I’m not going to be watching the Oscars tonight. I rarely do–awards ceremonies bore me stiff, though I’m sometimes interested in the results–and in any case I expect to resume work on my Balanchine book as soon as I get home from an off-Broadway matinee. No doubt various actors will say and do stupid things, and no doubt I’ll read about them tomorrow.
I expect to be working on the Balanchine book very intensely for most of this week and next (as well as entertaining Our Girl this coming weekend, about which you will read in this space). Please don’t be vexed if I don’t blog as much as usual, or am slow in answering your mail. Which reminds me to tell you that we got a lot of e-mail in response to our “Reading Habits” survey, and I’m looking forward to going through it as soon as I get a couple more chapters wrapped up.
Apropos of the Oscars, I watched a movie yesterday that I hadn’t seen for years, Annie Hall, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies (which is broadcasting all of the best-picture Oscar winners) and my trusty digital video recorder. I saw Annie Hall in the theater in 1977, back when I was in college, and found it fresh and disarming. I saw it again on TV in 1985 or so, by which time I’d already started to have second thoughts about Woody Allen (Stardust Memories brought me to my senses), and was startled by how poorly it had aged. In light of the fuss that my recent throwaway posting about Allen kicked up, I thought it might be worth revisiting a film I once loved, in order to see whether and how two decades’ worth of additional hindsight had changed my mind.
Alas, I found even less to like about Annie Hall this time around. Such innovations as the subtextual subtitles, the animated sequence, even the cameo by Marshall McLuhan now strike me as cutesy. Far more exasperating, though, is Allen’s both-sides-of-the-street portrayal of his neuroses, which he pretends to mock while actually reveling in them, proving as they do that he is not as other men. On the surface, Annie Hall purports to tell the tale of how his peculiarities alienate the woman he loves, but its true subject matter is how their relationship actually makes Diane Keaton a better person. I suppose this must have been the first on-screen manifestation of Allen’s Pygmalion complex, which in Manhattan would explicitly reveal itself as an obsession with malleable young women. The trouble with such fixations, of course, is that even though the obsessed one grows inexorably older, the objects of his affection stay the same age–and we all know where that leads.
David Thomson is usually so insightful that I was surprised to see that he excepted Annie Hall from the scathing criticism of Allen’s work found in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film:
In his films he seems so averse to acting yet so skittish about real confession that he risks dealing in self-glorification by neurosis…. Allen’s development in the eighties, his rate of work, and the sophistication of narrative were all seemingly devoted to ideas and attitudes against the gain of that decade. Yet Allen’s audience relied on urban yuppies, and his films only fostered that group’s self-satisfaction….He has been a Chaplin hero for the chattering classes, yet he is trapped by something like Chaplin’s neurotic vanity. No director works so hard to appear at a loss.
That’s Woody Allen in a nutshell–and it’s all foreshadowed in Annie Hall.
Infinitely more to my liking was the hair-raisingly sociopathic Ripley’s Game, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. I saw it because of Anthony Lane’s review in a recent issue of The New Yorker, and I agree with every word:
“Ripley’s Game,” directed by Liliana Cavani, sees the welcome return of Tom Ripley. On his previous visit to our screen, he was played by Matt Damon, but that milky substitute can now be put behind us. Ladies and gentlemen, the award for Best Ripley–the deathless bringer of death, a man with a mine shaft where his moral sense should be, and a hero so beloved of Highsmith that she gave him five books to himself–goes to Mr. John Malkovich. The moment that he appears onscreen, you think, Of course: that is Ripley. Highsmith groupies might find him too old, but I see Ripley as being of any age–no less devilish at eighty than he was at twenty-one, and as comfortable in the eighteenth century, perhaps, as he is in the twenty-first. I have no family tree to hand, but, were Malkovich’s Ripley proved to be a direct descendant of his Vicomte de Valmont, in “Dangerous Liaisons,” I would not be remotely surprised. The blood of both characters is rich in the patient scorn of the cultivated; consider our first sight of Malkovich, in Cavani’s film, as he stands perfectly still in a Berlin square and gives the impression, as he has done throughout his movie career, of posing for an invisible sculptor.
Ripley is in Germany to sell some Old Master drawings. He is not a dealer but a persuasive go-between, and his outfit–long dark coat and beret–is the uniform of a modern centaur, with the body of an entrepreneur and the head of an artist. The sale does not go well, and Ripley interrupts his courteous discussion of Guercino to pick up a poker from the fireplace and beat a man to death. This is the only shocking, as opposed to gruelling or mock-glamorous, act of violence that I have witnessed onscreen in the past year, because it flashes out of nowhere, like lightning across a clear sky. Ripley has the same frustrations as you and I, but deals with them quite differently, and in so doing rebukes our inhibitions. Where you or I would say, “God, I could have killed him,” because some guy cut in and took our parking space, Ripley really would kill him, and call it a job well done. But that is not the strangest thing about him. The oddity of Ripley is that he likes to see others do harm as well. He leads them into temptation and, in a parody of human companionship, lends them a helping hand. Although he would never admit as much, he is bored and even lonely, and that is why “Ripley’s Game,” which could have been a freak show, seems more like a portrait of evil making friends….
Alas, this superb film will not be released theatrically in the United States, but it’s coming out on DVD next month, and it also pops up from time to time on the Independent Film Channel, which is where I saw it the other day. One way or another, catch it as soon as you can.
Gotta go. Have a nice week. I’ll poke my head in as often as possible.