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The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen

Peter Bailey

Publication Year: 2001

For three decades, no American filmmaker has been as prolific—or as paradoxical—as Woody Allen. From Play It Again, Sam (1972) through Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Allen has produced an average of one film a year, yet in many of these films Allen reveals a progressively skeptical attitude toward both the value of art and the cultural contributions of artists. In examining Allen’s filmmaking career, The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen demonstrates that his movies often question whether the projected illusions of magicians/artists benefit audience or artists. Other Allen films dramatize the opposed conviction that the consoling, life-redeeming illusions of art are the best solution humanity has devised to the existential dilemma of being a death-foreseeing animal. Peter Bailey demonstrates how Allen’s films repeatedly revisit and reconfigure this tension between image and reality, art and life, fabrication and factuality, with each film reaching provisional resolutions that a subsequent movie will revise. Merging criticism and biography, Bailey identifies Allen's ambivalent views of the artistic enterprise as a key to understanding his entire filmmaking career. Because of its focus upon filmmaker Sandy Bates’s conflict between entertaining audiences and confronting them with bleak human actualities, Stardust Memories is a central focus of the book. Bailey’s examination of Allen’s art/life dialectic also draws from the off screen drama of Allen’s very public separation from Mia Farrow, and the book accordingly construes such post-scandal films as Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite as Allen’s oblique cinematic responses to that tabloid tempest. By illuminating the thematic conflict at the heart of Allen's work, Bailey seeks not only to clarify the aesthetic designs of individual Allen films but to demonstrate how his oeuvre enacts an ongoing debate the screenwriter/director has been conducting with himself between creating cinematic narratives affirming the saving powers of the human imagination and making films acknowledging the irresolvably dark truths of the human condition.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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For Frances Weller Bailey,

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

Photofest provided the stills used in this book; Ron Mandelbaum was very helpful in making Photofest's trove of Woodiana available to me. Thanks to St. Lawrence University for providing support for this project in the form of sabbatical leave and research grants. It has been my privilege to teach at St. Lawrence ...

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1 That Old Black Magic Woody Allen's Ambivalent Artistry

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pp. 3-18

Deconstructing Harry opens with what is probably the raunchiest joke Woody Allen has committed to film. Ken (Richard Benjamin) and his sister-in-law, Leslie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are having an affair; while their respective families are down by the lake enjoying a picnic, the lovers are inside his house, copulating ...

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2 Strictly the Movies: Play It Again, Sam

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pp. 19-32

All it would have taken was a single moviegoer. It's 1972, and that lone film enthusiast enters a theater hardly a minute after the feature's published starring time. Although he's read nothing about it, he is looking forward to watching Play It Again, Sam. Instead of the new Woody Allen-scripted film,

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3 Getting Serious: The Antimimetic Emblems of Annie Hall

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pp. 33-46

From its opening sample of Rick and lisa's farewell scene to its dosing comic revision of Michael Curtiz's famous denouement, Play It Again, Sam is thoroughly preoccupied with Casablanca; what Allen's film isn't, as previously indicated, is a parody of Casablanca. Rather than merely exaggerating the melodrama ...

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4 Art and Idealization: I'll Fake Manhattan

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pp. 47-58

The idea that, as Garp phrases it in John Irving's The World According to Garp, "Fiction"--and thus, art in general--"has to be better made than life,"' is one of the central tenets of Modernism, a concept which, in a roundabout way, assumes the compensatory capacity of aesthetic creation and the superiority ...

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5 Strictly the Movies II: How Radio Days Generated Nights at the Movies

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pp. 59-70

In Manhattan, Isaac Davis is, as was Allen at the time, in the process of creating an artistic document culturally anatomizing Manhattan, one deliberately romanticizing its subject. The similarity of the artistic projects of Isaac and Allen--"Chapter One," Isaac/Allen opens the film without identifying himself ...

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6 Life Stand Still Here: Interiors Dialogue

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pp. 71-84

The art form celebrated in Radio Days is clearly a popular medium, and it is one of the significant characteristics of Allen's films that, as a component of their focus upon the life/art conflict, they consistently affirm popular culture over serious art. A major dramatic tension in Stardust Memories exists ...

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7 In the Stardust of a Song: Stardust Memories

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pp. 85-100

Anyone who has heard a Woody Allen monologue or watched one of his films is familiar with Kleinman's rhetorical strategy, the same one employed by Sandy Bates in telling Isobel "You can't control life, it doesn't wind up perfectly. Only--only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an ...

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8 Woody's Mild Jewish Rose: Broadway Danny Rose

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pp. 101-112

Perhaps "bores" is an inordinately harsh term with which to describe them, but the comedians who gather at the Carnegie Delicatessen in the opening scene of Broadway Danny Rose to trade borscht belt jokes, kibitz about the old days on the New York stand-up comedy circuit, and compete with each other to tell ...

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9 The Fine Art of Living Well: Hannah and Her Sisters

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pp. 113-130

This dilemma is so repeatedly invoked in Allen's films that it has practically come to seem a familiar Woody one-liner, a predictable component of the repository of jokes we watch his movies to enjoy. It's part whine, part existential interrogation. Mickey Sachs (Allen), the producer of a television show ...

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10 If You Want a Hollywood Ending: Crimes and Misdemeanors

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pp. 131-144

If it's difficult to identify the Woody Allen film ending that least approximates the morally consonant, emotionally gratifying closure of Broadway Danny Rose, it's not because there's a shortage of candidates. Manhattan and Stardust Memories close on resonantly discordant notes of irresolution and human isolation, ...

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11 Everyone Loves Her/His Illusions: The Purple Rose of Cairo and Shadows and Fog

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pp. 145-160

Stardust Memories dramatizes the contradictory agendas of anistic purposes from the maker's perspective; The Purple Rose of Cairo delineates them from the vantage point of the viewer. As one of the most infatuated of the millions upon whom screen illusions are intended to work their magic, Cecilia is confronted ...

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12 Poetic License, Bullshit: Bullets Over Broadway

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pp. 161-172

One of the limitations of the allegorical mode of Shadows and Fogis that the necessarily abstract assertion the film makes about the human dependency upon art allows it to provide only a minimum of insight into the nature of the magic illusions on which its conclusion turns. (The German Expressionist films ...

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13 Let's Just Live It: Woody Allen in the 1990s

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pp. 173-182

Let Bullets Over Broadway exemplify the ambivalence of Woody Allen's attitude toward art in the 1990s. The movie enacts David Shayne's realization that his only hope of redemption from the corruptions to which artistic ambition is heir necessitates renouncing the theater and fleeing with Ellen to Pittsburgh to ...

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14 Because It's Real Difficult in Life: Husbands and Wives

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pp. 183-198

Now that the protracted media paroxysm with which Husbands and Wives was so inextricably linked has receded into whatever part of the national memory it is in which we store yesterday's scandals, it's more difficult to perceive the movie as the source of extreme discomfort that so many of its reviewers described ...

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15 Rear Condo: Manhattan Murder Mystery

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pp. 199-210

The projection of human need upon reality's ceaseless flux and the subsequent, inevitable disillusionment of that effort often dramatized by Allen's films is most eloquently described by a physicist, Lloyd (Jack Warden), in September. Asked what he sees when he looks out into the universe, Lloyd replies, ...

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16 That Voodoo That You Do So Well: Mighty Aphrodite

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pp. 211-222

The mystery underlying Mighty Aphrodite is not, as it is in Manhattan Murder Mystery, generically but genetically coded. Allen was inspired to write the film's screenplay by thinking about the legally indeterminable heredity of Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Dylan, and the fact that the child would never know ...

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17 And What a Perfect Plot: Everyone Says I Love You and Zelig

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pp. 223-240

Allen's implicit self-appointment as a devotee of the goddess of love in Mighty Aphrodite--his declaration representing more of a reenlistment than a new commitment--involves him in a contradiction which the films he has yet to make will find extremely difficult to resolve. Acknowledging the differences between ...

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18 How We Choose to Distort It: Deconstructing Harry

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pp. 241-254

It's one of the oddities of Allen's film oeuvre that his primary objection to the perception of art in Western culture is so seldom directly articulated in his movies. Renata, the poet of Interiors, offers its most explicit summation in asking her analyst, "I mean, just what am I striving to create, anyway? I mean, ...

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19 From the Neck Up: Another Woman and Celebrity

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pp. 255-266

As Woody Allen prepared to enter the twenty-first century, he was not a sanguine spectator of the realm of cell phones, facial makeovers, and celebrity worship he believed New York City had become. Whereas in Manhattan he had dramatically juxtaposed breathtaking vistas of the city and the soaring melodies ...

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20 Allen and His Audience: Sweet and Lowdown

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pp. 267-278

No element of Woody Allen's filmmaking career has been more markedly Modernist than his aesthete's principled inattentiveness to the issue of audience. Allen's interviews proliferate with genial disavowals of accountability to his audience, with affirmations of his greater commitment to craft than to ...


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pp. 279-310


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pp. 311-316


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pp. 317-324

E-ISBN-13: 9780813128399
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813121673

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2001