The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen
Peter J. Bailey
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016 (Second Edition)
Paperback. xi+437 p. ISBN 978-0813167190. $26.95
Reviewed by André Kaenel
Université de Lorraine
This is not a book to read through from cover to cover but a voluminous companion to Woody Allen’s films up to Blue Jasmine, a handy reference tool for Allen aficionados to re-view Allen’s oeuvre and check it against Peter J. Bailey’s informed and detailed readings.
I have seen most of the films since Take the Money and Run (1969), the good and the mediocre (none has been truly bad, which is one of the recommendations you can make about Allen’s work), taking periodic breaks when they became repetitive. I confess to skimming some of the chapters in Peter Bailey’s book for similar reasons. His argument about Allen’s films are broad but limited: art and life mirror each other; they demonstrate the director’s preference for popular cultural forms over highbrow ones; Allen’s conflicting attitude toward art (his own and that of others) and the figure of the artist is mirrored in his work. In the words of Peter J. Bailey, every Allen film “from Play It Again Sam onward constitutes the director’s highly self-conscious refiguring of the relationship between the chaos of experience and the stabilizing, controlling capacities of aesthetic rendering.” The primary goal of his study is to lay bare the “evolution of that tension” . In the process, we get a book which charts Allen’s uneven output as it ferrets out the angsty auteur from under the light comic and canonizes both in the process. Woody Allen’s films may berate high culture and embrace the popular but Bailey’s book reclaims Allen as a “devotedly Modernist filmmaker” .
This Bailey accomplishes over 367 pages of close reading of nearly every film up to 2013, offering a well-documented, in-depth survey of the evolution of Allen’s oeuvre, its highs (e.g. Stardust Memories) and its not so highs (Manhattan Murder Mystery, “among the least resonant of Allen’s films” : 212 ). He draws on several studies (by Bjorkman, Lax, Schickel), on statements by Allen himself, on biographies (notably by Allen’s former wife Mia Farrow), and usefully complements his analyses with remarks on the reception of the films. His method is largely comparative, moving back and forth through Allen’s filmography within and between most of the chapters, which are typically devoted to a single film or a pairing two or three, thus lending unity and coherence to the argument. Rich endnotes, a bibliography and an index round off this well-wrought book which updates the 2001 edition with four new chapters and an epilogue covering Allen’s turn to European productions.
“The only thing standing between me and greatness is me…. I would love to do a great film. I don’t feel I’ve ever done a great film” . Woody Allen’s lucid 1996 comment still holds true in 2017. When compared with those of his contemporaries (e.g. Altman, Pakula, Rafelson, Coppola or Scorsese, among several others), his films pale in terms of visual innovation (whose absence Bailey concedes on p. 191) and broad cultural—not to mention political—reach. They are unquestionably well-crafted (Bailey calls Hannah and Her Sisters the “quintessence of the Woody Allen well-made film” : 191). Formally, they resort mainly to master shots rather than to editing, thus reinforcing an “aura of continuity, of cohesive seamlessness” . But viewers looking for America’s pulse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries will have to turn to other sources than self-centered narratives playing out against a rarefied socio-political and racial backdrop. And they will have to turn to another book than Peter J. Bailey’s to situate Allen’s work in the context of Hollywood (comic) cinema in the same period. The widescreen perspective is not one Bailey adopts in his book, nor is the format used much by Allen (the lovely Manhattan, an exception, comes to mind), which is another thing Allen’s films and Bailey’s book have in common.
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