wars), Actress, Writer, and Director. Allen himself did not win for Best Actor, although he was nominated. I would, myself, go so far as to call it an important American classic. It's funny, it's smart, it's a little uncomfortable, and it's wracked with heartbreak. It also fulfills the ultimate fantasy of anyone who has overheard a pseudo-intellectual blowhard in a public place. When Allen's character, Alvy, overhears a talky sophist opining (incorrectly) on the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Alvy manages to actually produce McLuhan himself (playing himself) to discredit the sophist in front of everyone. Which of us has not had a similar fantasy?

Just as good as Annie Hall is Allen's 1979 film Manhattan. While not as lauded as its predecessor, Manhattan feels like a more sophisticated take on similar material. Allen stars again, this time pursuing a relationship with a teenage girl (Mariel Hemingway), while also pursuing a relationship with his friend's mistress. Yes, Allen plays a scoundrel, and these kinds of destructive love triangles are common in his work. Infidelity, stories about writers, doomed romance, and romances with younger women tend to crop up again and again.

Manhattan

Some may call these repeated themes self-indulgent, as most people know about Allen's notorious relationship with his much younger wife Soon-Yi, who was once his step-daughter. Allen's off-screen romantic antics have forced some fans to reject his work altogether, feeling his attraction, pursuit, and eventual marriage to a much younger woman (and a family member! While he was seeing someone!) to be reprehensible. I won't comment on his romantic interests here – I don't want to reduce this lecture to gossip any more – but I will say this in his defense: He married Soon-Yi Previn in 1997, and he is still married to her. It's his longest marriage to date. He's been married three times.

All throughout the 1980s, Allen was something of a critical darling, exploring not only his sexual and romantic interests, but also exploring his own aesthetic concerns. In some of his films (Hannah and Her Sisters, Love and Death, and especially Interiors) Allen is clearly expressing his continued interest in the works of the Swedish master Ingmar Bergman. Allen does have a distinct style, but he's not as forcefully staged or as craftsmanlike as someone like Bergman. Bergman was interested in the way a camera works. Allen is more concerned with content and naturalism. Allen's films are less about the setup of a shot, and more about the characters and their interests.