Thursday, September 27, 2007

9/27: Hannah and Her Sisters; Vinyl

The more I watch of Woody Allen's work, the more I'm convinced that he's one of the absolute greatest American filmmakers. Hannah and Her Sisters is yet another entry in what must be the strongest, most consistent run of masterpieces in cinema, from Annie Hall in 1977 to here in 1986 with only Interiors as a minor speed bump along the way. This is perhaps Allen's warmest film, an astonishingly vital, expressive, and upbeat work from a director notoriously infected by pessimism. Interiors may be his weakest work of this period because of its didacticism and humorlessness, but in this film Woody revisits the family drama in a much lighter context, opens it up in order to let in light, movement, romance, and hope. As in Interiors, there are three sisters and their families at the heart of this story, but there the similarities end.

This is, in addition to being Woody's warmest work, his most literary work. Which is not to say it's uncinematic, which is what's usually meant when a film is damned with such faint praise as "literary." No, this was Woody's first film with cinematographer Carlo di Palma, and the visuals are as beautiful as could be expected. The whole film is bathed in an autumnal glow which perfectly mirrors the bittersweet nature of the emotions running throughout the film's intertwined storylines. When I say this is a very "literary" film, I'm referring primarily to the structure, the way it's divided into chapters — complete with introductory headings — which follow one or two characters before skipping on to a new chapter and a new character. This was Woody's largest ensemble cast to date, and he assembled some stellar actors to populate it with.

Mia Farrow, of course, is still Woody's leading lady, though despite playing the title character, Hannah, she's mostly sidelined here. Her character is a quiet central presence in the story, as she is in the lives of her two sisters, Holly (Diane Wiest) and Lee (Barbara Hershey). Farrow plays Hannah with a gentle but slightly awkward assuredness that is endearing but also distancing. Tellingly, she is the only major character whose head we never get inside; Woody gives all the other characters periodic internal monologues and glimpses into their thoughts, but Hannah remains always serenely apart. If Farrow projects the image of contentment and success, everyone else in the film seems to be struggling to attain those same qualities. Michael Caine, as Hannah's husband, lusts after her sister Lee, and strikes up a passionate affair with her only to realize he still loves his wife. Lee is dreadfully unhappy in her long-term relationship with the dour artist Frederick (played with a wonderful world-weary gloom by Bergman regular Max von Sydow). Holly drifts from one unsuccessful project to the next, constantly borrowing money from Hannah and never finding any luck with men. Wiest is phenomenal here, investing this role with an energy, sweetness, and well-hidden sadness that makes the film practically radiate every time she's on-screen. And Hannah's ex-husband, played by Woody, gets some of the film's best comic relief moments as a chronic hypochondriac who finally gets a scare when the doctors tell him he might actually be right this time.

Woody expertly weaves this large cast into a dazzling story, confidently interweaving the disparate threads as if he'd always been handling such large casts and complex plotting, as if most of his previous films hadn't been comparatively small in scale. As always, he's concerned with mortality, relationships, meaning, and art, but this is perhaps his subtlest and most understated treatment of such themes. His cast is top-notch. His writing is at its most sensitive and perceptive, gently probing into the intricacies of family connections. This is yet another remarkable pinnacle to Woody's 70s and 80s career.

On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of sleekness is Andy Warhol's dirty, ragged Vinyl, his film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange. Fans of Kubrick's version from 6 years later would probably have a hard time at first recognizing the story amid Warhol's static mise-en-scène and the stilted, halting performances of his untrained actors. Factory regular Gerard Malanga plays the lead, Victor, in one of the most hilariously bad performances ever put on film. He sounds like he's auditioning, poorly, for a high school play, and the other actors aren't much better. The exceptionally long takes don't help matters, as flubbed lines and stammers are left in along with blank moments while the actors search for the next bit. Clearly, realism and emotional investment are far from Warhol's mind here; all the actors show about as much interest in the story as they would in a gum wrapper on the street. This disconnection is coupled with Warhol's decision to film the entire thing from a static viewpoint. There are just three shots in the hour-long film, and all the "action" is limited to one tiny corner of a room where all the characters are crammed into the shot. The net effect is that the story becomes curiously flat and affectless, mirroring the numbing of Victor's mind that accompanies his transformation from bad to "good."

In Warhol's version of the story, form and content are truly married; if Burgess' story is a parable on the dangers of removing free will, Warhol sets this story in a framework within which the viewer has near-complete freedom. Warhol fills the screen with characters who mostly loll around, acting tough and smoking, dancing, and torturing others. All these activities attain a roughly equal status, and the eye naturally glides around the whole area, taking in what all the different people are doing. Part of this is that the story is so slack, and the attention necessarily wanders at times away from the central action. There's plenty more to occupy the attention besides Victor's story, as Edie Sedgwick lazes seductively off to one side, smoking and dancing, and in the background a pair of thugs systematically beat and torture a man they captured. As the film progresses, this latter bit of action parallels and reinforces the government-sanctioned torture of Victor which rehabilitates him by sapping his free will. Vinyl is a strange and intriguing film which, like most of Warhol's movies, often toes the line between slow and downright boring. This is an alienating, attitude-based cinema, and it provides no easy pleasures. By replacing the conventional narrative drive with a cluttered mise-en-scene of bodies, Warhol achieved unusual effects not often seen in film, and certainly not in the (ostensibly) narrative cinema.


DavidEhrenstein said...

The slow zoom out form Gerard's head in the opening moments was the first "camera movement" in Warhol. Gerard(who had dyed his hair blonde especially for the occasion) was very proud of that shot and showed it to me when George Landow (who was the projectionist at the Fimmmaker's Cinematheque at the time) was setting things up for the world premiere. The master of the film's S&M revels was Tosh Carillo -- who also starred in Warhol's "Horse." He was Gregory Battcock's lover. And teh guy their pouring wax on was Larry Lattrelle who scriptwriter Ronnie Tavel -- and yes there was a script -- descibed as "a toy for sadists to play with."

And pushed Edie into the shot at the very last minute. She steals the show, needless to say.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting, David, thanks for posting. That opening zoom out is very intriguing, and how I forgot to mention it in the first place is beyond me. It's also mirrored by an even more unusual and eye-catching zoom out at the end of the film, when he goes from a tight medium shot in which only Malanga's naked torso is visible, back to the master shot of the whole area, where the gang all boogies down to end the film.