Ed Driscoll

...But We Need The Eggs

Woody Allen turns 70 today, and consequently, lots of gushing material is being written about him in the urban newspapers and the wire services. Here’s a sample:

Allen himself has a more modest appraisal of his career, at least ostensibly. In Vanity Fair recently, he gave himself a “B” and said that his work paled next to that of Kurosawa and Bergman. The comparison is telling, in that it indicates not the scale of Allen’s modesty so much as the extent of his aspiration. He didn’t compare himself, after all, to great comedians or other comic filmmakers, such as Chaplin and Keaton, but to towering, tremendously prolific writer-directors of profound stature, who worked without interruption for most of a lifetime. Yes, he gave himself a B. But what would he have given Harold Lloyd? Or Truffaut? Or Hitchcock?

Even if Allen is not Ingmar Bergman — the greatest of the great in Allen’s opinion (mine, too) — it’s also true that Allen at his best has a master filmmaker’s capacity for rearranging an audience’s molecules. It’s hard to remember this when Allen muddies the waters with garbage like “Anything Else” and “Everyone Says I Love You,” but films such as “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” leave audiences transformed. Allen’s best films capture the longings and moral preoccupations of his time, while standing at a slight remove. This distance allows for comedy, but also for the perspective that has kept him from getting mired in contemporary myths. His humor, while very funny, is not just funny, but gets at underlying truths. That’s why his films are aging well and will continue to blossom over time.

Well, his films up until Crimes And Misdemeanors and the Soon-Yi debacle, and primarily, those prior to 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which he worked especially hard to dynamite much of the goodwill he had built up with American audiences during the 1970s.

The loss of that goodwill has cost him enormously in the American box office–but then, few mainstream entertainers have been as self-destructive to their career as Allen. As a result, he’s increasingly capable of unintentional self-irony, as this recent quote illustrates:

The director, who turns 70 on Thursday, moved away from his native New York locations in 2003 after voicing dissatisfaction with his lack of creative freedom.

He tells Vanity Fair: “I don’t feel that (the studios) are qualified to give the input. They wouldn’t know a good script from a problem script or how to cast a picture.”

This from a man who hasn’t had a movie in at least a decade and a half with profitable US box office.

As numerous aging auteurs have said, directing is a young man’s game, and Woody’s career would have seemed to have permanently jumped the proverbial shark (do they sell that at Zabar’s?) right after Manhattan Murder Mystery, but he may yet have a solid film or two left in him. As The Gothamist writes:

Have you seen this trailer? If you haven’t seen it in a movie theater, chances are it won’t have quite the same oomph. Major kudos need to go to the DreamWorks marketing team for putting together a preview that doesn’t even pack its full punch until the words “From Director Woody Allen” pop-up on screen. Everything that comes before looks more like a sequel to last year’s Closer than anything Allen has done, certainly in recent years. When we first heard of Match Point, we thought it was some Allen comedy dealing with tennis, just like other recent films where he casts a nebbishy substitute for himself to have an affair with some hot young starlet. That doesn’t completely seem to be the case this time out, at least not based on this preview. Andrew Sarris raves about the film in the current issue of the NY Observer even though the movie doesn’t come out until the end of next month, and it got a pretty enthusiastic reaction at Cannes last May with many calling it the best thing to come from Allen in years. It would be nice to forget most of Woody’s last decade, and at first glance, Match Point seems to harken back to his Crimes & Misdemeanors and Husbands & Wives period.

Maybe the London setting allows him to return to the same sort of clipped dramatic dialogue he employed in his previous non-comedies without it sounding quite as strained as it did coming from American actors in films beginning with 1978’s Interiors, his first drama. In any case, it really is an impressive looking trailer, even to those of us longtime fans who cynically have pronounced his career had peaked–and probably more than once.

Update: Roger L. Simon, who survived writing for Woody adds, “Never trust anyone over 69“.