Friday, October 19, 2007

10/19: Love and Death

Tonight I took a break in my Woody Allen chronology to return to an earlier favorite, Love and Death, generally considered the last of Allen's "early, funny ones" before his breakthrough into more sophisticated films with Annie Hall. But Love and Death is itself a pretty sophisticated transitional work, a step forward for Allen towards the philosophical examination and homage to his favorite directors that would characterize his later works. At this point, he was still all about the joke, and gags come fast and furious here. Every line seems designed for a laugh, and he frequently inserts an anachronistic joke or breaks the film's reality, something he would do with decreasing frequency as the years went by. In this film, though, he still wasn't averse to doing something totally ridiculous to get a laugh, though even then there are sometimes subtler shadings. An early line about Old Nehamkin and his son Young Nehamkin, and how Young Nehamkin's son is somehow older than Old Nehamkin, initially seems like a throwaway gag, part of a fluid stream of such jokes that Woody delivers in voiceover at the beginning of the film. But then, he returns to the line at the end of the film, using it as an example of how the world works illogically and mysteriously, and none of us can ever understand.

As far as it goes, that basically sums up Woody's philosophy here. The title encompasses the basic extent of the film's concerns. Woody's character, a cowardly Russian soldier, ruminates continuously on death, the existence of God, the nature of love, and the purpose of life. These are of course familiar themes to any fans of Allen's films, though here they're treated with a much lighter touch than usual. Woody is practically clownish here, as he often was in the earlier films, and he shows a willingness to do anything for the joke. The film blends several types of comedy into the mix, alternating slapstick silent comedy routines with quick-witted wordplay and hilarious parodies of Woody's heroes, like Bergman, Dostoevsky, and Eisenstein. This latter has the quality of an in-joke for art cinema fans, since nobody else is likely to get the joke when Woody inserts lengthy parodies of Persona and The Seventh Seal. There are periodic monologue scenes in which the characters, in tight close-up, turn and address the camera, looking tortured as they recite endlessly complicated monologues on morality and God. Towards the end, he has another character's face move into the frame and bisect the face of Diane Keaton, forming a warped composite face that makes a striking counterpoint to the one in Persona. He also inverts Eisenstein's famous montage of three lion statutes in increasing standing positions; Woody shows three lions culminating in a lazy one, lying with its head on its paws. Even the ending channels his hero Bergman, a hilarious deflation of the ending of The Seventh Seal, with Woody and the Grim Reaper dancing off into an orange sunset.

Obviously, these are in-jokes specifically intended for art cinema fans like Woody, and anybody not familiar with the originals is likely to just gloss over these moments. That's OK, though, because so much of these early films depend on being able to mentally skip by the moments that don't work. With such a constant flood of jokes pouring out of Woody at all times, not everything here is top-notch. The more measured pace of his later films allowed for greater consistency and deliberateness to the gags, but here he's just throwing out whatever he thinks of and hoping that some of it will work. To his credit, a lot of it does, and the relative proportion of flat humor is pretty small overall. This is one of his funniest early films as well as his smartest and most sophisticated. His films would only get better from here, as he charged right into a period of unparalleled creativity and increasing depth. But this film, positioned on the cusp of that great run, is very much worthwhile in its own right.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

I've always adored this one. Forget, Bergman -- it's really a serious film about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky disguised as a series of gags. The comic chemistry between Woody and Diane Keaton is truly magical.