I planned to write this post after finishing my review of "Midnight in Paris," but I was struck with the sense that I might be too premature in picking a favorite. Had I experienced enough Woody Allen to really make that choice? Of the forty-odd films he's directed, I've seen about half. I'd covered almost all the older classics, and a good sampling of his more recent work, but I knew there were some key titles I still needed to make time for, like "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Mighty Aphrodite." Plus, I had skipped the majority of his output from the mid-90s through the early millennium - not his best years, according to most, but didn't I want to judge that for myself? Then again, did I want to subject myself to "Small Time Crooks" and "Curse of the Jade Scorpion"? No, not really.
So here we are, and I find myself championing one of Allen's early films, "Love and Death," the transitional title that took him from the freewheeling comedy of "Bananas" and "Sleeper" to his more serious examinations of relationships and romance in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." "Love and Death" sits somewhere in the middle, both in theme and tone. It is a parody of the great Russian epics like "War and Peace" and "Crime and Punishment," with a dash of Ingmar Bergman's films for good measure. It is such a wonderfully weird picture, full of literary and film references that nobody gets anymore since we stopped paying attention to the Russians. I think that's why I like it so much. It's Woody Allen experimenting and being a geek over obscure subject matter close to his heart, taking the heaviest themes he can find in the most somber contexts imaginable, and using them as the basis for wacky farce and a few moments of insightful self-examination.
Like Allen's earlier comedies, "Love and Death" unfolds in a series of sketches. Woody Allen plays Boris the Russian peasant, who fights in the Napoleonic Wars, marries his reluctant cousin Sonja (who wonders if she could get away with rented children), and makes very bad choices that put him face-to-face with death several times. In his travels from his village to Moscow to Napoleon's chambers, he remains a neurotic coward, with his thick-framed 70s glasses forever perched on his face. Just as he was in the futurescape of "Sleeper," Woody Allen in 19th century Russia somehow becomes a more universal figure, a nervous bundle of shortcomings that serves as a pretty good representation of the psyche of the modern man if we're being honest with ourselves. Diane Keaton as Sonja is a fitting counterpart, who may not quite have the expectations of a modern woman, but certainly knows how to employ the circular and evasive reasoning of one, with perfect comic timing.
As much as I appreciate that Allen was becoming a more substantive filmmaker, it's still his comedic take on these subjects that makes the film such an enduring piece of work. He clearly adores Bergman, and there are references from "Persona" and "The Seventh Seal" all throughout "Love and Death," but in Allen's hands the Danse Macabre becomes joyous and freeing, and the most heartfelt monologues are peppered with choice zingers. Allen takes on the same themes and concepts as his idols, but finds all the humor and the absurdity in them along with the existentialism and transcendence. I suspect he couldn't help himself. He wasn't Ingmar Bergman, though he tried to be on occasion - see "Interiors" three years later - and that was his loss and our gain. I'll take Woody Allen's irreverent views on life and death over those of Bergman and the great Russian novelists any day.
"Love and Death" was the biggest movie that Woody Allen had done up until that point in his career in terms of scale, with the period sets, big battle scenes, and a production that took place mostly in Hungary. He would then retreat to New York for the next twenty years, which I always thought was a shame, because he shows some real deftness as a director with this material. I'm not saying he should have tackled a full-on adaptation of Tolstoy next, but the ease at which his comedic style translated to a Eastern European setting hinted at the potential for more ambitious projects in the same vein. This is one reason I'm so glad Allen has been bumming around in Europe again lately. His recent films set in Spain and France have been great, and I'm looking forward to "Bop Decameron," Allen's next picture, which will take place in Italy. Of course Italy was the home of Federico Fellini, another big influence.
Maybe we'll see Woody Allen's take on "8 & 1/2" next. Well why not? He's already done "War and Peace."
EDIT: Okay, obviously at the time of writing I hadn't seen "Stardust Memories." This has since been remedied.