That odd fucker sure has made a lot of movies.
By Leo K. Moncel, Doug Nayler, and Ian Passy
(Editor’s note: It has come to our attention that there has been some confusion between the work of Woody Allen and that of Woody Harrelson in the construction of this article. While this is regrettable, deadlines are deadlines, so we have been forced to publish this article with all errors uncorrected).
Woody Allen place as a key figure and contributor to the American film industry is without question. His charming southern drawl, overcoming his apparent inability to jump, descending from a proud lineage of assassins, a fondness of hemp and hemp related products, and the occasional nude workout session with the Wilson family all reinforce the almost universally recognized importance of Allen’s work. He also made, like, fifty films as well. And a lot of them were pretty good too. We all know Annie Hall, and Manhattan, and Deconstructing Harry, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, and especially Cheers. However, consider for a moment, Woody Allen films that have been overlooked by most. When your body of work is as extensive as Allen’s and this is bound to happen, and every so often it is worth it to take a look and re-examine some hidden gems. With this intention in mind, MONDOFilm presents three lesser-known films written and directed by Allen worth a second look.
Sweet and Lowdown
Sony Pictures Classics 1999
A particularly well done, but often forgotten, Woody Allen film is Sweet and Lowdown, released in 1999. While the film received relatively high critical praise and even had two Oscar nods, unfortunately, all of about the population of Sarnia ever actually got around to seeing this film. It’s a shame because although, I willingly admit I am not the biggest Woody Allen fan, I find this film particularly enjoyable.
It’s the story of Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a fictitious 1930s jazz guitarist and his struggles, both internal and external. Utilizing a retrospective fake documentary style the story follows Ray through a Fellini-esque arc as he moves throughout the American landscape trying to find his way. Ray eventually meets a mute named Hattie (Samantha Morgan) who soon becomes the Gelsomina to Ray’s Zampanò a la Fellini’s La Strada (1954). In this homage to one of his favourite filmmakers, Allen pits the brutish and crass Ray against the sweet and unassuming Hattie and it is the relationship between these two characters makes the film.
While I think Allen is a talented filmmaker, seeing and hearing him annoys the hell out of me, and in Sweet and Lowdown, he graciously forgoes the lead role in order to focus on more important matters. Penn excels as Emmet, the obnoxious, self-involved, self conscious, neurotic, abrasive, and emotionally retarded world’s second best guitarist with women troubles. Emmet’s character lies, drinks, gambles, steals, shoots rats, uses and abuses the people around him, and cries whenever he hears the music of Django Reinheardt — the one guitarist more talented than him. The music of Django consumes him, and Django’s very existence terrifies him. Essentially, Penn plays a prototypical Woody Allen character, but he does it well without ever becoming too grating. He is a frustrating, yet interesting character; extremely talented, but also extremely flawed. Much like Fellini’s Zampanò, he is a character you hate to hate.
— Ian Passy
Warner Bros. Pictures 1983
The mockumentary format is overused today, and sometimes used as an excuse for sloppy filmmaking (sorry, For Your Consideration), so it’s a genuine delight to come back to Woody Allen’s sharp and hilarious Zelig. Brilliantly recreating all the tropes of an historical documentary (archival footage with commentary from scholars and aged family descendants) the film introduces us to the incredible story of Mr. Leonard Zelig.
Zelig (Woody Allen) was discovered at dinner party in 1929 by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald observed Zelig hobnobbing with millionaires and found him moments later standing in the kitchen ranting about the tyranny of the idle rich. Zelig had completely transformed his speech, his mannerisms, and, most significantly, his facial features and body type. Later, Zelig learns that he has no control over his ability. Rather, he is like a chameleon, transforming into the likeness of any males in his vicinity. News of Mr. Zelig’s bizarre ability travels the United States and this human chameleon becomes a national sensation. Zelig even gets his own fad dance at the height of the hysteria. After stints touring as an oddity, he comes into the care of Doctor Eudora Fletcher, who sees Zelig’s ability as a condition and seeks to cure him. Fletcher and Zelig begin to fall for each other, but is their love strong enough to overcome the freakish circumstances?
The hilarity of Zelig is in its ability to handle incredible absurdity with a totally straight face. The tone of the archival documentary is held so consistently that the desire to “buy in” to what’s happening on screen becomes tremendous. The sense of time and place that is sketched on screen is so sharp, so specific, it makes the perfect backdrop for the madcap story. What the film ultimately does is present a perfect caricature of the late 1920’s — here in this land ruled by the zany fad, the greatest oddity of all is paradoxically the greatest conformist in America’s huge, wacky melting pot.
— Leo Moncel
United Artists 1978
Ask anyone even vaguely familiar with Allen’s work for his most familiar works, and you will immediately be told Annie Hall and Manhattan. Released in 1977 and 1979, respectively, these two works cemented Allen’s legacy as a major American filmmaker, and planted his neurotic, witty comedy into the collective consciousness. Allen’s wry observations and skits dissecting relationship hangups proved wildly popular with both films, a popularity that has made them iconic today. However, in between Allen released Interiors, a very dark drama about a family no more comfortable with each other than they are with themselves. At the time audiences greeted the film with an overwhelming sense of disappointment, expecting more sex jokes and less crippling insecurity and suicide attempts. However, hindsight has proven much kinder to the film, finally proving influential to some of America’s strongest modern filmmakers.
Interiors follows the lives of Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), artistically driven but at a loss to explain how, and her sister Renata (Diane Keaton), a successful writer, as they watch their father (E.G. Marshall) divorce their frigid, meticulous, and obsessive mother (Geraldine Page) and deal with the turmoil inherent therein. The resulting film is a sharp, insightful, and squirmingly honest look at very smart people who can’t understand why they can’t hold their lives together more effectively.
In recent years the film has begun to develop some very high profile fans. One of the most notable of these in Noah Baumbach, whose films The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding have drawn from a similar cast of affluent New York intellectual elite undermined by pervasive insecurity. Anyone seeing Interiors for the first time with a familiarity with Baumbach’s work can easily see the influences both formal and thematic.
— Doug Nayler