Feed the Clown

“My analyst says I exaggerate my childhood memories, but I swear, I was brought up underneath the rollercoaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. […] My father ran the bumper car concession.” Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL.

I don’t know why I was so entranced by the sign saying Feed the Clown in this shot from WONDER WHEEL. Maybe it made me think about the fact that I haven’t given Woody Allen any money in years. Though I didn’t believe Mia and Dylan Farrow’s accusation of child abuse at the time, and now I don’t know what I think, I did stop going to see his films a couple of years later. And the last one I saw on the big screen was BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, which I loved. But obviously something was making me uncomfortable.

On the small screen I have seen only DECONSTRUCTING HARRY and bits of some others. And yet I’ve had long, heated discussions with an online friend who urges me to admit that Allen is guilty, and I won’t, because Mia Farrow weirds me out, and I don’t know these people so I am not required to have a firm opinion, OK? Dylan is obviously completely sincere, her parents less so. If I met any of the principles, I would probably have to form a definite opinion. I don’t have a problem with other people feeling certain.

So I watched WONDER WHEEL and was very impatient with it. The theatrical borrowings were obvious, the repetitive use of two damn songs for the whole movie infuriating, and I was unmoved. It looks AMAZING, but still feels mostly like a bad play.

It looks amazing due to Vittorio Storaro — so amazing that I went on to watch CAFE SOCIETY, which is even worse. Allen plagiarises the romantic triangle of THE APARTMENT and ruins it. He also narrates, which proves to be a big mistake. If we could see him, maybe we could get used to how old he now is. But his mushy-sounding voice, robbed of all its former precision (those over-enunciated Ts, for instance), is just disturbing, because it makes you try to imagine what he looks like. A mumbling memento mori. And he’s too often describing plot developments you get through visuals or dialogue anyway,

Allen has always favoured on-the-nose dialogue. I discussed this with a friend back in the nineties and proposed that maybe it’s OK for Allen characters to talk this way because they’re all in therapy and are used to unpicking their every emotion. But it seems very un-OK for the working class characters of WONDER WHEEL. They might do it, but not like this, and even if we decided it was realistic, it’s not FUN because it removes all subtext and so we don’t get the pleasure of working to understand. That’s where jokes used to be useful, but can Allen still do jokes?

Maybe I do feel he’s guilty — certainly he’s guilty of cheating — because I feel more cross than sorrowful at his apparent loss of facility.

But I have a heap of other Allen films available to watch, so maybe I’ll try some of the more acclaimed ones from a few years back.

Why am I torturing myself?

Oh, and Storaro is at the top of his game, somebody else hire him, quick!

22 Responses to “Feed the Clown”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    To “admit that Woody is guilty” is the Free Pass to Morality proffered by today’s immoral culture. There is utterly NO EVIDENCE that Woody is guilty of molesting anyone. Dylan’s brother Moses has gone on at length about her LIES and that he manipulative and frankly psychotic Mia is behind them. He has been thrown out of her makeshift “family” — the truth is she’s a HOARDER of orphans. But today all one has to do is go on CBS This Morning and declare his guilt of Whatever Mia Wants (see Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” for all the histrionic details) and become part of this culture’s “Special Victims Unit” Woody’s Big Mistake was getting involved with Mia in any way shape or form to begin with. Yes they made several nice films together but the price is too high. Cue Dory Previn!

  2. David Wingrove Says:

    I stuck with Woody Allen for a wee bit longer than you did. The last film of his I really liked was SMALL TIME CROOKS in 2000. It was modest and funny and didn’t try to be anything greater or deeper than it was. Oh, and it was the very first indication I saw that Hugh Grant can act!

    But most of his movies made in Europe are ludicrous because – well, because he knows nothing about Europe whatsoever. Invariably he gives you only the most superficial tourist’s eye view. In VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA one of the women is writing a thesis on ‘Catalan identity’ but we hear not one word of Catalan at any point. Does Woody even know that Catalan and Spanish are two different languages?

    In MATCH POINT every single detail of London life is just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is crammed with clichés that would have embarrassed Ernest Hemingway back in the 20s. I have never had the courage to watch his film about Rome and I dread to imagine what he might do to Dublin or Amsterdam or Vienna or Bucharest. With luck producers will stop giving him money so we’ll never have to find out.

    Oh, and can he even make a film about any place in the United States that isn’t New York? On the basis of BLUE JASMINE, no. It is complete and utter rubbish that contains not one believable moment. Trust me, no woman of that social background ever winds up talking to herself on a park bench. Survival is what those ladies do best!

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Why are you torturing yourself, David? Are you in danger of giving in to the insidious “Me-Too” movement that is just another example of McCarthyism and violates the legal right of being “innocent until proven guilty?” Such assertions in the past were also responsible for America’s dark history of lynching as wsws.org. has frequently pointed out. Here, I agree 100% with David Ehrenstein.

    Personally, I like WONDER WHEEL bur rather than debate the merits of Allen’s films I feel it is more important to address the disturbing issues you raise in this post about submitting to pressure and loving not Big Brother, but Big Sister Mamma Mia.

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Woody is an exceedingly uneven filmmaker — especially lately. The last film of his I genuinely enjoyed on a more than superficial level was “Manhattan Murder Mystery” I liked “Midnight in Paris” too. It may be full of clichés but they’re fun clichés

  5. I don’t think the Me Too movement is insidious, but groupthink is. It’s weird to see Kate Winslet suddenly regret working with Polanski and Allen, when nothing new has been learned about either man. We know that’s just about her realising that the zeitgeist has shifted and it’s time to move on.

    False allegations and false memory are very, very rare, and so I can understand the call to believe the victims, but I can’t believe to order, and Mia’s strange personality and behaviour create what seems to me an inescapable doubt in Woody’s case. I think part of being adult is learning to accept that some doubts cannot always be cleared up.

    People are still innocent until proven guilty. But careers have always been vulnerable to damage by suspicion of misconduct. Nothing has really changed there, except that suspicion of sexual assault is now taken more seriously than it used to be. Which I don’t think is bad.

    Let’s face it, we know what we think in cases like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, Dustin Hoffman. Not, in every case, to a legally provable standard, but we lean in one direction or another.

  6. Jonathan Wertheim Says:

    I do like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, mainly because it’s a rare case where Allen doesn’t engineer the plot so that he ends up getting the girl. I did fast forward a lot of Farrow’s scenes in it, though, just because I find her character in any given Allen film boring, and it’s too weird to watch her playing Allen’s perfect ideal of a woman when she’s clearly a nutcase. You enunciated my own feelings about the whole Allen mess very well, David – I don’t know what I think, but I resist condemning Allen because I don’t know the facts – no one does except them, and they all seem invested in a different set of them. But I, too, have found it hard even to return to his earlier films. Whatever he did or didn’t do, he’s lost something essential and he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut…

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    Yet, Dmytryk and Kazan also responded to the zeitgeist of their day and did their own version of a “Move On.”

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    In “the court of public opinion” Woody is “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” which feeds mendacious fantasies of middlebrow omnipotence.

  9. I recall Crimes and Misdemeanours being really good, yes. I was disappointed with The Purple Rose of Cairo when I revisited it, mainly because Allen can’t make the Danny Aiello stuff seem lived-in, but the story is still lovely in its acceptance of the value of Hollywood make-believe.

    There’s an Astaire-Rogers reference in Wonder Wheel too, as if Allen couldn’t be bothered think of an appropriate 50s reference.

    Winslet isn’t AS guilty as Dmytryk and Kazan. She’s more like St Peter denying her friend than Judas betraying him.

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    Littler difference exists between denial and betrayal in these circumstances. Opportunistic careerism links all these citations.

  11. The difference is less in the sincerity of the betrayer, more in the consequences to the betrayed. Woody Allen can get by OK without Kate Winslet’s help.

    I would have had a lot more respect for her if she’d just said, “I don’t know that he’s guilty.”

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, but better still, if she had said nothing.

  13. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Ah but if she said nothing she’d miss ou on scoring Fake Morality Brownie points. Timothee Chalomet is in the same leaky bot. He claims to have given the money he got for appearing in “A Rainy Day in New York” to some “MeToo” pseudo-cause or other. Allen is in the process of getting the film back from the Truly Evil Jeff Bezos (The Charles Foster Kane of cyberspace) who has refused to release it stateside though he feels it’s perfectly alright to do so in Italy. Woody’s next film is being made in Spain for Spanish producers.

    Roman Polanski meanwhile is shooting “J’Accuse” with Louis Garrel as Dreyfus

  14. DBenson Says:

    Being a low-level amusement seeker, the last Allen I saw was “Midnight in Paris”. It certainly had its charms, but there was a scene where the hero swiped his wife’s bracelet to give to his 1920s flame, and comedy ensued. It struck me that Allen had written that for himself to play, and the actor was close to doing an Allen impression.

    Also, the script took pains to absolve him of any guilt — his wife was cheating on him first. And he’s so innocent it’s there in his novel and he doesn’t see it — which doesn’t speak well for the novel. In “Annie Hall”, he made a joke of his hero rewriting reality, apologizing to the camera (“It was my first play.”). Here, the coming-of-middle-age memoir is so close to home and so self-absorbed it takes an outside reader to see the wife’s affair, but it’s still supposed to be literature.

    I think of Jerry Lewis, who presented himself as an unappreciated genius — unappreciated even by himself — in “The Patsy”, “The Errand Boy”, and “The Nutty Professor” (one wonders if he had a hand in the script of “The Stooge”). Elsewhere he’s just The Idiot, but his solo vehicles stress that even then he’s too good for his circumstances and/or the people around him.

    Comedy 101, but Lewis hammers on it. And at some point, Allen’s films ever so subtly began to lean in the same direction. At first he could mock personal and professional foibles in “Annie Hall” and even “Stardust Memories” (self-absorbed reflections on being self-absorbed). Then, “Manhattan” made an affair with a teenaged girl okay by presenting adult women as untrustworthy. And underneath it all “Zelig” is about all actors, sadly forced to assume identities for the public — and not to be held responsible for what they do “in character”.

    And that’s my amateurish rant for the day.

  15. No, that’s very good. Allen doesn’t absolve Zelig, exactly. When someone said “It’s about the charm of the man with no personality,” he said “No, it’s about the sort of person that leads to fascism.”

    Zelig is a great film.

    The problem of how to find someone else who can play a Woody Allen character is one that’s caused some trouble. Branagh’s impersonation was horrible. John Cusack was great, he didn’t seem to try but he got to where he needed to be. Jesse Eisenberg in Cafe Society is a pretty close match, but the script gives him very little to get to grips with. I would have loved to see him in some Allenesque situations.

  16. Jonathan Wertheim Says:

    Weirdly, the best candidate to be Allen – Alan Alda – was (happily) never asked to in an Allen film.

    Larry David was horrible as Allen in that one movie – a similarly icky plot to Manhattan, I can’t remember the title offhand.

    To some other commenters, I’d simply say that the court of public opinion isn’t the same as a court of law. We are not in possession of the facts, as those in court would be, and so in our situation “guilty until proven innocent” is just as misguided as “innocent until proven guilty.” My guess is nothing definitive will ever be proved about Allen, so feelings and impressions are all we have whether we believe him to be rightly or wrongly maligned. Drawing sweeping conclusions about larger, very justified, movements from those subjective reactions seems irresponsible. This post has drawn some troublingly reactionary opinions out of the woodwork. If Allen’s stock has fallen, it’s more because his work has been in a downward spiral for decades, not because an actress decided it was better to distance herself from him due to accusations he himself helped resurface with his comments about Harvey Weinstein.

  17. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I am one of those who think that Woody Allen’s films in the 21st Century is one of his best periods. Cafe Society in particular is a favorite of mine. It’s one of his most Jewish films especially in the Corey Stoll gangster section. That, Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris are great. Irrational Man is also excellent. But I didn’t think Wonder Wheel entirely worked.

    Woody Allen once said that the reason he made as many movies as often as he did was because he felt that there would be a day when it wouldn’t happen, it would stop. So I guess that time has come. I mean he’s made a movie a year regularly since he started, always had a steady audience and even scored a few surprising hits (like Blue Jasmine made $150 milion) but now he’s in Abel Ferrara territory.

  18. But still working! One completed, another in pre-pro.

    Given his parents’ longevity, he might keep going into his nineties or beyond. I kind of want him to be making films, even if I don’t see them.

    I get the impression Allen invented the idea of casting Alan Alda against type as a sleaze — and now that’s all he seems to do. Same with Greg Kinnear — light, non-macho leading men only get to play villains. A pity.

  19. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Alan Alda had a principle role in “Manhattan Murder Mystery” as Woody’s womanizing friend.

    A long time back Woody and Jerry Lewis were going to collaborate on a film. alas it never happened.

  20. I wonder how that would have gone… Pierre Etaix and Lewis got on well during The Day the Clown Cried, and Etaix voiced a fond wish to do it again.

  21. Michael Hinerman Says:

    I don’t believe the molestation accusations for a second, but the fact remains that Allen treated Mia Farrow abominably, and as the poet Robert Graves makes clear, the White Goddess responds ruthlessly to betrayal. Allen was blessed with three terrific muses in Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, and Farrow, and as long as the relationships ended amicably, Allen was able to move on to greater heights. But the Farrow betrayal was unpardonable, the White Goddess withdrew her favor, and Allen sank like a water-sodden corpse. You can see the rot set in in the later collaborations with Farrow such as ALICE and SHADOWS AND FOG, which are precious and pointless; poor Farrow is distracted and shrill in the former and distracted and mousy in the latter. The next three (HUSBANDS AND WIVES, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY, and BULLETS OVER BROADWAY) have their moments, mainly because of the efforts of three terrific actresses (and Allen veterans): Judy Davis, Diane Keaton, and Dianne Wiest; but the overall trajectory was downhill, and by MIGHTY APHRODITE it was all over. The rest of Allen’s filmography is worthless, often grating, vapidly misanthropic, and frequently ludicrous, especially including the two dire “comeback” films, MATCHPOINT and BLUE JASMINE (as David Wingrove points out in his astute comment above).

    Regarding Allen’s use, or misuse, of a magician like Vittorio Storaro: Allen has a history of hiring extraordinary cinematographers and giving them little to do. While Allen’s collaboration with Gordon Willis was seminal, resulting in one of the best-shot films of the 70’s, MANHATTAN, the glorious Fellini pastiche STARDUST MEMORIES, and the stunning Wellesian trickery of ZELIG, I defy any fan of Carlo Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, Zao Fei, Darius Khondji, Harris Savides, or Vilmos Zsigmond to note any shot or sequence of consequence in their work for Allen. Allen evidently let Willis call the shots, but seems to have reduced Willis’s miraculous “less is more” aesthetic to a sort of utilitarian chic, settling for the best “look” attainable with a minimum of fuss. The hand-held faux-verite noodling that Allen and Di Palma introduced with HUSBANDS AND WIVES and continued off and on through the 90’s was a particular low point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: