Sunday, January 11, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona/Woody Allen Badwriting

Depending on the movie, I’m a big Woody Allen fan. He was one of my early idols. When my partner and I were writing spec scripts we would often play his stand-up routine album to get revved up. I still think ANNIE HALL is hard to beat as the best romantic comedy ever. At his best he is the best.

It’s just that he hasn’t been his best for a really long time. Year after year he cranks out movies faster than Apple rolls out new iPod models. And like iPods usually it’s the exact same product with a different size or color. Even his best received film of late, MATCH POINT. was just recycled CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS. (I was less enthusiastic about that movie than others. Inspector Clouseau is a better detective than those London buffoons.)

But apparently no one has told the Writers Guild that he is no longer the Woody Allen of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, HANNAH & HER SISTERS, CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS, and LOVE & DEATH. He is now the Woody Allen of SCOOP, HOLLYWOOD ENDING, and THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION. And yet, year after year Allen is honored for his various screenplays. He recently received his 19th WGA nomination for VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. Really? Of all the original screenplays that were produced this year that was one of the best five?

I saw VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. It was nice. My order of preference: Vicky, Barcelona, Christina. Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz gave wonderful performances. And Woody wasn’t in it himself so we weren’t asked to believe that Tea Leoni would ever go to bed with him, so that was a big plus. But the screenplay was incredibly lazy.

He just used the narration device to tell the entire story. To the point where it was almost amateurish. The movie opens with Vicky and Christina in a taxi driving through the city. The narrator tells us not only why they’re there, what they’re looking to achieve but also defines their characters. This one is a free spirit. This one is very clenched and engaged to someone whose biggest attribute is that he’s boring. And then we just see examples of what we’ve been told.

That’s good storytelling? Three minutes of bald exposition? How about finding ways to show us who these people are? I know, that’s the hard part, but if you write one screenplay a year instead of four you can achieve it.

And yet he is rewarded. Another “Best Original Screenplay” nomination.

Early in the movie they go away for a weekend. The narrator tells us when they arrived, that they checked into the hotel, went to lunch and what they talked about at lunch. I’m sorry. This is staggeringly bad writing.

The story itself sort of plods along until Penelope’s character arrives. And I’m not sure whether I loved her because of her performance or just the fact that something actually happened.

Part of my disgust is that Woody Allen is capable of so much more. If he pushes himself. The way he did when he had something to prove. But if Allen keeps getting recognition for working at half speed what's his motivation to do better? Don't encourage him! Challenge him!

If you want to nominate VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA for a writing award, fine. But it should be for “Best Short Story Prose” not "Best Screenplay".


Give Me Some Skins said...

I totally agree with you about the story telling devices. It was also one of the better films of the year. To me that was such a small thing in the film. I have such problems with so many other films, over the top set ups, predictable endings and cliche jokes, that even when he's not at his best, his films still feel fresh.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Anonymous said...

You see this a lot not only in the entertainment field, but in others as well, when a person becomes so well-known and respected for their past work, they get to the level where they can make (or in Allen's case, I suppose, write and direct) 90 minutes of armpit noises and there's going to be a certain influential segment out there that will find it to be a subtle work of genius, while nobody's listening to the people who say otherwise.

A good effort gets praise, and a bad one earns the same result. It's how you get a Woody Allen in the film world -- which is better than when it happens, say, in the business world. Then you get Bernie Madoff.

(The corollary to this in the entertainment world are the critics/media types who will shower Celebrity X's current release with effusive praise, and a year or two later, after you've spent your $$$ on this steaming pile of poop, you note that when their next movie/book/album/play comes out, the same critics tell you how wonderful the artist's latest work is, especially compared to their most recent effort, which had a number of flaws and wasn't really up to standards. But their latest is among their best-ever efforts. Trust us.)

Anonymous said...

It was his homage to Jules et Jim, and in that respect the narration made perfect sense; I'm not sure where the rule is written that narration is lazy, anyway.

Woody Allen, is, hands down the most influential American film dramatist. To snark out on him is way below you, Ken.

Christina said...

I think he has one more hit "out-of-the-park" in him. Most directors would be happy with Manhattan and Annie Hall... but he had like three career's worth of great movies.

He's one of my favorites. He's going do it one more time before he dies, another Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattan or Interiors.

BTW, my personal fave is one of the films on the down low: Stardust Memories.

Anonymous said...

I've missed Woody's last several films in theatres, but have caught up with many of them on DVD. I actually thought Anything Else and Hollywood Ending were better than their reps. Match Point was quite well made but disappointing, Scoop was slight but watchable.

John, if your point about Woody truly held water, wouldn't ALL of his recent films have been praised? Where was the critical and award love for Scoop and Cassandra's Dream? Not to mention many of his earlier efforts. He's a very prolific director, but it seems to me that he's panned as often, if not more, than he's praised.

I think my biggest beef with him is that even his better recent efforts seem to be a couple of rewrites away from being truly great. It's like he doesn't always feel like putting in the extra effort.

Unknown said...

I'm not a fan of Woody's but plan on watching the movie just for Barcelona. Now I'm beginning to rethink that.

Spotted a typo: we weren’t asked to belief

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I agree, but I think we are showing our age. These days, in drama every is what it appears to be. You can see this trend in titles such as Dirty, Sexy, Money and Men in Trees. If MASH was done now, it would be called Korean War Fighters and Cheers would be Losers in a Bar. I think this trend started with I Can't Believe It Isn't Butter. At the time it seemed fresh and honest, as any trend. But now it's just another artifice.

Voice-overs were quite common in the golden age of movies.Your generation did away with them as clumsy and unsophisticated and found ways to tap into deeper levels of storytelling by demanding that the author suggests rather than tells the audience what everyone is thinking.

I am currently writing a series that uses a voice-over and one of the problems is that it has only one level. You can't use irony in a voice-over, because the audience is trained to see it as the voice of the author. If you let one of the characters say something that is clearly dumb and something only she would say, the audience infers that it was the author who is suggesting something dumb and silly, not the character.

Now that I think of it, wasn't it Cheers that started this by having the characters say "This epsiode is filmed before a life audience?".

Roger Owen Green said...

FWIW, I liked VCB. Not vintage Woody, but more interesting woody than I've seen for a long time:

Tom Berg said...

I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan either, but I have to give it up for "Radio Days".

blogward said...

...he's no Clint Eastwood, that's for sure.

WV: excroto - the laxative that gets results.

Anonymous said...

jbryant --

There have been voices critiquing Allen's work going all the way back to the late 70s (which "Stardust Memories" was a reaction to in 1980). They're just ignored and flushed down the memory hole by the great majority of critics whenever his next film is released, many of whom are hoping that Woody still has that 'one great film' left in him. And you can argue a clean slate is the way the work of any writer or performer should be judged, without any relationship to recent weaker efforts (which in Allen's case means it's very hard to use reviews to assess his good and bad efforts -- you just have to watch and decide for yourself because many of the reviewers are being fanboys more than they are impartial critics).

It's extremely rare that a person is awarded that "Get out of jail free" card by the reviewers, and there are people in other fields who also tend to get the benefit of the doubt from certain critics or publications on their newest releases (ahem, Rolling Stone/Bruce Springsteen), to the point you don't hear about the flaws from the same sources until well after the fact. That in turn can make you wary of even a good later effort, because you've been burned by the overhype in the past.

Anonymous said...

Golden Globe Winner: Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

I can't say I agree with your opinions here. Nor do a lot of other people, obviously.

Whit said...

Another amazing phenomenon is how Woody Allen manages to unearth fresh sources of global financing that enable him to steadily keep writing and directing films regardless of the diminishing financial returns on his output. Orson Welles never managed a comparable feat in the final third of his career.

Emily Blake said...

I may be the only aspiring screenwriter on the planet who cannot stand Annie Hall. I couldn't finish the movie because I spent all of it just willing him to shut the hell up. Just shut up. Shut up.

But he would not shut up. He never shuts up.

Anonymous said...

John: Maybe I'm missing your point. Here are the (highly unscientific) Tomatometer ratings for Woody's films since 1998:

Vicki Christina Barcelona 82%
Cassandra's Dream 47%
Scoop 38%
Match Point 77%
Melinda and Melinda 52%
Anything Else 41%
Hollywood Ending 47%
Curse of the Jade Scorpion 46%
Small Time Crooks 67%
Sweet and Lowdown 77%
Celebrity 39%

Of these 11 films, only 5 managed a rating above 50% (one of them just barely). These ratings are calculated from contemporary reviews, not "after the fact" think pieces. And while I'm sure there are die hard Woody apologists who rave about his every "armpit noise," it has always seemed to me that his critical standing fluctuates wildly. These "stats" seem to bear that out.

If you simply mean that each new Woody film is given the benefit of the doubt before the kudos or brickbats are thrown, I don't see the problem. Critics have to see a work before forming an opinion on it (at least they SHOULD).

Anonymous said...

"Hollywood Ending" was the last Woody Allen movie I've seen. It was shockingly amateurish - like something made by a mediocre film student. I later heard he had gotten rid of his entire crew of 'regulars' which would explain the sloppiness of the editing, etc.

In any case, over the years, I've mostly disliked Allen's films (think he's a self-serving sociopath -as if there's any other kind), but have really liked a couple (I LOVED Purple Rose of Cairo - but that was made like 20 years ago now).

In any case, I have greatly improved my quality of life by no longer wasting my time with Allen's movies.

Some disparate points:

- Benjamin Button is also a film damaged by intrusive and lazy-ass voice-overs.

- to Ger Apeldoorn: look at the film "Badlands" to see how great voice-over narration CAN be. The voice-over narration in "Barry Lyndon" is a different animal but works pretty well too, IMHO.

By Ken Levine said...

Yes, VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA won the Golden Globe from the FOREIGN press, about a movie set in Spain.

If the film were called VICKY CHRISTINA MILWAUKEE I don't think there would be the same love.

normadesmond said...

de acuerdo

Anonymous said...

If you look at it from a storytelling perspective, you might have a point. But if you realize that he found a way to get the Weinstein co. to pay for his vacation in Spain, and bring along some of the world's hottest actresses, you realize, "This man is a genius".

btw, my capcha was "inest" which is either apple's new product for birds, or a superlative meaning "the most in". Or a misspelling of incest. It all depends on context.

Anonymous said...

jbryant --

On the reviews, it's location, location, location -- the overall number on some of Allen's films may be negative, but you have to look into where the negative reviews come from vs. the positive reviews (it's why Frank Rich and other N.Y. Times theater critics were always more powerful than those at other outlets. A good review from the right source can be more powerful than 9-10 negative reviews, and since most of Allen's films over the past 30 years have been targeted towards big city urban audiences here and overseas, as long as he maintains the support of the most influential arbiters of culture in those markets he gets a freer -- if not totally free -- pass for his weaker efforts).

Jack Ruttan said...

I've liked Allen's later films, but your comments give me pause. Another really vaunted writer is David Mamet, but some of his storytelling devices seem obvious and absolutely childish.

(like the throwaway line from the mom to the little boy about his "torn book" in The Spanish Prisoner, reminding the hero about an important clue.)

Maybe it's brilliant, or maybe when people become certified geniuses they can do things which would earn you an "F" in First Year Screenwriting Skool.

Alice said...

Also, he didn't seem as in love with the city as he had been, undoubtedly, with NYC, but even with London. I felt as if Barcelona, was not a character, but rather a location.

Kirk said...

Woody Allen said in an Esquire article back in the 1980s that a film's popularity was the exact inverse of it's quality. In case I'm using "inverse" wrong, that means popular movies suck.

If you want to encourage him to make good movies again, I suggest we all go to the bad ones, and ignore the good ones.

Well, wait, we won't get to see the good ones, will we?


lintivi: what Zero Mostel brushes off his jacket.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. I thought Matchpoint was a great movie. He made it four years ago. That's not really that long ago. If he makes a great movie or two every decade, that is pretty damn good.

Also, some of his movies have aged pretty well. I'm thinking Stardust Memories.

Anonymous said...

I loved Woody Allen's work years ago. I haven't seen on of his movies in years, and I won't. I'm amazed that more people don't boycott him. In my opinion, he's an incestuous pedophile and belongs in jail. My entertainment budget is too tight to let any of it go to support him.

Cap'n Bob said...

I haven't seen it so I can't agree or disagree, but the voiceover device reminds me of the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite. Maybe he liked it and decided to use a mutation of it. Voiceovers were used with good effect in a lot of noir films of the fifties and sixties, as well as a few TV shows, but they were first-person viewpoint. I assume VCB wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Lighten up, Margaret. She was A) of age, and B) not related to him by blood, so neither of your accusations make any sense. I think Mel Gibson is a complete dick, but I like some of his movies. Woody's always been a little too impressed with himself to suit me, but he's made some great films despite that.

Anonymous said...

What is grating is that films such as Zelig were so majestically brilliant.


Anonymous said...

I liked Woody's comedy LIFE OF AN INCESTUOUS PEDOPHILE, even if it was a little too soon for a homage to Roman Polanski's THEY'RE ALL PINK ON THE INSIDE.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Jules et Jim in a bunch of years, but when watching VCB I thought the voiceover material was clearly an homage to a certain kind of European film and the fact that it was so blunt was kind of the point. The film initially plays against that easy, summary narration and then snaps back to it by film's end. I don't think its use is as simplistic as you suggest.

I'm not sure what you're getting at otherwise, because you don't bring much of anything else up other than vaguely criticizing the lack of something happening. I disagree on that point, and preferred the film's first half. I agree that various groups give out awards to people that don't deserve it, but I think most people figure that awards aren't fair by age 18 or so. Seriously. And why is that a criticism of Allen? It's not an indication of a general free pass given Allen -- a lot of his newer films get hammered, as someone pointed out. As for him wanting to work as much as possible, so what? He's always been a prolific filmmaker. If he wants to risk his general reputation by continuing to work, I think that makes him a braver and more admirable artist. I'm not as good at some stuff as I used to be, either. I don't plan to stop. Why should Allen?

I thought VCB was pretty good, and that there was some genuinely funny material in there. That scene where the fiance stumbles off the escalator at the airport killed me dead, just a fine and generous to his actors piece of comedic character assassination. I like that Patricia Clarkson's character had this little absurd movie going on in the corner of this one, too.

Did you ever see Sinatra perform near the end? Read any of Hunter Thompson's later books? How about the last 10 years of Pogo or Li'l Abner? They weren't always the best, either. But I'm glad they did what it is they wanted to do for as long as they wanted to do it, and if Woody wants to remake Sleeper with Vin Diesel, then good for him on that count, too.

Also, my friend Kim says to type she'd sleep with Woody Allen 10,000 times before she'd sleep with Billy Bob Thornton once.

By Ken Levine said...


I am thrilled that Woody Allen is still working. I am thrilled that Clint Eastwood is still working. I just feel that by being so prolific Allen is dashing off these scripts and not giving them the care and thought he could. If he worked just as hard but made one movie every year the movies might be better.

Look, there are some filmmakers that could work 24/7 for 10 years and never produce a thing that's decent. Woody Allen has the potential for greatness. He's proven it in the past, and even at his "advanced" age he's capable of doing it again.

But I don't see him striving for that. I see this need to churn out as much material as he can. Maybe it's a mortality issue. But for the sake of quantity the quality suffers.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting article that shares many of your concerns about the film.

Anonymous said...

Good piece, Ken. I thought both Match Point and Cassandra's Dream suffered from strange leaps of character logic which seemed the result of lazy writing more than anything else. And, perhaps it's because I'm British, but both films seemed utterly bizarre in the depiction of the class system of the UK.

Anonymous said...

Ken, thanks. I guess in the end I just don't find your argument very convincing, and I wish it were better focused because it's an interesting take. As to the latter, the WGA stuff seems like a totally different essay, particularly because nothing in Allen's career suggests that winning awards or being recognized has any effect on his work.

As to the former, well, I don't know how Allen writes, but a cursory look at his IMDB page doesn't seem to indicate he's writing any more quickly now. The two substantive criticisms you make -- voiceover and a general lack of anything happening in the first half of the movie -- don't seem to me the kind of things that would go away just by taking more time with his scripts. They seem to be more about sensibility than haste.

(It's funny although admittedly hardly conclusive of anything in that two of what I consider Allen's weaker comedy scripts, MSNC and S&F, came after rare two-year separations between films.)

Allen's had such a long career with three or four super-strong periods that would define other careers in their entirety that it seems more a miracle that it's been as good as it's been as many time as it's been good than a disappointment it's not as awesome as ever.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem was that Allen had no real interest in Barcelona, and not that much in the characters overall, so he only spent time developing the particular relations between the characters. All context was given short shrift, probably because he felt he didn't understand Spain, this generation of young people, etc. So instead of doing actual research, or collaborating with someone with insight on those subjects, he just glossed over them. Turned what could have been a really good film into a pretty good one (since his writing was astute on the topics he was interested in, and Bardem and Cruz were aces).

Anonymous said...

With you all the way, Ken. I miss the old Woody, the anxious, inventive artist with something *permanent* to say-- as opposed to the director emeritus using gimmicks and shortcuts and goofy little Woodyish quips thrust into the mouths of unsuspecting and undeserving characters.
I believe the new Woody can still get back to the old Woody, but it may take some crisis or change in his day-to-day life to rattle that cage and force his hand again.(My personal fave: Purple Rose of Cairo.)

Anonymous said...

I didn't see this one, (so I skipped all the spoiler talk), but I remember being livid that not one critic mentioned that Match Point was a British remake of half of Crimes and Misdemeanors. I sat there, shocked wondering if it was just me.

No, he hasn't done a good film in about 15 years, but I'm going to see this one, anyway... on dvd.

scottmc said...

I felt the voice-over narration was used so that when the movie played in non-English speaking countries those parts could be dubbed as opposed to subtitled.
A few years ago Ralph Rosenblum, the editor on most of Allen's early movies, wrote a book called 'When The Shooting Stops...the Cutting Begins'. The book provides insights to Allen that can be applied to the later films too.( The book also features wonderful stories about such films as 'The Pawnbroker', 'A Thousand Clowns' and 'The Producers'.)

Anonymous said...

As for voiceovers, I saw Kubrick's "The Killing" (1956) again a few days ago, and the v/o was almost totally superfluous. We needed to know the day and time of given scenes, but a subtitle giving just that information would have been plenty.

As for Woody Allen, I was so infuriated by "Mighty Aphrodite" that I've never seen a film of his since (except the early ones). I found it utterly patronizing with regard to women and class. To cap it off, he's manipulated Mira Sorvino throughout the movie, and then, out of nowhere, she falls in love with him. (Oh, and by the way, she's 32 years younger, and his character is totally unbearable.) Bah.

Anonymous said...

Dhppy: I actually don't recall seeing even one review of Match Point that DIDN'T reference Crimes and Misdemeanors. Guess we read different critics. :)

You know, longevity in this business is really a double-edged sword. If you try different things, people gripe about missing the "old" you. If you just repeat yourself, they skewer you for, you know, repeating yourself. If you retire, they beg you not to go gentle into that good night. If you don't, they beg you to get out of the spotlight while you have a shred of dignity left.

I say crank 'em out till you reach room temperature. A director's much-maligned late work sometimes looks like genius a few decades down the road.

TCinLA said...

That Woody Allen has gotten nominated AT ALL in the past 20 years proves why I think of the WGA as the Wanker's Guild of America. These kinds of votes are proof of why most writers deserve to be treated as they are.

Which pisses off those of us who don't deserve such treatment.

Graeme said...

I love your writing and your blog Ken, but I'm with Tom Spurgeon on this one. The use of voiceover is directly inspired by (or ripped off from depending on your sensibility) Jules and Jim, which uses voiceover in the exact same way: to tell the action as it's happening, to tell the inner thoughts of the characters and to do the film as an illustrated piece of prose. It even has your opening of three minutes of bald exposition. You could probably take your critique and apply it to that Jules and Jim verbatim.

And Jules and Jim isn't the only one that does this-- it's a technique used a lot in European cinema

I don't think the problem is with VCB or the quality of VCB's writing. I just don't think you particularly like the school of filmmaking Woody Allen is adhering to this week. And that's fair, but I don't think it's quite the same thing.

Anonymous said...

The narration reminded me of a Russ Meyer film and I thought it was hilarious - not lazy story telling at all - a deliberate reference to that sort of cheesy travelogue that Russ Meyer was himself satirising. Particularly it points up the vacuous arrogant ignorance of the typical American tourist to Europe. Vicky's doing a Masters in "Catalan identity" and can't even speak enough Spanish to hold a conversation with Juan Antonio's father!

Anonymous said...

i don't know. even at his worst it's better than becker.