Monday, September 24, 2007

9/24: Broadway Danny Rose; House of Cards; Interim

The next stop on my trip through Woody Allen's 80s filmography is Broadway Danny Rose, which proves to be among his best, funniest, and most poignant films so far. The film is a nostalgic look back at the golden days of New York variety acts, and Allen plays Danny Rose a talent agent who specializes in the most marginal, strange, and washed-up acts around. This is a milieu that Allen was very familiar with from his own years as a stand-up comic, and this is essentially his love letter to a time in his life, the people he knew, and the whole atmosphere of the scene. To enhance the feel of nostalgia, not only is the film shot in black and white, like many of Allen's films from this period, but the story of Danny Rose is told as a series of reminiscences and funny stories by a group of comics hanging out in New York's famous Carnegie Deli.

The main story, following a series of vignettes which introduce Danny and his menagerie of oddball acts, concerns the Italian singer Lou Canova (the real lounge singer Nick Apollo Forte, who had never acted before) and his gangster moll, Tina (Mia Farrow). On a crucial night for Lou's slowly improving career, Danny has to go pick up Tina and spend the night pretending to be her date for the benefit of Lou's wife. Instead, Danny gets sucked into an increasingly wild series of adventures with Tina, with the mob hot on their trail the whole time. It's a lot of fun, and Woody milks as much humor as he can from his over-the-top stereotypes of Italian mob families. This is the one problematic aspect of the film, since this stereotyping could even be seen as rather mean-spirited, but it's important to remember that Woody's depictions of Jews are often equally negative and stereotyped, including in this film. It's a broad, sweeping humor, and in context it works beautifully. This is especially true because the stereotypes are balanced by some of Woody's most sensitive, complicated characterizations -- the relationship between his character and Mia Farrow's Tina is sweet, funny, and simultaneously both totally improbable and (because of the sensitivity of the leads' performances) totally believable.

Farrow is in rare form here, acting completely against all previous expectations in a part I never would have believed her capable of playing. Her Tina is crude, temperamental, spontaneous, funny, tough, and surprisingly intelligent behind her huge ever-present sunglasses and poofed hair. She sinks into this part like she was born to play it, submerging herself and totally taking on an unexpected persona. This film, more than anything, proves the scope and magnitude of Farrow's tremendous acting talent, as the wispy, sensitive actress transforms herself into a bouffant-haired, gum-snapping gangster's gal. Although Farrow unquestionably dominates the picture, there's a lot to love here. Allen is fantastic as well, exaggerating his own already exaggerated mannerisms for the portrait of fast-talking agent Danny Rose. The black and white NYC cinematography is gorgeous throughout, and there are several stellar scenes that will likely stick in my memory forever. The Thanksgiving dinner at the end of the film is foremost among these, and the atmosphere of the comics discussing old times at Carnegie Deli. Less poignant, but much funnier, is the chase scene through a warehouse filled with parade floats, which halfway through turns from suspense to farce with an entirely unexpected and hilarious twist. Broadway Danny Rose is a masterpiece in Allen's career, and it belongs in the company of his other bittersweet, nostalgic masterworks like Annie Hall and Manhattan.

I also watched a pair of films from Kino's second Avant-Garde collection. These excellent sets have assembled a surprising number of remarkable experimental shorts from the early days of film, and though this second set hasn't proved as consistently high-level as the first, there are still plenty of treasures within. Joseph Vogel's 1947 House of Cards is an enjoyable but not particularly memorable surrealist exercise, in which a young man is haunted by thoughts of murder and violence — possibly one he himself committed, or one he only read about in the newspaper. In either case, the film is a stream-of-consciousness journey through the man's mind, with strange imagery and shadowy figures swirling across the screen. The film's strongest moments are a few scenes that bring to mind an avant-garde film noir — a title I'd previously thought only belonged to J.J. Parker's wonderfully bizarre Dementia (AKA Daughter of Horror). An early scene of (imagined? remembered?) murder is especially evocative, as both murderer and victim are cloaked in expressionistic shadows with only stray beams of light cutting across them. Vogel also uses several of his own lithographs and the memorable painting Survivors At Picnic, shot through warped lenses, to provide an eerie landscape for the inside of the young man's mind. Despite the strong visual interest, this film never really adds up to much, and several silly and puzzling symbolic constructions only distract from the work's serious tone -- like the ballet dancer, blind newspaper hawker, and fencers who all show up towards the end.

The most intriguing inclusions in Kino's second Avant-Garde collection are four early films of Stan Brakhage, including his very first film, shot when he was just 19. These films provide a very different image of Brakhage than most experimental cinema fans will be aware of from his more well-known later works. While Brakhage later eschewed narrative and, eventually, even representation, these early films betray the influence of neorealism and the French poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau. For the most part, they're only interesting now for the occasional glimpses they give of the highly original filmmaker Brakhage would soon become. There are flashes of his obsession with light and foliage, and in these more narrative-based films, an impatience with the central plot and a recurring interest in adding details from outside the main action (leaves on nearby trees, landscape shots, light reflecting off water). The Way to Shadow Garden is the only one of the four that can stand up today as a good film in its own right, and it is not coincidentally the one closest to the work which Brakhage would later become known for — particularly its semi-abstract second half, which shows the film's protagonist in the midst of a lush garden, eerily converted into negative-image with high-contrast light streaming everywhere.

Interim, on the other hand, is the least interesting of these works, and its only real place now is as a historical curiosity. It was Brakhage's first film, a student work with a simple non-story: a boy goes walking, meets a girl, kisses her as they shelter from the rain, and then parts from her. It's also the only Brakhage film where he doesn't handle the camera himself, as the cinematography is credited to Stan Phillips (probably a fellow student). The film has a few conventionally pretty shots and maintains a charming, lilting rhythm through the editing and the use of piano music by a then-young James Tenney. But as a Brakhage film, there's not much there, even as far as hints of the future. This is a pure neorealist work, and it would clearly take Brakhage a few more stabs at filmmaking before he would really come into his own voice.

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