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Cinematic Shrugs: Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" and Harold Ramis' "Year One"

Above: "Let me explain the world to you," — the directorial attidue of Woody Allen's terrific Whatever Works.

Suddenly I think I may have misjudged Woody Allen.  Around the time of Scoop disturbing suspicions were elicited about the filmmaker simply losing the craft of film, not knowing how to block a scene, compose a shot, edit things together—the basics.  Subsequent movies seemed to confirm the suspicion.  But consecutive viewings of Harold Ramis’ Year One and Allen’s latest film, Whatever Works, prompt a different consideration: maybe these guys just don’t care.  This isn’t a complaint about them; it is the acknowledgement of an attitude.  Whatever Works is one of the most transparent movies I’ve ever seen, it wears its dialog, its actors, its filmmaking, its New York on its sleeve; nearly like a Luc Moullet film, Allen is practicing frontality: everything is so clearly directed at us, presented for us, we cannot ignore it.  That is, perhaps, where complaints about filmmaking practice may spawn from—we can see everything Allen’s giving us—but this time around I got into it: it is much easier to live with a movie that doesn’t care than one that does.  In this context, “naturalism” suddenly means something else entirely.  When we see how awkwardly minimalist Allen's staging of Larry David’s first attempt at suicide in Whatever Works is—first, preceded by a long scene of David 85% blocked from our view because the camera is framing him standing behind a bar counter, then a close-up of the awkward, startled face of David’s wife as we hear an off-camera sound of David jumping out a window—we must sense a rare kind zen acceptance in the cinema.

Year One exhibits similar tendencies, though less successfully.  One realizes the fruitlessness of complaining about a lack of pacing or flat direction, and instead becomes absorbed in how obvious it is when Jack Black falters in his shtick—because then Ramis cuts to Michael Cera, who inevitably saves the moment with some fumbling, mumbling sweetness.  I see and understand it all seems to be the spectator attitude of these movies, which is obviously what so easily would prompt complaints about their deficiencies.  But cinema—like anything else, but especially cinema—is all a matter of perspective.  One must admire these films for their lack of subtlety, which suddenly seems less a byproduct of bad direction than a conscious decision to lay bare.

Ramis’ film, a bit more conceptual with its Christ-era setting, Old Testament references, and paltry Biblical production values, doesn’t give up in exactly the same way as Allen’s film, which has Larry David’s misanthropic “genius” marry a teenage runaway.  Specifically, no film with Jack Black in it can give up all the way, and one feels like it is Black’s nascent energy and momentum that takes Year One down the path of conventionality, magnetically attracting the paltry falseness of messages and romance, both out of place with this tone.  In the Allen film, which is significantly better, New York is paraded like a location default (the same could be said of Year One’s banal deserts, but at least Whatever Works has some color), all the scenes set in David’s Chinatown apartment feel like those recent stage adaptations of Alain Resnais, all stuffy, artificial, and obvious, and any escape to the outside world feel like rehearsals for funnier scenes that don’t rely quite so much on hoary caricatures and are better composed.  But why cloak your film in rich characterization or pictorial beauty when it can just exist naked—why not make a movie with a half-formed imagination and a yell to roll ‘em?

“So what?”—these movies ask.  “Here we are;” deal with it or don’t.  It’s like one big cinematic shrug, aware that they are providing pleasure for some but not most, and are probably pleasing their makers more than their viewers.  “Egotism!” some might cry if these were other filmmakers, if they weren’t making schlumpy comedies, if their affection—slightly warped, it is clear—for the material wasn’t so apparent, if their movies smacked of ambition or pretension.  Maybe it’s coming back from the bloated behemoth of Cannes and being exhausted by the self-important, the conceptual, the stylish, the packaged, and finding a naturally irrational pleasure in movies that showcase their inadequacies, their obsessions, their minor talents and great flaws front and center.  Let’s admire, for a moment, frankness, and these movies—especially Whatever Works—are nothing if not frank.  Frankly inconsequential, which is why they are so fun.

(As a side note, Harris Savides is Allen’s latest attempt at finding a cinemagrapher to inspire him as Gordon Willis and Carlo Di Palma once did.  Suffice to say there are two shots in Whatever Works—of a steadicam following a limping Larry David through the shadows, poetic and hilarious—that may suggest the greatness of recent Gus Van Sant is due to Savides.)

Above: Yup, this is it.  The movie, I mean.  Year One.

interesting ideas… i can’t speak to “year one” or ramis, but i’ve said it often: allen is the laziest autuer on the planet. it would take some serious genius to be that lazy and still pull off as many good films as he’s managed. though hiding nothing kind of precludes the possibility of art. as bresson and others have said, “everything should be shown, or there is no art; art lies in suggestion….” i document my own ideas on film in my film blog:
I don’t even know why you would think to “analyze” Year One. It is one of the worst mainstream films of the year, and one of the least funny comedies in several. Nothing against Ramis, but really, he isn’t in the same ballpark as Allen. Allen’s failures barely impact the effect of his successes. It’s just sad that as he ages, his films get slightly worse. I feel like we know what’s coming, and then can be greatly suprised when a Barcelona comes ’round.
Hi Steve! I wasn’t planning on writing about YEAR ONE until I saw the Allen film and felt like they had a connection.
I think I’m jealous of Allen’s laziness. I like to think of the misses as the rough drafts that are leading up to the next Vicky Christina Barcelona (which I quite liked too, Steve). He just gets to actually release his rough drafts, because: why not? We all still saw it, didn’t we?
Allen is not lazy, nor has he lost his craft, but rather just developed one of his own which stands as a seperate movement from his original carrer. What started off as a filmmaker who had used Bergman as inspiration has found at last his own form. I believe that Allen has not lost anything, if anything his audience have lost the appreciation for a particular ‘new wave’, it is not over complicated art – nor is it trying to be funny – as with Bergman’s work. But rather exploring humanity through this medium. As a small reminder, when ‘Crimes and Mis.’ came out people said Allen had lost his touch… looking back at it now, it is one of his greatest film… In ten years time a new genreation with greet ‘Whatever works’ and the likes of ‘Scoop’, ‘Match Point’ and ’Cassandra’s Dream’ as a new art. A heart felt humanity. This obviouslt ignores ‘Year one’; as they really are unrelated.
Daniel Kasman’s reflections are indeed intriguing, and I cannot dispute that the visual sensibility Woody Allen has put on the screen for a good many films now is not the kind to appeal to every set of eyes— but I do not find in the ‘transparency’ of Scoop and other late Woody films the kind of amateurishness (affected or otherwise) that he finds— though perhaps this is a dissension more of words than sentiments, since he does seem to locate some version of its appeal, a ‘frankness’ that I can agree is there. I found Scoop, and especially Vicki Christina Barcelona, full of charming artifice. With Scoop I felt I could relax somewhat into the fim’s low-key menace better than one can with Match Point, an emotionally draining film that surely demonstrates great command of mise-en-scene. I thought Scoop elegant, and VCB, with its self-consciously unlaconic voice-overs and all of that busy panning from right to left, struck me as very informed in its deliberate use of ‘unsettling’ strategies to place the viewer inside the emotional turbulence, the essential instability, of the girls and their relationships. This is not the classicism of Manhattan, and Woody makes no pretense to Kubrickian perfectionism—but I think he still knows his game, and quite consciously plays it.
I’m with you on SCOOP Exile, I think that’s an under appreciated movie that will rise in esteem as the years pass. Thanks for your comments!

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