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Monday, November 19, 2012

Woody Allen or the Vanishing of a Once-Great Filmmaker

Now that Woody Allen has been recycled
into a cliché-ridden tourist guide,
we will probably rarely see him on the
French TV spoof show, Les Guignols
With some time on my hand in this weeklong public holiday linking Republic Day and Black Awareness Day (Rio has more public holidays than anywhere else in Brazil) I took the opportunity to catch up with my movie watching. Woody Allen's latest opus, To Rome With Love left me with  a deep sense of sadness, not in remembrance of the great time I had had over the years in the Eternal City, but how his latest movie was ample proof of the complete loss of talent of one of the 20th century's greatest moviemakers.

It is always difficult to date with precision when an artist starts losing his soul, but with Woody Allen one can confidently say that from the moment he abandoned his muse city, New York, and moved to Europe he became irrelevant as a film director. (And ironically so since he tends to be more popular in the Old World than at home.)  I didn't find the London-made movies had any particular interest in spite of the critical acclaim of Match Point, clearly inspired from A Place In the Sun (he even "borrowed" some scenes from the famous 1950s movie.)

Clearly realizing that London was not going to be his new New York, Allen moved to Spain where he shot Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Apart from a fine performance by Penélope Cruz (which won her an Oscar), again, nothing of interest in this umpteenth retelling of Allenian themes about couples, traveling Americans and infidelity. Instead of London we get Barcelona photographed with every cliché one can think of: here they are in Parque Güell, then at The Sagrada Familia, before having drinks overlooking the Mediterranean. Worse: Allen has his cast of characters fly to Oviedo, in the Spanish region of Asturias, for a party with guitar playing and flamengo dancing. A little research would have told our former filmmaker that you are as likely to hear Andalusian music in Asturias as you are to see belly dancing among the Eskimos. How pathetic.

Last year, continuing his tour of European cities, he came to my home town. Again we get the familiar (I am still polite and try to avoid the B word) story of Americans abroad, entangled in complicated love lives, here seen through a not original trick of a writer-to-be who travels back to 1920s Paris. The name dropping (Look, it's Picasso, hey that's Hemingway, oh wow, here comes Dali) does nothing to help the storyline (nor does the dreadful cameo by then-First Lady Carla Bruni.) Clearly Allen can't get his movies produced in the US and has hit upon this strategy of getting financed through European cities'  marketing budget. Having sold his soul to the tourist devil, the latter exacts his price: cliché after cliché shots of Paris. Nauseating. And B-----.

The next city willing to bankroll him was, what else?: Rome. And we get the movie I just saw. Need I summarize what it is about? You've already guessed: complicated (never complex) love lives of American tourists or expatriates in another European capital, with Allen playing for the umpteenth time the neurotic character. The Italian characters he throws in are so one-dimensional that you barely see them (what on earth was Roberto Benigni thinking when he accepted that part?) Clearly the Roman officials drove a hard bargain and insisted Allen hire local technicians and actors, so he had to accommodate some local stories within the script, and show as much of the city as possible: so we get the characters acting out their various neuroses by the Trevi Fountain, in the Trastevere streets, at the Colosseum, on the Spanish Steps, even at Villa d'Este outside of the city limits. Obviously he didn't waste any time on it. Worse, he didn't even bother to check some embarrassing details. At the end of the movie, when the character played by Benigni is walking  down the street with his wife, he throws a tantrum in the middle of the street before she manages to calm him down and they walk back up the same street. And guess who is walking back with them? The same set of film extras walking down with them a few minutes earlier. The woman in the jeans, the guy in the green pants, and the two guys carrying a bag across their torso. Or maybe money was so tight that Allen had no choice but to reuse the same extras in the next scene with the same costumes. How sloppy. How careless. How pathetic. How revealing of a filmmaker who has clearly lost his way and stopped believing in his own art.

I stopped liking Woody Allen as a person years back, when he two-timed his wife, Mia Farrow, with her own daughter. I am no moralist, and if someone wants to change sexual partners, I feel it is their right to do so and for any other person or animal they feel like. With one exception: please don't do it with your own wife's daughter, someone you had been living with as if she were your own daughter. So despicable. So gross. I stopped liking him as a person, but as an artist I still admired him, especially when in the mid-1990s he came up with terrific movies, in particular Manhattan Murder Mystery and, one of my all-time favorites, Bullets over Broadway (the latter came out when I was living in Madrid and over a period of a year I took every friend of mine to see it at the Cine Ideal theatre and remember I could hear behind me some moviegoer anticipating every line - I was clearly not the only one to love that movie.)

But for the past decade, Allen has degenerated into consistently producing a type of movies I never thought he'd ever make, B- movies: BORING movies. They have become a caricature of his movies, just like the characters he still insists on playing have become caricatures of himself.

It is time Woody Allen follow the advice Judy Davis gives his character in To Rome With Love and retire for good and stop any of his former activity. The character he plays in the Rome movie, an opera director, gets qualified by reviewers in the movie as "moronic" and an "imbecile." How lucid.

I heard that Allen had his sights on this city as his next destination. Please let's not have him inflict any further damage on the 7th art.  Otherwise we know what to expect: American tourists will be having affairs with some hot Brazilians and we'll be regaled with every postcard shot from the Marvelous City: on Copacabana beach, at the foot of the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer, by the Sugar Loaf, dancing samba. Do we really need another mindless waste of celluloid, or whatever it is that they shoot movies on these days?


Woody, please follow the advice of your fellow countryman, Philip Roth, who has just decided to stop writing, and stop making a fool of yourself  before and behind a camera.

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