Monday, April 04, 2011

Woody Allen as a Role Model

I think it was after seeing Vicky Cristina Barcelona that my respect for Woody Allen as a craftsman became truly explicit. I've read somewhere that he makes a movie in a very disciplined, very matter-of-fact way. He spends a few months writing the script. Then he puts a crew together. Then he shoots the movie (always on time and under budget, I just read on somewhere on the internet) and then cuts it and sends it off for distribution. I'm not sure if it's entirely true, but I have this image of Allen making one movie a year for as long as I've been alive, always putting more less the same amount suffering into it. Always prioritizing "getting it done" over some persnickety idea of perfection. (I think I developed this image by reading way, way too much into what he says in this Time interview from 6:55 forward.)

As Juliet Lapidos points out in her recent piece in Slate, this steady process produces very uneven work. But, as she also points out, there is a lot continuity between his films. He always uses the same font for his title credits, for example. And his characters often borrow each others ideas and expressions. (I've always loved watching other actors, like Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh, play "the Woody Allen character", i.e., the central neurotic in the plot.) One gets a sense that each movie is really just a sketch for a much larger, much more "serious" work on the same themes.

It's like he's writing a series of journal articles. One day, we think, he'll write a book. Only he won't. He's got lots of other things to do (like playing music in his jazz band), and, I like to think, he's just fine with making "movies". Though he admires Bergman, he doesn't take film nearly as seriously as a medium. He doesn't imagine that he's doing something very profound or very important. Or, rather, he is counting on the culture to do a great deal of the work for him. His work is very beholden to context.

Whatever Works is a good example. Although it's profoundly about "the meaning of life", it has a very workaday feel to it. It's like the actors just sort of showed up on the set and delivered their lines, competently but not brilliantly. It's a like a pretty good night during the run of a play. And the movie itself often has the artificiality of a play. As a piece of work, it's just, you know, on time and on budget. But as the movie develops, and the characters discover their destinies (and go, largely, from being unhappy to being happy), we just enjoy it all. At the end, we realize we've just been read a good story, and we don't really think too much about the delivery.

I want to be this way about my academic writing. I want to write maybe two papers a year, always following a pretty set form, and largely developing the same set of themes. I have to come them from all kinds of angles, and it a variety of moods (Allen makes comedies and dramas and mockumentaries, etc.) How well each individual paper is received, and how widely it is distributed, shouldn't really matter to me. I'm just trying to make a small 8000-word contribution to the life of the mind. Woody Allen is clearly also "just" trying to entertain. Whatever works.

(This post, like most of my blog posts, also has this workmanlike commitment to its contraints. Not my best work. But a good hour's worth.)


ayeh said...

reminds me of how things worked out for him in "Hollywood Ending"! it seems that many of what we consider as major works of art, intellect, etc. are formed in almost the same ironic way!

Thomas said...

Yes, I suppose we're looking for a "Stockholm Ending" as writers and scientists.

Harvey said...

Nicely done on a usually great director who has not been on his game in a long time (in my opinion). I loved Midnight in Paris, here's my testimony on it: