You probably have an opinion about Woody Allen.
It may even be a complicated opinion. Mine is. But it may not be the same as yours. Whether or not he’s the devil incarnate off screen I simply don’t feel I can say. But I can say this: He’s likely the most overrated film director working.
Allen, 80, has a new movie opening in Boston next Friday. It’s called “Café Society” and stars Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, and Jesse Eisenberg. Advance reviews from the recent Cannes Film Festival have indicated it’s one of “the better ones.” I saw it recently, and that’s about right; “Café Society” has ambitions, even though they’re only partly realized.
But Allen’s appearance at Cannes also prompted an article in The Hollywood Reporter from his estranged son, Ronan Farrow, reigniting the furor surrounding allegations that Allen molested his adopted daughter, Dylan, now 31, when she was 7. Farrow blasted the media for creating “a culture of impunity and silence” around the filmmaker. He asked actors to think twice before signing up for Allen’s films and urged the press to ask the tough questions.
They did, sort of. Allen responded at a Cannes news conference by admitting he hadn’t seen Farrow’s piece. “I never read anything,” he told reporters. “I never read what you say about me or the reviews of my film.” Which says quite a bit about the hermetically sealed universe Woody Allen may or may not live in. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Allen lost a lot of fans 25 years ago when his relationship with his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, then 21 and now his wife, was revealed. Even so and even with the recent allegations, it’s still considered a gold star for an actor to have an Allen movie on his or her resume. And a sizable portion of his moviegoing generation — boomers who took their dates to “Annie Hall” in 1977 and coo happily at latter-day “better ones” like “Midnight in Paris” (2011) — still gives him a free pass as one of their generation’s Great Artists.
Which, honestly, is bunk. I truly believe that in 50 years audiences will look at most of these movies and wonder what in hell we were thinking.
Here’s what I know about Woody Allen’s home life: not enough to feel confident in stating an informed opinion. As creepy and even wrong as I think the circumstances may have been around the onset of his relationship with Previn, both were adults when the scandal broke and you and I weren’t there. Dylan Farrow may have been molested by her father (as she insists she was) or brainwashed by her mother (as her brother Moses has claimed) or both; whatever has happened to her is tragic. I still don’t feel I have enough information to say Yes, this happened. If you feel otherwise, by all means say so.
As a lifelong consumer of Allen’s movies, I’m on firmer ground. He has directed something like 44 movies, and at least four of them are, in my view, legitimate masterpieces: “Zelig” (1983), “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), and “Husbands and Wives” (1992). “Deconstructing Harry” (1997), the closest Allen has ever come to personal confession, is major, too. There’s 1977’s breakthrough “Annie Hall,” of course, but stories of how that movie may or may not have been completely reimagined in the cutting room by editor Ralph Rosenblum after disastrous test screenings muddies its provenance.
Still, that’s six genuine keepers. There are others that are worthy, some that are meh, too many that are just plain bad (did you see “Whatever Works” or “Irrational Man” or “To Rome With Love”?). Allen seems to crank out movies not because he feels artistically compelled but as a reflexive neuro-motor action, like having a trick knee.
And many of those movies are astonishingly uncinematic. On a technical level, his work can be banal or strikingly assured — it usually depends on whether Allen’s working with a great cinematographer like Gordon Willis or Vittorio Storaro (who shot the new film). I give the director complete credit for the breathtaking concept of “Zelig,” a notion worthy of Poe, Kafka, or Borges, but the movie works because of Willis’s visuals, Susan Morse’s editing, and the special effects.
More damaging over the long haul are those scripts in which everybody talks like Woody Allen except for the secondary characters, who are cartoons. (Think of the France-hating parents in “Midnight in Paris” or the two-dimensional working-class lummoxes of “Blue Jasmine.”)
That’s an indication of a much larger failing. Allen seems fundamentally incurious about himself and other people, and the proof of artistic sensibility (in the narrative arts, at least) is an engagement with the human dilemma in all its absurdity and sadness. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” gets there. But aside from “Deconstructing Harry,” there is little self-examination or sustained inquiry in his work.
Example: It’s well known that Allen has a thing for very young women; “Manhattan” (1979) featured an affair between his character and a high school girl played by Mariel Hemingway, and the director’s current predilection for the latest Hollywood ingénue has a rancid air to it precisely because he has never consciously addressed the issue as a storyteller. But, then, he never reads what people say about his movies.
What seems pretty clear, actually, is that Allen doesn’t like people, period. The old-timey jazz and Windsor font of his title sequences, the neurotic jokes that get a quick laugh and move on, the roteness of the filmmaking, the adoration of women that masks a deeper contempt — all bespeak a bubble of self-absorption and disinterest.
So why do so many moviegoers continue to buy in? Specifically, moviegoers of a certain class and generation and inclination, since Allen is in no way a mainstream figure at this point and younger audiences have largely written him off. But he still gets a lot of ink and attention, and not only for the tabloid stuff.
It’s not pretty to say it, but I think Allen’s movies appeal to our own incuriosity. For a lot of diehard fans, even audiences who may not forgive him his perceived off-screen transgressions, he remains a “genius” on little evidence other than nostalgia and a veneer of sophistication — the jazz, the literary and cultural references, the mensch-iness — that makes us feel smart and arty without ever the risk of real challenge. If Woody ever seriously examined himself or his assumptions, then we might have to examine ours, and who wants to pay for that on a Saturday night with popcorn? Better a false sophistication that lets us go home thinking we’ve been culturally elevated than one that draws blood, either his or ours.
In the much-loved “Annie Hall,” after telling a shaggy dog story about a man who thinks he’s a chicken, Allen’s character says we continue to fall in love because “most of us need the eggs.” I think that’s pretty much the reason people keep going back to his movies. They need the eggs so much they don’t bother to notice that a lot of them are broken.