' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Alice (Or, Is Woody Allen Sort Of A Lazy Writer?)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Alice (Or, Is Woody Allen Sort Of A Lazy Writer?)

--Can a film from 1990 officially be called "old fashioned"? Sure. Why not? Also, this review wound up being less about "Alice" than a pontification on Woody Allen's whole career. My advance apologies. I couldn't help it. You will see why.

A little ways into Woody Allen’s enjoyable lark “Small Time Crooks” (2000) the Woodman and his band of criminal misfits have accidentally tunneled from under the cover of a cookie shop to a dress shop next door as opposed to the intended bank. They stand in the dress shop with their hard-hats and shovels, baffled. Woody suggests they could just tile up the hole. Uh, never mind the question of getting cement, how they are going to close the hole and tile it when they’re inside the store? The question is never answered. Instead the police officer (Brian Markinson) who was so taken with the cherry cinnamon cookies being peddled by The Woodman’s wife appears and threatens to haul them off to jail unless they heed his advice to franchise the cookie shop and bring him in as partner, which they do. How the floor is repaired and/or how their ruse is covered up is never addressed, not even in throwaway.

In many ways this scene speaks as a whole to the way Woody writes – that is, he is less interested in the precise mechanics of his narrative then he is in exploring the ideas and themes contained within that narrative. This was true even of his recently acclaimed “Midnight In Paris” which, as my friend Becky astutely noted, “was sullied by the main character's complete lack of struggle or self awareness. Owen Wilson's character did nothing to achieve the realization that an artist has no choice but to live in the present moment. Each and every thing he hoped for in the movie was handed to him from on high.” I dare say these points are inarguable. Yet, at the same, it's just The Woodman’s way. Ol’ Gil Pender was merely the underdeveloped character he used to develop his whimsical film about those very ideas. As many critics have noted before, Woody Allen’s characters rarely ever do anything Woody Allen isn’t telling them to do.

Much like “Midnight In Paris”, “Alice” (1990) – which leaves me but one film shy (“Another Woman”) of what has turned into a 14 year project to see every film Allen has written & directed – is very much about the fantastical. The title character (Mia Farrow) is a Manhattan-styled housewife who leads a life of shopping, massages and home renovation. Her husband (William Hurt) is never really around even if he’s always there and, thus, her life, as it must, adds up to steaming plate of nothing, despite her two children – children who primarily exist, of course, to work as a conduit to her Meet Cute with Joe Mantegna’s handsome jazz obsessive named, uh, Joe.

Most crucially, however, her back hurts. No doubt her back hurts on account of the stress of the empty existence she is leading. Or this what she assumes until she visits the highly recommended Dr. Yang in Chinatown who asks her to look into a spinning wheel and deduces that no, the problem has nothing to do with her back – it’s in her……wait for it……heart. Thus, Yang starts handing out herbs – make that, magic herbs, herbs that can cause her to become a Marie Browning-esque seductress and to become invisible.

Ah yes. Invisible. How convenient! This allows Alice to see Joe's true feelings for his ex-wife and this allows Alice to see that her husband really is cheating on her. She doesn't even have to do any real leg work. She applies her own version of a cloaking device and presto! She's got the goods! And, rest assured, it only gets worse because in the end darling Alice decides she will flee her husband with the kids in tow for Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa. Now......getting to Calcutta to chill out with Mother Teresa would take a little work, no? Of course, we see NONE of this work. Now......having a life-changing experience with Mother Teresa would take a little work, no? Of course, we see NONE of this work. It's told via montage. A montage! Apparently sainthood takes all of, what, sixty seconds?

You could argue - as Vincent Canby of the esteemed New York Times did in his original review - that it is all "magical realism"and, thus, yours truly needs to lighten the hell up and just go with the flow. I would counter that the Woodman is using the "magical realism" as a crutch to avoid doing any heavy lifting when it comes to writing. If it's a one-off, maybe not. But clearly there is a pattern here to Woody's work.

Allen's amusing 1995 film "Mighty Aphrodite" was, amongst other things, a commentary on the original Greek storytelling structure including, but not limited to, the fabled deus ex machina, a phrase which in Latin means "god from the machine." This was the device whereby a "god" would literally descend via machine to the stage to resolve all the conflict, and near the end of "Mighty Aphrodite" a helicopter descends from the sky to provide a once-and-for-all love interest for the Mira Sorvino character which leads the narrator to say out loud "Boy, talk about a deus ex machina." This is funny, sure, but it's also telling.

In fact, years earlier in Allen's one act play called "God", God Himself, acting as the grandest of all deus ex machinas, swoops down in a chariot to save the main character and resolve all the conflict but as God is lowered to the stage he gets stuck in the very wire that is lowering Him and winds up strangled to death instead. A messenger then arrives with a telegram for the main character: "God is dead. You're on your own." Again, quite funny, but also telling.

How many times can you employ a dues ex machina and then just laugh it off by essentially saying, "I'm making fun of the device." I would have liked to see if Alice could have gotten along WITHOUT those magic herbs, just like in a way I wonder (as much as I enjoyed the film) what would have happened to Gil Pender if that antique car hadn't pulled up at midnight.


Andrew K. said...

To some degree chance has always been responsible for much of Woody's film in the same way that chance is responsible for much of life. The reason that I like and not love MiP (and conversely love Match Point which depends much more on chance) is that the chance in MiP seems to occur with his back against the wall and the only way the story can be solved is for Gil to have that epiphanies, chance works epiphanies do not as well and in Match Point there is chance, but no epiphany, characters remain true to their characteristics. Sometimes he makes chance work very effectively, sometimes the puppet strings show garishly.

Thought provoking article, but you still owe us a review of Alice. This ain't a review (I'm the pot here, you're the kettle.)

Nick Prigge said...

No, this is definitely not a review. Fair point. And I didn't mean for it to end up this way but, you know, things happen.

I also think you're completely right about chance being involved in so much of Woody's work. And I do generally like all the movies I wrote about here (well, I'm a little sour on "Alice" actually) but it was just kind of interesting to think about how often that does crop up in his work and what he's really trying to do with it from film to film.