Under the Influence: Woody Allen

Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott

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Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, was released on the weekend. It is said to bear a striking resemblance to A Streetcar Named Desire, almost acting as a loose adaptation to the stage and cinema classic. Woody makes one film per year, keeping this routine up for the last twenty since Bullets Over Broadway and Don’t Drink the Water both came out in 1994 (and you’d have to go way back to 1981 to find the last calendar not featuring a film from the New Yorker). This individual presence and longevity has led to Allen impacting cinema with a substantial influence of his own, and there’s a lot out there in the world of film that has little or lots owed to the legendary comic-cum-actor/writer/director.

With Woody, you’re looking for a number of obvious traits: a neurotic protagonist, a gender balance and/or ensemble cast, aspirations to say something social and intellectual, witty dialogue, a highly-endearing but complex and ultimately flawed romance (or two, or three…) and so forth. Allen’s best-known films can be categorised into “realism” versus “fantastical”, although both tend towards a theatrical centre-point, rather than veering off toward extremes of grittiness or comic-book-style fantasy.

His inspiration is everywhere, ranging from Antz – which in-part is vintage Woody Allen lifted into a generic children’s animation – to Your Sister’s Sister, a charming indie romantic drama that is everything Vicky Cristina Barcelona should be. The Invention of Lying is exactly the type of high-concept idea that Woody would go for, but – despite his own flops (of which there are plenty) – you’d suspect he’d provide more elegance and wit than in Gervais’ poorly-scripted and highly-flawed comedy. Whether it’s more like When Harry Met Sally or Weekend, Woody knows how to make attractive and dynamic relationships on-screen, and so do the directors who have learned well from him.

Modern-day filmmakers such as Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, About Time), Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha), Richard Linklater (the Before trilogy), Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) all display various degrees of his style in their own work. Curtis is the most traditionally romantic, whilst the latter two are sharper with their social commentary and satire. Linklater’s on-screen chemistry between Delpy and Hawke is the closest to an Annie Hall-esque relationship, whereas the Jesse Eisenberg character in The Squid and the Whale looks and sounds like an archetypal child version of many-a-protagonist in Woody’s films.

As for individual films, here are my five recommendations of Woody-like features:

1)     Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance’s debut captures both the agony and ecstasy of romance, the narrative jumping from harsh times to heartthrob moments. This relative quick-cutting gives the audience an insight to both ends of the spectrum, and yearns to make the journey even more painful considering the roots of the relationship. The leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams each bring their A-game, and in a sense condense  the arc of Linklater’s Before trilogy into one film. It’s a breathless journey documenting the difficulties and desires of different people over time, and the clash that occurs when other priorities take place. Equally beautiful and heartbreaking, Blue Valentine is one of the best films produced in the last five years (and one of the great director debuts).

2)    Carnage

Roman Polanski’s adaptation from the play God of Carnage is a snappy comedic insight into parenting – or  lack of it – and the potential obstructiveness of principles and pride. Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster excel in a casting quartet that also includes Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly. The dialogue and various setups evoke Woody’s style at every turn, particularly in the theatricality of the piece and just how much it revels in its own absurdity.

3)     Once

Blue Valentine without the heartache, or at least quite so much of it. Like Carnage it comes in at around the 80 minute mark, and it justifies such a length by leaving us wanting more. Real-life folk singer Glen Hansard is an Irish busker who has a chance encounter with a Czech girl, though both remain unnamed. The romance feels real and is underplayed terrifically, but the film’s triumph are the musical pieces, in particular two of the opening numbers Say It To Me Now and Falling Slowly (the latter of which won an Oscar). Sometimes less is more, and this is never truer than with the  fantastically naturalistic cult hit that’s since moved to the West End.

4)     Pleasantville

It wouldn’t be right to talk about Woody Allen without touching upon the joy he finds in the fantastical. Creator of The Purple Rose of Cairo, Play It Again Sam, Midnight in Paris and others, he is often misremembered as a man with an eye for the everyday only. Pleasantville, the setup of which involves a teenage brother (Tobey Maguire) and sister (Reese Witherspoon) being transformed into the world of a 1950s American sitcom, conjures memories of precisely these films. The black-and-white picture uses colour sparingly and effectively, giving it a distinct visual edge. The social issues evoked would work better as subtext instead of being so on-the-nose, but overall the film is a delightful experience (as is Jeff Daniels’ performance, which evokes thoughts of his Purple Rose of Cairo character).

5)     Take This Waltz

Michelle Williams turns up again here, and it’s no surprise given that she’s one of, if not the finest female actor working today. Married to Seth Rogen but wanting more (which is fair enough, really), the orange-and-red glow of this film’s palette suggest a mid-life crisis for a woman experiencing the pressure-cooker of a relationship. Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Stories We Tell) directs another corker, but as an actor too she knows how to get the best out of her performers. There are no easy answers in another tale of modern-day American suburbia. Also comparable to Blue Valentine, yet the tone is less of extremes and instead paints a gentler, steadier picture that suggests decline, temptation and everyday confusion. Perhaps the most Woody-like feature of the lot.

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With the release of Blue Jasmine and an apparent return to the dizzy heights of his great work, why not comment, tweet us (@VadaMagazine & @M_S_Prescott) or post on Facebook with your favourite scenes, characters, moments and films of Woody Allen to celebrate over 40 years of one man’s incredible output.

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