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Archive for the ‘Woody Allen’ Category

Harvey Kurtzman knew funny. As a cartoonist he keenly deployed slapstick, parody and satire in ways that were not only hilarious, but groundbreaking as well. In addition, he was a gifted ringleader, someone who could harness the best talent from the grindhouse that was the comics industry at the time. With fellow artists, Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffe, Wally Wood and Arnold Roth. Kurtzman created some of the most innovative humor magazines of the last century: Mad, Humbug, Trump and Help! These artists were his bullpen, the cartoonists he went to again and again for various assignments over many years. Although, all of the latter magazines failed (except, of course, Mad) they were bold experiments indeed, their influence still felt today. Would there be a National Lampoon without Help!? Probably not.

Kurtzman also help “discover” countless other talented individuals, many of whom worked with him on his numerous publications over the years; Robert Crumb, Terry Gilliam and Gloria Steinem to name a few. Before they made a name for themselves they all worked under the tutelage of Kurtzman’s expert editorship. And there were still others, comedians and the like, who starred in his series of Fumentti stories for Help!; Woody Allen, John Cleese, Jackie Gleason and Henny Youngman.

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Love and Death (1975)

Director: Woody Allen

In the illuminating collections of essays, Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by New York Times and Vanity Fair writer, Eric Lax, Woody Allen discusses being at a sort of crossroads upon the completion of his film Sleeper (1973). He wants to do a departure film, what he refers to as a “real-person film”. In other words, a movie that does not propel the characters forward with the use of a plot based on a silly or “flamboyant” idea. He wanted the characters to exist organically, to deal with relationships and real conflicts that arise from those relationships. At the time he was working on three ideas, one of which would eventually become Annie Hall (1977)(his first film to eventually win four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture). The other was an earlier version of Annie Hall, which would resurface decades later as Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), and the third, his Napoleonic farce, Love and Death, which would be made first.

It is interesting to note that Allen was truly struggling with his ideas at this point. He wasn’t sure that his established audience would respond positively to either Annie Hall, the relationship picture or Love and Death, the flamboyant picture. Even though Love and Death shared many of the same obvious qualities as his other “straight” comedies, it also signaled that Allen was no longer content being a stand-up comedian and writer turned director, that he wanted to be known as a filmmaker. For these reasons, among many others, Love and Death should be viewed as an important film in the Allen canon, its impact on everything that followed even more important than that of its follow-up, Annie Hall.

First and foremost, Love and Death is a funny film. Really funny. Probably the funniest of Allen’s “early, funny movies”.  It has the same surreal slapstick and rapid fire dialogue of previous pictures like Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again, Sam (1972), and Sleeper (1973),  shot through keen satire–a send-up of Russian novels (if that was possible) and of period pieces. It’s Woody Allen doing some of his best Woody Allen shtick: awkward, over-sexed, philosophically astute, oozing false bravado, cowardly—loveably so. Indeed,  Love and Death is a showcase of some of Woody Allen’s best comedic material. The film is endlessly quotable. By Allen’s own admission it’s him doing his impersonation of Bob Hope. It is his deep admiration of Bob Hope, of his delivery, of his self-effacing comedy, that influenced so many of his early films. And yet, this persona, the Allen persona, is so deeply ingrained in the history of cinema, to the point that it has ceased to be mere homage, that it really has become its own character, and, consequently, you have other actors trying to do their own “Woody Allen” (i.e. Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You (1996)). It’s Bob Hope three times removed.

And there are still other influences as work here; Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers to be sure, and Ingmar Bergman, particularly Seventh Seal and Persona. Dostoevsky goes without saying. Allen lovingly embraces all of these seemingly disparate elements, re-imaging them into something that can only be the work of Woody Allen.

True to form, the opening of Love and Death is a monologue of the main character Boris Grushenko’s (Woody Allen) life growing up in Russia. We meet his family, consisting, by his own estimation, mostly of idiots and eccentrics. Boris eventually becomes a scholar in adulthood, who is more of a coward than pacifist, and is forced to enlist in the Russian army once Napoleon invades Russia. He is devastated to learn that his cousin, with whom he is in love/obsessed with, Sonja (Keaton), is about to marry a herring merchant who he feels is beneath him intellectually speaking. Boris, of course, is a disaster as a soldier, and it is only after accidently falling into a canon then shot into a tent containing a horde of French generals who he inadvertently kills, that he is viewed as a national hero.

Upon returning from battle, Boris pleads with Sonja to marry him. Sonja finally gives into Boris when she thinks he might be killed in a duel. Much to her chagrin, Boris survives, through dumb luck again, and they are married. But their subsequent life together is dull in comparison to the fields of battle. It is also marriage devoid of money. They spend their days contemplating all manner of human existence. Later, convinced that Napoleon’s invasion deeper into Russia will disrupt their attempt at having a family, Sonja and Boris concoct a plot to assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan).

After an absurd and hilarious series of events leading up to Napoleon’s attempted assassination, Boris and Sonja are unable to go through with their plan, both laboring over the moral impact of killing another human being, even someone like Napoleon. After a long, anguished contemplation, an assassin, hiding in a closet, kills Napoleon. French soldiers happen upon the scene, and assume, naturally, that Boris is the killer and he is hauled off to jail. While awaiting execution in prison an angel arrives claiming that he will save Boris from the firing squad, which has Boris questioning  his own atheism (an Allen hallmark). But when he is executed without interference, Boris is again thrown into a philosophical quandary, even after he is dead.

In many ways Love and Death lays the groundwork of the prolific auteur that would follow. The camera work and lighting is decidedly more artful than his previous films. The warm rich, colors provided by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquetset highlight the elegant set decoration. As a period piece, Love and Death demanded location shooting, which removed Allen from his comfort zone of New York.

Love and Death also marks the beginning of a decade’s long wrestling match with philosophy of all sorts; there had been hints of it here and there, but in this film in particular, Allen embraces his own love/distrust of philosophy fully and completely; matching his predilection for slapstick with more serious pursuits. He’s just starting to get to the meat of the matter and it’s both thrilling and hilarious to watch.

His admiration of Ingmar Bergman, which would manifest as direct homage two films later with Interiors, is alluded to in the ending of Love and Death, albeit a little more playfully with a direct parody of Bergman’s Persona (1966). In the final scene of the film, Allen can no longer avoid the specter of death, and is ushered off into the afterlife by a Grim Reaper that has a close resemblance to the one in the Seventh Seal.

And then there’s Diane Keaton. These early Allen films would have not been the same without her (who could imagine any other person in the role of Annie Hall—well OK, maybe that’s a hard argument to make given that Diane Keaton was the actress, still, it’s difficult to imagine). More than any other actress that has starred opposite of Allen over the years, Keaton is someone who can go toe to toe with Mr. Misanthrope. Keaton’s comedic timing is undeniable and her mannerisms, so distinct, so funny to watch, have been the blueprint for other comedic actresses like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Meg Ryan (Sally in When Harry Met Sally is a terribly adept homage to Diane Keaton, especially the Keaton of Annie Hall). 

Annie Hall was the film that would put Keaton on the map, and certainly Allen as well, not just as a comedic actor writer and director, but as a more serious, finely honed filmmaker, who’s skills would only continue to flourish, especially with the film that followed Annie Hall, Interiors. But it is Love and Death where they are at their most playful, their most charming. They are exciting to watch as on on-screen comedic couple. As with Burns and Allen or Tracy and Hepburn, the chemistry is undeniable. The dialogue crackles. The pacing is relentless. The script is studded with great lines, gems of every sort: 

Boris: Sonja, are you scared of dying?
Sonja: Scared is the wrong word. I’m frightened of it.
Boris: That’s an interesting distinction. 

And this:

Boris: Nothingness… non-existence… black emptiness…
Sonja: What did you say?
Boris: Oh, I was just planning my future.

Then there’s this wonderful exchange between Napoleon, Boris and Sonja which recalls a Marx Brothers routine:

Napoleon: This is an honor for me.
Boris: No, it’s a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: No, a greater honor for me.
Boris: No, it’s a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: No, a greater honor for ME.
Boris: Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it IS a greater honor for you.
Napoleon: And you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Sonja: No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Napoleon: No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Sonja: No, you must be Don Francisco’s sister.
Boris: No, it’s a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: I see our Spanish guests have a sense of humor.
Boris: She’s a great kidder.
Sonja: No, you’re a great kidder.
Boris: No, you’re Don Francisco’s sister.

Along the way, there are many discussions about love and life, death and the after life, the nature of reason, Allen and Keaton forever cracking-wise about all of these, sharp one-liners layered upon more sharp one-liners; the effect heady, a dizzy concoction that never lets up, that practically begs for repeated viewings. There’s simply no way to take in all of these verbal and visual gags in one sitting.

Love and Death is a significant film. It is the work of a comedy genius but it also represents a filmmaker on the verge of even greater works of cinema. It is Allen doing his best Bob Hope, but it is also Allen doing his best Bergman, the results totally and utterly his own. It is the culmination of a partnership with Diane Keaton that would result in Annie Hall, that would mark him, finally, as a filmmaker, as an auteur, as someone who could be compared against his heroes Bergman, Fellini and Renoir.

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