22 September 2010

Love, Death and Dostoyevsky? It Must Be a Woody Allen Film

Who but Woody Allen can successfully blend humor, existential angst, romance and Napoleon Bonaparte into a movie? (Don't strain yourself, folks, it's a rhetorical question).

It'd had been decades since I'd seen Love and Death (1975). In fact my one clear memory of the film was the old man who proudly owned a piece of land, which was literally a little piece of land. Yes, there was that kind of creative if silly laughs sprinkled throughout. But there was also a hodgepodge of esoteric and obscure references to keep us high minded types amused. There's an entire riff on the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that you can miss entirely if you're not paying attention.

Allen also used the film to pay many an homage to his hero, Ingmar Bergman. It wasn't the first or last time he so homaged the great Swedish director. But never was his homaging so clear or effective (have I used enough forms of homage for you?).

Part of Allen's brilliance (and there are so many) is in the creation of his own distinct character so unique in cinema. He's a nebbish. A nerdy everyman. Groucho sans mustache and self confidence. Wise cracking. Totally self serving. A lascivious lover of women. An intellectual without pretense. Surely this is not someone that Joe NASCAR can get behind, but any of us blokes who've ever felt a massive underdog to the dumb, powerful and vacuously handsome, can relate. Yes he's a coward but then again there's nothing much worth fighting or dying for. Better to live and love then to die a hero's death.

In Love and Death he's Boris, madly in love with a cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) but called away to war when Napoleon invades Mother Russia. Of course like any cinematic comic hero (think Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Chaplin) he stumbles and bumbles his way into being a hero. He also survives a duel and wins the love of Sonja.

But in addition to being a comedy this a tribute to Bergman so you get the sense that living happily ever after is not in the cards.

Love and Death was the last film Allen made before Annie Hall (1977) announced him as more than just another funny face. It's a largely forgotten Woody. When talk turns to his early comedies it usually centers on Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973). Conversations then skip ahead to the aforementioned Annie Hall and other critically acclaimed films, some of which made little or not attempt at accessing audience funny bones.

Truth be told those earlier yuckfests are all, at least in my humble estimation, funnier than Love and Death. However in this film we see Allen probing some deeper themes such as morality, that he would give closer examination to in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005). In those a murder is planned and executed, leaving serious questions for the characters and thus the audience to ponder. In Love and Death the intended victim is Napoleon but the points raised are the same, if more humorously. Allen has us chuckling and thinking at the same time. True it was a bit more crudely here than in later efforts, but it was a start and a helluva good one at that.

I'm not altogether surprised that I'd bypassed viewing Love and Death for so long. Allen, who is still, as they say, going strong, has already left us a great deal to enjoy repeatedly. But it is a mistake to ignore it. Yes it portends more to come but in its own right, Love and Death is a diverting 90 minutes that gives us a thing or two think about amid the laughs.

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