Introductions to Great Film-makers: Week Four – Woody Allen

9 February 2010

Who is he?

Writer, director, actor, stand-up comic, New Yorker columnist, clarinettist, playwright, married to his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. Woody Allen is many things. He is notable for his being impossibly prolific, releasing roughly a film a year since his 1977 breakthrough picture, Annie Hall. Perhaps this vast output has seen quality compromised on occasion but Allen’s films, consistently pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, are always worthy of consideration.

Why should I watch his films?

Of all post-war Hollywood screenwriters Allen is perhaps the most talented. He has delivered wonderful films across four decades, from the slapstick delights of Bananas (1971) to bleak existential work such as Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). At their best Allen’s films offer unflinching portraits of humanity with the necessary comic relief provided by an unerring sense of the absurd.

A quote from Hannah and Her Sisters sums up Allen’s trademark ability to traverse screeds and profanity: “Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds and in the end, none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do. I read Socrates. This guy knocked off little Greek boys. What the hell`s he got to teach me?”

The much overlooked Deconstructing Harry (1997) is proof that Allen made great films well past his early 1980s heyday and is perhaps the work in which he best balances his comic instincts with dramatic punch. However both that and the brilliant Husbands and Wives (1992), one of the most excoriating depictions of marriage ever committed to celluloid, are probably not the best places to start.

Where to start:

Bullets over Broadway. Nominated for 7 Oscars in 1994 this film boasts a killer cast: John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Rob Reiner and, crucially, not Woody Allen. It’s an A-grade comedy with just enough of Allen’s dark worldview to act as an introduction to his oeuvre.

Where not to start:

Not Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen’s top box office gross, because the script was a damp squib; the film’s success predicated by its above-the-title talent – Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. And not Annie Hall. Because that would be boring.

Next steps:

Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan.