Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Scenes From A Mall (1991)

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.

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