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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Interiors (1978) – Movie Review

Woody Allen’s Interiors is a film that could have easily fallen into melodrama. The characters and situations presented in this film can be found in other, lesser and more watery films, but Allen elevates them. What’s also curious about Interiors is that it doesn’t seem like a Woody Allen film, or at least it doesn’t match the stereotypical view of his work; as I was watching I had completely forgotten that this was made by the same guy who just a few years prior did Sleeper and Love and Death. Yes, Love and Death contains complex ideas and issues, but they’re mostly there because the film is lampooning the ways Russian novels presents and addresses them. Annie Hall was released a year prior, but it’s still recognizably Woody Allen, of course because of his being in the film, but also because of the comic touches. Interiors has almost no comedy. In fact, while people laud Annie Hall, after seeing Interiors I can say that the former is not only inferior, but seems more like a transitional work, bridging Allen’s comedic work toward his deeper, dramatic films.

The movie centers around an upper-class family dealing with the divorce of Arthur (E.G. Marshall) and Eve (Geraldine Page,) an interior designer. Arthur feels suffocated by the controlling and passive-aggressive Eve and one day declares that he wants a mere “separation” (i.e. he wants to get the fuck out of there); Eve is shattered and attempts suicide. The grown daughters–Joey (Mary Beth Hurt,) Renata (Diane Keaton,) Kristin Griffith (Flyn)–are shown having to deal with their father seeking to marry a floozy and their mother’s mental descent, but they themselves also seem to be broken, because of their marriages and lack of satisfaction toward themselves. Joey is the favored daughter by Arthur, but has trouble with commitment, passing from job to job, while her husband Mike (Sam Waterson) wants to start a family, perhaps believing that having a child will mend their relationship. Renata is a successful writer who has lost her faith in writing while her husband Frederick (Richard Jordan,) also a writer, is an alcoholic embittered by critics who’ve panned his latest work. Perhaps the most “level-headed” in the family is Flyn, the youngest and a television actor, but even though she seems vacuous at first she later reveals doubts over her acting abilities and an awareness about how others see her, but this could just suggest that she suffers from the same tendency toward self-doubt as her sisters.

So, I think what I’ve just described is basically the same story as most melodramas (sans the superficial differences,) but everything is pushed upward both by Allen’s writing and directing, as well as the excellent acting. There are a number of things that keep Interiors from dropping into melodrama, one is the realism. Renata and Frederick could have easily have become stereotypical suffering-artist types, and in some ways they still are, but they’re made interesting because they’re well drawn-out and allowed depth. A scene that could have been execrable is when we see Eve attempts suicide, but instead of dramatic music and waterworks and mad screaming, we get a methodical Eve taping-up the openings and creaks of doors and windows, and turning on the gas stove. She then walks into the room and lies on the couch; no close-ups. Instead of going all “Hollywood” the suicide attempt is displayed realistically. Another typical scene made real is when a drunk Frederick attempts to rape Flyn, but like the scene with Eve’s attempted suicide, there is no flaring music and melodrama. There is also no visible aftermath of the scene as questions remain about the consequences. Other movies, specifically melodramas, would have milked all this drama, but Allen simply depicts its happening while not providing a resolution as we don’t see Flyn go to her sisters (will she ever mention what happened?) and it’s never mentioned at the end–life just goes on.

Allen also shows that he’s a great artist through the character of Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) the “floozy” that Arthur brings and wants to marry, despite only knowing her for a month. To Joey, she is insufferable, but at the same time Allen could have easily have just written her as a stereotype, but he avoids this. No, the character is not particularly complex or “deep,” but she’s real and presents different angles that one wouldn’t normally anticipate in a film. Especially at the terrific ending, one sees that Allen doesn’t take the easy way with her character, placing her in a position one wouldn’t expect.

Even though it’s a movie that is a tightly wound analysis of these relationships there are some nicely-composed images and shots that stick in the mind, like a scene where Renata and Flyn are walking on the beach that represents an atypical way to shoot such a scene, but is perhaps more effective for it. Okay, while this review has strayed on the things this movie is not I should restate that this movie is frigging great art. It’s not something I would normally watch, but I can only think of a few films that so thoroughly, and with depth, cogitate on things like love, psychology and relationships. Overall, it’s a film whose excellence, despite one’s likes or dislikes, cannot be denied. And while I didn’t particularly “like” the film myself, I was grateful that I watched it for it reminded me how movies can still engage the mind through unexpected means.