Lost in the Movies: Love and Death

Love and Death

Love and Death ends the period of "the early funny ones," (as Woody Allen referred to his first hit films in Stardust Memories). I think it's generally considered a disappointment, and it's not as good as Sleeper - or as inventive as Everything you always wanted to know about sex (*but were afraid to ask). But it is often very funny, especially when Woody's onscreen. Appropriately for the last of his zany, simpler parodies, the star still has his semi-youthful early 70s long-haired look. When next we see him in Annie Hall, the thinning red hair will be trimmed and he'll be complaining about turning forty.

One remarkable aspect of Annie Hall is its stylistic assuredness. It's astonishing on several fronts - because comedies are rarely so formally inventive, because the film was supposedly assembled from the jumbled outtakes and reshoots of a much longer movie (which included a murder mystery), and because up until then Woody Allen's film had not reached that level of cinematic control. Love and Death, for example, has a certain flair - there's an evocative sense of place, imaginative shot structure and cutting, and free, loose flow to the material that would later burst loose in Allen's late 70s masterpieces. But all of these elements point to a certain sophistication about the medium, without overtly demonstrating it.

To pick just one example, the "rapid" cuts, meant to parody Eisenstein, aren't all that rapid. They get the point across, and show that Allen knows film history and has a clever take on it (instead of a lion-statue montage which leads to a rearing, roaring beast - like in Battleship Potemkin - we get one which leads to a lion cowering in fear, paws over his eyes). But it doesn't move as fast or as fluidly as what it's spoofing, whereas Annie Hall will embody many different styles seamlessly and Manhattan will sink into the palpable atmosphere of its gorgeous photography. Gordon Willis shot those films, and was succeeded by Sven Nykvist, another all-time great DP. But it's not just the cinematography which marks those works as great cinema (in addition to being great comedy) - the editing, story structure, acting, use of music and sound - all achieves a new, unsuspected sophistication. Here that higher level is only hinted at.

Anyway, Love and Death. Its aim is not so much to satirize Russian film conventions, Eisenstein aside, but rather to riff on Russian novels and their lush, often portentous style. The first time a character begins a long, somber discourse on the objectivity vs. subjectivity of morality, it's fairly amusing but the gag becomes repetitive after awhile (which may be the point, but doesn't make it much funnier). Some jokes are funny (the son who's older than his father made me laugh aloud) while others fall flat (the father's "piece of land," a patch of grass which he carries in his coat pocket, seemed a bit too obvious).

But it's pretty consistently hilarious whenever the writer/director/star is mouthing off in thoroughly modern style. He stands amidst the husky cossacks in black-rimmed glasses and unkempt hair, staring into the camera with his trademark "Yeah, me worry" expression. How many other filmmakers, especially in today's oddly more literal cinemascape, would have this courage of their convictions: to place a modern man in a historical backdrop...without concocting some time-travel plot or other excuse for the fish being out of water? Love and Death is funny precisely because there's no reason Allen's character could or would be in 19th century Russia and no explanation is offered for his presence there.

But the film is not just Borscht Belt-meets-Tolstoy & Dostoevsky. I noted the film's antecedents were more literary than cinematic, but there is a conscious attempt to emulate Ingmar Bergman. Usually when Allen did so in later films, it was with a more reverent tone, but here it's all screwball send-up. We not only get a cloaked figure of Death (white instead of black to suit the landscape), but framing of female characters which subtly suggest Persona - until the last composition emerges as an outright copy of a famous "two faces in one" shot from that film.

Speaking of female characters, Diane Keaton's performance in this movie is unusual. It's often funny (as when she suggest a nearby restaurant moments after her husband's death, a situation quoted almost exactly by "Seinfeld" 22 years later with Susan's demise). But not in Keaton's usual wacky, Annie Hall-way; here she's playing straight (wo)man to Allen's clown - it's as if Kay Adams was trying her hand at comedy.

I enjoyed Love and Death, while noting its unevenness, but one thing bothered me - I was forced to watch it chopped-off on the edges, as this is how it appeared on my television. From what I could detect in the cropped borders, it looked like Allen was making good use of the widescreen aspect ratio, so maybe it was more "cinematic" than I thought after all.


The Film Doctor said...

Generally considered a disappointment? I don't know what the critical consensus is on Love and Death, but it has been one of my favorite Allen films in part because he has not quite gone classic yet. While Annie Hall holds up beautifully, I find Manhattan already a bit too self-consciously artistic, with a refined sheen that makes me miss the hit-and-miss, gag-oriented style of Love and Death. Many of Allen's mature themes of his career are already present in this Russian caricature of War and Peace, and I like to see Diane Keaton just beginning to figure out how to perform as one of Allen's best comic actresses.

Joel Bocko said...

I have very similar sentiments on Manhattan: it's one of the most visually dazzling movies ever made, but its self-consciousness (and occasional self-satisfaction, which will only get worse as Allen grows older) do make one miss the free-spiritedness of early Allen. Annie Hall has a poignance because it captures him right at that crossroads.

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