In 1992, Woody Allen released Husbands and Wives, a scathing and hilarious excoriation of married life among the Upper East Side’s moneyed, intellectual set. Filmed in a faux-documentary style, Allen’s married protagonists examined their own feelings on camera, ranging from a separated couple’s failed experimentation with the single life, to a passive-aggressive wife’s flowering office crush, to a husband’s sexual attraction to his 21 year old student. Eerily, in that same year, Allen split up with long-time partner and collaborator Mia Farrow in order to legitimize his love affair with her 17-year-old adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn. His films have never been the same. Thirteen years later, Husbands and Wives stands as the last great Woody Allen film, and a long line of unsuccessful, not very pleasurable work stands between it and Allen’s latest movie, Melinda and Melinda. There are certainly movies since 1992 that I enjoy; Sweet and Lowdown and Bullets Over Broadway being the two that are pleasant exceptions to the disappointing rule. Looking back over his career since the greatness of Husbands and Wives to the brand new Melinda and Melinda, a few trends emerge that seem to offer insight into the problematic nature of Allen’s work over the past thirteen years.
It would be ridiculously disingenuous for me to speculate as to what toll Allen’s personal decisions may or may not have had on his creative life. There is the temptation to associate Allen’s high-profile break-up and marriage with his box-office denouement, to factor in his creative divorce from longtime Producer Jean Doumanian as being somehow symbolic. And what about the studio hopping in recent years, including his recently concluded four-film deal with DreamworksSKG, an on again/off again relationship with Miramax, and the recent distribution deal with an en fuego Fox Searchlight? In light of the creative freedom that Allen has successfully secured (and rightfully earned) in his filmmaking relationships, and regardless of the machinations of his personal and professional relationships, I think it is important instead to look at the work itself. The thematic, character, and aesthetic choices Allen has made since the release of Husbands and Wives speak volumes about the quality of the work. One need look no further than the films themselves to discover the trends and themes which have emerged and that have, I believe, contributed to Allen’s descent from essential American auteur to fallen idol.
Any serious assessment of Allen’s recent shortcomings must start with the fundamental realization that, if any filmmaker can be said to have had a “golden age” of greatness, it is Woody Allen. Starting (in my estimation) in 1973 with Sleeper and running through 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen produced some of the finest American films of the era. A listing of titles makes the case: The Academy Award winning Annie Hall, the sublime Manhattan, the Fellini-esque Stardust Memories, and the intertwining relationships of Hannah and Her Sisters. Each of these films features Allen at the height of his powers, highlighted by his signature blend of tragic-comic storytelling. To watch these films in chronological order is to see the establishment of the ‘Woody Allen Movie’; a grown-up film that examines the lives of talented, well-to-do urban characters who are in a constant state of self-examination. As the “me generation” navel gazing of the 1970’s gave way to the fiscal self-absorption of the 1980’s, Allen’s films pulsed with jokes and situations that took America to task for its slide into the shallows of self-reflexive pop culture. In between, Allen made several period films ( A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo) that are as focused on a nostalgic desire for an antique relationship to film and filmmaking as they are on the parallels they draw to late 20th Century human relationships.
Any filmmaker in his right mind would be proud of this run of work; a thirteen-year stretch (there’s that number again) of work so unique and identifiable, so outside of the concerns of mainstream trends, so clearly in love with the movies, it became its own genre. Great films followed, including Allen’s (again, in my estimation) masterpiece, 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, but they were fewer and further between, leading to the release of the aforementioned Husbands and Wives. These films reflect an adult Woody Allen exploring the concerns of his generation, a generation of aging post-war Baby Boomers searching for meaning in their lives, in their relationships, and in the world. Beginning with Manhattan Murder Mystery, a semi-sequel to Annie Hall and a decent film, Allen’s films begin to slide more into the comforts of genre (mysteries, period pieces, ill-conceived musicals) and further and further away from the real lives of present day adults. Simultaneously, the man who once wrote such wonderful characters for his actresses began to offer far less flattering choices for his women, narrowing the range of great roles in films like Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, and Broadway Danny Rose to a swift procession of prostitutes, shrews, and users (Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity). These works feel irrevocably damaged, with Allen’s nebishy on-screen persona, famous for his charming bon mots against the decay and hypocrisy of American culture, becoming angrier and less charming as Allen, the actor, slowly began to remove himself from his own films.
Something had happened, and by the time Allen’s string of flops ( Small Time Crooks, The Curse of The Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Anything Else) at DreamworksSKG had finished unspooling on fewer and fewer movie screens across the country, it was clear; Allen had lost touch with the American audience. This seems understandable because Allen as a filmmaker has always hovered outside the boundaries of trends and popular tastes. His work invariably celebrates old time jazz music and nostalgia for old movies and old time morality. But his stories have begun to focus on younger and younger characters, for whom these tastes and ideas are undeniably false. Compare a film like the forthcoming Saraband, made by Allen’s idol, Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, to a film like Anything Else. Bergman’s characters and stories reflect the age and wisdom he himself has accumulated, and his stories tell the truth by refusing to pander to unknown, younger tastes. Of course, what is missing from Allen’s recent body of work is an inkling understanding of the day-to-day experience of the generation upon which his characters are based. Woody doesn’t know the urban 35-and-under crowd anymore than Bergman might. Nowhere is the distance between real life and Woody Allen more visible than in his latest film, Melinda and Melinda.
In lieu of a review, let me say that the film shows signs of life and a return to the concerns of Allen’s golden age. Unfortunately, his refusal to make films about his own generation leaves the movie dead in the water. If you think for one minute that anyone remotely engaged in today’s cinema is going to mistake Chlöe Sevigny, whose last film was The Brown Bunny, for a 30 year old socialite that cries every time she hears Mahler, well, you’d be mistaken. No one of my generation cries when they hear Mahler, except to demand that someone put on the new Interpol record instead. The most depressing news is, while I am certain there are several great films left in Allen’s career, there is a radical, and therefore unlikely, change required. Instead of attempting to address the concerns and issues that no longer confront him, those of the 30 something crowd (upon which he built his greatest films when he was in his 30’s and 40’s), he should translate his interest in infidelity, tragedy, and comedy to the situations and experiences of his own life.
Instead of attempting to remake timely relationship comedies in a milieu of which he seems entirely ignorant, Allen would be better served by turning his eye in the direction he was headed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a film by a artist in his 50’s, the work of a great director dealing with older actors and issues of mortality in a truthful way. Husbands and Wives, featuring amazing performances from Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis, addresses the concerns of the 40 and over divorced set, and those midlife crises feel real. These films are filled with truthful stories and characters Allen clearly knows well, and they seem to reflect a real understanding of the values being examined.
Instead of committing the great failure of the Baby Boom generation’s imagination, this pervasive notion that present day relationships and culture are directly related to (or somehow concerned with) the moral and cultural proclivities of the 50-and-over set’s heyday (remember when? I don’t either…), Allen might be better served to buck the Boomer trend as he always has and deal honestly and openly with the real life concerns of the 70 year old man he is soon to be. Woody Allen should be an artist holding up a mirror to the Boomers and forcing them to grow up, to deal with aging and real-life relationships, and to honor his commitment to his generation by exposing their vanity for what it is. Instead, and for the first time, Allen himself is guilty of the crime he has so often exposed in his characters; he has refused to change and honestly examine what that refusal has cost him.