The Woody Allen “Thing”
It’s been a recurring thing here on the blog. It has to be, given the amount of Oscars the man’s films have been nominated for. But I just don’t like Woody Allen movies. Never have. And I feel like I should get it out there as explicitly as possible, just so I don’t have to explain it anymore.
Woody Allen is a filmmaker who means a lot to a lot of people. And as a filmmaker, I have the utmost respect for him. In fact, he has a career I’d love to have. I’d love to be able to churn out one script a year and get it made. That’s incredible that he’s done that for over thirty years. And, as a person, he’s very funny. He’s a very funny man, a good guy (though people attack him for the adopted daughter thing, but whatever. I, unlike most people, can separate a man’s work from his personal life) and clearly likes making movies. So when I say I don’t like his movies, I’m not saying it as an attack against the man — I simply just don’t like his movies.
I have no problem stating this openly because, it’s my personal opinion. What, am I gonna keep it a secret just because everyone else likes his stuff? The man doesn’t like his own movies! He’s openly come out and said that he begged the studio not to release Manhattan because he thought it sucked and told them he’d make a film for them for free because it was so bad. The thing is, though, every time I tell someone else I don’t like Woody Allen’s movies, I’m always met with, “Really?”
So, in the interest of not having to explain it anymore, and to prevent people from saying the same thing over and over again, in the hopes that somehow they’ll be the person that gets me to like this man’s movies, I’m writing this article. The general reason I don’t like Allen’s stuff is because most of it feels like psychoanalysis mixed with discussions of highbrow culture. I don’t need to hear Woody Allen dealing with his issues while also talking about Dostoyevsky and opera for 90 minutes.
I feel like there’s a general disconnect between the man’s intentions with his films and the public’s response to them. Allen’s said on numerous occasions that his films are meant as psychoanalysis. That’s how I see them. You’re telling me Husbands and Wives and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger aren’t him dealing with marital troubles and death? I see them as a dude working out his issues. I don’t understand how others can see some kind of masterpiece of storytelling. I just don’t.
Aside from the psychoanalysis, a lot of Allen’s films are heavy on the homage. He’s made several films (and several more I haven’t seen, I’ll wager) that are meant to evoke certain genres or the style of certain filmmakers. The obvious example here is Interiors, which is clearly Allen trying to make an Ingmar Bergman film. And that’s what I see — Woody Allen doing Ingmar Bergman. I was not entertained, mostly because a lot of the Bergman films Allen was imitating are slow and boring and tedious (at least for me). So when I see all these reviews that are like, “These films are such wonders of cinema,” I go — “Are we watching the same film?”
I think this is best exemplified when Allen was asked to list his favorite films of his own that he made, and he chose:
- Purple Rose of Cairo
- Match Point
- Bullets Over Broadway
- Husbands and Wives
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona
When that list came out, people everywhere were like, “How could he leave off Annie Hall?! Manhattan?! Clearly the man doesn’t know his own work.”
Or — clearly the man does.
That’s what tipped me off. When I saw that the man didn’t think too highly of the films that I didn’t think too highly of (past a nominal respect), ones the rest of the public thinks very highly of, that’s when I saw my opinions weren’t too far off base. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t doing something wrong by not liking his films. Like if a person says they don’t like the Coen brothers, my first instinct will be, “Well, do you not like them, or do you just not get it?” My first response when I don’t like something everyone else seems to like (I’m talking within the canon) is that I’m just not getting it. And when the man who made these films that are heralded as masterpieces says, “Yeah, I don’t like those. I don’t think they’re very good,” that alerts me to the fact that there is a very different public perception of these films than what I’m seeing when I watch them.
And that’s fine. I don’t care if other people like the films. I’m not saying they’re shit. I’m simply saying — well, I don’t know what I’m really saying. All this is just complex rationalization for something simple — personal opinion.
The point here is, I’m going to go through the man’s filmography and tell you what I’ve seen, what I haven’t seen, what I’ve liked, and what I’ve hated. So that way, from now on, when I say, “I don’t like Woody Allen movies,” you’ll know what that means. Two points/requests, though, before I do that:
1. First, I haven’t watched anything he made before Annie Hall. This is intentional. I realize I’m more likely to enjoy his comedies, which is why I’m saving them for last. I don’t need to know that I haven’t seen them. I’m well aware. Which brings us to point #2:
2. Don’t tell me I should watch any of the films I haven’t seen. Any of them. Don’t tell me, “You’ll like that one.” I don’t care.
I’m going to watch them all eventually. You telling me to see a particular one is not going to speed up the process. In fact, it’ll probably slow it down. When someone tells me I should see something, I have a natural inclination to not want to see it and to want to not like it. This is directly proportional to how much I trust/respect a person’s opinion and the amount of people that say I should see something.
Example: In high school (and even college), dozens of people whose opinions on film were/are questionable (people who would go to the theaters and say shit like, “Oh my god, Hitch was so hilarious!”) would tell me I needed to watch Donnie Darko. That’s my big film. That’s a film that was so attempted to be forced upon me that I became physically incapable of watching it. I grew a completely irrational hatred of the film for no reason other than the fact that lots of people (people who hadn’t seen films like Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind or Casablanca) would tell me that I “needed” to see it, as if I was some sort of misfit for not having seen it. I still haven’t seen the film. People tell me that even if I do go in with an open mind, I’m going to hate it. I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get through that film without getting angry at it.
I remember a quote from an interview Christian Bale gave that perfectly describes this kind of situation:
“Somebody tells me I “should read Dickens,” I’ll be fucked if I’m ever gonna pick up Dickens. That word should just kills it. I’ll never feel a personal connection to it.”
That’s exactly right. When I watch movies, I’m doing it for me. I want to feel like I was the one who decided to watch it, not that I’m doing it for someone else. When someone tells you to watch something, you start with a layer of distance between you and the film. You’re thinking, “Why does this person think I’ll like this?”, and if you’re me, you have that natural desire to not like it (especially if the film has a hardcore group of people who love it. The bigger the majority, the more I want to not be in it), so it gets harder and harder, even if I end up liking the film, for me to really experience it the way I would if I watched it on my own.
That’s why I loved the Oscar Quest. A lot of the films I saw, I saw on my own timeline (just, “let’s watch this one today”). And I let the films dictate how I felt about them, not some intermediary. When I liked a film from the Oscar Quest, I really liked a film. Had someone been like, “You need to see (this film) next!), I’d have felt the way a child feels when an adult reminds them they need to do their homework. I was gonna do it, but now that you’re telling me to do it, I’m gonna do it really spitefully. Had you left me alone (we’re assuming I am a responsible party here, and I think we can all assume that I am, especially when it comes to movies), I’d have gotten the homework done when I was ready and willing to do it. And odds are, my way, I’ll have learned more.
Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Sometimes when people tell me I need to see something, I do end up loving it. Usually that’s because it’s something I already wanted to see or knew I was going to like, and they just happened to see it before me, or they know me really well. Like when my friend Colin (whose site is tokyoremix.com. Fuck yeah, promotion!) told me I needed to start watching “Archer,” I was leery, because I know how I respond to things like that (especially TV). But, he knew I’d love it. And I do. I fucking love “Archer.” That shit was made for someone with my sensibilities.
The point here is, please, don’t tell me I need to see certain films. Especially if I don’t like the guy’s films in general. Why would you push me further away from liking them?
Here’s a (what I consider) complete list of Woody Allen’s films:
What’s New Pussycat (Screenplay only; 1965): Haven’t seen. More of a Peter Sellers movie with Allen co-starring. Still, he wrote it, so technically it’s his, in a way.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966): It’s him dubbing over a Japanese crime film. It’s silly. I don’t really care that much. Indifference, mostly. I never really laughed.
Take the Money and Run (1969): Also indifference. He’s young. You can see him learning how to direct and write a tight screenplay. I didn’t particularly care for the film that much. Meh.
Bananas (1971): It was — okay. A bit weird for me. Didn’t really laugh all that much. It felt like a series of gags wrapped around loosely a plot. Thing is — I didn’t find the gags funny. The only real thing I enjoyed about it was the “70s”-ness of it. The editing and score are very 70s. That, and, Sylvester Stallone shows up for a second at the beginning. Otherwise, meh. Completely indifferent toward this one. I do not care one way or another about this.
Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972): Meh, it was okay. Some parts were entertaining, some weren’t. Most weren’t. I liked the Gene Wilder section. I liked the sperm section. And the giant tit was a nice image. The other ones — not so much. I got through it though, so I was mostly indifferent toward it. Didn’t hate it, didn’t love it. It had its moments.
Play it Again, Sam (Screenplay only; 1971): Early comedy, haven’t seen it. See note #1.
Sleeper (1973): It was okay. I didn’t particularly care. But compared to some other things I’ve seen of his, it was definitely on the higher end of the spectrum. My feelings on this are somewhere between indifference and like. But it’s not a strong like, so I tend to put it more toward indifference. But it wasn’t horrible.
Love and Death (1975): I’m indifferent toward this one. I enjoyed certain jokes, I loathed some parts. The intellectual conversations completely turned me off, but I found a few (few being the key word) jokes to be inspired. Most of all, though, I just didn’t care. Don’t hate, don’t like. Indifference. I got through it, though. It wasn’t terrible.
Annie Hall (1977): I do like this film. I don’t herald it a masterpiece that some people do, but I do really like it.
Interiors (1978): Hated this. This was him making a Bergman film. Chamber drama. It’s slow, moribund — not my kind of film at all. I really despised this one. Some of the most difficult 90 minutes of my life.
Manhattan (1979): Really despised this one. Not one second of this film lived up to what I thought it would be. The opening shots of New York with “Rhapsody in Blue”? Killed because of the voiceover. The rest of the film — intellectual conversations, intellectual arguments with big words (which makes it even more annoying, whether you understand the words or not), and him dating a seventeen-year-old, which is just fucking creepy. I found not one redeeming moment in this movie, and it was almost as painful for me to watch as Interiors. And in a way, worse for me, since at least that didn’t have dialogue and was a Bergman homage. This was just bad. I really hated this. (Interesting, since he hates this one the most too.)
Stardust Memories (1980): Mostly indifference. Another black and white. That makes it better. It’s an 8 1/2 homage. It’s standard fare for me. I don’t like it, I don’t hate it, I smiled occasionally, I closed my eyes in anguish occasionally, some parts were smart, some were “…seriously?” So, indifference. I got through it. However, I will also say — this does have special significance for me, since this is a film in which he actually admits that there’s nothing particularly deep about his films, yet everyone seems to think so. It’s incredible. HE TELLS YOU THIS FLAT OUT! Amazing. That’s where my slight liking of this film comes from. Apparently this and The Purple Rose of Cairo are his favorite two films of the ones he’s made. I like that.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982): Indifference, bordering on dislike. More like dislike, since I just didn’t enjoy it, and it didn’t feel like there was anything there. At least on the indifference once, I at least like parts of them, so I guess this is a dislike for me.
Zelig (1983): It’s short. It’s watchable. I don’t particularly love it. So it’s mostly indifferent.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984): Didn’t particularly like it. Like all of his films, his humor shines through and elicits a laugh out of me, but that’s only here or there. Overall, I just didn’t like this one. It has the comedians sitting there and telling this story, and then we see him and Mia Farrow and the gangsters — I don’t understand how this was supposed to be entertaining. To me it just — was.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): I watched this shortly after I saw Midnight in Paris. Never actually gave much thought to the similarities between them until afterwards. I really enjoyed this one as well. I like when Allen deals with two things — cinema and fantasy. I can understand the man’s love of movies — especially old movies from the 30s. More times than not, I will respond to his more cinematic films than I’ll respond to his psychoanalytic films or his Bergman homages. This also shot near the top of the list for me. Very great little fantasy of a film.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): Here’s a film I hated. Yet, there are performances here that I liked. This is a recurring theme with me and Allen’s films. I don’t like the films, but I like what the actors did with them. A lot of this has to do with him not really giving the actors restrictions and allowing them to do what they want. And that enhances the performances. The actor succeeds or fails on their own. So I’ll always respect a good performance in a Woody Allen film. Otherwise — I didn’t like this one.
September (1987): Basically a play on film. That was his goal. To take a play, and shoot it with as few camera tricks as possible. It didn’t really care for it. It was dislike bordering on indifference. But since it was pretty boring for me, I call it dislike.
Radio Days (1987): It’s funny. This is almost like Woody Allen’s Goodfellas. His recollection of an earlier era. It moves swiftly, people talk fast, voiceover. I like that little coincidence. Otherwise, it’s enjoyable enough. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. It’s an indifference bordering on like. Definitely one of the more enjoyable ones.
Another Woman (1988): Another Bergman homage. God, I hate these. This one I didn’t despise, since at least it’s not a chamber drama. But I still didn’t like it. Slow, boring — definitely one of my least favorites. (And considering this is probably one of his least well known films, I think it’s one of everybody’s least favorites.)
New York Stories (Segment: “Oedipus Wrecks”, 1989): It’s a forty-minute section in a three-part film. I didn’t particularly like any of the three parts of this. Which is weird, since the other two people involved were Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. But — we’re dealing with Allen’s part. It’s interesting, conceptually, but to me it was just kind of there. I don’t feel either way about it.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): Here’s a film I have real mixed emotions towards. I don’t hate the film as a whole. But I don’t like it either. I don’t care for the Martin Landau half, aka the “serious” half. I don’t like the other half, either, but I love Alan Alda’s performance. Alan Alda is hysterical in this. Just him being a schmuck and spewing all this bullshit to the camera is hilarious. But, outside of that performance, I don’t really like this film. I do like how it’s basically all of the stuff he deals with in his films all rolled into one, but outside of that — not a fan.
Alice (1990): It was okay. Didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it. General indifference, based on the film, but borderline like based on everything else on this list. Funny how context can do that to a film.
Shadows and Fog (1991): I quite enjoyed this. Maybe it’s because he shot it in black and white and was trying to make it very German Expressionist. That’s what I enjoyed about it. I mark this under like. This is a case where style can make me accept substance.
Husbands and Wives (1992): Really hated this one. Because this is both him dealing with a failing marriage and rationalizing leaving his wife for her adopted stepdaughter. That’s what this felt like to me. It was like watching his life play out on screen. And it’s shot documentary-style. Because that’s what I need — to be reminded of those indie films with no stories. Really, really hated this one.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993): Didn’t really like this one. It was pretty boring. I get that it was a mystery, but the whole time, you’re like, “Either everyone here is being really stupid, or they’re totally right, in which case, they’ve been doing this in a really roundabout way.” It’s basically a Woody Allen mystery film. Hitchcock had editing, Allen has neurosis. And I just don’t do the neurosis. So I didn’t like this.
Bullets over Broadway (1994): Enjoyed this one. One of those ones where there are so many funny performances, I have to like the film, but also one where, I don’t really actually like the film. I don’t like the story or anything, but, Jennifer Tilly, Diane Wiest, Jim Broadbent and Chazz Palminteri are excellent in this. There are some very funny moments in it as well. So, while I mark this one as one of the films I like, it’s more of me really not liking anything else. You know? I’m not really gonna jump at watching most of these films, but, in context, this is one of the ones I like above the others.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995): I loved this one. Not a huge fan of the Greek chorus bit, but, he gets some humor out of it. I think the film is hysterical, though. And 90% of it has to do with Mira Sorvino. Holy shit, do she and Woody’s scenes make this movie work. It’s so fucking funny. I was blown away by how much I enjoyed this one.
Everyone Says I Love You (1996): I enjoyed this. It’s a moderate like. I’ll never watch it again, probably, because it’s not wholly a musical, but in terms of a Woody Allen movie, it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable ones I’ve seen. So, moderate like.
Deconstructing Harry (1997): Meh. Indifference. He curses a lot here. That’s new. I’ve never really heard him curse before. There’s a lot of it here. That’s interesting. Overall, I got through it, and it’s about mid-range for me. I don’t hate it, I don’t like it, but it was easier to watch than some of the indifference ones. Still indifferent toward it, though.
Celebrity (1998): Meh. Indifference, mostly. Interesting to watch. Lot of famous people in it. Liked Branagh’s performance. Overall, pretty even for me. Straight middle of the road.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999): Didn’t love the film, but didn’t hate it either. This is more of an, “indifference bordering on moderate like.” A lot of it has to do with Sean Penn’s performance and more so with Samantha Morton’s performance. She was so amazing in this. Really, really funny. Her doing a Harpo Marx is really what made this movie work for me. The story and such I can do without. But the performances are really good. So, I give this one a pass. I call it a moderate like.
Small Time Crooks (2000): I fucking love this movie. Holy shit, did I love this. I saw it in the theater when I was 12. I loved it. I watched it a bunch on cable when it was released too. Haven’t seen it in about nine years, but I have very fond memories of this and remember it being hysterical. So, I’ll watch it again soon to remember it more completely, but, as of now, we’ll say I love this movie.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001): Holy crap, was this bad. I get what he was going for, the 30s/40s type film, but… jesus. This just wasn’t interesting or entertaining at all. Kudos for the sinister hypnotist bad guy, though. You rarely see that one anymore/ever. (Yet there are strangely a lot of them in old movies and cartoons and stuff.) But, even so — wow this film was bad.
Hollywood Ending (2002): Talk about a slump. He had a bad couple years in the 2000s, didn’t he? This is just boring, bland. Nothing of value here, which actually makes it rank higher for me than some of his films. Ain’t that funny? How you can simply dislike a film and that automatically makes it better than others?
Anything Else (2003): Yeah…not very good. A consensus failure, I believe. It’s just — not interesting. Whatever happened, nothing really worked. So, dislike. Don’t despise it, but definitely don’t like it.
Melinda and Melinda (2004): Holy shit, I despised this movie. This was everything about Woody Allen movies that I hate all rolled into one. I don’t even want to think about this movie anymore, because that makes me remember that it exists.
Match Point (2005): It is now official. Three of Woody Allen’s six favorite Woody Allen movies are also ones that I like. (Though, to be fair, two of them I despise.) I really liked this. This is one of the few Woody Allen movies that feels like a film. You know? No psychoanalysis, no dealing with issues — just straight cinema. No wonder everyone loves this film so much. I finally understand. What a great noir this is.
Scoop (2006): Meh. It was throwaway. Not bad, not good. Just — there. I enjoyed it moderately, but it’s not great or anything.
Cassandra’s Dream (2007): Meh. It was okay. Pretty generic. Well acted and all, I just — didn’t care about it. So this is indifference. Middle of the road for me. Still better than most of the stuff he’s done, I felt. In context, it’s almost like a lesser Match Point. Farrell and McGregor are really good in it, though.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): I despise this movie. If I could accurately portray to you just how strong the word “despise” is in this case, I would. But believe me, the hatred I feel toward this movie almost knows no bounds. It’s best if I just leave it at that.
Whatever Works (2009): This one, however, I fucking loved. This and Mighty Aphrodite might have been the hardest I’ve ever laughed at Woody Allen’s movies. Some of it is Larry David, but a lot of it was just how angry and pissed off the character was and how many rants he went on all the time. I loved how he was constantly just berating other people. Some parts of the film were kinda — ehh — for me (her parents, for example), but, on the whole, I thought this was really, really funny.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010): Did not like. Just a simple didn’t like. Didn’t hate. It just felt — unnecessary. Not sure why it exists past him dealing with mortality. That’s really it.
Midnight in Paris (2011): Really, really liked this. A lot. Dare I say it, but, Owen Wilson is exactly what Woody needed. Finally a (male) protagonist that doesn’t come off as neurotic. Here, he’s optimistic. And the period nature of it all, plus the fantasy aspect — this was a wonderful film. It very quickly shot to the top of my list. Top five for sure, in terms of which films of his I liked best. (It might change once I see them all, but for now, with 17 films to go, it’s in the top five.)
So that’s what it is. Now you know what I mean when I say I don’t like Woody Allen movies. This is what I’ve seen and what I haven’t seen. Use this as a basis for when I talk about them.
Also, before I go, I need to respond with two final thoughts. Mostly two points a lot of people bring up when I say I don’t like Woody Allen’s movies.
First: “Isn’t he like the “New York” filmmaker? Don’t you like how he represents New York?”
The way Woody Allen represents New York is the way he sees New York. Which is different from the way Spike Lee sees New York, which is different from the way Martin Scorsese sees New York, which is different from the way Sidney Lumet saw New York. To me this means nothing, because what he represents as a filmmaker and what he puts up on the screen are two very different things. (If Woody Allen represented New York the way people say, I’d be going to a lot more art galleries on the weekend.)
Second: “Oh, you probably don’t like it because a lot of the humor is very Jewish-oriented.”
Not true. Not even a little bit. Funny is funny. I don’t know what qualifies as Jewish humor (unless it’s explicitly or strongly implicitly stated within the joke or situation or immediately after). I just go by what makes me laugh. And for those who say, “But you need to have the Jewish sensibility to really understand the humor he’s going for,” I say, “Then why are “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” two of the best shows ever put on television? Why do I love them so much?” If you want a New York and Jewish sensibility, you go Larry David. It’s clearly not that.
I think that about does it. I’m pretty sure I accomplished nothing with this article. But at the very least, the next time I have to write about one of his films, I can just point people to this article and hopefully that will make everything so convoluted the whole thing will be forgotten about and we can just move on.
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Final Notes, much longer after the fact:
First, I don’t even remember what I wrote in this article. I’m afraid to read it, because I know it will never fully explain my true feelings toward this man’s films. I’m not gonna try and go back and edit it. The best way for me to explain it is to list, specifically, what I think about all of Woody Allen’s films.
I’ve now seen them all, so we have a complete sample size:
Hate: Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), Husbands and Wives (1992), Melinda and Melinda (2004), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Don’t Like: Bananas (1971), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), Another Woman (1988), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Hollywood Ending (2002), Anything Else (2003), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
Indifferent Toward: What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Take the Money and Run (1969), Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Radio Days (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Alice (1990), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Scoop (2006), Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Like: Shadows and Fog (1991), Bullets over Broadway (1994), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Match Point (2005), Whatever Works (2009)
Really Like: Annie Hall (1977), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Small Time Crooks (2000), Midnight in Paris (2011)
So that’s every film he’s directed up until this point. Final numbers:
Out of 41 films: I really like 5 of them, like 6 of them, am indifferent toward 14 of them, don’t like 11 of them, and hate 5 of them.
Out of 41 films, I like 11 of them. Which is just over 25%. I think we can all reasonably state that if you only like a quarter of someone’s work (no matter the sample size), that you don’t really like their stuff.
So now, after all that, I feel justified in saying that I don’t like Woody Allen movies. And now no one could ever call me out on it, because I’ve seen them all (and some more than once). Suck it, hypocrites.