Monday, February 20, 2006

Peter Biskind ~ Reconstructing Woody

From Vanity Fair

Allen has become an artist without honor in his own country—not, unfortunately, an anomalous situation. Many of his heroes have shared this fate. Akira Kurosawa found it nearly impossible to obtain Japanese financing in the twilight of his career; feeling himself shabbily treated by the Swedish government for a few years in the 1970s, Ingmar Bergman refused to make pictures in his homeland; and in two of the most egregious American examples, Charlie Chaplin found it expedient to leave the country altogether in the early 1950s, one step ahead of Red-hunting squads baying at his heels, while Orson Welles in his later years was reduced to shilling for Gallo wine. Still, one would hope that in most countries a national treasure like Allen, especially one who toils in a profession wherein selling or burning out is an all too common occupational hazard, would be showered with distinctions, lionized, and fêted.

After all, Allen's body of work is without precedent in quality and quantity, not measured against just other American filmmakers but worldwide. At the risk of hyperbole, or of sounding like a lunatic, it could be said that there is no such thing as a bad Woody Allen film—weaker ones, certainly, pictures that do not work consistently from beginning to end, comedies that aren't quite funny enough, dramas that are solemn and lugubrious, but never a stupid picture, one that is begging to be walked out on. Even his aesthetically unsuccessful films are better than most of the pictures that come out of Hollywood. If you play the parlor game How Few Outstanding Films Are Necessary to Create the Reputation for Being a Great Director, you arrive at a surprisingly low number. Look at some of Allen's contemporaries: Bob Rafelson, one (Five Easy Pieces); Peter Bogdanovich, two (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon); William Friedkin, two (The French Connection, The Exorcist); Robert Altman, four (M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player); and so on. Even Allen's beloved François Truffaut directed only three masterpieces, all early in his career: The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Shoot the Piano Player. By this standard, Allen is an auteur among auteurs. Among his 35 films, there are a good 10 that can hold their own against any of those just mentioned: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Bullets over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, and now Match Point, not to mention a slew of very good second-tier films and one-offs, such as "Oedipus Wrecks," the only true gem in the anthology film New York Stories.

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