Sunday, November 7, 2010
Experiencing A Wave Of Insecurity
I’m not going to lie. It hasn’t been the greatest time lately. I’ve been pretty damn depressed. I really have no illusions that I’m going to find a job anytime soon, I’m frustrated over the current situation with various women in my life, all those things. Maybe this is the usual stuff, but it just all feels more amplified right now. One day a little over a week ago I got several wonderful compliments about the site within several hours of each other, including a surprising offhand mention by Drew McWeeny at HitFix, and each one of those meant more than I could possibly express here but then suddenly I felt like I was hitting a wall. Over the past week I’ve started three separate pieces and none of them have resulted in anything readable. Will I finish any of them? I don’t know. Are you being kept up nights wondering what I think about John Frankenheimer’s DEAD BANG? If so, why? And is there even anything to be gained in my trying to figure out what I think about it? I don’t know. So in an effort to write something, anything, I decided to look for a film that would be easy, that I could connect with and try to write about that. ALMOST FAMOUS occurred to me since that’s a favorite but then I’d have to deal with the longer cut which would take a lot of time and, besides, the kind of incessant Cameron Crowe optimism that film displays would probably make me even more despondent right now. I thought about IN A LONELY PLACE but maybe thinking about Bogart got me to pull out my disc of PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM which I’ve already seen about fifty times—it’s short (85 minutes), it goes down easy and while it’s very much a Woody Allen film it’s oddly not one that he directed which makes it slightly different than would be expected.
Based on Woody’s stage play of the same name a good amount of the 1972 film is dated enough now in both attitude and specific references that I’m not sure the original show could even be put on today, not without considerable revisions anyway. Still, it does provide for a nice little time capsule showing a version of the world that Woody Allen was once king of, back during the time when the cult of Bogart was in full bloom with his films probably running on the late show and in revival houses all the time. With Woody adapting what he had starred in on Broadway for over a year, along with his co-stars who returned for the film, directing duties were taken by Herbert Ross who by this point already had extensive film and stage credits. Due to strike-related issues on the east coast production was moved out to San Francisco (of course, the play was set in New York) which doesn’t quite take with the persona of the lead—there’s also still dialogue references to ‘Park Avenue headshrinkers’ and knowing a girl back at Brooklyn College not to mention how I’m not sure anyone could believe that Tony Roberts is from anywhere other than New York—but the altered feel provides for a slightly different Woody Allen movie than the world is used to, playing now as a sort of midway point between his ‘early, funny ones’ and what he would achieve later on in his most insightful examinations of relationships. Sure, it’s no ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN and it’s no BANANAS either but it is a good one to have around for certain occasions when you want a certain kind of Woody from a certain kind of vintage. It’s also interesting as a rare look at what is basically Woody Allen starring in what is ultimately a traditional romantic comedy. The whole point of the movie seems to be aimed to get to the famous final scene but there is still enjoyment throughout.
After his wife walks out and divorces him, film magazine writer Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is desperate to meet another woman. His best friends Linda (Diane Keaton) and Dick (Tony Roberts), happily married, try to set him up with other girls but Allan, continually getting advice from his own vision of his hero Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacey) sabotages date after date by trying to mask his own nervousness by acting like someone he’s not. He soon realizes that the only woman he can act like himself in front of is Linda and when work-obsessed Dick goes out of town on business he begins to imagine the possibilities of what could happen with her.
Allan Felix is first seen at the movies by himself, gazing up at the final scene of CASABLANCA, wishing there was something in his DNA that could be like what he’s seeing and as his departing wife played by Susan Anspach (who comes off as sort of a Louise Lasser substitute) puts it to him he’s a watcher, not a doer (of course, he interprets her own desires as wanting to ski down a mountain laughing like an idiot, which is honestly how it sounds to me too). This question of how much good it is to see so many films has honestly occurred to me about my own life before—in an ideal world I’d gladly spend much of my time at the movies but I’d also want to spend many nights having good meals in restaurants with interesting people as well. In an ideal world, of course. PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM is directed by Ross in a decidedly non-showy style which pretty much gets out of the way of the actors and the laughs to let this story of doing more than just seeing movies unfold as cleanly as possible. Few of the visuals ever call attention to themselves with the exception of some touristy looks at San Francisco (that, along with a vague hippie-pot vibe to some of it feels more like it comes from the director than the writer/star) as well as numerous shots of Woody just walking the streets which at one point results in a simple sight gag that gets me to laugh out loud every time. But in this simplicity is a definite degree of intelligence to the direction which lets it feel more like an actual movie than, say, the average grainy looking Neil Simon comedy from the period. Clearly looking at things with a visual eye that at that stage maybe Woody Allen still needed to learn, Ross knows to keep the framing close to allow for the right kind of intimacy through the various scenes in Allen’s apartment but it never feels like just a photographed stage play. There’s barely an individual shot I can point to as being impressive all by itself but there are moments that a director of lesser sensitivity might not have pulled off—whether in Woody’s hesitant glancing around when CASABLANCA ends in the first scene or in its earnest treatment of Keaton’s own insecurity. The direction even seems to have the right awareness of how it needs to do nothing but keep the camera focused straight ahead on the desperation of Woody at certain moments and on a cast who plays the expertly worded dialogue with timing like the best Swiss watch.
The comical mishaps surrounding the weekend getaway and dating stuff during the first half is enjoyable with some great one-liners sprinkled through scenes but since the main characters are all I really care about the plot doesn’t fully kick in until past the midway point and whenever any two or three of the leads are in a scene playing off each other it works just great. It’s not a deep movie, feeling pretty loose on the morality of getting away with sleeping with a best friend’s wife but as Allan Felix lies in bed by himself thinking, “I’m so depressed,” after returning from seeing a movie that he must have already seen umpteen times by that point….well, there’s something in the material’s DNA that I obviously understand. And it’s the forever sharp Woody Allen dialogue along with the quick, always clever fantasies of the various possible scenarios of Dick finding out what’s going on that makes it continually enjoyable to revisit. Not to mention what comes from the lead character’s never-ending desperation which includes the now-classic scene of him trying to talk to a girl in an art museum (the one that includes the line “What are you doing Saturday night?”) as well as this exchange in that sequence between Allen and Keaton: “Do you realize we’re in a room that holds some of the highest achievements of western civilization?” “Yeah, but there’s no girls.” Which sometimes in life just about says it all. With the music by Billy Goldenberg, it also provides us the rarity of a Woody Allen romantic comedy with an original music score—it really is the closest possible look there ever was to a mainstream version of the Woody Allen persona and maybe at times he’s slightly broader in how he plays things than during his own films from this period. There are plenty of references that seemed ingrained in the era of the late 60s-early 70s as well as some joking discussions of rape that probably wouldn’t play so great now (“You’ll never get raped.” “No, not with my luck.”). For that matter, the most famous running gag involving Tony Roberts’ work-obsessed character always intent on letting his office know how to reach him (“Let me tell you where you can reach me, George, I’ll be at 362-9296 for a while, then I’ll be at 648-0024 for about 15 minutes, then I’ll be at 752-0420…”) that by this point in time has been rendered moot by technology by now but seriously, what are you gonna do? Does that suddenly mean that the film is invalid or something? Of course not. The basic thrust of the material is still effective, the leads are all terrific and the laughs are definitely there, all the way through to the famous final scene which manages to correctly play the spoof element while never undermining the story it’s been building to, a tricky balance to pull off. If anything is clear from the ending, PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM is about the love of movies, the desperation of loneliness and how learning from both of those traits can allow you to become a richer person in the end, even if you do wind up walking into the night by yourself. I’m not saying that I identify with any of those feelings—what, you think that’s why I’m writing about this movie?—but I’m pretty sure I understand.
It’s no surprise how well the actors play off each other both from having done this material on stage and how they were no doubt very close to each other by this point. As Allan Felix, Woody Allen keeps the balance going between the desperation of his disastrous dates and the right kind of charm when it’s needed always with the expert kind of timing, always displaying the vulnerability his character feels and spitting out every brilliant one-liner like it’s second nature which it certainly was. Diane Keaton is adorable as she bounces off him during their scenes together and makes us totally believe how much they become attracted to each other, Tony Roberts brings expert patter to every phone number he has to recite while selling the seriousness of the second half and Jerry Lacy infuses what remains a surprising amount of comic timing to what is generally perceived as the persona of Humphrey Bogart, someone who I don’t think ever said “Jewish Holiday” in any of his movies. Included among Allan’s dates are Jennifer Salt from De Palma’s SISTERS (and recently the screenwriter of EAT, PRAY, LOVE), MESSIAH OF EVIL’s Joy Bang and Andy Warhol superstar Viva—the latter two were also in CISCO PIKE. Tom Bullock, the father of an old college friend, can be spotted as a hippie who gets out of a taxi in a pot-smoking gag—he also played the Dennis Hopper role in PORKLIPS NOW, if anyone’s seen that. Just felt like mentioning it.
So that’s PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM, which remains a delightful look at early Woody Allen as well as an appreciation of an unabashed love of movies that still gives me a feeling of total pleasure years after I first saw it. As for that love of movies, I guess it’s something I’m stuck with by now. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in the future but I know that I don’t want to stop writing this blog. Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve got much else going for me right now. It’s not much, but it’s something. And when somebody tells me how much they like reading it I’m still completely surprised and it still means more than I can say. After all, I’m not Bogart and I’m definitely not Woody Allen. But I’m trying and to go by what this movie has to say, maybe there’s always the chance that someday I’ll figure out the secret of being me.
“Well, I’m off to Alaska. If you need me, I’ll be at Frozen Tundra 69290.”