After the mauling given to his latest release, Cassandra’s Dream, we ask two critics if it is time for the once-great director to hang up his camera
Gerald Aaron - YES
Chutzpah, and extraordinary talent propelled the short, shortsighted redhead from Brooklyn from gag-writer to successful stand-up comedian, playwright, unlikely film star and on to Oscar-winning filmmaker and to legendary status in the movie world.
Now, after a run of deservedly ill-received movies, Allen’s chutzpah has begun to resemble something approaching creative megalomania.
“I always made whatever I’ve wanted,” he says, “whether it was a musical or a black-and-white film or a Bergmanesque drama. Whatever strikes me as interesting at that time, that’s what I make. And I hope the audience likes it. If they don’t like it, there’s nothing I can do about it; I’m off on the next one.”
And to prove it, just as Cassandra’s Dream opened in the UK last week, his latest movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Allen is already busy shooting his next film in New York.
Happily he has ceased casting himself as an over-age romantic lead opposite women young enough to be his daughters. But following failures like Anything Else and his disastrous British-made triptych Match Point, Scoop and the reviled Cassandra’s Dream, it is surely time for Allen to enter creative rehab and quit serial movie-making. Even now it may already be too late to prevent his acknowledged classics being tainted by his subsequent hack work.
Allen is now 72. It is many a year since he made a worthwhile film. Talent, even extraordinary talent, dims with time, and in Allen’s case, exile from the familiar surroundings of Manhattan, so often his muse in the past, seems to have hastened the process. The disastrous drop in quality has more or less coincided with Allen having to trek round Europe seeking funds to carry on working.
Workaholic Woody, however, is only interested in continuing to make movies, watched or unwatched, and shows no interest in his reputation, declaring that he does not have “the slightest interest” in the fate of his films once he has finished them.
He really should. As celebrated American movie commentator Joe Queenan has written: “People don’t talk about Woody Allen movies any more, not even people who had been breathlessly waiting for his latest release since their university days.”
In his view, the director is “a spent force”. Regrettably, that appears to be true. It is time Allen gave himself and us a break and rested on his laurels.
Tom Aitken - NO
In his 1980 film Stardust Memories, the character played by Woody Allen says: “Me, narcissistic? No, the Greek character I identify with is Zeus.” Nothing could better encapsulate the man and director, and his appeal. He is arrogant, he knows it, and can send himself up for being so.
Looking back over his 42 years as a director, starting with What’s Up Tiger Lily? in 1966, it is hard to think of another who has so consistently attracted praise and blame in equal measure.
Some wag once said that Allen’s world was confined to three blocks in central Manhattan, and it is true that the films of his that have attracted most praise are set there and deal with the sort of people who live there.
This has limited his appeal. How many people in Peoria (the small Mid-West American town made famous by the industry’s anxious question “Will it play in Peoria?”) would recognise, let alone relish, the line about Narcissus and Zeus quoted above?
More to the point, perhaps, is another question: how many of them would be in the least abashed by their “failure”?
But Allen’s limitations should not blind us to the importance of his contribution to American cinema. Writer Ephraim Katz described him as “one of America’s most inventive and idiosyncratic filmmakers”.
From Annie Hall (1977) onwards, his scripts ceased to be driven entirely by the one-liners he had honed during his time as a stand-up comic; the jokes arose from character and situation, and Annie Hall, Manhattan and the Oscar-winning Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) are among his most admired and best-loved films.
Film writer Chris Peachment wrote of Hannah that it “comes down on the side of the best things in life: the primacy of love and feeling, qualified hope, and the fragility of it all”.
In his later phases, Allen has been prepared to portray some extremely unpleasant people, provoking accusations of misanthropy.
This, combined with the effect on his American public of his relationship with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, drove him into exile in London, where the films he has made have not been convincing.
It should, therefore, be good news that he is returning to his much-loved New York to shoot the film he will release in 2009.
Given that he is only 72, and that his hero Ingmar Bergman made his last film at the age of 85, having recovered from the trauma induced by troubles with the Swedish tax authorities almost 30 years before, there is no reason to suppose that Allen should abandon his career.
There a few directors who have made no disappointing films. Allen has made many fine ones in the past; why should he not do so again?