Friday, January 26, 2018

Love and Death (1975)

USA, 85 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Editor: Marilyn McLaren
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, James Tolkan, Harold Gould, Georges Adet, Despo Diamantidou, Frank Adu, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, Lloyd Battista

Woody Allen's lampoon of Russian literature remains one of his funniest movies, arguably the best of the early comedies, and the last of them. But it was also an early sign that we might have a pretension problem on our hands. In Love and Death, people often erupt in philosophy jargon babble—"but judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself"—which, even as it makes fun of such affectation, also serves to let us know Woody Allen has read philosophy. He's no nebbish. He's a real intellectual. (He also gets to have it both ways, as this particular speech is punctured by Allen's laugh line response: "Yeah, I've said that many times.")

The Russian setting of Love and Death is plainly Tolstoyan, taking place during the Napoleonic era. The scheme by Boris Grushenko (Allen) and his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) to assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan) wallows in obvious Dostoevskian angst. And Sonja's life is Chekhovian. (I'm sure there are nods to Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and others as well.) But the structure of the movie is more like a 19th-century American novel, Moby-Dick. That's the way of classic Woody Allen comedies, indeed of a certain style of movie comedy still used all the time today, from the Zucker brothers' Airplane! to Judd Apatow and beyond, and dating back to the Marx Brothers: set a quick pace and use everything you can think of that might work, visually, verbally, and every which way, and never stop doing that. But Love and Death has even one more secret weapon.

It's Diane Keaton. I know I want to give her all the credit for how much I like this movie—her performance outshines everyone else exponentially in many small fine ways. She's a great comic actress and this is one of her best performances. But the movie is obviously collaborative, with Allen playing no small part. As you may have heard, Woody Allen is in trouble again as one result of the #MeToo movement. Natalie Portman, Rebecca Hall, Mira Sorvino, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, and many others have expressed regret in recent days for ever working with him. It's not just women—the list of regretters, still growing every day, also includes Colin Firth, David Krumholtz, and more men. (In other words, it looks like Juliet Taylor might be out of a job.)

I will probably have to say this every time I write about a Woody Allen movie from now on, but I really think, in terms of child sex abuse, that Allen is as innocent of the allegations as all the exhaustive investigations have shown. There's a much uglier truth to this. At the same time, there's no getting around the high creep factor that is found in all Woody Allen movies, which is exactly what has made his predicament plausible. Particularly the early comedies often have appalling racial and misogynistic jokes intended less to be outrageous and call attention to paradoxical norms but rather more as unself-conscious affirmations of outdated ways of looking at things. These days, I have to steel myself a little whenever I look at one of his movies. I'm not sure how much longer I can keep doing it. I've been mostly skipping the new ones as it is for years now.

For example, one of the jokes in Love and Death is a drill sergeant in the Russian army (Frank Adu) who is more on the order of a Harlem pimp. He's African-American, and he struts, preens, and swaggers, speaks in the falsetto register, and is entirely out of place there. That's the joke, of course, but the bald stereotype is distractingly rancid (in this day and age, and should have been then too). Another joke is an ancient priest sharing the secret of life with Sonja: "I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is blonde 12-year-old girls. Two of them, whenever possible" (see here). Obviously the joke is based on the priest's great age and straightforward expression of his perversion, but it's exactly child sex abuse that we're joking about here. The scene is even reasonably funny—that's Keaton, again—though it includes another unwarranted shot out of nowhere, this one at Armenians.

You start to realize with perspective and changing times how hostile, mean-spirited, and bullying much of Allen's humor is—it appears to be self-effacing, but it is not at all. Movies like Love and Death and indeed Allen himself and this kind of humor are aging out in front of our eyes. I still love this movie, even if it seems to be harder to look at every time. While cataloging the offenses I also gathered up some of my favorite bits, which I offer as a condensed version of the highlights. They may help you recall and enjoy them without having to see the painful parts again:

Lover: "Your skin, it is so beautiful."
Sonja: "Yes, I know, it covers my whole body."

Anton (on being introduced to Boris): "Grushenko—isn't he the young coward all St. Petersburg is talking about?"
Boris: "I'm not so young. I'm 35."

Napoleon: "And you must be Don Francisco's sister."
Sonja: "No, you must be Don Francisco's sister."

Napoleon: "Do you find me attractive as a man?"
Sonja: "Yes, I think that's your best bet."

Napoleon: "I wonder if you should be more difficult to conquer than Russia."
Sonja: "Well, I weigh less."

Napoleon (entering room): "Are you alone?"
Sonja: "Of course."
Napoleon: "I thought I heard voices."
Sonja: "Oh, I was praying."
Napoleon: "I heard two voices."
Sonja: "Oh, well I do both parts."

Perhaps the most inadvertently telling line, in perhaps his entire career, comes out of the mouth of Allen:

Countess: "You're disgusting but I love you."
Boris: "Well, my disgustingness is my best feature."

It is not Allen's best feature at all, of course, even if it seems like that's what he believes about himself and that's all we have left of him. Among other things, indulging his disgustingness on a regular basis (to be clear, in terms of thoughts and fantasies only) is what has put him in the spot he's in. I love this movie but I like it less all the time. Now I'm trying to have it both ways.

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