Screening Room: Magazine

Deconstructing Woody

Woody Allen  

It’s hard to believe, today, that What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen’s first film as director, began with a series of James Bondian action scenes (flamethrowers! murderous discs with serrated edges!).

Harder to believe still, given this director’s generally all-white casts, the film featured Japanese actors, speaking Japanese, and was set in Japan.

But soon, we cut to a studio, where an interviewer attempts to make sense of the (apparent) madness. Allen explains that he took a Japanese spy thriller and re-dubbed the soundtrack with completely unconnected dialogue that transforms the story into the search for the world’s best egg salad recipe, which has been stolen by a Shepherd Wong.

Sample scene: As part of a briefing to an investigator, a man places a blueprint on a table and says, “This is Shepherd Wong’s home.” The investigator asks, “He lives in that piece of paper?” The man replies, “No you idiot, he’s got a regular house.”

What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which turns 50 this year, is filled with these bits. And quotable lines. “You and your partners will be put into an empty drum, which will then be filled with fat Lithuanian midgets.” “But if all of you in the audience who believe in fairies clap your hands then my gun will be magically filled with bullets.”

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? introduced audiences to a filmmaker who thought like a comedian on crack. The films that followed — Take the Money and Run, Bananas — were equally high on wacky one-liners. From Bananas: “I once stole a pornographic book that was printed in Braille. I used to rub the dirty parts.”

This was the kind of Allen movie the people in Stardust Memories (1980) were referring to when they said, “We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones.” Because in the interim, the “Woody Allen movie” had turned into either wistfully neurotic (or neurotically wistful) takes on relationships, ( Annie Hall, Manhattan), or ultra-serious Bergman homages ( Interiors).

Over the decades, the films turned darker. In Love and Death (1975), existentialism is simply fodder for a great line. (Boris: “Nothingness... non-existence... black emptiness...” Sonja: “What did you say?” Boris: “Oh, I was just planning my future.”) A decade later, in Hannah and her Sisters, Allen plays a hypochondriac, the film’s funniest character, but between the trademark zingers, he looks at joggers in Central Park and wonders, “Look at all these people, trying to stave off the inevitable decay of their bodies.”

Is there another filmmaker — an indisputable great — who has lasted this long, remained this relevant (culturally and artistically), and made this many landmark films that are essentially variations on pet themes?

My favourite Allen theme is “getting away with it.” In Crimes and Misdemeanors, a super-successful ophthalmologist has his clingy mistress murdered. Match Point is essentially the same movie — only, set in London. It’s a business partner, not a mistress, in Cassandra’s Dream — but again, the man who commissions the murder… gets away with it.

These films, to me, feel the most autobiographical, the most confessional, probably because Allen is himself a classic instance of “getting away with it,” not even touched by the enormously icky scandal that erupted when his partner Mia Farrow learnt about his relationship with her adopted daughter. He’s still exceptionally well-regarded. He still gets the best actors, the best craftsmen. His films are still adored by the Oscars. He still gets premieres at Cannes.

Allen has been acquitted by the jury that tried the case, so this isn’t about whether he is guilty but rather about whether he felt a prick of conscience.

Just do the math. Crimes and Misdemeanors was released in October 1989. The scandal erupted in January 1992. All this makes this film the most fascinating, perhaps the most defining, one of his career. It helps that even without the extra-textual infringement, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a chilling examination of a Dostoyevskian dilemma: How does someone who’s not a psychopath live with the knowledge that one has committed a crime?

The film opens with a felicitation ceremony, and the protagonist addresses the adoring gathering: “I remember my father telling me, ‘the eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. I mean, what were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence that I made my speciality ophthalmology.” The people in the room laugh at the unexpected punch line, as do we.

But once we stop laughing, we also wonder if there is a God when crime isn’t always accompanied by punishment.

The talented, successful ophthalmologist’s fate — it isn’t very different from that of a talented, successful director still invited to walk the red carpet at Cannes.

Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’s cinema critic.


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