' ' Cinema Romantico: Shadows and Fog

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shadows and Fog

The first time I watched Woody Allen's black and white ode to German cinema from the early 90's I was fresh off a few off his "early, funny ones" and so I think went looking specifically for more of the funny, and there is funny to be found. The Woodman's always good for a few solid one liners.

-"There's someone lurking up the street."
-"Should I start weeping or do you want me to break into a run?"

But rewatching it I was struck, despite Allen's usual persona in the primary role of the nebbish, timid clerk Kleinman, how bleak and dark it is and how it is coated in far more existential dread than shadows and fog.

The film takes place over a single night in an unnamed town full of cobblestone streets and murk and mire. Kleinman is rousted out of bed and enlisted in joining a vigilante group that has formed a plan to go after The Maniac, a strangler who has apparently struck again. Trouble is, no one tells Kleinman what his role in the "plan" is supposed to be. For the remainder of the film he wanders the streets, falling in and out of touch with his vigilante group and other vigilante groups that begin springing up because the initial vigilante group is having no success ("I'm with Vogel now." - "Vogel? Who's Vogel?"), still unsure of what in the world he is supposed to be doing.

Meanwhile a circus is camped on the outskirts of town where Irmy (Mia Farrow - yes, this was the Mia-era), the sword swallower, catches her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) in an uncompromising position with the high wire walker (Madonna, so-so). Enraged, she wanders into town and is taken in by the kindly prostitutes at the brothel (Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates) where a fresh faced college going lad (John Cusack) convinces her through a substantial payment of $700 to, as they say, turn a trick.

But then Irmy gets halled down to police headquarters where, as luck would have it, Kleinman has turned up too. She pays her fine and is let loose and she and Kleinman join forces, if you want to call it that, wandering the streets together, she trying to get him to find some courage that he probably never has had nor will have (an encounter with Kleinman's boss finds Kleinman referring to him as, amongst other things, "Your majesty"), with death, it seems, never more than an alleyway away.

Despite some nice comedic setpieces and famous actors every which way (in fact, John C. Reilly and William H. Macy turn up briefly for one line each - Macy's line in particular is great) gloom pervades the movie. So much gloom. "Do you believe in God?" Student Jack asks Kleinman. "Unbelievable. That's the third time tonight somebody's asked me that exact same question," Kleinman replies. "I'd like to, believe me."

-"You doubt His existence and you can't make the leap of faith necessary."
-"I can't make the leap of faith necessary to believe in my own existence."

Classic Woody. Evading the most hard hitting of subject matter with a joke. And that seems to the entire essence of "Shadows and Fog". A desperate desire to tuck tail and run from the worst of what life offers, whether that's a Maniac on the loose or a vile boss or a what-have-you.

The Woodman's movies often contain conclusions which feel perfunctory. Sometimes this is the point, such as in "Mighty Aphrodite" when a character openly opines about a "deus ex machina", and sometimes they just feel rushed, like in the more recent "Cassandra's Dream". The end of "Shadows and Fog" feels as if it was conjured up out of thin air and, yet, when you consider the recurring theme of magic and of all the emptiness in the movie's vast darkness throughout it is perfect as Kleinman literally contemplates running away to join the circus. The closing lines are some of the darkest of Allen's career. I actually got shivers as the film faded to black.

At different points during the proceedings Kleinman laments: "Theories. All I hear all night are theories" and "Everybody has a plan. I'm the only one in town that doesn't know what he's doing." Everybody has a theory, everybody has a plan. Lot of good it does them.

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