A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)

[Last weekend, en route to Madagascar, Jeremy M. Davies swung by my Chicago atelier to hear my neighbor perform Mahler’s "Quartet for Strings and Piano in A Minor" on his singing saw. Fifteen minutes in, two other friends stopped by, bearing bootleg DVDs of three new films: Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, and X-Men: First Class. The singing saw forgotten, I fired up my video projector, and a marathon viewing ensued. Hours later, our guests departed, Jeremy and I recorded the following conversation.]

A D: Jeremy, when did you give up on Woody Allen?

Jeremy: Small Time Crooks.

After Deconstructing Harry, which I rate as high as his “earlier, funnier” films, my new-fired enthusiasm took a serious dive with Celebrity, and was finally put down entirely by Crooks. Two in the back of the head.

God, look at Deconstructing Harry in comparison to those others. Might it be the last Allen film to be overflowing with ideas?

It has so many gags, just like in his older work.

And not just gags—I’m not asking for comedy, or anything, as such—but conceits, provocations, digressions, style(s), vitriol. DH has so much energy and is filled with detail, paradox, self-parody, pleasure in its own execution. It isn’t a gloss on a film that might be made if circumstances were better. It isn’t a film made only because it was time to make a new film.

I love that one, too, and have always been baffled over why so many despise it so. Although I also still like Crooks, myself, and think it a perfectly fine (if very modest) film. It has Elaine May, for one thing.

She was the anaesthetic before the killing blow. She should have been allowed to do a few rewrites; I can imagine the movie being quite charming as a May film.

Allen supposedly allows his actors free rein to change their lines, if they can think of something better.

She should have thought of it becoming a one-woman show. Or a four-hander: Jon Lovitz and Elaine May. In barrels. Addressing the audience. Tell me I’m not on to something, here.

We’re lucky she’s even in it. Who else remembers Elaine May?

Jonathan Rosenbaum?

His mutant power is to never forget. … Small Time Crooks was, by the way, the first Allen film I saw in the theater. My father showed me a few of those earlier movies—e.g., Take the Money and Run—when I was a kid, but I didn’t grow up watching Woody Allen films.

I don’t remember which was the first I saw in a theater.

Your mutant power …

… is to be unmemorable.

But I saw Harry two or three times, in the theater. Celebrity I saw in the same movie house where I was subjected to Branagh’s Hamlet: not a good run for Kenny B.

Did they have some kind of exclusivity contract?

We’ve all of us signed up with mediocrity.

I watched every Woody Allen film only a decade or so ago. One month, one a night.

I can imagine that being mostly quite mostly pleasant mostly.

Mainly.

But I was shown Sleeper before the age of six, and Annie Hall before the age of twelve. In college I used Crimes and Misdemeanors as comfort food.

Plus, there is the difference of milieu. Woody Allen simply means something different to Jews from New York. Perhaps I should bare my bona fides here and make clear that I am known as Yehuda “The Hesitator” Davidovich, in some circles.

All of this probably accounts for why his more recent films don’t rankle me as much as they do other longer-time fans such as yourself.

They rankle in their utter immobility. Really, their one serious crime—aside from the obvious class critiques one could level at them—is to be, on the whole, lacking in charm. I very much want to see WA do something different, think on his feet again. Perhaps he should adapt a book. Woody Allen’s Lolita!

Woody Allen’s Lucinella!

Woody Allen’s Woman in the Dunes!

Woody Allen’s Chronicles of Prydain!

Or even remake a film. Woody Allen’s Vivre sa vie!

Woody Allen’s Curse of the Cat People!

Woody Allen’s Killer of Sheep!

Woody Allen’s Drôle de drame!

No, wait, that would be too easy … Woody Allen’s motherfucking Les Enfants du Paradis, howsabout?

He can fiddle with the plot and dialogue all he wants. But he would have to properly adapt someone else’s ideas. Serving the text. Collaborating. Interpreting. Criticizing. Criticizing something, for god’s sake.

Well, he does remake films. Stardust Memories is .

And Sweet and Lowdown is La Strada.

And Celebrity is La Dolce Vita.

And Deconstructing Harry is Wild Strawberries.

And so forth. Gosh, what range! A whole two directors. Surely WA has other enthusiasms?

He should remake The Sorrow and the Pity. But I can’t really blame the guy. I steal all my plots from … Jeremy M. Davies.

And he gets his from Thundarr the Barbarian. But Allen only remakes loosely, and less and less these days. He takes the outlines but no matter. The point is that he should do something that falls outside those areas with which he has grown so comfortable. Something more (or less?) constrained.

What if Allen’s next project features an all black-cast?

An all-black geriatric cast?

And was set in outer space?

And featured CGI?

And was a horror film?

For kids?

He should do it just to do it.

He’ll never do it, though. He wouldn’t make so large a leap.

Though it would change everything. Every critic and audience member on Earth would have to reevaluate Allen’s career.

He is lithe and young despite his years and may I ever be as talented as he is at his worst moment. But I don’t think he will ever surprise us again.

I know you’re right, though I’ll keep hoping. I maintain that there’s more variety in Allen’s filmography than others believe.

There’s remarkable variety within certain limits. But even Alain Resnais could only make so many souffles before I started losing interest. (Though AR is smarter about this, admittedly, and routinely brings in texts or collaborators to send him in a new direction, and—bizarrely—he has the lighter touch …)

But now that I’ve mentioned Resnais, here’s a sobering question: Where is Allen’s Wild Grass?

It’s true. As much as I adore Woody Allen and defend him, such a project seems unimaginable. Which is quite a shame, given his earlier, wilder work.

It’s not the jokes I miss, but the sense that anything might happen.

So before this new one, what was the last Woody Allen film you saw?

Melinda and Melinda.

Which I thought was garbage, virtually indistinguishable from television, insofar as I suppose it is meant to be cinema, and despite its intriguing formal conceit.

I didn’t find it offensive, but I also didn’t find it all that memorable. It sure didn’t look as though it had cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Although comparing it to TV strikes me as too harsh. Even the worst Allen films are still shot pretty well, featuring very long takes and lots of blocking.

In his and my defense, I saw it pan-’n’-scan. But I still find it about the same, if not below, higher-shelf television drama, visually. And, in terms of comedy, well … Allen’s lack of directorial interference in his actors’ performances is no longer doing him any favors. I think les models d’Allen show up blanker and blanker.

[Jeremy is referring to Allen’s noted tendency to not offer his actors any direction. Indeed, he doesn’t even do read-throughs or rehearsals—something he shares in common with George Lucas! —Adam]

Which is why Larry David was the key to Whatever Works working—he isn’t a cipher. He’s an objet trouvet, a readymade plopped into the script, not just a bare canvas being told to pretend it’s painted.

Aha, so you’ve been dishonest with me. You saw Whatever Works. Didn’t you? Didn’t you?

Yes, okay, I suppose I did. With a crowd in down-state Illinois who seemed to consider it an anthropological film about Jews. I went for the emergency exit before they realized I walked among them, criticizing their ridiculous bagels and mushy, square-sliced pizza. But I did like Whatever Works—certainly more than I did Melinda. The first forty-five minutes are good fun. It loses me once it becomes the usual fish-in-a-barrel ensemble comedy. And almost gets me back in the last two minutes. But I was not entirely persuaded.

I let myself be persuaded, but I’m a soft touch when it comes to Allen. I’ve seen all of them since Crooks, although I missed Cassandras Dream in the theater.

Did you in fact miss anything by missing it?

I missed hearing its Philip Glass score in Dolby Digital. (Fun fact: C’sD was Allen’s first film in stereo.)

One thing I will always love about Allen: he still makes movies as though movies can still be made. (For reference, Godard gave this up, what, thirty years ago?) Who in America constructs and assembles films like Allen’s, nowadays? The passing years have not touched his technique, his technology. Or barely.

As David Bordwell has pointed out, Allen never cuts unless he has a good reason to. That alone is enough to earn him my loyalty.

It keeps him in my good books. Even when I find the actual product disposable.

I think of it this way: the early 2000s were a bit rough for him, but he’s been on a fine roll since Match Point. I particularly like Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which also has the best poster of any recent Allen film).

I should see Vicky Cristina. And I caught a few minutes of Scoop on hotel television, at some point, and it seemed to have a lot more going for it than these others.

I just think it’s funny. The whole thing works.

I suppose I will get around to them. Like you and I got around to seeing Midnight in Paris. Despite being so put off by every piece of marketing and every review. God, like a big “go away” sign they were. Take the U.S. poster.

Would anyone like to explain to me what Starry Night has to do with Paris, the 1920s, American ex-patriot authors, etc.? Oh, I’ll tell you: American audiences will apparently associate this endlessly overexposed painting by a 19th century Dutchman, executed some 250 miles from Paris, with a vague sense of bygone and easily dismissible European splendor. Here we find the essence of so much of Allen’s recent “highbrow” humor—though I suspect the culprit was a studio PR dept., not the auteur himself.

Um. I thought Midnight very likable overall, though hardly urgent. (And regarding the Van Gogh—who did paint in France, albeit in a different era—I suspect that was the studio.)

It might have been the studio, but they did a very good job of epitomizing much of what’s wrong with the film. Which, come to think of it, is something of a miracle, given the way films are advertised. So, good show, whomever.

But there are problems at every level, in Midnight. Wilson flounders in the role. I wish Allen had let him be sad rather than sputtering.

That would have been much better, although your take’s somewhat harsher than mine. (I liked him fine enough.)

There are one or two good moments, but they do not justify the film entire. Woody should have swapped projects with Manuel de Oliveira on this one.

No, Terrence Malick. Woody Allen’s Tree of Life!

Tree of Life helped me like Midnight in Paris quite a bit, in retrospect. Just about anything I’ve seen recently, however disliked, seems harmless by comparison.

We’ll get to that Tree soon enough. Let’s say more about the Allen.

I’ll make you sorry. But, sure, what other auteur would have given us that rather funny Ernest Hemingway monologue? Which is one of the only gags in the film that draws on more than just the Reader’s Digest version of the historical figures being caricatured.

Djuna Barnes is in it, if only for a second.

So Allen can make a cheap joke at her expense. As usual, and notwithstanding the Hemingway monologue, which is funnier the more you know about his early work (or: its facility is precisely at my level of disinterest re: “Papa”), he is skimming only the top-scum off of a famous figure’s public image, much as the film’s poster does with European culture in general.

Sure, but Barnes is still portrayed in it (and name-checked). And is this possibly the only Hollywood film ever to include her as a character? Or even mention her?

I haven’t seen Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns. Might be a reference hidden in there, perhaps … ?

Too much to ask?

One of the best things that can be said in the film’s—and Allen’s—defense is that he still expects the audience to be fairly literate.

While still managing to talk down to them a good deal. Is Owen Wilson’s character the type of reader or writer to even know who Djuna Barnes is? Fitzgerald and Hemingway, sure … Dalí, obviously (as Nabokov predicted, he’s not much more than the Bizarro Norman Rockwell, at this point).

I’m willing to give Wilson’s character the benefit of the doubt.

That’s big of you.

Cuz I think Owen Wilson’s cute.

He’s no Dirk Bogarde. It’s true, though, that with the Buñuel joke and the Barnes reference, we see the periscope of someone who actually—gasp!—cares about books and movies, about culture. Albeit still pitching jokes to the two or three blocks of the Upper East Side who think their Met membership and vague memories of a liberal arts education puts them squarely in the intelligentsia. Well, you know, fine—when the pogroms start up again, maybe Allen’s target audience will form a smoke screen allowing us real undesirables to get to Mexico …

Isn’t that the plot of The Designated Mourner?

No, Mourner is about Tina Brown taking over The New Yorker. (Okay, I stole that joke from Rosenbaum.)

He won’t want it back. … But wouldn’t you say Midnight in Paris has a bit more to it than we’ve mentioned? For instance, Woody Allen’s still clever enough to develop his time-travel conceit by having Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard take a cab back to the Belle Epoque.

Yes, which is a lovely and satisfying bit. And ends with Wilson’s monologue to the effect that all of his experiences have only served to deliver a “minor insight”—Allen is hardly unaware of his own frivolity, and the line is legitimately funny and unexpected. And we should certainly mention the scene with the detective trailing Wilson, who ends up in the 17th century or whenever. I admit and agree, these are highlights. (Although they also serve to remind how much more frequently these kinds of things happened in Allen’s earlier films.)

Perhaps, as Brad Stevens suggested in the April Sight & Sound, we should learn to look at all of Allen’s films—and especially the recent ones—as chapters, or iterations, of a single project? Match Point is the dramatic version of Scoop; Whatever Works is the comedic version of Vicky Christina Barcelona—and so on.

I like this idea conceptually. But it doesn’t alleviate my discontent while actually watching the individual movies. Maybe that makes me a bad person?

That’s never been in question. Even the titles of Allen’s films seem to hint at some peculiar, underlying design: the working title of Vicky Cristina Barcelona was Midnight in Barcelona.

It’s always midnight somewhere. Usually in Europe. Which is why you must starve your Mogwai until they are good and dead.

Woody Allen’s Gremlins 2!

And Joe Dante’s Midnight in Paris. Now we’re talking!

[Join us in one week, when we cut down The Tree of Life!]

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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

A D [Jameson] is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy, the novel Giant Slugs, and a lot of film and book reviews. He lives in Chicago.

Other Installments:

  1. Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
  2. Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  3. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
  4. Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
  5. Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
  6. The Tree of Life
  7. Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
  8. X-Men: First Class
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12 thoughts on “A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)

  1. I don’t understand the contempt toward Allen’s late era work. There seems to be a revisionist history in play when people talk of his earlier films. He’s always been a hit-and-miss director (a consequence of prolificacy, I guess). And while he traded in the scrappiness of his early stuff for maybe a loftier style, I believe there’s still value in his recent films, most especially Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which gets better with each viewing, and I’m starting to think is to Jules and Jim what The Conversation is to Blow-Up, or what Wendy and Lucy is to Umberto D, a brilliant reconstruction of a classic.

    • Hi ravi,

      I like a lot of Allen’s more recent films myself. I think some critical consensus is building that they’re not all horrible. Match Point gave critics and audiences the chance to reconsider. That Brad Stevens article in the April Sight & Sound, for instance, provides an intriguing reading of the past ten years.

      Personally, I’m fond of Small Time Crooks, and think that Match Point through to the present have a lot to offer. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I agree, is the standout. Scoop and Whatever Works have also lingered, pleasantly.

      Cheers, Adam

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