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Watching Woody Allen in hard times

Watching Woody Allen in hard times

[Posted by David S. Cohen]

Saw the premiere of Woody Allen‘s Vicky Cristina Barcelona last night and quite enjoyed it. People more familiar than I with Allen’s recent work are calling it his best film in years. Among its virtues, which I won’t enumerate here, it’s a fantastic travelogue for Spain and Barcelona in particular. It’s hard to watch it without wanting to jump on a plane and move there.

Some of the dialogue has Allen’s trademark neurotic-intellectual banter but hearing it in Spanish, Spanish-accented English and the flat non-regional American accents of Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson and the narrator, it lost any schtick-y quality and became very real.

But part of the film’s charm is the way characters float through their time in Barcelona utterly indifferent to concerns of money. I can’t help but wonder how audiences will react to that. I bring Orwell, Dickens and more into the discussion after the jump. (Warning: Spoilers.)

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, people have offices but are never in them. Men have golf dates with work associates, but never work. Boats are sailed, restaurant meals are lingered over, glasses of wine sipped and refilled, without ever a mention of a bill. Vicky’s (Hall) future is assured because she is marrying a successful young man, so she has the luxury to pursue the study of Catalan culture, a study which Allen seems to regard as trivial. Meanwhile artists Jose Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) paint furiously, but there is not a mention of them showing or selling their work, something the painters I know think about quite a lot.

When Cristina (Johansson) develops an interest in photography, her cameras, film, darkroom equipment, chemicals and paper simply appear. (As a shutterbug myself, that made me quite jealous.) She becomes so good at it, it even becomes a “productive activity,” if I’m remembering the narration correctly. However “productive” does not seem to mean “revenue-producing.” And when she moves on, there is no indication of whether those cameras, enlargers, photos and prints, which represent a considerable investment on someone’s part, are coming with her.

It’s not just that these people have money, it’s that money and the basic security it brings, are simply assumed. Characters give no more attention to it than they might to whether there is air to breathe. Therefore they are free to focus entirely on the personal.

Maybe I’m thinking this because I am reading George Orwell‘s essay on Charles Dickens:

“In Dickens’s novels anything in the nature of work happens off-stage. …. The last thing anyone remembers about these books is their central story. On the other hand, I suppose no one has ever read them without carrying the memory of individual pages to the day of his death. Dickens sees human beings with the most intense vividness, but he sees them always in private life, as ‘characters,’ not as functional members of society; that is to say, he sees them statically.”

To be sure, Orwell was an avowed socialist looking at Dickens through the prism of a materialistic worldview, that is, a worldview that defines the world in economic terms. And it would be easy to say that money matters are simply irrelevant to Allen’s concerns in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but that is not quite true.

There is an important scene where people mention money, or at least costs: Vicky, having realized she is really in love with Juan Antonio is out to dinner with her husband and a couple he knows from work. She listens in lonely silence to the Spanish guitar player nearby while her companions prattle on about their home furnishings and the price of oriental rugs, oblivious to both the soulful guitar and the soul-ache of their companion. Attention to wealth and its trappings, or at least conversation about it, is then linked to selfish, vulgar materialism.

Contrast this attitude with the following excerpt from my chapter about George Dawes Green and The Caveman’s Valentine from my book Screen Plays. Green was a high-school dropout who for a time wrote while living on a farm. He was earning some reputation as a poet, but:

“Then one day I decided I didn’t want to live this monkish existence any more,” he explained. So after six years as a poet, he left the United States and traveled around the world. After about four years of traveling, he began buying handmade fabrics in Guatemala and Mexico. “Then I began to produce my own handmade fabrics, and began to produce what you would call fashion-forward sportswear for women, which we sold all over the world.”

“Green‚Äôs clothing label, which he called ‘Under the Volcano,’ brought serious money into his life for the first time ‚Äî but that came at a price. ‚ÄúI was sort of chained to cash- flow statements and P&L‚Äôs. I had become a businessman, willy-nilly, and had never really wanted to. It was a life-changing adventure, and a very profound one. To be a businessperson is to understand the preoccupations of most of the people on Earth. And it wasn’t until I had done it, until I was walking around the streets worried about cash flow, that I began to realize that that‚Äôs what most people were worried about.‚Äù

“That had a very profound influence on my way of thinking.”

In fact, Green became a wealthy man before giving up his business to return to writing, writing his award-winning novel and eventually writing the screen version as well.

Admittedly it is unfair to compare Green with so important and prolific a writer as Woody Allen. But I think Green made an important discovery. Most people in the world are sweating the material as well as the personal. Allen has tackled avarice and ambition in other films. but in this film, the major characters have no apparent goals or ideals beyond themselves, certainly no ideologies. Safe and secure, they do not grapple for power, prestige or wealth, and Allen seems to treat those minor characters who do so with disdain. (Gawd, no wonder he doesn’t like Hollywood.)

In one way, this can give Allen’s films a timeless quality. Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn’t about the concerns or issues of a particular time or place. It’s been observed that some of Allen’s films are likely to play better in 50 years or so, when it won’t seem jarring to watch twenty-somethings who talk like Woody Allen and are utterly disconnected from contemporary pop culture. It’s been apparent for some time that Allen has not been writing about real young people. I would argue that in this movie, he’s not writing about real people in the real world at all. And I don’t really mind that. Except when it takes me out of the movie. Which, alas, it sometimes does.

All of which makes me wonder: Will Allen’s themes connect with viewers? Will auds, especially the young demo that might relate to Hall and Johansson, identify with the timeless and universal aspects of his story, or will they find these characters strange and unreal? Will viewers in general enjoy this vicarious summer in Barcelona, even while the weak dollar and soaring airfares put real-life visits there out of reach for many of them? Will these characters provide escapist fantasy during hard times, as the tuxedo-clad swells of screwball comedies and frothy musicals did for Depression-era moviegoers? Or will it all seem remote and irrelevant to people anxious about gas prices, their jobs and their mortgages?

If this movie is a hit, it may tell us that the hunger for escapist films about beautiful people living above the economic fray is as strong today as it was 75 years ago. Which would seem to be a good thing for Hollywood. I just wish someone would stop to ask for the bill amidst all the navel gazing.

[Originally appeared on]

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