Woody Allen: joints, lovers and monsters

Woody Allen: joints, lovers and monsters

“I tried to be a magician, but found I could only manipulate cards and coins and not the universe.”

This is one of the sentences in Woody Allen’s autobiographical book that deserves to be isolated as an aphorism.

Zelig, 1983.

Apropos of Nothing (Arcade Publishing) has been one of the outstanding books of 2020. It is not a theoretical essay like those written by artists such as Leonardo or Paul Klee, but the book is equally revealing about Allen’s work and its relationship with his biography. The self-portrait that the New York filmmaker narrates is sometimes surprising. We discover, for example, a young Allen, an effective professional in cheating gambles and paternally linked to famous gangsters. Or also, that this excellent cinematic author is a dreadful judge of his own work. And above all, we discover why in the mediatic soap opera triggered by Mia Farrow’s accusations, the defendant was him but the real monster was her. Undoubtedly, this was the main objective of the book. Mission accomplished to unthinkable extremes. Perhaps -as it is done with some catalogued buildings- they should declare Mia Farrow a psychological monster of Freudian interest, due to her complex personality as an oedipal mother and adopting stepmother, as well as a martyrizer. Her facet of an infernal, slanderous and vindictive ex-partner, on the other hand, is already more vulgar.

Radio Days, 1987.

As author and storyteller, Woody Allen – who turned 85 on December 1, 2020 – grabs his readers from page one, thanks to his poignant sense of humor and wild confessional frankness, rare in these politically and hypocritically obsessed times. For once, screw the harmful conventional thinkers and the supporters of the inquisitive neo-puritanism! Allen seems to be faithful only to the harsh reality, not idealized or made-up. Or, at least, what he remembers about it. For example, referring to his parents, he reflects: “How he wound up with Nettie is a mystery on a par with dark matter. (…)They disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards. And yet with all the verbal carnage, they stayed married for seventy years–out of spite, I suspect. Still, I’m sure they loved each other in their own way, a way known perhaps only to a few headhunting tribes in Borneo.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989.

Or also when, after describing his father as a tough Jew “that could handle the Atlantic” (he was one of the only three survivors of a shipwreck in World War I), he makes it clear that in his case Freud’s theories on the Oedipus complex don’t work. Woody Allen confesses that he loved his father -who was employed under the famous gangster Albert Anastasia- more than his little warm or cold mother. Which, on the other hand, reminded him of another of the great Jewish comedians, but only physically: “When I said years latermy mother looked like Groucho Marx, people thought I was kidding” … Discovering this detail makes the recurring gag of Take the Money and Run funnier, with the parents giving their statements ashamed of their delinquent son (Woody) and hiding their faces with masks of precisely Groucho Marx: fake glasses, big noses, bulky mustaches.

Take the Money and Run, 1969.

On the other hand, Allen – calmly and with two accurate brushstrokes – describes a part of his father’s family as mentally retarded: “And I mean dim-witted. As a kid, I always thought his sister reminded me of a circus pinhead. His brother, weak, wan, and degenerate looking, drifted around the Flatbush streets peddling newspapers till he dissolved like a pale wafer.” Remarkable! … In two lines, his relative is portrayed, biographed and destroyed. But he is much more affectionate when remembering his lovers and friends. He even praises Mia Farrow’s talents, despite the fact that lately the actress has been her overwhelming enemy, her insidious and mortifying personal Moriarty.

Woody Allen doesn’t go over his movies.

The second big surprise in this book is discovering that Allen is a lousy judge of his own work. For example, about the intriguing, but perhaps not really necessary Wonder Wheel, the creator of masterpieces such as Zelig and Annie Hall claims that it is “my best yet”. It is clear that he is not aware of his best achievements. And an explanation for this is found in another of his confessions: “I never see my films after I finish them.” I will burnish his statement: he sees them just when they are finished, hot off the grill, and he never sees them again. This detail explains a lot. If Coney Island’s setting brought back fond memories and Kate Winslet was wonderful during the shoot, the movie will seem better to him than what it seems to others. At this point, Allen reminds me of Billy Wilder, who spoke ill of one of his best comedies – Avanti! – simply because its elaboration brought back bad memories, as the producers forced him to give up his daring script (his and his partner Diamond), which came to be a compliment not only of the joy of living the adulterous heterosexual adventure, but the homosexual adventure.

Wonder Wheel, 2017.

When he talks about his cinema, Allen is so self-critical and demure that he falls into false modesty. I only agree with him when he considers that September was a failed attempt to emulate Chekhov. This incomprehensible unjustified modesty can be attributed to a kind of bashfulness typical of those who for years have acted as satirical, humorous comedians to whom not even the slightest hint of solemnity or self-assurance suits them. And I can agree that his cinematic language is not up to that of his admired Bergman and Kurosawa, but it bemuses me when he flails himself by lamenting that he has never reached the level of the movie A Streetcar Named Desire. I saw it recently and, with that disgusting character of Marlon Brando, sleazy and abusive, it seems much worse than more than a dozen Allen movies.

Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986.

There is also a Woody Allen who reminds me of Picasso: that creator who needs to make and finish many new works and does not want to spend too much time developing a possible great masterpiece. Allen is a compulsive author who forces himself to be quick and release one movie a year. But his movies remind me above all of those of Éric Rohmer. First, because of his way of approaching small urban worlds and human groups to delve into them, into their psychology and their values, and go on composing, film after film, a significant panorama of a certain social and cultural community at a certain time. In its case, mainly New Yorkers and from 1969 up.  And secondly, it goes along with the author of the Moral Tales, the Comedies and Proverbs and the Tales of the Four Seasons in which each of his films develops a clear idea, proposes a hypothesis or a dilemma and then represents it narratively in its various circumstances. Something similar, by the way, happens in the works of his favorite filmmakers and writers: Bergman and Kurosawa, Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

Bullets over Broadway, 1994.

In Bullets over Broadway, for example, life experience overcomes artistic aspirations not supported by a true experience: the best and wisest screenwriter is the gangster, not the artist. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, tranquility is conquered through murder: the relief and well-being thus achieved are so powerful that they manage to erase all feelings of guilt. Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Annie Hall and other films of his develop various alternatives and paradoxes of life as a couple or uncoupled. Radio Days is Woody Allen’s funny and nostalgic Amarcord. And A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is one of his underrated wonders. But I think Woody Allen’s most original work is Zelig (1983). His approach is already extraordinary: a fantastic comedy in the form of a mockumentary. By the way, without Zelig most of Joan Fontcuberta’s photographic work would not exist, based on the same principle of detectable fake, although Fontcuberta hides the trick better. But what makes this film a masterpiece is not only the impeccable performance of cinematographer Gordon Willis, so decisive that perhaps he deserved to have been accredited as co-director.

Zelig, 1983.

Zelig is a fast, surprising, deep, wise and funny comedy that achieves something exceptional: imagining and representing a human archetype and an original modern myth, no less accurate and necessary than classical myths, such as Prometheus, or more modern ones, like Frankenstein. Zelig wants to be accepted, aspires to the approval of everyone and adapts himself to the circumstances to the point of ceasing to be. He is a human chameleon who can become black or crossbreed in the company of African-American jazz musicians, but the problem is that, also by adaptation to the environment, he just as easily becomes a Nazi if the general environment is Hitler. Thus, the highly adapted, conformist and very practical human chameleon always lives in lies, in the simulation Zelig is the mass-man. He does not have a being of his own, but only a repertoire of successive alienated masks, adapted to the conventions and demands of each situation. And only by receiving and giving personal love (not mere kindness) does he begin to express himself and act freely, to truly be.

Midnight in Paris, 2011.

Also in Midnight in Paris (2011) Allen managed to imagine and represent a human archetype and an original modern myth. The travels to the past of this romantic and fantastic comedy develop a very powerful idea, which I have called Pastism or Midnight syndrome. Pastism is the opposite of Futurism and consists of a mythologization of the past, which entails an inability to value the present. The character played by Marion Cotillard frequents the same places as Buñuel, Dalí, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, etc., but she does not value these people, who are not yet famous. She ignores them, because she has mythologized a previous time, that of Lautrec and company … I am afraid that in this 21st century that has not just digested the 20th century, happens exactly the same thing, there and here. Much attention to the figures of the consecrated past and very little to the current equivalents of Kandinsky, Joan Miró, Octavio Paz or Pessoa.

Annie Hall, 1977.

If the charming and profound Midnight in Paris isn’t as flawless as Zelig or Annie Hall, I think it is due to some unfortunate caricature moments by certain excellent artists and writers. This tendency for Allen to be funny at the expense of authors with creative ambitions or high culture (abstract art, for example) seems to me to be a typical error of the comedian from his early days, but not of the mature Allen. I understand that he likes laughter and that he can’t avoid satire, but teasing is not always justified. In June 2001 I attended a party in New York, at the home of some close friends of Allen and Gail Levin –author of a book about Edward Hopper-, after the opening of the exhibition Pintura Metarrealista that I curated for The Spanish Institute. Well, they were all writers, exhibition curators and artists, and it almost seemed like one of his films, but there was one big difference: I didn’t find these people snobbish, nor deserving of satire. On the contrary, they were cultured, friendly and welcoming people. They almost convinced me to stay and live in New York.

As for Mia Farrow … I think that after learning about the true and highly disguised nature of the actress from Rosemary’s Baby, if I see this movie again, I’m going to be tangled up: Is she really the innocent victim?

Translated by Enrique E. Zepeda

Artists who advertise things on TV

Artists who advertise things on TV

There was a time when great artists were used as television selling points. They were a landmark both cultured and famous. Nothing to do with the faces of athletes, actors and socialites that flood the idiot box today (no matter how smart it is proclaimed).

It can also be said that culture and technology have radically changed the advertising universe, and that in the 1960s, no one could imagine anything like the Google search engine, banners or YouTube.

Andy Warhol chats with boxer Sonny Liston, in the Braniff Airlines ad.

It is precisely on YouTube where we can rescue these ads, with a very low resolution for current standards, but delightful when it comes to longing for a world in which the word of an artist was trustworthy and even joyful.

One of the first artists to star in television commercials was Salvador Dalí. He was drawing advertisements for magazines in the twenties and in 1965 he premiered on television by Osborne, the Andalusian company.

Around the same time that he was designing a beautiful bottle of cognac, Dalí starred in a campaign with two commercials directed by Santiago Moro, where Dalí drew the word ESO in the air with his cane. It was another time, so a female face could not be absent, in this case, that of the model Elena Balduque, who ended the ad with « Unnnn Veterano sabor! »

 

 

In 1969, from PortLligat, Dalí shot for Lanvin – a chocolate company that had 8% of the French market – an advertisement that became famous. After eating a piece of chocolate, his whiskers begin to move like the wings of a bird (an effect achieved by a wax head and the traditional stop motiontechnique). He then proclaims: Je suis fou… du chocolat Lanvin! (Lanvin chocolate drives me crazy!). And the sound of the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

 

Dalí’s last television commercial was to promote and explain the virtues of the Alka-Seltzer drug, an antacid containing aspirin. A Dalí dressed in a silver cape attacks with a marker the body of the model Nati Abascal, dressed in a white jersey. Then he paints her belly with various sprays. The ad had to be withdrawn because viewers complained, the scene made them think of a man attacking a woman with a knife…

 

Andy Warhol is Dalí’s best pupil. He also appeared in numerous television commercials. US Braniff Airlines – ceased operations in 1982 – created a series of advertisements in which famous people chatted in pairs. Dalí, in his ad, talks to baseball legend Whitey Ford. And he ends up shouting, with his characteristic Catalan accent, the company’s motto: « When you got it-Flaunt it! ». As for Warhol, he talks about Michelangelo, the Renaissance genius, to boxer Sonny Liston. Liston looks at him, curious, but he doesn’t say a word.

 

 

On YouTube you can find some of the ads that starred Andy Warhol. Like this one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euiKFDgDl4k ), in which he speaks Japanese while announcing TDK videotapes. But my favorite is the one of Burger King. In the same way that in 1963 he had shot the experimental film Eat, in which artist Robert Indiana eats a mushroom for 45 minutes – or so it seems -, in the commercial for the fast-food chain Warhol eats a Whopper. Actually, it is a four and a half minute scene, shot by Jørgen Leth in 1981, as part of the film 66 Scenes. Burger King secured the replay rights, shortened the footage to 45 seconds, and aired it during the intermission of the 2019 Super Bowl.

 

And who says that concept artists don’t like to star in television commercials? We have the case of Yoko Ono who, accompanied by the melody of Imagine, stars, with her son Sean, in an advertisement for the Japanese telecommunications company Kokusai Denshi Denwa.

 

And when talking about irreducible conceptual artists, we must mention Chris Burden. Between 1973 and 1977, this artist bought television spots to broadcast subversive advertisements. As he well explains: « During the early seventies I conceived a way to break the omnipotent stranglehold of the airwaves that broadcast television held. The solution was to simply purchase commercial advertising time and have the stations play my tapes along with their other commercials ». Do not miss them.

Translated by Enrique E. Zepeda

 

The Vampire Canon in Film

The Vampire Canon in Film

Beginning on Tuesday 12 January the Fear and Pleasure. Vampire Movies programme at Caixaforum Barcelonaoffers a weekly programme of five movies that show how the atavistic and shadowy figure of one of the most persistent characters in the history of film has abandoned its spooky extension across the floor to morph into a more domesticated monster.

This Gothic, aristocratic personage that conquered our screen and became the start of vocational filmmaking, was created in the European literary and romantic context of the nineteenth century at a time when cemeteries and abandoned buildings had become tortured spaces for those walking through them, when the night had a ring of freedom about it, and the consumptive ‘look’ was in fashion.

Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), by F. F. Coppola.

Coughing up blood had become cool! “Tuberculosis dissolved the gross body, etherealized the personalityexpanded consciousness”, says Susan Sontag in her essay Illness and its Metaphors, talking of the melancholy of the romantics as a human weakness. The novelist George Sand, in her chameleonic extremism, said of her friend, “Chopin coughs with infinite grace”.

It all began in the so-called “Year Without a Summer” of 1816 in Switzerland, when the freezing air was charged with grey and melancholy, and fantasy literature took off in a meeting of friends in the Villa Diodati mansion, including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, when they decided to each write a horror story. Mary Shelley came up with hers in just under a year with Frankenstein and Polidori with The Vampire, in which he exposes a monstrous doppelganger of Lord Byron to which he did not need to attribute any implausible eccentricity.

But it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 that would constitute the standard of the canon, the “bible” of vampirism that would give the vampire, personified in Count Dracula, his telepathic power and personal attractiveness despite his sociopathic tendencies, alpha male bestial tastes, his wardrobe full of black and mothballs, his sickly emaciation and his mortal fear of crosses, holy water and strings of garlic, which would seem to turn vampires more into a high risk group than powerful villains. Stoker spent seven years documenting the novel from popular stories, crossing the Carpathians and pacing the floor of the British Library which conserves a register of the books he consulted, in which he left the odd dog ear. Despite all his efforts, the novel did not attract much enthusiasm at the time, and it was not until the interest legal battle for rights between Stoker’s widow and Murnau who wanted to make his film Nosferatu, that the book finally began to sell.

Nosferatu (1922), by F. W. Murnau.

With no sign of romanticism Nosferatu (12 January) shows the repulsive count who nobody would get any closer to than the length of a pole. He is an impersonal being, with feelings that rarely go beyond his lascivious outbursts, ingeniously identified by Murnau as a shadow. Curiously, Nosferatu would lead to another movie, apart from the version by Werner Herzog, which speculated that Max Schreck, the actor who played Nosferatu, was a vampire in real life.  Entitled Shadow of the Vampire, it was directed by E. Elias Merhige and confirmed that the archaic myth was still very much alive. At this point we should remember that one of the first of the “Making of” films comes from this tradition and was none other than Cuadecuc, Vampir (1970), by Pere Portabella, with music and sound by Carles Santos, in a kind of voyeuristic documentary on Christopher Lee, using behind-the-scenes footage from Jess Franco’s Count Dracula.

The movie figure of the vampire has an irrepressible tendency toward parody, that has been used by everyone from the Muppets to Chiquito de la Calzada.

If anyone fitted the body of Count Dracula, now much more carnal, swaggering and bad, in the heteropatriarchal context that would be the wet dream of many a macho man who fancied themselves, it would be Lee who inherited the elegance of Tod Browning’s Dracula, played by Lugosi and the chutzpah of his popped collar. But we have to recognise that the movie figure of the vampire has an irrepressible tendency toward parody, and not just for fancy-dress parades, that has been used by everyone from the Muppets to Chiquito de la Calzada. You only need to think of the great Spanish-language version directed by George Melford in parallel to Browning’s. He used the same sets and props as the daytime version, with Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar as the main actors, before dubbing was invented.

Christopher Lee in Dracula (1958), directed by Terence Fischer.

But it was Lee, with the invaluable help of Technicolor and some of the most phallic fangs imaginable, who managed to bring to all his versions and sagas the terribly kitsch aesthetic that has gained mileage with cult audiences over the years, despite the fact that the first of his Dracula films directed by Terence Fisher (19 January), scripted by Jimmy Sangster, was also noteworthy. Christopher Lee ended up playing movies like The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires  with its creepy Buddha statuettes, in feverish coherence with Stoker’s canon. This stale and decadent aura was the one that weighed down on Coppola’s Dracula (26 January) despite the intention to create an erotic perfection in the forms, colours and shadows which, despite their narrative shortfalls, certainly produce a considerable hike in endorphins. This drift towards a metrosexual and foppish vampire would find its path in Interview with a Vampire and end up as an insipid teen idol in the Twilight saga.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), by Jim Jarmush.

But if, as we have said, the vampire is a universal myth, what is interesting in our incredulous time in which “if nothing is true then anything goes”, it is no longer his origin but the way in which as a character he engages with us today. The current affirmation of the subjectivity of individuals in liberty as “enjoy your symptom”, implies a domestication of the shadow of the unconscious and a ‘turn’ with respect to our view of the vampire, who is no longer a monster to be defeated but a subject to be understood. In the two last films in this programme, you can see how the exaltation of Foucauldian difference turns the unadapted into a cute eccentric, a misfit of extravagant habits and an irremediable fool, whose just deserts in these crazy times is social inclusion above their own repressive adaptation.

Déjame entrar (2008), by Tomas Alfredson.

In Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2 February), we see some adorable vampires in an atmosphere of exquisite aesthetic sensitivity living their lives in anguish and melancholy in the best Heideggerian style, alongside inauthentic and irresponsible humans who do not know how to look after themselves or their environment. On the other hand, Thomas Alfredson in Let Me In (10 February), offers an extremely delicate mix of the experience of adolescent discovery by a victim of bullying and the monstrosity of the vampire instinct, embodied in the innocence of a girl who must be let in, in accordance with the canon, and therefore accepted, and where the red heat of blood sinks into the Nordic snow.

So far from appearing to be dead, the vampire myth is continually generating re-readings and hours of visual entertainment. A good example is the New Zealand mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, (2014) by Taika Waititi. This outrageous production was received to great acclaim by the cult audiences and catapulted Waititi to make Thor: Ragnarok, based on the Marvel hero. The film takes up the vampire canon again in a shared flat, in a quest for the normalisation of weirdos, and is currently being shown as an American series. I think the vampire, as a constant figure in the movies, at least deserves a glittering star in the Walk of Fame.

Fear and Pleasure, Vampire Movies, coordinated by film critic Toni Vall, will be on at CaixaForum Barcelona, from 12 January to 10 February.

The Different Faces of Beethoven

The Different Faces of Beethoven

Did you know that the reason the maximum duration of a CD is 74 minutes and 33 seconds is because that is precisely the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Or that the composer’s String Quartet No. 13 is travelling through space on the Voyager space probe?

Beethoven marked the history of music and his influence, 250 after his birth, is still huge. And he knew it: “This is not for you, it is for the future”, he told a listener of one of his pieces. Beethoven knew that his music would outlive him.

Hugo Hagen, Bust of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Beethoven-Hauss Museum, Bonn.

The musical revolution of Beethoven, his genius, his troubled character and a biography marked by the Enlightenment and Romanticism, along with the political changes in Europe at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, are the main topics dealt with by the 9 mini-lectures, each lasting from 15 to 20 minutes, that the ”La Caixa” Foundation has produced under the title Beethoven 9×9. They can be found at the online Àgora of the CaixaForum website. The videos have been produced under Eva Sandoval, musicologist and reporter for Radio Clásica. Currently the first seven videos are available the remaining two are planned for mid-January or early February.

 

Each of the videos is delivered in a way that will be as accessible to the new listener as to those who are already familiar with Beethoven’s works, and they take us through the main points in his personal and professional life, relating to specific genres such as the symphony, sonata, quartet and concerto with a piece to accompany each lecture. Apart from the music itself, the videos are also illustrated with artworks, scores and cultural references of all kinds. At the end of each video there are suggestions for listening to the best versions of each of the pieces included.

 

The first video opens with the topic Beethoven and his fate, talking about the famous Fifth Symphony, the first four notes of which are indicative of the knocks of death. Another of the videos, Beethoven at the piano, focuses on the works for piano which Beethoven not only composed but also performed and which for him constituted a kind of “laboratory”.

 

The series highlights the most innovative side of Beethoven both in is revolutionary use of musical language and in the way in which he lived his life as a musician – aspects that are analysed in the video Beethoven, a man before his time.

The musical genius from Bonn was the first freelance composer to enjoy success.

The musical genius from Bonn was the first freelance composer to enjoy success, becoming a myth in his own lifetime and, to a certain extent, personifying the prototype of the Romantic artist that still exists today – touched by the gods, with his own personal tragedy, deafness, family disputes, an arrogant, solitary nature,  and misunderstood for his time.

 

It was the deafness that affected Beethoven for three decades that is analysed in the video Beethoven’s great secret, because this is one of the aspects of his personal life that most marked his personality. it was only his love for his art and music that helped him to overcome this tragedy that almost drove him to suicide.

 

Three of the themes that are implicit in the entire prolific work of Beethoven are nature, love and politics. He stated that he loved a tree more than a person and he often found inspiration for his works while walking through the woods. The video Beethoven and nature explores the strong relationship between Beethoven’s music and elements of nature, especially in the Symphony no. 6 ‘Pastorale’.

 

As far as his love life is concerned, it would see that Beethoven lived in a state of permanent enamourment and had several lovers, especially among his piano students, as we find out in the video Beethoven in love. Most of these loves were impossible and he never had a stable partner, but his passion and dedication is seen in the marvellous letter that he wrote to his unidentified “Immortal Beloved” and in pieces like Moonlight Sonata, dedicated to his student  Giulietta Guicciardi, or Für Elise, which may not actually have been for an Elise but a Therese.

 

Committed to the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven dedicated many of his works to his political ideas such as Fidelio, his only opera, his 5th Piano Concerto ‘Emperor’ and his Symphony no. 3 ‘The Heroic’. But he also became disillusioned with the way in which his ideals were applied as is described in the video Beethoven in the politics of his time . One example is the fact that when he wrote the Symphony no. 3 he dedicated it to Napoleon: but when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven tore out the sheet with the dedication. However, he was always clear that “only art and science can raise man to the level of the gods”.