Happy Birthday, Allen Stuart Konigsberg

Woody Allen’s personal life may be a mess and his last few movies may have been turkeys, but his latest, Match Point, marks a spectacular return to form – and critical acclaim. David Thomson salutes cinema’s most prolific pensioner at 70
Click to follow

Today, Allen Stewart Konigsberg (aka Woody Allen) turns 70, and in the past 12 months he has directed and delivered two films – Melinda and Melinda (among his worst), and Match Point (which may be his best). So the first thing to remark on is the work rate.

If we look at people who are of his generation – at Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich - let’s count the numbers. Coppola, Scorsese and Bogdanovich have all directed about 20 times. Woody Allen’s number is twice as large. There are plenty of bad films in that total, but in the end you have to acknowledge that Allen directs movies in the way Bonnard painted pictures and Graham Green wrote novels. It was habit; it was practice; it was a regular life. And I like artists who are too serious ever to have known artists’ block.

Next point: although he has been a contemporary of Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Allen cherishes weaklings and jerks. Despite the stirring example of most of his presidents (from Kennedy to Bush), despite the concurrent history of American expansion and aggression in the world, and despite the constant stress on manliness in his culture (not least that of the movies), Woody Allen favours nerds, nebbishes, failures, laughing stocks and despised intellectuals. He retains a wistful notion that men (and women) with knowledge, reason, sensitivity and responsibility might yet be revealed as the inescapable core of society. In other words – and in the context of American film, this is shocking – he presents characters like ourselves.

Despite the evidence of his being a film-maker, he is essentially a writer. With occasional assistance (Marshall Brickman co-wrote Annie Hall), Allen has written all of his movies. Indeed, he has invented them. People sometimes lament that he tends to repeat the same few situations over and over again, but he does not adapt novels or plays. He creates stories, and some argue that nothing bespeaks the bankruptcy of modern American movies more than its chronic need to remake old films and adapt novels.

More than that, in an age in which motion pictures have tended to abandon talk, intricate character and the plot development of the one plus the other, Allen’s movies are full of talking and listening heads. No matter the huge stress on special effects, impossible spectacle and computer generated imagery, Allen photographs faces – and trusts that they have the potential to be more moving, more beautiful and more spectacular than any explosion of solid or contrived matter.

His stories concern decisions and the way in which we use talk to justify ourselves. He sees a world in which the unavoidable human burden of seeking truth battles with the lifelong behavioural yieldings to dishonesty. Allen does not often treat characters as "villains", and it’s plain still that at the age of seventy he is attracted to human looks, oddity, human nature and weakness. It follows that nearly all his people are caught in lies (white and black), cheating, dissembling, compromise or self-protection. And to the degree that his stories observe a social grouping – family life, life at work, a company putting on a show, or whatever – he leaves it to us to judge as best we can.

If there was ever any doubt remaining, Match Point establishes Allen as a man who no longer trusts or relies on the pragmatic, professional enforcement of morality by society. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, it was clear that he knew there might be no catching of guilty parties, let alone public rebuke. And Match Point – a study in ambition, money and romance, set entirely in England – leaves us to watch the actions of a cold-blooded murderer. And whereas, Allen plainly comes from a Jewish upbringing, he may be compared with another Jewish writer – Harold Pinter – as men who still feel the shadow of guilt and consequence no matter that they seem stranded in a godless world.

The comparison is more interesting still, for whereas Pinter was always a writer in whom the hesitations of menace left space for guilty or nervous laughter, so I am no longer sure that Woody Allen deserves or wishes to be measured as a comic. Yes, he was stand-up comedian for some years as he began a career. He has been a comic fool as an actor. And certainly he made early films (Bananas, Sleeper, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex) that were full of slapstick and other comic routines, still the irony that sees unattended misdemeanor (or moral offence) has weighed increasingly in his most personal work. And we should recall that right after Annie Hall, the film that made his reputation secure and which was in many ways a satire on Californian life, he made Interiors – a bleak, cold portrait of psychic pressure in family life, an alleged homage to Ingmar Bergman, but no sort of appreciation of life or fun.

Match Point is a portrait of love and money, suffused with distaste. But Woody has seldom been as wary of love and passion. There was a youthful air in Allen films once of how the characters (and the director perhaps) just longed to fall in love. Equally, there was a suspicion that Woody Allen made and cast his movies to meet adorable women. But the love affair between Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson in Match Point is unusually urgent and irrational, and filled with intimations of ruin. The yielding to sex in a wheat field in the rain is more unrestrained than anything Allen has done before. And the lucidity with which the film sees this heat turning to ice is just as striking and frightening. Coming on the trail of too many recent comedies that seemed feeble and thin, Match Point helps remind us that this is the maker of Interiors, Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanours, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days – films that are not really comic, but bitter-sweet musings on the way life’s slippery texture will trap most of us.

Now, all this is good, but there are sterner points to be made. So shy and so neurotic, I’m not sure that Woody Allen is actually cut out to be a director. Film is a grind and an ordeal, and in the end the director needs to like people and actors a lot if they are to be protected. Allen’s attitude to actors, I think, is very questionable – and most distressingly exemplified in the actor, over the years, he has cast the most, himself.

On the whole, Allen has liked to work with the same people behind the camera. He has often persisted with actresses until the relationship broken down – thus Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, though in the latter case one can nearly feel Allen’s loss of love as the films go on. Beyond that, he likes to sign up every promising newcomer who comes along. And there’s no doubt he has taste. But almost alone among directors who work regularly, he has not really kept up a stock company of supporting players. It’s as if he didn’t want to build trust or go too deep with people. And as a result, his films tend to be crowded out with busy, superficial performances by men and women eager to please him but establishing little real contact with the director. Allen does not like to get close to actors, and I think that chill is palpable and disturbing. It also leaves a vacuum too often that ends up being filled with the disastrous fussiness of Allen himself. He is so good a writer, that casting himself amounts to self-betrayal.

This is a very serious handicap, and it is obviously entangled with Allen’s sense of identity. It has helped build up the body of films that are somewhere between bad and forgettable – and that sum is more than it should be in an artist of his own stature. On the other hand, to cast other actors in lead roles would be to require in Allen an ability to articulate and communicate what those characters are about that is deeply wearying to him. Nevertheless, by now we have ample evidence of an extra fluency and complexity in those films where he is not acting. The depth and concentration of Match Point – or of Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo – come directly from the effectiveness of a situation from which Allen has been able to exclude himself.

He has taste, but very narrow taste. He loves Manhattan, but to the extent that he hardly likes to be anywhere else. He loves jazz and popular song, but his tastes seem to stop in 1945 or so with his own Dixieland style. It’s startling to realize how seldom he has left New York, and I think it’s salutary that the two chief departures – Annie Hall and Match Point – should fare so well. Like any natural observer of life, Allen is enriched by new worlds and places. And the benefit shows in the story he thinks of. His Londoners in Match Point are nearly comically rich, but he looks at London and their country home is fresh eyes, amazed, but bitter and disapproving. He should travel more, I suspect. After all, his New York is still very much the city of his childhood. His films don’t exactly keep up with the racial diversity of the new Manhattan.

So there’s good and bad – which is exactly what you might expect from Allen’s own pictures as the imprint of his mind. At the very least, keeping up with him over the years has been a pleasure and a series of surprises. As and when he stops, it may be easier to see that he was not quite the funny man he pretended to be, but one of those – like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder – who knew that comedy was a very serious business.