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February 02, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Newspaper and media buffs should enjoy this piece by Slate's Jack Shafer about technological change and newspaper publishing, as well as this Shafer ode to the visual glories of Joseph Pulitzer's The World on Sunday.

* Steve Sailer thinks Woody Allen may be the Pete Rose of filmmaking.

* Paul Worthington wonders what it means for a comic book to be "mainstream."

* Interviews with film editors are all too rare. Here's a good (if too-short) one with the excellent Paul Hirsch, who has worked with Brian De Palma, Herbert Ross, and George Lucas.

* European TV ads are often so snappy that I sometimes watch them feeling a little ashamed for being American. Do we really have no sense of style? In any case, here's a dazzling recent British advert.

* I'm not fond of the mixture of pathos and whimsy in this short film from France. But the computer-animation work is certainly impressive.

* Currently doing battle with breast cancer, Minerva lists Five Things She Hates About Cancer, and Five Things She's Learned From Cancer. An especially refreshing couple of lines: "I am NOT going to pander to the 'optimism' brigade. Cancer stinks."

* Shouting Thomas captures a lot of cheery images -- happy people and brawny machines -- from the recent motorcycle show at the Javits Center.

* Given how badly Princeton University has disfigured its lovely campus with chic new buildings in recent decades, it's a relief to learn that the school's administration has had the sense to commission some work from New Classicists too. Slate's Witold Rybczynski gives the thumbs-up to the first of these projects to reach completion -- Allan Greenberg's addition to Richard Morris Hunt's Aaron Burr Hall.

* Michael Bierut thinks that the recently-deceased soul legend Wilson Pickett had some wisdom to share with designers. I think it's first-rate wisdom to be shared with all artsies.

* Rod Lott suspects that we may be entering a golden age of zombie fiction.



posted by Michael at February 2, 2006


The Coen brothers' secret is the same as Allen's. They're very efficient workers, and thus cheap. No sex scandals though.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2006 6:47 PM

Not yet, anyway!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 2, 2006 7:03 PM

From Sailer:

"None of Woody Allen's three dozen movies has made much over 40 million dollars at the box office... Yet Woody's reputation among film critics and Academy Award voters remains curiously exalted."

Is anyone else irked by the implications of the word "Yet" in this sentence?

Posted by: Brian on February 2, 2006 9:03 PM

I have trouble dealing with 40 mil being a small amount of money, too.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2006 9:52 PM

I read it about dinnertime and have been thinking about it for a while. The gentleman obviously appreciates Allen less than I, but I can't disagree with the general thrust of the piece. He does compare Allen to Pete Rose, after all, who was not a shabby ballplayer. Even accounting for differences in taste and eras, I don't think Allen has made a movie as great as Double Indemnity or the Apartment. Few people have. Allen has made a number of what I would call perfect short stories:Purple Rose of Cairo could not be improved, yet still feels like a miniature compared to the English Patient, a movie I like less.

Of course the box office criticism is absurd. I think Allen comes in at most at 5-10 million in costs, and I suspect most of his movies are eventually profitable.

Why does the Academy love him? His subject matter, his love of actors and the scripts that provide the kind of opportunities actors enjoy. His astonishing 40 years of independence. I wonder if Woody has ever made a single change in a movie because of financial pressure. Even Altman can't say that.

It is a very idiosyncratic, even strange body of work. Neither commercial or arthouse. Save for the glory years of the 70s, I admire it more than enjoy it. Unsurpassed craft with mediocre inspiration.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 3, 2006 12:45 AM

There's nothing mediocre about the inspiration behind "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Posted by: jult52 on February 3, 2006 10:06 AM

By Sailer's argument, Peter Frampton (who sold a ton of albums in a couple of years)would trump a dozen better musicians.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 3, 2006 10:51 AM

I suspect we might be making a little too much of Steve's "yet" ... Maybe he's just suggesting that connecting-occasionally-with-an-audience is something that might be taken into account.

Anyway, am I alone in thinking that 90% of Woody Allen's movies plain-out stink? Post-"Manhattan," nearly all of them strike me as compulsive (in a workaholic sense) and lazy (in an artistic/entertainment sense). He barely seems to bother to stage or light anything, and the actors all wind up doing lame imitations of Woody Allen. (I've met a few actors who've worked for him, and even though Woody's got a rep, the reality of acting for him isn't very pleasant. He barely communicates at all with most of them, just lets them hang out to dry ...) And the writing ... Well, half an idea seems like a generous way of describing the impulse behind most of the films. To me, anyway.

My own theory about why his rep hasn't crashed is that the press (and critics) relate to him. He's their guy -- they identify with him. He's bookish, nerdy, art-aware ... He seems to scorn the whole "entertainment" side of filmmaking while having some talent for it (which he undervalues) ... He shows you can be an intellectual nerd yet get the girl and make the French adore you ... But who knows, maybe they really enjoy his films. I can't see how or why, myself, but maybe that's me ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2006 11:13 AM

"I suspect we might be making a little too much of Steve's 'yet'".

Maybe. I might be oversensitive from spending too much time on the IMDB forums, where the ad populem argument "If this film is so good why didn't it make any money?" is all too common. Anyhow, it irks me.

"My own theory about why his rep hasn't crashed is that the press (and critics) relate to him. He's their guy -- they identify with him."

Your idea of identification is probably on the money. We might call it the Sideways Factor. But I think this identification has been having negative results as well. One of the more common attacks on him nowadays seems to be resentment over the fact that hes had the impertinence to get old. How dare he! I think this criticism is the flip side of the affection, in a weird way. Another criticism is a rather bizarre feeling of betrayal that he's not the untermensch superman his fans once thought he was. The psychology of fandom is a strange thing, ain't it? (Some rather bizarre reactions to that rather bizarre article are here.)

And yet, in spite of their identification, one of the main reasons I like Woody Allen is for satirizing the very culture he's supposed to be a part of; the academic intellectual poindexter type. You know:

"People who sit on the floor with wine and cheese and mispronounce allegorical and didacticism."


"There's Henry Drucker. He has a chair in history at Princeton. Oh, and the short man is Hershel Kaminsky. He has a chair in philosophy at Cornell.

Yeah? Two more chairs they got a dining room set.

Why are you so hostile?"

Or this line, which I use a lot:

"Where did April come up with terms like 'organic form'? Well, naturally. She went to Brandeis."

And then of course there's everyone's favorite professor of TV, Media, & Culture:

"We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday; it was not one of his best. It lacked a cohesive structure, you know, you get the feeling that he's not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say. Of course, I've always felt he was, essentially, a technical filmmaker. Now granted, La Strada was a great film, great in its use of negative imagery more than anything else. But that simple cohesive core. Like all that Juliet of the Spirits, or Satyricon. I find it incredibly... indulgent. You know, he really is, he's one of the most indulgent film makers. It's like Samuel Beckett, you know - I admire the technique but it doesn't hit me on a gut level."

I can't even type it without howling.

"Anyway, am I alone in thinking that 90% of Woody Allen's movies plain-out stink?"

I hope so!

"He barely seems to bother to stage or light anything"

The argument that he's not a visual filmmaker is an old one. I think he is, but in a subtle way.

One of my favorite examples of Woody's visual style is a scene from Another Woman. Gena Rowlands is visiting and old flame, played by Harris Yulin, to patch up their relationship, but he will have none of it. The conversation is filmed entirely in medium-closeup singles, without any of the two-shots that might allow one character to intrude into the other one's space. There's even a time when Yulin gets up to cross the room, a move which forces him to walk past the chair where Rowlands is sitting. The camera follows him across the room, tilting up and panning right over her head, then going over her again as he walks back to his chair, never once allowing her to enter into "his" frame. So this relationship isn't going to get put back together anytime soon. That kind of thing - the visual presentation of relationship - is the essence of his visual style I think, and it often goes unnoticed even by his fans. Another thing to look at is the way he blocks his actors, concealing or revealing them from the camera depending on their openness or secretiveness in the scene.

I have a friend who did a thesis on Otto Preminger, another director who has been criticised for not being cinematic. This friend took the view that Preminger simply told the kind of stories which required two-shots and the occasional closeup, so why should he have used anything else?

I've met a few actors who've worked for him, and even though Woody's got a rep, the reality of acting for him isn't very pleasant.

Ah, but it sounds very pleasant to me. My favorite-ever boss was the guy who took an hour to show me how the equipment worked, then disappeared for a full three months! I still don't know where he went. (Which actors did you meet?)

He barely communicates at all with most of them, just lets them hang out to dry.

True, but he spins that as Giving Them Their Freedom:

"People often ask me what is the secret of directing actors, and they always think I'm being facetious when I answer that all you have to do is hire talented people and let them do their work. But it's true. A lot of directors tend to overdirect their actors, and the actors indulge them because, well, they like being overdirected. They like having endless discussions about the part; they like to intellectualize the whole process of creating a character. And often, that's how they.... lose their sponteneity. I think the actors, and probably the director too, feel guilty about doing something that comes so easy and so natural to them, and so they try to make it more complex to justify being paid for it....So, in any case, whenever one of my films comes out, people are always amazed by how brilliant the acting is - the actors themselves are amazed at how brilliant their acting is, and they treat me like a hero! But the fact is, they're the ones who have done all the work."

That's from this book, BTW.

Cripe! This became a long post, didn't it. I could talk about The Woodman all day.

Anyway, what the hell do I know; I liked Alice.

Posted by: Brian on February 3, 2006 10:21 PM

Dude, you're hardcore! I had no idea.

Yeah, I think there's a big the-twain-shall-never meet gap between those who are really touched by Woody and those who thought he was once a pretty funny guy and what happened to that? I never had any deep feelings about him one way or the other, so much of the passion/virulence passes me completely by. That was a pretty funny Andrew O'Hehir/readers shootout. Thanks for the link. Clueless guy that I am, I look at the brouhaha wondering: What are they reacting to? But obviously Woody really gets to them.

People really do care! I have to remind myself of that occasionally. Come to think of it, it's a good topic for a posting: Filmmakers or novelists who some people care passionately about and feel close to personally whose work just doesn't touch you at all. Maybe you see their talents (or maybe not), but they mean nothing to you. Let's see, for myself: the Coen brothers. Kubrick. Soderburgh. David O. Russell. Tarantino, generally. "Firefly." "Star Wars." Most acclaimed literary novelists, come to think of it. And Woody.

Woody's funny where the "visual" thing is concerned. I think of him less as nonvisual than as just kinda formless. Whenever I check out his movies (not very often, these days), I usually find myself watching actors stomping around doing Mia and Woody, and the camera kind of wandering around after them, and then, with a blast of Dixieland, it's on to the next similar scene. Which may also be evidence that I'm just not getting the genius of it, of course.

Do people really diss the early Preminger for being nonvisual? I can see it with the later Preminger. But "Laura"?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2006 10:41 PM

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