Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seductively Satirizing Hollywood's Seduction: Woody Allen's Anti-Genre Films

Genre films are Hollywood’s staple. Many genres exist among contemporary film categories. The plots are consistently copies of previous successes and the actors are typecast in nearly identical roles in movie after movie. The endings are so predictable that every teenager knows what to expect every time they go to the show. The experience breeds conformity and provides a fundamental, subconscious confirmation that all is right with the world.

Genre films continue to enrich actors, directors and producers with huge incomes from their shares of the ever-increasing box office receipts. These salaries translate into obscene, self-indulgent lifestyles which captivate the impressionable minds of the young, encouraging them to buy into the system and determine their self-worth from the degree of financial net worth they are able to obtain. Those impressionable young minds learn to adulate that which they want to emulate. They invest their fascination in wealth and celebrity, neither of which accrues from talent, but stems from shallow, fleeting commodities such as physical attributes, current fads determining momentary hipness, and incomes which would be better spent feeding and housing the hungry and homeless of the world.

Woody Allen, as a screenwriter and filmmaker, knew the trend to genre films took over Hollywood early in his career. He realized the reason for this was because formula movies are so successful and their sameness makes them easy to produce, like cars on an assembly line. So, Woody made a series of parodies of the genre film early in his career. Woody’s, anti-establishment movies, like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death, stand out as a genre of their own, an anti-genre which I call the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy” genre. Sleeper is both the best known and most viewed from this group. Consequently, it is the prime example of the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy” genre, epitomizing his movies which parody and satirize genre films.

Thomas Sobchack, Ph.D. has experience as the Director of Graduate Study for Film and Theater at the University of Utah. Sobchack is also the author of books on film and film criticism. Those undertakings provide him with excellent credentials and qualify him as an expert on genre films.

Sobchack’s article, “Genre Film: A Classical Experience,” which appears in the second edition of the book Writing As Revision, edited by Beth Alvarado and Michael Robinson, offers a brief, but poignant discussion of genre films. The essence of Sobchack’s criteria is that “in the genre film, the plot is fixed, the characters defined, the ending satisfyingly predictable” (72). He also informs us, “The subject matter of a genre film is story. Its sole justification for existence is to make concrete and perceivable the configurations inherent in its ideal form” (73). Sobchack relates to us that genre films, with respect to other movies from the same genre, faithfully maintain “a consistency of basic content; the motifs, plots, settings, and characters remain the same” (73). He also explains, “To further speed comprehension of the plot, genre films employ visual codes, called iconographies, in order to eliminate the need for excessive verbal or pictorial exposition” (76).

Another valuable tool in genre films, Sobchack suggests, is typecasting because, as he discusses, “It is just one more way of establishing character quickly and efficiently” (77). Sobchack tells us that an audience’s experience of emotional release through a catharsis at the end of the film is another significant element common among genre films. He writes, “Any brief rundown of the basic plots should serve to demonstrate that the catharsis engendered in genre films is a basic element of their structure” (80). Sobchack goes on to say, “The internal tension between the opposing impulses of personal individuation and submission to the group, which normally is held in check by the real pressures of everyday living, is released in the course of a genre film as the audience vicariously lives out its individual dreams of glory and terror, as it identifies with the stereotyped characters of fantasy life.” (80)

It is exactly this sociological response, conditioned in the viewer by exposure to genre films which, I suggest, Woody Allen found so unnerving and potentially dangerous. He provides us with examples of automaton-like, subservient conformists who result from too great of exposure to the Hollywood formula movie (what Sobchack calls genre films) in the three movies which most typify the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy.” This provides a partial explanation for why his early films were anti-authoritarian and parodied the genre film. His desire not to be boxed in by Hollywood’s box office, bottom-line fixation and his anathema for being forced to make formula films with no redeeming value beyond the size of the return on the investment provide what I consider to be likely additional reasons. Woody is a highly creative individual who always aspires to create something of lasting value with meaning, depth and artistic integrity. So, his aspiration to create art also provided motivation.

Some examples of the automaton-like conformist as presented in Woody’s films follow, showing the similarities in the characters from movie to movie and establishing why they constitute a genre.

In Bananas, we find the followers of the leader fomenting revolution in the fictitious Latin American “banana republic,” San Marcos, are blind adherents to the cause, just as are the sycophantic assistants to the dictator, and the FBI agents who later, on trumped up charges, arrest Woody’s character, Fielding Mellish, who ascended to Presidency of San Marcos. In Sleeper, the entire society is presented as being brainwashed, mind-controlled conformists. Likewise, the rebels are depicted as being conditioned to respond in their roles as revolutionaries. In Love and Death, Napoleon Bonaparte is depicted in his role of taking over Europe. Napoleon’s followers are automaton soldiers obeying orders just as are the Russian soldiers fighting him. The Russian society is presented as a parody of the society Tolstoy depicted in his novel War and Peace. It is portrayed by Woody as a stereotype of Tolstoy’s in a manner in which any familiar with Tolstoy's work would expect the characters to act. In each of these Woody Allen movies, the only character not an automaton is Woody’s character. The female lead characters (Louise Lasser in Bananas and Diane Keaton in Sleeper and Love and Death) start out as robots, but Woody’s character leads his love interest in each film to see beyond her conformist programming and discover her own individuality. This occurs at the end of each movie and provides the satirized, faux catharsis.

In each of the movies, the use of iconographic imagery is satirized. In Bananas, released in 1971, the movie opens with ABC's Wide World of Sports (a popular television show from the 60s) broadcasting the assassination of San Marcos’ dictator to viewers in the US. Howard Cosell calls the action and parodies his own performances from when he announced Muhammad Ali’s fights on the same show. Right away, the movie makes light of serious matters. In another scene, J. Edgar Hoover appears in court to testify at Woody Allen’s trial disguised as a black woman. All the characters in positions of power, in uniform and in respectable positions represent the bad guys. Even the rebels, who initially seem to be the good guys, turn out in the end just being more bad guys wearing different uniforms but aspiring to the same power wielded by the existing government and also demanding conformity from their cadre of followers. The one area where traditional iconography holds true is is evidenced through the lead character, portrayed by Woody Allen, and his representation of the good guy. In Love and Death, a similar approach is taken. All the authority figures are the bad guys and only Woody and Diane Keaton’s characters represent the forces of good.

In Sleeper, Woody goes to greater lengths in shattering iconographic stereotypes. Nearly everyone in the movie wears white. Yet, all the people wearing white are robotic, brainwashed conformists. Even the rebels wear white, or actually “off white.” Woody and the androids are the primary characters who wear other than white clothing (with a few minor exceptions like the characters during the party scene at Luna’s house who are not clad exclusively in white). Later in the movie, Woody is abducted by the government and his brain is reprogrammed. While Woody portrays a conforming automaton (after his abduction), he also wears white. When Woody and Diane Keaton infiltrate the conformist world in order to carry out the rebel’s subversive plan, they wear white (as they would have to in order to be effective as infiltrators). White, normally the symbol of purity, in Sleeper, denotes the impure through both conscious actions and mindless complicity. It is also important that all the automaton, white wearing characters always have a hint of color just barely exposed at the edges of the white garments dominating their attire. This is to symbolize the barest traces of individual personality which must, in any human, remain laying dormant, even amid the most repressively enforced conformity, ready to be brought to the surface as soon as individuality reawakens to self-awareness.

Typecasting is used in all these films. Woody always plays himself, in the same way that John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Humphrey Bogart and so many other traditional genre film actors always play themselves. Diane Keaton’s character in Sleeper is very much like Louise Lasser’s character in Bananas. The women are feminists who are college educated but don’t seem to use their whole minds. These female characters are portrayed in the films as having had several male sex partners and the idea of sex for sex’s sake is insinuated by Woody as the expression of women’s newly evolving sexual liberation. In Love and Death, Diane portrays an intelligent woman, more self-determined and more self-aware. However, many of the elements from the female leads in the earlier movies are still present in Keaton’s character in Love and Death: sexual promiscuity, erudition and feminist spirit are all present. In all these films, Woody is like Groucho in a Marx Brothers’ film, playing himself while Louise/Diane are like Margaret Dumont, presenting stereotypes of women of their times but, unlike Dumont’s characters, with the ability to grow beyond the stereotype, thus symbolizing society’s ability to overcome its conformist programming.

The motifs of each of these movies are the same. They are about assassination and revolution. In Bananas, there are a series of assassinations and revolutions. In Love and Death, Woody and Diane hatch a plot to assassinate Napoleon which would be a revolutionary action. The similarity to Bananas can be seen thrrough both leaders’ assassination. In Sleeper, Woody was awakened from cryostasis in order to be forced to join the underground and assist with a revolution which also involves assassinating the leader. Another motif regards Woody's depiction of all authority figures as the butts of jokes (paying homage to Marx Brothers’ movies). Another motif in each movie occurs when Woody’s character and the female lead have a philosophical discussion which, in each instance, leads to an awkward moment with the characters regarding one anther as intellectually inferior (another of Woody’s commentaries on the evolving male-female relationship during the era of feminism’s emergence and men’s difficulty in learning how to deal with the evolution occurring in the male-female relationship). Each movie has a love story incorporated as Woody meets the woman of his dreams (Louise in Bananas, Diane in Sleeper and Love and Death). They initially fail in an effort to establish a viable relationship, but in the end of both Sleeper and Bananas, they fall in love. In Love and Death, they don’t fall in love and Woody’s character actually dies.

The catharsis occurs in each movie as the female lead awakens from her automaton-like mentality to become a whole person who has grown into self-awareness, incorporating a new view of the world which Woody imparts: be your own person, an individual who thinks for yourself, and don’t follow leaders because they are all the same. As Pete Townsend wrote in his song, Won’t get Fooled Again, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”

These Woody Allen films also all pay homage to Marx Brothers movies. Woody often acts like Groucho and mimics many of Groucho’s movements and mannerisms in each film. The movies continue in the Marx Brothers vein of satirizing all things to do with authority, authority figures and conformity. Creating the title, Bananas, was a play on Coconuts, a Marx Brother’s title. Woody has commented that Bananas was inspired by Duck Soup (a movie which also makes fun of governments, dictators and politics). Sleeper also allowed Woody to reprise Keystone Kops’ chase scenes on multiple occasions.

The plot of Sleeper reveals the essence of “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedies.” Woody Allen’s character is named Miles Monroe. Miles ran a health food store in Greenwich Village before being put to sleep. He was also a clarinet player in a ragtime band. Miles went into the hospital in 1973 with peptic ulcer complaints. Complications arose, so his sister had him put to sleep cryogenically. He was awoken 200 years later by scientists in league with the underground.

The world in which Miles arises (from his long sleep - a symbolic representation of the pre-birth state) to find himself (to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre) is sterile and bland. It is also very clean, in the derogatory sense of the word used by The Beatles in their movie, A Hard Day’s Night which, along with the movie Help!, are two additional movies which pay homage to Marx Brothers’ films. Robots do the cooking and household chores. People own huge screen monitors. They also own machines called orgasmatrons for having sex because people don’t have sex manually anymore. The society also has “the orb,” a metallic ball which people rub to get high. The result appears like a marijuana experience.

Because Miles was from the past, he has no ID and hasn’t been fingerprinted, scanned, etc. by the government. He has no identity. This makes him a perfect candidate to be used by the underground to infiltrate the government and help with the revolution. Miles is a coward and doesn’t want any part in the plot. However, the police arrive. He has to run in order to avoid having his brain reprogrammed. The scientists are caught but Miles escapes in one of those Keystone Kop moments.

Miles hides in the back of a van which is transporting robots to their new owners. He is taken to the home of Luna (Diane Keaton). Miles dresses up like a robot and tries to act the part. He doesn’t know how to use any of the equipment and comically destroys guests coats and does battle with an overgrown pudding he made and which came to life. Luna is a poetess and a celebrity. Her poetry is influenced by the bad poet of the late 60s and early 70s, Rod McKuen, but her verse is far worse.

The next day, Luna takes Miles (he is called Milo as a robot) into the repair station for a head replacement. Miles has to engineer another Keystone Kop-like, comedic escape. He ends up finding Luna and forces her to drive him to the Western District to find the underground and help stop the Aires Project. They don’t hit it off at all. She turns him in to the police. However, because Luna has spent too much time in the presence of the alien, Miles, she must have her brain reprogrammed, too. Luna and Miles end up escaping yet again in still another reprise of Keystone Kop physical comedy. It isn’t long before they are discovered again. This time, Miles is captured.

Luna finds her way to the underground where she joins the rebels and becomes Erno’s (the leader of the rebels) lover. She learns the harsh and difficult ways of the underground, and we see her eat raw meat thrown to her and left in the dirt as if she is an animal. Miles is sent to a reprogramming center where he is brainwashed, dreams he is crowned Miss America, and learns to conform. These are juxtaposed as two different versions of the same result, mind reprogramming. One day, Luna shows up at Miles new home with Erno and some of the rebels. They kidnap Miles and abduct him. Once back at the rebel camp, Miles is deprogrammed from the conformist mentality conditioned on him by the government.

Miles and Luna end up infiltrating a government building because Aires Day has arrived and they must stop whatever it may be (they don’t know). It turns out that the government’s leader, who is depicted to resemble FDR in a wheelchair with a dog at his side, actually died. All they have left of the leader is his nose. The Aires Project intends to clone the leader from his nose. Miles and Luna are mistaken for the scientists who will conduct the cloning. Neither of them has a clue how to clone, of course. So, they are exposed as rebels. Miles steals the nose. He and Luna hold the nose at gunpoint to escape in the final Keystone Kop moment in the movie. As if depicting an animated cartoon scene, or something out of the silent era comedies, Miles throws the nose under a steamroller and it is flattened.

Once in safety after having escaped, Miles and Luna have a discussion. There had been some difficulty stemming from Miles’ jealousy toward Erno and Miles’ inability to accept Erno as an authority figure. Luna comments that Erno is a great man who will lead the revolution and bring a new and better world. Miles explains to Luna, as they simultaneously admit their love for one another, that there are no political solutions, and someday they’ll likely be trying to kill Erno’s nose. At this point we all experience the faux catharsis from Diane’s understanding gained from hearing and accepting the truth in Woody’s revelation. 

As we see, a mockery is made of all things representing authority, tradition and the established norm. Conformist behavior is painted in even the merest of actions and activities. These qualities are disparaged and individualism is extolled. In this manner, Sleeper rises to the epitome of the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy” and conveys this anti-genre genre most successfully.

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