Imperfect Perfection: Woody Allen

There are few filmmakers I have found simultaneously wonderful and monotonous in my years of watching movies, but Woody Allen is definitely a superb example. I don’t mean to insinuate that I don’t like him at all, because in fact, I love him. It’s simply meant to intimate how wonderful his films are, despite their tendency to cover ground previously tread upon. To me, this is simply signature territory for Allen, and I love him ever more because he has stuck to his guns (neuroses, NYC WASP-yness, love of film history, etc.) while constantly producing films that provoke, make us laugh, and above all else, endear their creator to us evermore.

A personal favorite of mine, MANHATTAN, features the most beautiful cinematography that has ever been captured of New York City. Gordon Willis's superb work in black and white creates one of the quintessential American movies, with striking views of the city, and lovingly composed portraits of the characters as envisioned by Allen. The film, which I consider his finest achievement as both a writer and a director, follows Isaac Davis, a writer, who is dating a high school girl, and who becomes enthralled by another woman (frequent collaborator Diane Keaton) and ultimately affects the lives of everyone around him. It is the one film I think about when I think of Woody Allen as an artist.

Beauty in the city: MANHATTAN may be Allen's crowning achievement.

Of course, he has his detractors, and some of them are right in their dissent. Allen is a figure of love-it-or-hate it stature because of his constant riffing on the same themes and subjects. And, his tendency to backtrack has created an impressive number of misfires (CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION comes to mind). But who can compare at all to his output in his prime? With an impressive string of hits beginning with TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and lasting through CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, and going on beyond that, Allen is responsible for so much of cinema’s greatness in the last half of the 20th Century that it seems downright despicable that anyone would completely renounce him. Even past his prime, his film making is better than most, with BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, SWEET AND LOWDOWN, and the critically lauded MATCH POINT being among the most shining examples, but I would also offer the under appreciated and thoroughly funny SMALL TIME CROOKS as an answer to the completely abysmal state of American comedy at the time of its production.

Sure, the misfires have happened, but they’re interesting misfires. And they deserve to be seen, if not for their quality, then at least for the understanding of where they fit into his body of work. There are precious few filmmakers I would even consider seeing everything they made, no matter how much I like one or two movies of theirs. But for some reason, Woody Allen’s name attached to a project has always intrigued me, and made it a “must-see” for myself, because I know that it means something, even if to no one else than Allen itself. And to have that type of talent: to make something without pretense, out of the pure need to keep on doing what one knows how to do and trust the audience to find it and form their own opinions, is incredible. The only other filmmaker I know who puts that much faith in his own ability regardless of criticism is Werner Herzog...

So, what then, am I going on and on about? I just wanted to shine a light on Woody Allen, and remind people that he’s still here, still making thoughtful and wonderful pieces of art, and doing so at approximately double the rate of many directors less than half his age. Allen is, after all, an artist who used to do a Spring picture and a Winter picture. He’s still got a leg up on the competition as far as I’m concerned. In his 40+ years as a filmmaker, he’s directed 44 films, and has two more yet-to-be released. Without equivocation, his oeuvre deserves a hardy look by serious film students and lovers.

A great clip for those of you previously uninterested in this hot mess of an intellectual genius: Allen gets ready for a date in the great, great, great love letter to CASABLANCA that is PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM (which he wrote, but did not direct)...


AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION is one of those movies that does well on the festival circuit and gets picked up for distribution, not because anyone sees any real merit in it, but because someone thought it was enjoyable and thought it had a chance at making money. As a direct-to-DVD release, it has most certainly made money, and I’ve put off watching it for the sheer lack of interest. In short, I thought it was probably just another crappy HD horror movie shot cheaply by some film students over the course of a week and then shuffled onto the shelves at Blockbuster so the unsuspecting masses could fork over their cash to see something that really isn’t any good.

But then something funny happened. I saw many positive reviews of the film online, especially at Indie sites that tend to have pretty decent credibility and it was getting pretty good word of mouth. So, this weekend, I took a chance and watched it, and I was ill prepared for the horror that awaited me. Not only was AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION everything I thought it would be, but it was one of the worst viewing experiences I’ve had this year.

Oh, how I long for the days when, in order to make your first film, you had to mortgage your house and sell your body to science and max out your credit cards and hope that what you made was something someone would want to pay you money for. At least there were several factors, like shooting on film, having decent editing equipment, and believable effects and acting work, that could contribute to the enjoyment of said film.

This monstrosity was shot over nine days on a $30,000 budget, and contains what I consider to be the absolute worst example of editing on HD video ever perpetrated by a major release. Seriously, between the lag and the grainy texture of the footage, I couldn’t tell if they had just edited and rendered their movie on a sub-par Mac book sitting on their buddy’s dorm room desk, or if they were simply content making whatever shitty decision was available at the time. At least when I think they used the Mac, it doesn’t bother me as much because they probably had their minds in the right place.

That being said, and apart from the production “values” of it, AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION suffers from several factors that are purely problems with the film itself, and include but are not limited to its unimaginative script, horrible acting (even by lo-budget horror standards), and the unforgivable sin of uninvolving and completely lackluster zombie effects - something that should be essential in creating a zombie movie.

The story concerns three friends who are going to see a concert in the city, and when they arrive, are overrun by zombie hordes and escape back into suburbia. Oh yeah, there are also some people at a party who get attacked, and one of them is one of the main guy’s sort-of girlfriend, and he needs to get back to save her from the onslaught...yadda yadda yadda. It’s all been done before, and it’s redone here, only with worse acting. Seriously, can someone please make a zombie movie that doesn’t involve the main character having to go back into the horror and save someone he loves? It’s tired, it’s unconvincing when you can’t even believe either character would even touch the other, and perhaps worst of all, this concerns characters in high school. Can we please stop casting people who are very, painfully, obviously much older than high school age to play teenagers? It hasn’t worked since PORKY'S.

I know this isn’t a proper “review,” per se, but I thought it was terrible enough to merit this ranting condemnation. As for zombie horror, I’ll take Romero, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER almost every time. I will, however, recommend finding a downloadable version of this just to see the one worthwhile scene: a fetus, ripped from its mother’s womb and eaten. Other than that (and possibly that included), this movie is a disgrace.


Distortions in the Screen/Mirror (or, Half-baked Thoughts on the Screen-image as Knowledge.)

(This is from an early livejournal post I did last year. I thought this was interesting enough to share for further discussion, though I may be wrong. At least it's here in, what I feel is, its proper place. I apologize if you've read this twice, or are simply uninterested.) *NOTE: the method of typing without capitalizing is one I picked up years ago, and have often employed as both a stylistic/aesthetic preference and as a personal choice on my various personal websites and livejournal over those years. As such, this article appears in its original form, unaltered.

"-but because his [joe buck's] mirrors have perhaps too often been screens, instead of real people, he will find himself duped, thwarted, and overwhelmed by certain realities in new york city."

-robert lang, midnight cowboy's backstory, masculine interests

i often think that one day i will turn out like joe buck, with my ideas of what people should do and who they are blowing up in my face, simply because in my childhood and even now, so much of my time with them has been viewing them on film; trying to understand humanity through the ultimate microscope of sorts. film has always been an outlet for me. it is a place i can go to replenish my batteries, or a place i can go and take out frustration. an escape, maybe, just like for others, but more importantly, it is a place where i attempt to reach an understanding, of myself and of humans in general.

but, as robert lang suggests, this screen-world may be nothing more than a mirror that does not reflect an image so much as it makes the image out to be an instrument of false hope, or of false knowledge: a distortion of truth. and so what does this make the knowledge i have gained from watching hour upon hour of cinematic inquiry into the hearts of other human beings? i may not ever have an answer, but i will no doubt die still trying to figure out the riddle of what the screen actually is.

earlier today i was thinking about the difference between my viewing habits and those of the general american. why is it that exceptional movies like black snake moan, zodiac and grindhouse are left to the box office dregs while horrible dreck like wild hogs continues to flourish week after week? i just don't understand the disconnect. maybe i had some kind of unnatural childhood that made me disavow mediocrity in favor of something good. this is not to say that all of my tastes are for objectively 'good' things, for i realize that many of the movies i have a real place for in my heart are probably flawed and imperfect in many ways to which i am blind. but i think that my taste for bad movies is mostly lent to those that are marginalized in some way, or thought of as strange, bizarre or inappropriate by a great many americans. and so i return to my original musings about the possibility that the screen offers a distorted mirror-image of humanity. or, rather, that it potentially does so.

screen iconography, the cowboy as pick-up artist

if this distortion is offered up by films that i love, and which are by all other accounts strange or bizarre, is it not possible then that i will come to some truth by them? will that truth be discounted because it was gained by an un-redemptive narrative or character? is it possible that, by understanding or attempting to understand things that are not at all like reality, or which are distortions themselves (here i am thinking of horror films, or those of david lynch, for example) by their own avowed knowledge, one can understand that which is normative and 'real'?

this begs the question, of course, what have i learned from a lifetime of watching movies? this question is too simple, i think. the more appropriate question would be what hasn't the screen taught me that i could never learn by looking in a mirror? what hasn't been given me in the form of knowledge about myself that i could never have learned by simply reflecting on myself and my own life? the truth is that i have gained most of my knowledge from the screen; everything from humanism and compassion to hatred and acceptable behavior. and i must say that my definition of acceptable behavior is based on humanism, not on religion-based moralism. for years my only religion per se has been the screen, and so i am drawn periodically to a darkened room to meet with my clerics of sorts, much like the majority of people. and the screen lights up, and i am given knowledge, and in some form, i come out more of a whole.


ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938)

This film has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember loving movies, but something has come to my attention lately that I simply cannot believe. People have not seen this movie. Period; end of story. This is despite the fact that it runs on TCM about once every month or two. I don't understand it? Have people simply stopped watching awesome movies, or what?

It's not like people don't watch the oldies...Hell, how many people can you think of who, even in their early 20s, think of The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, or Singin' in the Rain as one of their favorite movies ever? I can't explain it, but I wish this injustice was righted. Too many people I know have never seen this, or bothered to watch it for whatever reason if they have heard of it at all. A travesty.

Plus, just the thought of seeing both Bogart AND Cagney in the same movie should be enough to wind movie lovers into a panic of orgiastic proportions. This meeting of two of my favorite actors (oh, the scowls and the swaggers; the crazy curls in Cagney's hair; how they bring out the excited little school girl in me waiting to break out.) Not to mention a wonderful performance by Pat O'Brien as a priest reformed from his former days in crime with Rocky.

The tension as Rocky Sullivan takes his final walk to the electric chair is palpable on screen. And, what a heart-rending scene to top it all off, with the Dead End Kids (who are, thankfully, unmemorable in any other movie they were ever in - despite the inundation the studio obviously suffered through with their movies, I've been "woefully" underexposed to them; note the sarcasm) learning the horrible truth about their idol, Rocky, who died like a common coward. Compared to some of the dreck thrown at audiences today, this ending dares to betray its star's screen image for a much more satisfying end, and without the saccharine quality such a scene would warrant in many modern directors' eyes. "Let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could," says Father Connelly at the end of the film, and never a more sincere and satisfying line has ended a film about a gangster.

The state of our viewing habits is truly shameful when a masterpiece such as this is unseen by the vast majority of people. I guess now would be an appropriate time to lament the habits of not watching movies made in Black & White as well, but ultimately it seems a bit pointless. In the day and age of remakes of remakes we live in, I am simply only more disheartened that most people under the age of 20 have never even heard of James Cagney, and if they have heard of Bogart, it's within some random slang context like when someone yells at you not to "Bogart" the whiskey at a party. Perhaps most tragic is the complete loss of recognition for someone as wonderful as Pat O'Brien, who is also great in SAN QUENTIN. While not someone I go absolutely bananas over like Cagney or Bogey, the smallest stars are sometimes the toughest for me to see forgotten.

So am I crazy? Am I the only one who feels that, despite it's noms at the Oscars in 1939, for director (Michael Curtiz, the ever-changing studio chameleon), writing, and actor, this film is horrendously under-appreciated except by those who are, at best cineastes and at worst obsessive fan-boy cinephiles (not that either of these are bad, mind you, as I consider myself a bit of both)?

George A. Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD

I have been looking forward to this since the first reviews came out of Toronto’s Midnight Movies late last year. The buzz was positive, and many critics claimed it was Romero’s strongest film in 30 years (that’s about the time DAWN came out, you know...) Anyway, I was hoping this would be true, since I’m a huge fan of Romero and was really wanting him to get back into the swing of things after some middling work in the last few years. So, I set out to see just what the master of zombie horror had concocted this time, and was pleasantly surprised.

Picking up on Day 1 of infection, a student film crew shooting a horror flick for class is caught up in the madness that ensues once the dead start coming back to life. Out of a sense of mission, the director and cameraman of the crew, Jason Creed, decides to keep filming in the hopes of being able to turn the footage of their journey into a documentary feature of his own, with the naive and somewhat narcissistic goal of informing people of what is really happening in the face of the lies being spread by the popular media. This is the set-up for Romero’s trademark social commentary, which is a bit more in-your-face than normal, albeit with mostly good results.

Romero’s take on the consumption (and production) of media in our current cultural climate is a breath of fresh air, and is infinitely more successful than CLOVERFIELD (a movie I also liked, by the way) or Brian De Palma’s REDACTED, mostly because the editing is put front and center by the film, and is acknowledging its own manipulations. Unlike CLOVERFIELD, where the back story is simply - albeit cleverly conceived - present as original portions of a videocassette that weren’t taped over, the film of DIARY OF THE DEAD is completely produced, providing a glimpse at both the way in which information is constructed (via downloads on the Internet, stock footage, voice-over narrations, etc.) but also the way in which we actively participate in horrible events by providing said information for consumption and/or production. The relationship between the zombie holocaust and traumatic global events like war and famine are linked explicitly (and sometimes a little clumsily) by Romero’s film, and the result is simply devastating as social commentary.

What the viewer is left with is a pretty nasty indictment of the consumption of media, or more precisely, HOW it is consumed. Every day, the public eats up thousands and thousands of images, bits of half-informed information from modern anomalies like blogs and personal websites with no filter on the content they can share with anyone willing to take a look. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing until the process of production/consumption begins to actively detract from that which is being documented, be it war or zombies or anything else. Once we refuse to come out from behind our screens - our safety nets - we have already lost. And that’s the message that ultimately is given.

Apart from the commentary and critique, the film also works as a horror film, though it goes against the current trend of ultra-violent gore and predictable methods of terror. That’s not to say that there aren’t bucket loads of blood or the really creepy moments, or even bits where things jump out from nowhere, but that all of this is really insubordinate to the horror of exactly what this would be like in the world we currently live in. How would we ever know it’s actually happening if no one is willing to report the truth until it’s too late, or until we experienced it first-hand with the deaths, and then reanimations of our family members who then turn around only to consume us.

The group eventually begin to die off one by one, with the moral questions of filming and production of a documentary with such events going on around you becoming the focal point of the film both in its meta-narrative structure (its editing and self-conscious narration) as well as in its story, with characters constantly calling into question the validity of it in place of actually doing anything. How, after all, can one help his or her friends survive attacks if they are unwilling to take a side, and are only there to observe?

I really liked the interaction between much of the cast, and though some of it was a bit corny, the dialogue was actually really believable. I can see how some people may have a bit of a problem as far as credibility goes. After all, how many people are actually going to just keep shooting instead of helping out. But, then again, many people watch horrible events day in and day out and instead of stepping in and saying enough’s enough, simply pull out their various portable devices so they can take video and send it to their friends without even thinking about becoming involved. Once again Romero has found a more-than-apropo link between the living and the undead, only this time by indicting that which has the inherent ability of proving life - the ability to record and remember.

As a zombie film, Romero’s latest certainly delivers, and there are plenty of gross-out moments and trademark Romero cheese thrown in for good measure. Is it his best film in thirty years? Maybe, though personally, I’d only go so far back as CREEPSHOW, which is more fun than DIARY OF THE DEAD, but devoid of much commentary, so it all balances out in the end. I may end up discussing this film more in the future, if and when time permits.