This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 3, 2008 - An earlier entry on Woody Allen was left incomplete, not from any attempt to create suspense but solely due to the limitations of my cut-and-paste editing technique, which sometimes proves to be biased toward the first task.
So to finish my point ...
What separates most of Allen's work since roughly the early '80s from his earlier films, and what frustrates many of the preconceptions of his critics, is a kind of single-mindedness in his comic approach.
The earliest films from "Take the Money and Run" to "Annie Hall" were very loose, open stories, catch-alls for any subject he might want to throw in. Plots were kept thin, a structure to build jokes on. Even "Annie Hall," as close to perfect as any movie ever will be (and one that was completely restructured in the editing process), shoots fast at a wide range of targets, from Jewish intellectuals to psychotherapists, from the demands of television to the drug culture, from the limitations of language to the dangers of misrepresenting Marshall McLuhan.
By contrast, most of Allen's films since his first hits have been simple, more carefully focused and even a bit more tightly plotted. Films as otherwise different from each other as "Zelig," "Sweet and Lowdown" (any of the period pieces, really) or "Match Point" and the so-far underrated "Cassandra's Dream" take place in a self-contained and carefully controlled world, closer in form to a well-crafted short story than to the wide net of his early films.
So what changed? Reading Eric Lax's "Conversations With Woody Allen," a collection of more than 30 years' worth of interviews conducted by the director's unofficial Boswell (Lax also wrote the first major book on Allen's work in 1975 and a more-or-less authorized biography in 1991), it's hard not to notice just how consistent Allen's working methods - indeed, his work ethic - have been throughout his career.
He maintains a large backlog of written ideas for films, plays or prose, and hopes to actually use all of them. He takes pride in finishing any project he begins and then moves along to the next. If production stalls on a film, he tries to have a backup to make instead. And when he's finished with a film, he's unconcerned about its critical or commercial success, having moved on to the next project. (Allen's indifference to reviews raised a few hackles a few weeks ago when he made a remark to that effect at Cannes.)
The success of "Annie Hall" gave Allen the freedom to begin films without worrying much about how to tailor them to the widest audience. Those who expect Allen's recent films to resemble his 1977 film, as well as those who claim that he has been repeating himself for years, are missing the point. He's become a miniaturist, making small and more often than not insightful studies of human behavior rather than broad, scattered but no less brilliant collages of jokes. He may be unconcerned by how they fare at the box office or in the press, but he remains deeply concerned about human nature and the problems it creates. Steady, prolific and unafraid to let his films stand (or fail) on their own merits, his impressive track record speaks for itself.
A comment on the earlier post suggested that I should go for broke and reveal which films of Allen's I would acknowledge are failures. Fair enough.
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is pretty much an outright failure (as Allen admits in the Lax book). "Shadows and Fog" is also a failure, but an interesting one. "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery" are fairly minor, if entertaining. And although I admire "Deconstructing Harry," I didn't really enjoy it much, and probably should give it a second look.
I've changed my mind over the years on two Allen films. I didn't like "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" when it premiered but have since come to see its charm. More bewilderingly, I absolutely hated "Manhattan" the first time I saw it. My only excuse is that this wise and witty masterpiece was, at the time, simply over my 20-year-old head.
Among the others (an incomplete list, off the top of my head):
Better than most people will admit: "Hollywood Ending," "Anything Else," "Celebrity," "Cassandra's Dream"
Better than average: "Alice," "Radio Days," "September," "Stardust Memories," "Every One Says I Love You," "Mighty Aphrodite," most of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"
Perfect: "Husbands and Wives," "Sweet and Lowdown," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Zelig," "Broadway Danny Rose"
Better than perfect: "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Match Point," "Sleeper," "Love and Death"