ArtSunday: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, professional reviews, and other opinions

by Earl Brandt

When it comes to films by great filmmakers, especially those by living filmmakers, I try not to read reviews, criticism, or even summaries prior to seeing the films for myself.  One of life’s great pleasures, for me, is the anticipation and ultimate enjoyment of the work of an artist I have come to know as a great – someone interesting, vital, who’s work is both timeless and immediate in its relevance, and who is in control of a craft and powers of creation.  Best, I reason, if I can encounter the work free of bias other than what is mostly my own.  (I do enjoy trailers – good ones are a pleasant tease.  While constructed, they are composed mostly of the work itself.)

In the age of the Internet, though, it can be difficult to avoid encountering info-bits about a new film prior to seeing it:  rows of part-filled stars, numerical ratings, blog-stubs, headlines, whether professional or viewer-based or somewhere in-between, are all encountered while surfing, and are now unavoidable when looking up movie listings.

It was not in this manner that I accidentally heard an entire review of the latest Woody Allen movie before seeing it about a week ago.  It was, rather, upon waking to my alarm clock set to NPR news radio, that I, as I often do, awoke to streams of dialog by people infinitely more conscious than myself.  In the transitory state between sleep’s stasis and becoming, more-or-less, fully awake, I sometimes listen to, partially absorb, or experience as ambiance, entire news stories – in this case, I heard the Friday-morning movie review of Woody Allen’s latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

The first paragraph of the review was enough to pull me fully into consciousness.  To wholly quote:

Comedy-deprived moviegoers are desperate for the return of the old Woody Allen — the one who was bard of Manhattan before his focus shifted overseas, the one who made them laugh. Each new Allen film is frantically examined: Is he back? Please let him be back. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not the return of Woody Allen; Elvis, it would appear, has truly left the building.

Such an opening set’s the stage for a piece of criticism with which I was and am inclined to disagree.  I would not want to appear pretentious, or waste time – yours or mine – in picking it apart.  Nor would I want to appear mean-spirited, whether effective or futile, in expending great effort critiquing criticism that includes the line, “it’s hard not be entertained by the Oscar-winning Bardem, who eats this role up like it’s a hot fudge sundae.”  After all, I am the insignificant blogger, not the professional reviewer.  (The same reviewer went even further in this review in the LA Times, ending with a paragraph that you might read for yourself if interested in how much some don’t see the value in this film.)

What interested me most about his radio piece, is the closing:

There is nothing wrong with Allen’s intention to marry comedy to emotion. It’s simply too bad that he’s not as good at it as he used to be.

What is too bad, I think, is that this reviewer was not able to enjoy a movie that is certainly as great as so many of Woody Allen’s great movies.  In particular, it is great precisely in its marriage of comedy to emotion – precisely.  The reviewer’s statement that “Some of Allen’s best work bridges the gap between humor and drama” provides insight into how he misses the mark in examining this remarkably solid film by a great artist of human relationships.  The gap of which he speaks is not there – in life or in art – not in this life, and not in this work of art.  They are, as shown in the work of great dramatists such as Shakespeare, beautifully commingled, inseparably integrated.  It is the mark of a great artist that her or his work should reflect and reveal this truth consistently, gracefully.  And so it is with Woody Allen’s latest.

After a truly enjoyable movie experience, I decided to peruse the net for other professional reviews (as opposed to blog postings of no notable status), and came across a  review in Time magazine.  The reviewer begins by lamenting that, after Allen’s death, “commentators will declare him one of the great American comic filmmakers — maybe not even comic; just great, period.”   He then goes on to declare that Allen “has not been residing in the auteur empyrean for the past couple of decades” and even has the chutzpah to state the following, which I will quote in full:

That Allen keeps making films is seen by many as an act of will, almost defiance, by a man whose genius evaporated some time in the late ’80s.

Rather, it would be chutzpah, if he had the chutzpah to state it himself rather than through a proxy “some” who would see.

Woody Allen is one of our great filmmakers.  His films are an America treasure.  Among his most famous quotes:  “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by living forever.”   Whatever might happen with the latter, the former is a done deal.  I am not an expert on genius, but I will venture to declare that, while artists change and decline, its evaporation is a rare event, and when something such as this is suspected and noted, it is the commentator rather than the purported genius that ought to be called into question first.

Are you a lover of film?  Listen to this list and reflect on your feelings:  Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry – and this is a short list.  I see no decline in his recent films – Match Point is great, Scoop is exciting and fun, and that Cassandra’s Dream received almost no play in the theaters is no fault of the movie’s, but certainly other factors.

This excellent LA Times piece is an interview and a discussion of Alan’s work that explores the recent shift in his films.  On the surface, it is a shift overseas in financing, setting and location, and, to some extent, audience.  On a deeper level, the shift is one in tone, tenor, and theme, and will one day be as seriously and as closely examined as any significant marked shift in the work of a major artist.  For me, it is exciting and fun to watch while it happens.

One thing eminently clear to me is how much Allen enjoys making films.  If making one a year is not enough to dispel the absurd, truly silly, notion that he makes films now as some kind of an act of (almost) defiance, certainly the craftsmanship of the films is enough to do so.  Many people recognize Scoop as a great film, one that will be remembered.  I am not the only person baffled by the failure, not at the box office, of Cassandra’s Dream, but by the fact it did not even open in enough theaters to sell any tickets.  There are scenes in that movie you will not forget.  It was memorable as a portrait of a family taken apart by greed and habit, and it rises to the level of Greek tragedy in its examination of the consequences of self-seeking acts, including murder.

I will always seek out good reviewers and great critics and follow them and enjoy their work – I appreciate their work, and their role as intermediaries between art, entertainment and the public.  But, today, and with this film and these reviews in mind, I also embrace the rise of the blog and some aspects of the democratization of expression of opinion about art and entertainment, for the very reason I wrote this today – that someone might read my piece instead of, or in addition to, those of the reviewers who I think missed out on a great film experience, and certainly missed out in honestly and carefully portraying the nature of the latest Allen film in the context of Allen’s work.

The new movie by Allen is really, really good.  There may even be more to it than many realize at first.  It explicitly echoes Bergman’s exploration (in his Trilogy) of some of life’s deepest, most significant questions, such as whether love alone can give life meaning, no matter how messed-up it appears to work in our imperfect, messed-up lives.  Like the inversion of Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night into A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Allen’s art is here portraying life with just as much care and insight as Bergman’s Winter Light, but in a different manner that the gloomy Swedish fatalist.  A critic might get an inkling of this this, and view Allen’s attitude as misanthropic, as the reviewer previously discussed does.  Someone who knows and loves his art, though, will see this is simply Woody Allen working the way he does, reflecting life in his own unique way.  (There may even be a winking to Winter Light with a clever quotation of a statue of Christ in a small-town church – but I will leave such explorations to those who know something about film.)

Whether you have a history of enjoying Allen’s films or not, I think you will enjoy this movie – a truly remarkable, fun, and interesting cinematic experience – you have my blogging word, that you will not likely be disappointed.  I am not even going to spoil a wonderful film by telling  you anything about it.

2 replies »

  1. Excellent review. It seems like Allen s in witness protection for all the attention he’s received in recent years, but it’s remarkable how productive he’s remained.

  2. I have to say I haven’t seen anything of his since Deconstructing Harry. But I just about died laughing while watching that. The scene with him and Kirstie Alley in her therapists office had me literally rolling on the floor crying. I had to watch it three times before I heard it all. I’ll have to see this latest.