TV When Steven Moffat’s stewardship of Doctor Who began in earnest there was a moment when he had to sit down and ask David Tennant if he wanted to continue. There was a moment, just a moment mind you, when Tennant’s mind must have raced with the possibilities. Another year. Just one more year. Maybe two.
I imagine it must have been somewhat like the scene in this month's Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip The Crimson Hand when his alter-ego was gifted with the opportunity to bring down the walls of reality and save Rose and Donna. The possibilities. To play a whole season written by Steven Moffat with the future potential to beat Tom Baker’s record.
Perhaps there is an alternate reality were we sat down to watch The Eleventh Hour with its new production team but the same old Doctor. Because that’s how it could have been. New head writer. New direction. And Tennant would have been brill – sorry – bwilliant! Like the shift from Hinchcliffe to Williams to Nathan-Turner.
Same actor, same role, just played in a slightly different way. And we would have been excited because it’s Doctor Who -- but would we really have been satisfied? Would the new series have had this amount of buzz? Would Karen Gillan have been the companion, would we have had this story?
Moffat only knows, yet controversially, especially considering my love for the actor in this role, I’m pleased that Tennant left when he did because it meant we could start again. New Doctor, new head writer, new direction. It’s such a rare occurrence. The only times I can think of (other than at the start of the series in the 60s) were for the TV movie and Rose.
A proper regeneration. No held over scripts, no old characters hanging around (which rules out Spearhead From Space), no old actor in the lead role (sorry Storm Warning). New producers with a totally new ethos as to how they think Doctor Who should work, wrapped up in their choice of Doctor, choice of companion and choice of destination.
And what a new ethos. As Moffat said himself, a couple of times in the run up to tonight’s premiere, if Russell wrote (and how odd to be saying in the past tense) blockbusters and Superman, he’s more interested in fairytales and Tim Burton. From the off this didn't feel any longer like it was happening in the same universe as The Sarah Jane Adventures, let alone Torchwood.
In the opening sequence we find a series which is more interested in the immediate problems of an orphan than a global threat, which isn’t really about giant special effects but the mad man in a blue box and the child talking over fish fingers and custard in a kitchen. Where Russell was fond of introducing about eight characters in various walks of life by the end of the first scene, Steven gave us just two.
Functionally these opening scenes were doing exactly the same as in Rose; the companion greets an alien threat only to be distracted then ultimately saved by the Doctor, except as we’ve discovered with the franchise on so many occasions the stories may be similar but it’s the way that they tell them. This set up was also similar to Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace, the Doctor visiting a child who then obsesses about him for the rest of her life – or in Amelia’s case twelve years – until he visits her again.
The writer is interested in the intricacies of time travel, the implications, yes, the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey and that looks to be inevitably a repeated theme throughout the series - along with an explanation for the silence. Moffat's also interested in showing us how the Doctor’s mind works in the most explicit of ways as the episode drifted into Steve Rogers territory in showing us how observant a timelord really is.
Matt Smith’s incarnation is still cooking but already we can divine a few things – largely because in the run up to the series, he and Steven have been quick to tell us. He’s slightly mad but able to be deadly serious when required. He has a child-like delight in everything but he also understands the universe. Like every other Doctor then.
What Smith brings is an embodiment – not since Tom has an actor seemed to be simply being an aggressively emphasised adaptation of themselves rather than giving a performance. Compare the moment in Confidential when he’s talking to little Caitlin Blackwood to Tom chatting to the young child in the studio material for Underworld. He has that same delight in her, the same ability to communicate with the smaller versions of the future us.
The details of Moffat’s characterisation are worth some scrutiny. The Doctor here seems very confident – over confident perhaps, in that all singing, all dancing, season two of nu-Who way. Capable of charisma, capable of being serious, but there’s something slightly unhinged about him. Towards the end of the Davies era, the Doctor became the viewpoint character but now he’s been swept away from us again.
The mystery inherent in the title is back, not least in that moment when he seemed to glimpse something on a TARDIS scanner only for him to turn it off like a student putting a phone bill to one side until their brain is able to cope with sorting out the itemisation and calculating how much their house mates owe. Did he only just visit the moon? If it was two years for Amy, how long was it for him?
Pre-publicity rather spoilt the reveal of the older Amy, though is was nicely played from the Doctor’s point of view. Having seen Karen in The Well and as much of The Kevin Bishop Show as I could stand, I had some inkling she was going to be good; but not that she would be this special, this funny, and be given latitude to be this naturalistic in comparison to the big performances of her predecessors.
Just compare the moments in which Amy stepped into the TARDIS for the first time with previous examples, the camera resting on her face as she stepped through the blue door shaped looking glass, her eyes filled with wonder, projecting the small child who's been waiting for this moment. She's able to simultaneously make Amy like dozens of other companions and also something new.
Like the Doctor, she too has her secrets, not least the wedding dress (and did Murray manage to sneak some of The Runaway Bride theme in underneath that reveal)? She too is slightly unhinged, with her dozens of models of herself and the Doctor. On the one hand this apes a child’s own impulse to make effigies of the characters from their favourite television show perhaps after watching Blue Peter and assuming their parents can’t afford to take them for a Character Options themed spending spree at Forbidden Planet.
On the other, at the risk of sounding like Christopher Tookey reviewing Kick-Ass, there’s a creepiness to a grown woman dancing off into the time vortex with an imaginary friend made flesh, especially when she’s seen that flesh or at least the naked skin that holds it in place. At the risk of disagreeing with Alison Pearson, in making her specifically a kiss-a-gram, putting her in those clothes, it’s also a welcome return to the old 70s role for the companion.
About as close to the Davies era as the episode drifted was in the b-plot which was essentially the same as Smith & Jones except with the jailers/policeman going Vogon on the planet Earth rather than a simple hospital. Amy’s bewildered boyfriend was pure Davies too. I’ve already seen reviews and message board comments deriding the story of the episode as being a bit thin, missing the fact that the story of the episode is the Doctor regenerating and meeting Amy.
The thing they dislike is the less important b-plot as though their brain can’t cope with the sudden switch in priorities. All too often, Davies’s episodes, despite their character beats would prioritise the alien threat on the assumption that alien threats are what Doctor Who is about. Doctor Who can be about that, and it can also be something else entirely and arguably his best episodes were the ones which, like The Eleventh Hour, foregrounded the character story.
To an extent Moffat seemed here to be commenting on his predecessors approach to plotting; this was another occasion when a global threat was mostly completed by a single laptop in a bedroom, with accompanying shots of metropolitan areas, a single word slipping throughout the world, a literal God in the machine (two if you count Patrick Moore, three if you count Twitter – has the series ever been this properly zeitgeisty?) but the Doctor’s final defence of the earth was through words not actions, information science in the shape of all ten previous Doctor (hello Paul!) and the range of monsters he’s defeated new and old (Sea Devils!).
The Tenth Doctor’s first action in defence of the Earth was to pick up a sword. The Eleventh doesn’t look like he could even lift a sword or would even want to. Remind me to have a discussion some other time about when The Eleventh Hour is supposed to be set. After intricately keeping to the timing of one year ahead in the last four and half series, do we even know now when Amy was picked up from? Paging Lance Parkin. Parkin to the blog, please.
The Tenth Doctor’s first action in defence of the Earth was to pick up a sword. The Eleventh doesn’t look like he could even lift a sword...
The look of the show has changed too. With the exception of the budget busting opening shot of the TARDIS falling to Earth (which looked like a hold-over from the previous era) this was a show returning, at least at this point, to a simpler approach to special effects, even the aliens lacking the usual over engineering of The Mill. Changes to the landscape (signs and whatnot) were practical and there's a general shift from primary colours to something more naturalistic.
The new TARDIS interior remains true to the make do and mend ethos of the previous version but the console elements more historical, like the remnant of an Antiques Roadtrip. It's also a return to the living space of old where companions may have hobbies to keep them happy whilst travelling in the time vortex. The doors suggest we'll be spending some time in here, all that talk of libraries and swimming pools.
So I was enchanted, beguiled, cheering, laughing and clapping. In the coming days, you may hear/read fans saying that this is how they wish the new series had always been, forgetting that in Moffat's episodes it already had been. But "better" in this case is a pejorative word. It's simply different, more low key, but no less funny. Moffat's scripting is predictably hilarious and quotable.
Plus this is only the first episode and one which is deliberately designed to be different. The coming attractions suggest a series which will be just as loud and exciting as what's gone before, with just as many shopping list style plots (Daleks & Winston Churchill, The Weeping Angels & River Song).
About the only problem I have so far is with the titles, which seem a bit fan produced, a bit like something that might introduce one of the documentaries on the classic series dvds with a remix of the theme tune that sounds like an orchestrated version of the Delaware version but can’t quite decide how revisionist it should be. I miss the original version. I know it’s not very poppy, but it is otherworldly and strange which seems to fit this new version of the franchise admirably.
Next Week: Rule Brittania, Brittania rules deep space …
Then When I was working in Birkenhead, researching public sculpture at the local history office, there was a Blockbuster Video on the route to the library. Birkenhead Blockbuster seemed to be the local clearing house for unboxed ex-rental tapes, which they were selling for fifty pence. It’s there that I bought a copy of Miami Rhapsody on the strength of the name. Knowing nothing about it, I watched in abject horror as I realised that it was a “copy” of a Woody Allen film and even then being in thrall to the master thought it blasphemous, unfunny dreck and said as much when I made my own inlay card for it later.
Now In Miami Rhapsody, director David Frankel does for Woody Allen what, Paul Verhoven attempted in Basic Instinct, Steven Soderbergh tried with The Good German and Todd Haynes succeeded with in Far From Heaven, taking the style of another director and inject a slightly different spin on it. With the presence of Mia in a matriarchal role, a casual observer might suggest that she’s saying to Woody, “see what you do isn’t that special”. Except this isn’t just a parody, or rough copy as New York Magazine (and many others suggested in a contemporary review, but an affectionate homage and one which I’m far kinder towards twelve years later.
Frankel is clearly a fan. As well as hiring Mia (who had to know what she was getting herself into), Scenes from a Mall’s Paul Mazersky plays her screen husband. His observation of Woody’s style is superb from the camera movements to choice of editing to the performances. As Roger Ebert notices, the film opens with an Annie Hall style confessional to camera from Sarah Jessica Parker (who’s mainly the “Woody Allen” figure for the duration) as she spends the film coming to terms with what she wants from relationships, stories of lust and infidelity amongst her family and friends spin about her, told in the anecdotal style of Radio Days.
If Stephen Spignesi had updated his Woody Allen Companion he would have had a field day looking for in-jokes. The film opens with the credits on titles cards against a black background (albeit with the wrong font) and a Louis Armstrong tune. At one point Martin Landau’s plotline from Crimes and Misdemeanours is retold with Kelly (Emily Gilmore) Bishop in the Angelica Houston part but with a much more positive outcome. At another, Jeremy Priven walks through dressed as Fielding Mellish from Bananas, brown rimmed glasses intact. Though cinematographer Jack Wallner is no Gordon Willis (who is?), he succeeds in painting Miami with the same beauty as Manhattan, except with a gold hue replacing black and white, and there are some technically very impressive steady-cam shots that drift through the city for many minutes.
The film has a raft of sweet performances. Jessica Parker is still a couple of years away from Sex In The City were her on-screen persona seemed to stiffen somehow and her delivery of some of the Allen-tinged zingers is eerie, her timing impeccable. The film captures Antonio Banderas in the same year as Desperado made him a star in the English speaking world and gives him plenty of room to show off his charisma. Mia’s playing a perfectly Mia character, slightly embarrassed that she should be the object of anyone’s affection able to show the facility for light comedy denied her in Husbands and Wives. Carla Gugino is also worth a mention simply because she’s one of my favourite actresses and um, that’s it. She’d later work with Banderas again on the Spy Kids movies and Priven on Entourage.
There are a few weak spots. There’s a certain narcissism amongst the characters which Woody would not have left uncommented upon or unpunished. Naomi Campbell appears playing a model and Kevin Pollack’s mistress and offers a non-performance but not in the Robert Bresson sense (think Jennifer Tilly’s character in Bullets Over Broadway), apart from in one moment in which she has to become really angry which she manages to be almost naturalistically convincing. The storytelling is often muddled and episodic as for periods Jessica Parker reacts to other people’s confessionals as though Frankel can’t decide whether he’s trying to create an ensemble piece like Hannah or a linear story with a single main protagonist like Manhattan.
But Frankel isn't always slavish to Allen and like the aforementioned directors injects elements which Woody hasn’t yet, almost as a commentary. One of my favourite moments has Banderas visiting his mother and the scene, though still one handheld shot in a style similar to Carlo Di Palma, the scene is played entirely in Spanish with subtitles and lacks the cultural orientalism of the later Vicky Christina Barcelona. The attitude to sex is far more explicit. People don’t just talk about it, we see them doing it. A lot. In lingerie. As Jessica Parker’s character asks her mother at one point “Now is the age in which you decide to become promiscuous?” It was 1995.
Then With the internet came two things. Access to a whole new world of information, and in the years before I bought a dvd player, films that had only been released on NTSC tapes in America. No region coding but slightly inferior picture and a three month wait because of surface mail. I ordered three films: Another Time, Another Place, a Lana Turner vehicle featuring an early appearance from Sean Connery filmed in Polperro where my parents enjoyed their honeymoon; Beautiful, a Minnie Driver vehicle about beauty pageants because of my Minnie Driver fixation and Don’t Drink The Water because I thought I was buying the 60s version.
Now Don’t Drink The Water, or Blossom grows up. I was a huge fan of Blossom and never missed an episode of its five year potter through Channel 4’s early evening schedule. It was about teenagers who were roughly my age and though it did tend to be very “issue” led (one issue being “Shall we go to the Oasis concert?”) the scripts were often much sharper than they had any right to be. Though shot during that sitcom’s reign of terror, it’s quite surprising to see Mayim “Blossom” Bialik in a more mature role with bosoms and looking sexy in a pink dress. She acquits herself well, coming across like a young Sarah Jessica Parker and certainly makes sense in a couple with Michael J Fox, even if he’s a whole sitcom generation (Family Ties in his case) ahead of her.
Produced for HBO in the years before it became HB-fucking-O thanks to The Sopranos and The Wire, Don’t Drink The Water might not be a great film but for various reasons it is still interesting. As we know, this is the second screen version of the play, the first being that 1969 version with Jackie Gleason which I hated over six weeks ago. I’ve scoured the web looking for production details as to why Woody decided to go back to the well, though as I speculated then, conceivably it’s because he was never happy with the way Howard Morris butchered his original script and was keen to set the record straight or HBO went to him with a budget and like his acting roles he was keen to, ahem, take the money and run. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly a better piece of work than the earlier unfunny one.
Working from the same theatre script, the story about a family stranded in a foreign military dictatorship and the dialogue are roughly the same. But in keeping the film more faithful to the original work, the balance of narrative power shifts to Fox’s ambassador’s son, given the keys to the embassy kingdom by his father at the beginning of the film in scenes reminiscent of the opening of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The rest of the film takes place largely within the embassy, so when the family arrive, the business of them being chased from airport appears in reported speech and their reason for becoming trapped – the army suspecting that they’re spies – almost thrown away in the chaos. The story then roughly proceeds in the same way, though without the sex comedy aspects of the 60s film, Fox and Bialik’s relationship developing more gradually and amiably.
As Entertainment Weekly noticed at the time, Woody makes no concessions for the contemporary audience, filming the text largely as is employing a voiceover and Zelig-style newsreel to explain the political environment. Carlo Di Palma also shoots it using the same handheld improvisational style he was playing about with in Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, scenes often rushing out in one shot which means that the actors are allowed to perform the piece rather like a stage production. That causes Don’t Drink The Water to have an added layer of poignancy because we’re seeing the older version of the director shooting material created by his younger version, with Fox playing the character he must have had in mind for himself. That he is so respectful suggests that like any artist he understands the development of his craft and his abilities but knows that for all of his embarrassment about his accomplishments in some interviews, you can't really trash what’s gone before because it explains where you are now.
In reality, that is part of the problem I had with the film. Clearly parts of this script are very funny (explaining why theatrical production are still very regular, judging by the number that have cropped up on YouTube) but in film terms it’s crying out for the slapdash approach from the 60s. Some of the moments of chaos look silly without edits and the more naturalist/improvisational approach to the script, especially by Fox, means that some of the one-liners are stepped on or mumbled at the end of sentences. Maybe, like Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Woody told him to simply act rather than do an interpretation, but the part needs a clown in places and Fox is too straight-suited here for that and sometimes his more meaningful rendition of a put upon son is at odds with, Dom DeLuise’s priest magician which is largely an exercise in shameless mugging.
There are also some very funny lines (“We’re suing them for low tolerance to tainted meat…” – you had to be there) and sequences even if now they’re not exactly politically correct, especially the material about the Hollanders meeting a visiting Sheik and his several wives (“I count fourteen wives. How do you ever get into the bathroom?”). It’s quite refreshing to see a brief return of the early slapstick version of actor Woody and as in Oedipus Wrecks he has a great rapport with Julie Kavner as his wife, already five years into her stint as Marge Simpson. And despite being a made-for-television piece it still retains that Woody Allen feel; he used the same production staff that worked on his previous few pictures (and beyond – Juliet Taylor cast this too) and the familiar font on black heralds and closes. If only I knew how the production came about. Perhaps, it's nicer not to know and just enjoy the anomaly.
Then When I was at university, Leeds had an amazing choice of cinemas. Screens in the city were balanced across an Odeon on The Headrow with five and the ABC around the corner with another three. In Headingly, on Otley Road we have The Cottage Road, The Lounge about half a mile away and my favourite, the Hyde Park Picture House. Here it is on Google Street View:
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The interior looks like a classic old theatre. Looks in fact, like the theatre in the film. Viewing Bullets Over Broadway was like entering virtual reality. I’ve said this before, but the Hyde Park is were I began my film studies.
Now With Bullets Over Broadway, both me and Woody are entering unknown territory (assuming for the purposes of this that Woody is a metaphysical construct made up of his films rather like the Bogart that appeared in Play It Again, Sam). This is the first film not covered by the Bjorkman interview (though it is eluded to) and the Spignesi companion. I’m on my own. Unless I google the name of the film, of course. But I like a challenge. But if these reactions start to lose cohesion, you'll understand why.
For Woody, Bullets Over Broadway is the first acknowledgement that he’s becoming too old to play some roles and hires what amounts to an avatar to play the “Woody Allen” character, in this case John Cusack, who fits like a glove. On reading the script Cusack turned up and did an impersonation until Allen told him not to and just act. He might lack some of the ticks and gestures, but his bespeckled playwright David could still only be more like the figure who appeared in these films in the 70s and 80s if a younger version of Allen had played it himself.
Something I hadn’t appreciated before was the extent to which Woody was essentially box-ticking the traditional film genres. Looking across the dvd spines, about the only type of film he hasn’t attempted yet is the western (and I suspect it’s a bit late for that now). Bullets Over Broadway as the title suggests merges the gangster film with the back stage film as a way of discussing the compromise of art or the art of compromise, about how most artists will always follow the money.
Oddly, the relationship between Cusack and Chazz Palminteri’s savant thug Cheech, reminds me of the infamous dinner scene from Interiors. Back then, Woody seemed to have in mind a kind of self-flagellation as the family arrogantly turned on the apparently uneducated new wife of their father. I later imagined what might have happened if she’d randomly spoken up and offered a devastating contribution to their discussion, revealing that she too was educated but had decided that she’d realised that pseudo-intellectualism doesn’t make you clever.
Their reaction would be much the same as happens in the theatre when Cheek pipes up with his first amazing suggest which saves the play having been insulted constantly by David. Thematically it’s very similar – David thinks that he’s superior because of his job and outlook and politics but Cheech has insight – and an unfortunate moral compass which is his downfall. On reflection, I can see now how many of these films are about the internal battle between intellect and passion being externalised. Unless all films are about that and I’ve been missed something all of these years.
Oh god, I think I maybe. Wow. Um. Anyway, the production design in Bullets is impeccable. Look at those curtains.
Great cast as ever too. Diane Wiest in her final role in the Woodyverse as Helen Sinclair, demonstrating her flexibility, cartoon-like but still convincing and unlike anything else Allen has asked her to do before (“Don’t speak. Don’t. Don’t speak.”) Apparently she signed to do the film script/concept/title unseen. Force of nature Jennifer Tilly is in her hay-day bending the voice she’s been blessed without around some sharp comic timing as the gangster’s moll turned “actress” (“Chaarum. Chaarum. Chaarum”). Tracy Ullman as a faded English Rose.
If I have to have a favourite scene, it’s when Jim Broadbent’s rotund stage presence Warner Purcell has to flee Tilly’s dressing room in his underwear, much needed corset included. As he steps into the street, he’s greeted by some fans who are just leaving and they conduct a conversation about the play as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. The way it’s shot harks back to the Are Transvestites Homosexuals? sequence in *Sex or an anecdote from Radio Days, though much, much funnier. That final line is a killer.
Advertising Some time ago I registered with coffee people Carte Noire for a free sample. Since there have been regular mailshots, but none more surreal than this in which they've cleverly worked my first name into the text. But they also seem to have forgotten that their coffee might drunk by someone other than the ladies. Or at the very least the results are somewhat ambiguous.
TV There's clearly something missing from this Sci-Fi Superfan Reference Guide:
Hardly The Completely Useless Encyclopedia or Tachyon TV, but it'll do.
Monikor: Whovians (though has that truly been used in the past twenty years?)
They like their sci-fi: British.
Proudest Moment: 2005.
"Not you too Bob."
When Fandom Goes Too Far: The Ianto Jones Shrine.
If You Marry One Expect: A house full of spin-off books, comics, cds and dvds arranged in chronological story order.
How To Piss One Off: Tell them that you like all the kissing.
Sex Role Playing Will Involve: A Sonic Screwdriver.
Then Milestone time. Manhattan Murder Mystery was the first Woody Allen film I saw at the cinema. At, I discovered on opening the dvd box, screen six of the Manchester Odeon on Oxford Road on the 4th February 1994 at 1:10 pm. I still have the ticket:
Look at that old logo. Look at the price! Well, they do say “Please retain this portion”. The anomalous aspect of this is that I don’t remember being in Manchester on that day. I was at university in Leeds. I did go and see my old school friend Richard who was at UMIST at some time during that year and this was a Friday so it’s entirely possible that I went to the cinema whilst I waited for him to finish lectures for the day. Unless we attended the Odeon together. Or this was a different weekend entirely. My mind is blank.
I do remember the second time, which was a week later at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. At the time I was a volunteer at the Studio Theatre at Leeds Metropolitan University and met the director on the way there, so just like the couples going to see Double Indemnity in the film, we went together. It was a house packed with students, certainly busier than any house for a Woody Allen film I’ve experienced since, and everyone enjoyed themselves, laughing all of the way through which is how it should. Perhaps the Odeon had been empty and that’s why it didn’t stick in my memory.
Like Annie Hall, it’s a film which is even funnier now than then because I too have grown some experiences. Having since watched most of the films referenced, I can now laugh along to the Last Year At Marienbad discussion, Double Indemnity and the use of The Lady from Shanghai at the conclusion, of life imitating art.
Now Diane Keaton, how I’ve missed you. With the exception of her sparkling cameo in Radio Days, this was her first film with Woody since 1979’s Manhattan and yet, despite having added some age and having worked with Charles Shyer in the intervening years, so easily does she fit back into his style it’s like she’s never been away. Her part was originally written for Mia and hardly changed but since the film is based on an excised section of Annie Hall, it's fitting that she should be the one to step in, making Manhattan Murder Mystery a kind of alternate reality sequel suggesting what might have happened if Alvy and Annie had stayed together, though without any of the post-modern tricks.
I’d be interested to know how mystery genre fans approach the film; I’m terrible with anything written by Christie or Doyle, never able to work out who the killer will be from the clues being laid out working from hunches always. But Murder is really a how done it; Carol knows who the killer is from the off – she’s trying to prove that he has done something nefarious and how he did it which gives it a different complexion and as Roger Ebert notes in his review (video below) most of the clues fall in their lap (incidentally the clip also includes an outrageous spoiler!).
The visual and improvisational style of Husbands and Wives continues here. As the camera darts about the audience is kept on a constant state of awareness as we’re forever wanting to see what’s happening off screen. There’s also an interesting shot as the Liptons are leaving their apartment building were he’s complimenting her on what she’s wearing and it looks like the actors are out of character getting ready to enter the scene and he’s left it in. Many of the scenes play out across very long takes but only now and then are you aware of the actors going on and off script. There are a couple of moments when the camera is off Woody and following Diane about their apartment when a joke seems like it’s been inserted in post-production but it’s largely seamless.
So at a time when you might assume Woody would be winding down his ambition especially as his budget’s shorten he’s still experimenting. To an extent by then he’d become Teflon coated. His films always made a loss at the cinema yet it was almost as though Hollywood couldn’t live with itself if Woody Allen wasn’t allowed to continue making films to entertain them. After two films with Columbia/Tri-Star, he’d spend the rest of the decade working for the Weinsteins at Miramax.
The reason seems to be consistency. Woody, at least until this point hadn’t made a particularly bad film. September and Another Woman were slightly ponderous, but all of them were at least interesting and didn’t fall into the realms of cliché. I still think that’s probably true, but as one of his characters might say, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Then When we first moved to Sefton Park in 1991, it wasn’t long before we’d found the local video shop, Gerrard's on Aigburth Road. It was convenient, cheap, and since it was also a newsagent you could buy a newspaper whilst borrowing your copy of Husbands and Wives. It’s the place were I hired all of the Star Trek I watched over an extended period and the shop is still there; the VHS gave way to DVD, but it’s still battling along against Lovefilm and Blockbuster. Here it is on Google Street View:
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Now Before we talk about the things you’re supposed to talk about in relation to Husbands and Wives, I wanted to mention the fairly huge, inadvertent mental derail early in the film. It’s from during one of Woody’s confessional moments and if you know anything about British politics …
PROF. GABRIEL ‘GABE’ ROTH:
One time, many years ago...
...I was living with this fabulous, interesting woman...
...named Harriet Harmon.
I'm ashamed to say this, but Harriet Harmon...
...was the great love of my life.
It was a very passionate relationship. I loved her very intensely.
And, you know, we just made love everywhere.
She was sexually carnivorous.
We did it in stalled elevators...
...and in bushes and people's houses, at parties in the bathroom.
In the back of cars, she'd put a coat on our laps...
...and grab my hand and stick it between her legs.
She was really something.
And she, you know, she was highly libidinous.
You know? She wanted to make love with other women.
She got into dope for a while. She'd break that thing...
...that you sniff when she'd have her orgasm.
I was getting a real education.
I was fascinated. I was absolutely nuts about her.
And ultimately she wound up in an institution.
I mean, it's not funny, it was a very sad thing.
She was great, but nuts.
We see Harriet. She’s played by the wonderfully named Galaxy Craze and has something of the Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction about her. But it doesn’t really help. Once you’ve heard the name, this Harriet permiates your brain, everything else Gabe has to say about their relationship is unintentionally funny.
Theoretically the last of his tent pole relationship dramas and some have said the last of his truly great films (though of course I’d disagree) Husbands and Wives is more famous for what was occurring behind the scenes in the private lives of Mia and Woody. The gossip, tittle-tattle, whys and wherefores are covered in this admittedly rather good contemporary Entertainment Weekly cover story which sets out the basics and highlights the synchronicities.
If the story had broken now, in this TMZ/Perez Hilton/Twitter media-saturated gossip environment, I can’t imagine Woody’s career would have continued in the same way, since people these days seem to believe the first thing they read, no matter what proper facts are revealed to be further down the line. The original rumour as reported in at EW article is shocking; the truth simply sounds like the plot of a Woody Allen film, almost this one in fact. Nevertheless, I do know people who say they hate his films because they still believe he’s, um, King of the Glitterland. Oh, the arguments.
Husbands and Wives isn’t an easy film to love yet I’ll spend a few more paragraphs than usual explaining why I do. There’s nothing especially original about these stories. Like September or Interiors, this is just a middle class soap opera. Although there are funny moments, there’s plenty of polite and not so polite cruelty in abeyance as the main characters emotionally slam into each other, melodramatically failing to comprehend that it’s their own self-centred selfishness and self-destructive personalities which are stopping them from having a quiet, happy life. Only when a storm comes and literally cools them off do they realise that it’s thought not action which is required, generosity of spirit and modicum of understanding.
It’s also oddly structured. The confessionals suggest a kind of faux-documentary but the rest of the film is very much from the third person. When lawyer series This Life employed a similar trick of having its characters comment on the action, it made very clear that they were addressing a psychologist and not breaking the fourth wall. But like the later French romance Une liaison pornographique which accesses the same device (and the voiceovers in Hannah and Her Sisters), you accept it as the narrative trick that allows us a way into the psychology of the characters or arbitrarily close off the stories at the end. We don’t ask who Harry and Sally (and all of the other characters) are supposed to be talking to at the close of that film.
Carlo Di Palma’s frenetic photography, which also suggests documentary, mirrors the emotional wretching. Woody disingenuously says that he wanted to make a film which was about content over style, but in playing everything in long takes and shooting with handheld cameras he gives the film very particularly style. At one stage, the characters are captured on a street corner through the window of a taxi passing them at high speed. The opening five minute scene in which the camera careens about the tiny apartment attempting to capture all of the important action and acting is far cry from the carefully composed shots of Shadows & Fog but still, it’s a stylistic choice and seems more so as the film progresses and the camera slows down and is almost locked off by the end.
I remember seeing a review of the film with Barry Norman at the time of release and he was obsessed with this camera work, concerned that it might cause sea sickness in the audience. Now, especially on television, it’s become something of a cliché, turning up in sitcom and drama. Even history documentaries or Panarama look like the cameraman purposefully had a pint or two before shooting began to just get the right look. Except in most cases, while they might think that crashing the camera across David Starkey or Jeremy Vine’s face makes the programme visually interesting, its really just a distraction. In the best dramas, like Husbands and Wives, this kind of hand-held camera work should reflect the characters or aid the storytelling.
Judy Davis is a force of nature, her fiery eyes bursting from a pallid face that suggests Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The storm at the close of the film is supposed to mirror the angry moment when she discovers that her husband has moved in with the other woman. Lyssette Anthony is a similar revelation, especially considering this was rush released the same year as her appearance as Miss Scarlett in the ITV gameshow version of Cluedo (alongside Tom Baker as Professor Plum!). There aren’t many actresses who can convincingly fulfil the brief of playing a character who is supposed to be academically inclined and yet also totally vacuous as does here. Liam Neason also appears, relatively early in his career at a time when he was otherwise still playing characters called “Man” and Juliette Lewis in the period just after Cape Fear when she was the hottest young actress in Hollywood.
But this is also, of course, for obvious reasons, Mia’s final film with Woody. I don’t agree with Spignesi that you can identify what was shot before and after the unfortunate incident. Her character is supposed to be emotionally drawn in the places when she looks like she hasn’t slept, so I think, perhaps naively, that it’s more likely a job of acting. But it seems fitting, if ironic, that she would close this decade long collaboration playing a wife who separates from her husband who happens to be played by Woody. As I said the other day, having originally watched the films in isolation I’d thought that Mia’s performances were roughly the same. What I’ve discovered is that she is an actress of surprising range, from gangster moll to cocktail waitress. Luckily, for reasons that will become apparent, Husbands and Wives won’t be the last time I’ll be seeing her in action.
Posted on Monday, March 29, 2010
Then By 1997 I was down on my luck. I’d graduated from university the year before and, with the exception of three torturous weeks at HMV had enjoyed over twelve months of stunning unemployment. Eventually I was looking for any work and found myself travelling out to West Kirby for an interview at a job centre to work at the job centre. It was one of the quickest interviews of my life. The employer just seemed to ask me my name, where I was from, what my degree had been and that was that. If I hadn’t had to wait twenty minutes before being seated I would have been in and out in five. Outside was the weekly street market and its here that I bought an ex-rental copy of Shadows and Fog.
Now When I was much younger, before my Dad retired, he was the key-holder for the business where he worked. Sometimes if the burglar alarm malfunctioned or if a robber had genuinely attempted to break into the place, he’d be woken up by the police in the middle of the night and have to go down there to turn the cacophony off. I’d sometimes go along to keep him company and we’d find ourselves standing in a Liverpool side street at three o’clock in the morning.
This was quite some time before the concept of twenty-four cities had become currency so the area was deserted and only illuminated by the odd street light. The city at the time of night was an unreal, artificial place, almost like I imagined a film set must be without the people, the hustle and bustle. Every change in light source would seem significant, every noise surprising and not a little bit frightening. I usually wondered what kind of support I was offering as I yelped with fear.
That’s precisely the atmosphere, Woody succeeds in creating in Shadows and Fog and even mentions a feeling similar to mine in the dialogue as his character Kleinman guides Mia’s sword swallower to safety. For once, the title of the film describes its visual look. In this city, created on the biggest film set ever placed in New York, characters slip in and out of shadows or find their environment obscured by a pea-souper, often reduced to silhouette, unable to tell who they may bump into.
Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma is very specifically referencing the look of films of Lang, Murnau and Pabst and the German Expressionists in general, where buildings and even the features on human faces become abstract shapes open to interpretation. That means there’s also something of the Hitchock in here too; as the mob head onto Klienman’s trail, I was reminded of climax to The Lodger which isn’t surprising considering that Hitch’s stock storyline is of the wrongly accused man attempting to clear his name by catching the real hoodlum.
If anything the only problem with the film is that in parodying Kafka in a similar vein to Love and Death’s evisceration of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it’s pulling in all kinds of directions and trying to cover almost too much ground in its eighty minutes. Another director would have filling out an entire running time with the brothel or the lynch mobs or the circus and have and yet Woody has them all interacting with one another. But perhaps that’s its genius. How many other directors would look at Murnau’s Sunrise and wonder what it would be like to have Chaplin wander through?
How many directors for that matter would look at Madonna and think that she’d be perfect for the small role of the tightrope walker? And she is, this being from her Louise Brooks period when she had a charismatic onscreen presence (also visited upon for A League of their Own). This is another film filled to the rafters with a kind of casting porn, with the likes of Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates as prostitutes and John Cusack as their student client, John Malkovich as a clown and even Donald Pleasence as surgeon.
It also sees the return of the cartoon figure who populated those earlier funnier ones, albeit with deeper philosophical underpinnings. Stig Bjorkman suggests it the older character from his then contemporary films, but towards the end he offers a particular smile and years drop away from him; he’s not the man who sat crumpled at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors. As Allen tells Bjorkman, “this is what I’ve been fooling with for a while now, the attempt to try and make comedies that have serious or tragic dimension to them.”
This one of the few occasions when he gets it right.
TV Having annunciated the European theatre of World War II in the mini-series Band of Brothers, producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks turn their attention to the opposite end of the Earth with The Pacific, based on the memoirs of two soldiers, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie.
It’s the story of their war and that of legendary US marine John Basilone and the first two episodes, which I was able to watch on preview disc tonight, describe (although frankly that’s an understatement) the Battles of the Tenaru and Henderson Field in which US forces defended a tiny speck of an island from Japanese assault.
Despite being the most expensive television series ever produced according to the publicity materials (around $230 million or the entire year's drama budget for the BBC), The Pacific is still fairly generic, invoking decades of screen mythology from Hell In The Pacific right through to John Woo's underrated The Windtalkers and the Eastwood Iwo-Jima duology.
War film enthusiasts are unlikely to find much that will surprise them and in adapting the material, Bruce McKenna doesn’t offer a revisionist approach; readers of Commando comics will be well served by the heroism on display and at this early stage, the Japanese (with the exception of one poignant scene) are largely the faceless enemy they must have seemed from a rank and file soldier's POV.
All of which said, it’s still bloody exciting and excitingly bloody. Most of the giant mechanical elements of the campaign, the opposing navies attempting to sink each other’s ships happen off screen or in the very distant view of the soldiers we’re embedded with allowing us to understand the hierarchy of war, its parallel fronts and how the big campaign picture was inevitably obscured for those on the found.
We’re witnessing the fragility of these men’s lives and how walking to the left or right could lead to a random fatality. As in the Omaha beachhead opening of Saving Private Ryan, characters die with such rapidity that like the marines we're almost afraid to make friends or have favourites in case they don’t make it through to the next skirmish or scene.
The mechanisms of war are also exposed in a detail I’ve not seen before. We’re shown how one section of the US force was better supplied by another, not just with food but equipment leading to inter-departmental looting, demonstrating that the narrative shortcuts presented in too many films of well stocked battalions were a fallacy even then.
We’re also very aware that weapons these men carried were cumbersome and designed for use in the kind of optimal situations that simply didn’t exist on the ground. Most often they dwarf their carriers and when a machine gun has to be repositioned, it’s still hot from firing and lifting it in the desperation of conflict in order to provide cover elsewhere will lead to third degree burns.
Judging by these first two episodes, the rest of the series should also demonstrate the repetition of these soldiers lives, the relentless shift from one horrible situation to the next and in the Sledge character (played by Joe Mazzello who was the boy in Jurassic Park grown up) who is just signing up at the close of these episodes the gap between the dream of fighting for one’s country and the horrific reality.
The Pacific is on Sky Movies from 9pm on Easter Monday (and hopefully dvd, blu-ray and free to air television some time after).
Then My original recording of Scenes From A Mall is from the middle of the night on ITV in 1999. I remember watching it the following afternoon but not really being able to pay attention to it, being distracted. I can’t remember why. But it was August. August is a strange month.
Now As this rather good contemporary interview with director Paul Mazursky explains, he wanted to make a film about a mall because he was interested in investigating what psychological effect they're having on people and also see what a broken marriage would be like in an atmosphere were a couple could talk about issues that they couldn’t touch on at home. He was running through ideas for couples and even though he didn’t write the script with them in mind, fairly quickly focused on Woody and Bette Midler. He seems quite surprised that Allen agreed to do it, but when he spoke to the agent they share, Woody was apparently keen to make some money and liked the script.
The result is a kind of anti-Woody Allen film. For a start it’s set in Los Angeles, a place which the director consistently insulted across all of his films and largely replaces the high culture of jazz and classical music with rap music and barbershop quartets. It’s also structurally far simpler than any of Allen's work, closer to one of the Richard Linklater Before Sunsomething films, the entire story motoring across a very short slice of time in the couple's life. Woody's character, Nick Fiffer is a rude, insensitive consumerist, confident to a fault and totally lacking in the psychoanalysis which underpins nearly all of Woody’s earlier roles – which is ironic given that his wife is a psychoanalyst (or the reason?).
And yet, despite what Mazursky may have had in mind about casting Woody against type, this is still the same figure that’s populated dozens of his own films. He’s Woody Allen! He was Woody Allen in his last appearance as an actor only (not counting King Lear) in The Front, just less amusing. To cast Woody against type, you would have to place him with a restrictive genre based role as a doctor or lawyer or detective and make the story about procedure rather than character, stripping away the verbal ticks, the gesticulations. Sure he’s mean, yes, he swears, and for first time he plays the adulterer, and he wears Italian suits rather than corduroy but his verbal sparring with Bette just demonstrates how alive he was playing against Diane Keaton in the Annie Hall days.
Which isn’t to say this isn’t a job of acting. Though there is clearly some improvisation – see the bath scene – Woody was apparently very circumspect about the script asking politely about making changes – he’s not like Tom Baker steamrollering in with his own ideas when it looks like he’s not the star. He even has second billing to Midler in the credits. Apparently he hadn’t stepped foot in a mall until the first day of shooting and didn’t know how an escalator worked. But that doesn’t show. And the chemistry with Midler is wonderful. If anything, it’s Midler who at the time was working against expectations in a beautifully poised, understated role. She’s the real surprise. In an award strewn career it’s probably this one she should have been recognised for.