Alex Sheremet’s “Woody Allen: Reel to Real” – Book Review

Alex Sheremet’s Woody Allen: Reel to Real, a critique on the filmography of Woody Allen, is both good and, possibly, important as well. I say important for a number of reasons: first, there’s the fact that it’s an ebook published by Take2Publishing as a “DigiDialogue”; Sheremet encourages readers and critics to comment on the book’s content and the comments (at his discretion) shall become a part of later editions of the book. I’m not sure if this is particularly innovative, but it both utilizes the ebook format in order to, potentially, create a dialogue between the author and reader, and the reader gets more bang for his buck as the book automatically updates without the reader having to fork out any more cash (if you paid for the book you can receive a free subscription for future updates by registering on the book’s official website, you can also post your own comments on Sheremet’s website (http://alexsheremet.com/) which may be included in later updates.) Even better, these updates will also most likely include critiques of future Woody Allen films which is nice considering Woody Allen releases a new film every other week. Reel to Real serves as a possible model for future authors considering the possibilities of the ebook format.

Aside from the technical aspects, the book also proves its import by the way it approaches its subject: Sheremet chooses to focus on not Woody Allen the person, but rather Woody Allen as defined through his work. Much discussion regarding his films are often obscured by things unrelated to what’s actually on screen, specifically Allen’s relationship with women and the various scandals that he’s associated with. Sheremet, as a critic, realizes the importance of separating the creator from his work when assessing said work (and besides, in the long run, all that matters will be Woody Allen’s films, not the events of his life, thus Sheremet’s book is going to have greater longevity than other books that focus more on the gossip and scandals.) However, more importantly, Sheremet’s book is also a demonstration of a number of posits unspecific to Woody Allen and applicable to film and criticism in general. The major ones are thus:

  • Art can be looked at objectively, meaning that, while art is subjective in the sense one often has an emotional relationship to a film/poem/sculpture/etc., a piece of art is an object that also exists on its own outside of the viewer’s emotional purview. This establishes a distinction between liking/disliking a film and realizing that it is, on its own, good/bad, objectively.
  • As mentioned before, it’s important for one who wishes to give something a fair assessment of an object to not be influenced by what he thinks/believes of its creator.
  • An object, when one is critiquing it, has to judge it on its own terms. For example, it’ unfair to damn a slapstick comedy for not having a political thrust.
  • There is a difference between plot and narrative. A film may not have much in terms of plot, but what matters most is whether the narrative is good or not.

These are some of the basic posits that drive Sheremet’s critique on Woody Allen’s films and this is where the book establishes most of its import. Most people say that art is merely subjective (though, I would argue, that no one truly believes this regardless of what they say/think) meaning people often forget that it’s possible to like a film while recognizing its immanent crapiness. The Doors is one of the greatest bands ever, but I can’t stand them, and there is nothing wrong with this; it would be unfair, however, for me to say they suck just because I don’t like organ solos. People often forget that art is like rhetoric in that its ultimate goal is to express an idea/ideas. One may not like Christopher Hitchens’s positions or might disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean that they way he argues his positions is in anyway inadequate. And this is comparable to art for, like rhetoric, there are effective ways and ineffective ways to communicate certain ideas. The second posit is, perhaps, more pertinent to the subject of the book as people often judge Woody Allen’s works based on their personal opinions on Woody Allen, the man. This is also unfair for it doesn’t give the films themselves a chance.

Now, these posits may seem obvious, but they are often neglected, or dismissed. This is problematic because, if everyone truly thinks art is subjective, then everything becomes lowered. If one believes art is subjective than they must accept the implications, meaning, then, that every piece of art is qualitatively equal. This means that a painting by Monet is equal, in an objective sense, to fecal matter smeared across a canvas and it’s the viewer’s opinion, only, that renders their worth in contrast to the other. Sheremet’s book is important for it helps one realize that, yes, there are films that are better than others and that they should be recognized as such, regardless of what whether we like those particular films or not. Do we really want to exist in a world where Monet’s Waterlilies is objectively equal to Brown on White? However, not only is art subjective and objective, but one can, as Sheremet shows, able to see a film objectively and make a case for whether is succeeds or not in expressing its ideas.

While I’ve made the case for the book’s potential significance, both in regard to Woody Allen and art criticism in general, it’s not enough for a book to just be important; one also has to be able to do his ideas justice as well by effectively expressing them to the reader; fortunately, Sheremet manages to do such. The bulk of the book concerns the films of Woody Allen of which are critiqued individually (pretty much every film of his since the 60’s gets an essay); there are five sections, the first four focus on Allen the director with the fifth touching on films he’s merely acted or appeared in, not directed. The first section looks at Allen’s “early, funny ones” from 1965 to 1976, the second is Allen’s “Golden Age” which begins with Annie Hall, ending with Husbands and Wives; the third on his films from 1992 to 2004, and finally the fourth looks at his more recent work. While I’m no film expert, and certainly not one on Woody Allen, I have read plenty of movie criticism online and I can say that Sheremet’s essays easily rank above the majority of critiques out there. For example, here’s from his critique on Sleeper:

There are a number of memorable scenes, such as Luna (Diane Keaton) longing to be a poet, yet only being able to write trite , silly words (apparently, there is virtually no written history left of prior periods.) It’s an interesting little detail, for while it is all too often assumed that art moves in a direction all its own, with no logical way to ‘get’ at it, for ‘it’s all opinion, anyway,’ the fact is, art is always climbing in complexity, and is utterly dependent upon former models and antecedents. Thus, with culture gone, and life’s deeper concerns more or less eliminated, Luna has no choice but to be banal–down to her inability, at least at first, to make complex ethical choices. The film’s futuristic socialites are similarly banal, behaving with the same inanity one finds in Woody’s more mature ‘upper crust’ films, a comment, perhaps, that people are more or less wired for such a behavior…

This is just a few sentences from the critique, but these sentences cover much ground. For one thing, Sheremet makes an interesting comment on a detail (Luna’s terrible poetry) that is often overlooked by most critics then digs deeper, commentating not just on the film, but on the nature of art and how it’s reliant on the past in order to push upward, however he’s still within the film’s realm; note how he’s neither imbuing things that which are not there nor does he stray too far from the subject at hand. It’s a great observation, but one that the film itself is making, Sheremet is just pulling it into the reader’s attention, but this is what all good critics should do: make relevant and insightful observations on the film being critiqued. Sheremet also shows that a few of Allen’s “lighter” films, even if they aren’t particularly deep, sometimes contain a depth that even most “serious” and “high-minded” films lack.

There are a number of excellent (and convincing) critiques contain within, perhaps one of the most notable being his analysis of Manhattan which Sheremet argues that, while being rightfully praised, has still been misinterpreted by many critics. He states that “[o]ften, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, or what’s worse, a “love poem,” but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and the projection of his ideals, which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush.” This is not trite contrarianism for Sheremet actually provides evidence from the film and builds his case. Another one of the book’s highlights is his appraisal of Stardust Memories; despite the majority of critics panning the film, Sheremet sees it for what it is: one of the greatest films of all time. Sheremet addresses most of the common negative criticisms targeted at the film and, almost methodically, counters each of them whilst making the case for its greatness. For instance, he refutes the claim that the movie’s opening is a rip-off of the opening scene from Fellini’s 8 1/2. While the influence of Fellini is manifest, Sheremet, however, points out that Allen “not only changes the scene’s terms, but absolutely betters them,” citing how Allen’s opening is suffused with more and even greater symbolism. Here is how he describes the opening to Stardust Memories:

The opening shot of filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) shows him stuck in a train full of unhappy people—or, perhaps, more accurately, ‘losers’—with another train full of upbeat, successful types blowing kisses at him. Realizing this, Sandy shows his ticket to the attendant, but while he speaks, as if explaining why he belongs on the other train, the whistle obscures even his voice, thus ‘blotting’ him out, not merely trapping him. As he tries to escape, there is a suitcase full of sand that slowly drips its contents on the floor, a wonderful little symbol of time and futility, which all ends with the train’s passengers on a beach, walking, as if making a pilgrimage, to a trash heap—perhaps of the bodies and belongings on the other train? This, too, might say something of ‘success’ and its perception, as Sandy is forced to confront his desires, and where they end.

Now, if Sheremet had merely followed the path of other critics he would have engaged in the same, rote dismissal of the opening as being a mere “rip-off.” However, he doesn’t let other critics impel his analysis and lets the scene speak for itself. Sheremet acknowledges some of the wonderful symbolism, such as the whistle, the suitcase full of sand and the trash-heap that encapsulates many of the film’s themes. But because Stardust Memories has been so poorly evaluated by critics blinded by their own biases they have also contributed to the neglect of a great work of art. Sheremet not only then makes the case for Stardust Memories, but for good criticism for criticism allows one to understand and appreciate works of art deserving of the time.

Sheremet defends other Woody Allen films that have been either neglected or are rarely seen and evaluated objectively such as Interiors, Celebrity, Cassandra’s Dream and Scoop. He also argues the inferiority of some critical favorites, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris (though he still argues that the former has some great moments while its entirety being overrated.) What’s great about this book is not so much the originality of his assessments in contrast to the majority, but the reasoning he uses to construct those assessments. For example, Sheremet agrees with the consensus which lauds Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he comments on things that are not only missed by many critics, but are actually pertinent to why the film is so great:

Dolores is not only killed, but her utter shallowness is remembered by Judah, even after her death, wherein she confuses musical composers, or waxes poetic on the eyes being ‘windows to the soul,’ despite us knowing that her own eyes were empty, with neither definition nor identity when she was killed. Yet, for all this, it is Judah at the center of it all, and it’s Judah who, far more than being a mere symbol or plaything, is something far more real. He is just ‘another guy’…separated only by the style and the frequency of his rationalizations, while the fact that he is ultimately a “winner,” to use Dan Schneider’s word, affirms the Bible’s oft-ignored dictum: for whoever has, more shall be given, but whoever does not have, even that shall be taken away. This is ‘might’ as it begets might, and riches for Judah Rosenthals, but even as Judah argues at the film’s end, no fairy tales, nor happy endings.

Not only is this damn good writing, but it also deepens the reader’s appreciation for the film. But Sheremet’s analyses on some of Allen’s “lesser” films are also quite fruitful. His essay on September is partially a lesson on the difference between a film being great and one being merely good. He writes that while September is “a character study of a ‘damaged’ woman…there is still no defining moment where this is obvious, or really comes to the fore via great visuals, dialogue, or symbols…There is nothing, for instance, like Dorrie’s mental breakdown in Stardust Memories, fractured via edits, or Martin Landau’s ‘gaze into the unknown’ via the dead lover’s eyes in Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It also helps that Sheremet is a pretty good writer. For instance, his review of another “lesser” film of Woody Allen’s, Alice, is written in a second-person narrative style that positions the reader as the director of the film. It’s an interesting approach that does a number of things: 1.) It makes an essay on a film that isn’t particularly deep a bit more interesting to read. 2.) It helps diversify the essays a bit stylistically. 3.) It further helps the reader divide Woody Allen, the person, from the film, demonstrating one of the book’s central posits as well, it stresses the importance of that posit. Critics, according to Sheremet, treated the film as “mere puffery” for it succeeded some of Allen’s greater works, yet if the film had been directorial debut by someone else then the film would have been praised.

However, this is not just a book of film criticism, but is also about film criticism itself as an entire section of the book deals with six major critics of Woody Allen—Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ray Carney—with the first three belonging to the “pro-Woody” camp and the latter three being in the con. Sheremet dissects some of the critics’ arguments without relying on snark, nor does he ever nitpick; he takes their criticisms, like Allen’s films, head-on. For example, while he argues that Berardinelli often got Allen right, more so than a lot of other critics, he emphasizes that it’s not just enough have the right conclusions, but to be able to realize why such conclusions are correct and justify them (though he does point out that Berardinelli often comes up with good reasons to back up his claims.) But, perhaps, the most can be gained from this section is from Sheremet’s views of Allen’s detractors. Kael, Rosenbaum and Carney all seem to suffer from similar things: an inability to address a film on its own terms and an inability to separate the artist from the art. This section is ultimately a demonstration on what it means to be a critic and what all that entails. As a bonus, Sheremet includes a brief correspondence between him and Rosenbaum where Rosenbaum provides some rather bizarre views on Allen and the role of the critic (for example, Rosenbaum claims that the last thing a critic wants to do is evaluate yet, as Sheremet points out to him, that’s all Rosenbaum has ever done.)

Afterwards, Allen finally gets “his say” as Sheremet covers the director’s views regarding his contributions to film as well as his influences. In a sense, this essay can be lumped-in with the previous section for it regards Allen as a critic of his own work, though he’s a better critic of his work than his detractors (I doubt that Allen and his films are as obsessed with his Judaism as Pauline Kael is.) What’s good about this essay is that it hardly dwells on the minutia of Allen’s personal life for, at this point, it would be unnecessary to do so for there are tons of biographies on the man and such information would be largely superfluous in a book focused mostly on the films alone. What this essay shows is that Allen has often made insightful comments on his films, but is also somewhat unreliable when it comes to evaluating his own work (though, again, he seems to be better than most critics.) Allen often regards his films to be inferior to their influences even though, as Sheremet points out, that Allen often used his influences and bettered them as well. This essay also shows that artists sometimes can’t be trusted when they talk about their own work.

There are many passages that I could have quoted, but I’ll instead encourage you to seek out the book for yourself (and by seek out I mean clicking on a couple of buttons before you reach Amazon.com.) It’s not only a great book on Woody Allen, but on art and the art of criticism, which will serve as a great resource for those interested in the ways film operates.

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Goodbye World (2013) – Movie Review

The main issue with Goodbye World is that it’s basically a teen soap opera set during the apocalypse. No, none of the main characters are teenagers in high school, but their conflicts (and how they deal with them) are like those of a generic high school romance flick. This is problematic because (aside from the fact that the characters are adults) no one really gives a shit about watching people moan about infidelity and who-kissed-who when the world is collapsing. It also doesn’t help that the characters are poorly-sketched and wholly generic. There are a number of other issues which are more minor like some of the heavy-handed symbolism, such as an image of a giant bubble bursting shortly before one of the characters coming by and telling everyone that the world is ending (unfortunately, this symbol is also reused at the end, except we don’t see the bubble bursting, signifying that everything’s going to be a-okay.) The film dabbles with the same tropes that other “end of the world” movies are defined by, and is suffused with numerous cliches. You’ll see what I mean once you read the plot:

The movie opens up with the wealthy Palmer family who live self-sufficiently in a cabin in the mountains of Northern California. The father, James Palmer (Adrian Grenier) tells the audience that he predicts the eventual collapse of civilization. But before the collapse we see a bunch of his friends from college: Nick (Ben McKenzie) and his wife Becky (Caroline Dhavernas) are heading to see the Palmers who they haven’t seen in years due to James buying him out of the company they founded together. We soon find out that, aside from merely making amends, Nick wants to steal James’s wife, Lily (Kerry Bishe), whom he was engaged to in the past, either as an act or love, or revenge, or both. We also see Benji (Mark Webber) an activist who went to jail for five years for burning down a factory (or something, I forget and don’t care) who now lectures at colleges and eventually fucks a student, Ariel (Remy Nozik) who he, later on, brings to the Palmer’s cabin. We’re also introduced to Lev (Scott Mescudi) a suicidal computer hacker and Laura (Gaby Hoffman) who loves democracy so much that she fucked a senator.

Soon, everyone in the country starts receiving the text, “Goodbye World” then the power grid is knocked-out, prompting the country (or the world’s) collapse as people begin to riot. All of the main characters, fortunately, huddle together at the Palmers’s cabin which has a well and solar panels, allowing them to survive alone for a couple of years. It’s not a bad set-up, but we start running into some problems. For one thing, everyone seems way too calm given the circumstances. There’s one scene where they’re all having dinner together as they go around, stating what they’re going to miss most about civilization. Everyone comes off a bit glib, as if they’re talking about their favorite amusement park closing down, not the end of days; I’m not saying that they should be in hysterics, but not only does this scene (from the way it’s written to the acting) seems unrealistic, but it doesn’t help create any sense of tension, if anything it alleviates it. This alleviation of tension also makes things more predictable for now the viewers are preparing themselves for something to bad to happen. Like in the next scene when we’re introduced to a couple of soldiers who want to quarter the cabin. There is no ambiguity that these guys are bad given the ominous music that plays once they leave (after Becky tells them that they cannot force themselves in because of the Third Amendment) and also when they’re checking out Ariel lounging in a bikini. Again, more predictability, and also stereotyping as we see them later on drinking and making demands like a couple of thugs.

So the movie comes off as a generic apocalypse film, but it turns out to be an even worse soap opera. Cliches abound, such as the exchanges between Nick and Lily. They kiss and then are interrupted when Becky calls for her husband. He hides and Becky enters, asking if Lily’s seen him around. Lily then proceeds to tell her how great of a man she is and how lucky she is to have him:

Lily: Becky, you’re really lucky to have him. He’s kind and he’s loving; he listens. James fell out of love for me when he fell in love with Hannah [Lily and James’s daughter–did I forget to mention they had a young daughter? Whoops.] He wouldn’t even notice if I was gone.

Becky: I’m sure that’s not true.

Lily: I really don’t belong here…

Becky: You know it’s your home–you can make it whatever you want it to be…

No, I’m serious, this is actual dialogue from the film; I swear I didn’t rip this from a dull soap opera (though I might as well have.) Not only is it terribly cliched, but it’s all the worse considering that the characters are dealing with the end of the world; should they really be giving a shit about such dramatics? One might argue that the point of the movie is to show how petty people are regardless of their situations, but the movie legitimately wants us to care about such melodrama; they even play sappy alt-rock when Lily and Nick are kissing, unironically. And even if the point of the movie was to show how petty people are, then the movie fails for, even if people are that petty, they’re still going to prioritize. There are some good (bad) lines that are contained within the preceding scene as well, like when Nick reveals that he’s co-owner of the cabin and they argue (yes, they’re arguing about finances) Becky chimes in with a stunner: “We’re in the middle of an apocalypse, the property value’s going to shoot through the roof!” Again, with no irony.

It should come to no surprise then that many of the characters are poorly-wrought; there’s the aforementioned soldiers, but also Lev who is a character with zero substance. The only thing that he has going for him is that he’s a techno-whiz and has a gun, also he may or may not have caused the whole end-of-the-world debacle (there’s a terrible scene where James asks Lev, in the most flat, bizarre manner, if he’s a terrorist or not–he later tries to justify this by saying he was trying to catch him off guard, but it still doesn’t change how comical the delivery was.) The movie probably would have been better off without him and have Benji adopt some of his traits instead. We already know that Benji is (or was) a radical and, even though the audience would still doubt his involvement, it would at least be a little more compelling considering that Benji is a more fleshed-out character.

Another frustrating aspect of the film is that characters often do stupid things to propel the action. Benji, for example, feeling inadequate as a “revolutionary” decides to confront the soldiers, who have taken control of a nearby commune, after one of them molests Laura and points a gun at Lev; he does so by grabbing a baseball bat and marching into the woods. While it makes sense that he wants to do something about the soldiers I doubt anyone would be dumb enough to think he can take a couple of armed solders on with a stick. But this is quickly resolved when he steps on an animal trap, leading Becky to help him out and eventually want to fuck him. There’s also James who also decides to confront the soldiers and  try to convince the commune that he’s the good guy (they’re mad that he’s hoarding medicine and supplies,) but he doesn’t come with a gun and expects everyone to listen to reason. This might be a bit more forgivable considering that he had just found out that Nick kissed Lily and that they still love each other and his reasoning might be clouded by his emotions, but it’s still frustrating to watch.

Some positives: the acting is decent, overall. The weakest performances come from the guys who play the soldiers, Lev, Becky and James, but it’s really the writing that lowers the characters. The cinematography also isn’t that too shabby, especially with the opening shots. Some symbolism is decent, such as when they’re trying to fix the antennae on the television, they only receive a staticy/distorted image of President Obama speaking; it’s obvious, but it’s still an interesting way to encapsulate the nation’s overall downfall, both societal and technological. Some symbolism sucks though, like the bubble, but also the giant, stuffed bear that Nick and Becky brought Hannah as a gift. For whatever reason, the filmmakers tried to make the image of the bear deeper than it actually is; the attempts are too obvious and almost cringe-worthy (especially at the end where Becky grabs the bear, sits it down in front of a tree and says goodbye to her family and the world before getting on a motorcycle with Benji.)

No, the movie isn’t terrible, thus it’s undeserving of its 24% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s barely mediocre, almost falling into the “bad” category. What’s odd, however, is that I watched this movie after trying to watch the show Jericho on Netflix. What’s interesting is that that show is hardly better than Goodbye World, yet is lauded by critics and people on the internet. So while I think the internet is right to think this movie isn’t “the tops” I wouldn’t take that as a sign that people, in general, know what they are talking about; even when they are right it’s almost by chance. So would I recommend this movie? Not really. Even if you like soap operas and post-apocalyptic whatever, you’re more likely to find (if not better) more entertaining examples of both elsewhere.

It’s the Big Heat!

An unjustly forgotten gem from the 80’s. Stan Ridgway is probably one of the most original songwriters ever and after his tenure with the Wall of Voodoo he went on to release a great solo album, “The Big Heat.” The title song does a lot more than what most songs even bother to attempting to do, and it has some interesting lyrics to boot:

A block away he wondered if he’d left behind a clue
The front page of a paper dated 1992
He remembered when he used to be the chairman of the board
But that was when the world was young and long before the war

“And everybody wants another piece of pie today,” he said
“You gotta watch the ones who always keep their hands clean.”
It’s the big heat
There’s someone followin’ you
It’s the big heat
Step aside we’re comin’ through

It’s a shame that not a lot of people seem to be even aware of this song. The music video only has nearly ninety-thousand views on Youtube (the version I’ve posted has only a thousand, but has a better sound quality and is without an annoying intro unrelated to the song itself.) Here’s also a good acoustic version of the song: