Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lay of the Land

The CW Post Philosophy Department is sponsoring a discussion on Another Woman at Long Island University. If you're in the area, do attend. Promotion for the event includes descriptions of Another Woman as "classic" and "extraordinary." All true, but such descriptions have us thinking.

A word about Another Woman: Over time this film has gained esteem to the point that one frequently sees it on a short list of Allen's best films or as discussion fodder for "masterpieces" or "must sees" or sundry other similar descriptions. Allen has created an inordinate number of films that could be described in this way. That is, there is a delayed genius to some of his work that is best appreciated a decade or two down the line. And there are others, such as the aimless A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, that simply fade with time.

The Masterpieces
What Allen films are considered his masterpieces? Depends on who you ask, but the ones we've seen listed are Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979) , Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), and Bullets Over Broadway (1994).

To the list of masterpieces, some would like to add Alice (1990), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Match Point (2005), and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). But the merits of these films are controverted. Or, in the case of the latter two, too recent to accurately assess. Although, the early returns on Match Point and VCB are good.

The first list is not set in stone, and some of those films will gradually decline in acclaim just as they've gradually increased in favor since the time of their initial release. The second list is in flux, some of its members will rise to masterpiece status while others will fall to the ranks of the good but ultimately forgettable.

Good, but Ultimately Forgettable
Most of his early comedies are considered good to great, but are thought of more for their component sketches than the composite whole. Others in this category are Broadway Danny Rose (1984), September (1987), Oedipus Wrecks (1989), Shadows and Fog (1992), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Celebrity (1998) and Melinda and Melinda (2004). Had Melinda and Melinda received the patient treatment of two proper features released concurrently, it could have been a triumph. We'll hold out hope that Allen will re-work this screenplay into two separate full length plays.

Two Recent Curiosities
Allen has two films--Anything Else and Cassandra's Dream--of which he thinks highly, despite the responses registered by critics and the box office. We agree with him, and think that both Anything Else and Cassandra's Dream are good to great films that will receive a positive posthumous re-evaluation.

Merely Mediocre
Finally, Allen has made a handful of merely mediocre movies--a list of films that are obviously flawed and not up to his standard. This list includes What's New, Pussycat? (1965), What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Small Time Crooks (2000), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Hollywood Ending (2002), and Scoop (2006).

Notice how many of the mediocre films have come this decade--in other words, this is why critics refer to the 2000s as Allen's period of decline. It's difficult to imagine scenarios wherein Crooks, Scorpion, Ending or Scoop will receive a revival. Their flaws are too prominent and the overall production too poor. For example, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion will be forever hobbled by Allen assuming the role of the lead character--a failed idea from start to last.

The shame in this is that all of these films are built around a clever idea that really could have won audiences. The premises of Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending are hilarious. But, for a variety of reasons, the movies just don't come off. Much like Melinda and Melinda, Small Time Crooks could see successful rebirth as a stage production. In another medium these two films may have been heralded "works of genius." In the main, the failures from this decade are hopelessly irredeemable as films. They're amazingly witty otherwise.

In terms of literature, Allen has penned a handful of masterful plays and stories. This list includes early plays Don't Drink the Water (1969) and Play It Again, Sam (1972); one-acts God and Death; early short stories A Look at Organized Crime, The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers, Mr. Big, The Whore of Mensa, If the Impressionist Were Dentist, Lovborg's Women Reconsidered, The Kugelmass Episode and The Shallowest Man. In our opinion, his best play is 1981's The Floating Light Bulb. Finally, his recent adaptation of Gianni Schicci opened to unanimous praise.

And to think, we hate lists.

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