Herr Tamburin Man

Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for literature? A better question might be, “Who is this cabal of Swedes that decides what greatness is?” Me, I don’t know, but on the face of it I suspect he does…

My friends are mostly elated about it, each of us under the spell of Dylan in some fashion or another. His award, if you believe their comments on it, is a return of literature to its rightful place, in a circle by a fire, with a blind poet plucking at a lyre.

People lose their minds over Bob, as Woody Allen lampooned in Annie Hall. When asked by Shelley Duval’s Rolling Stone reporter whether he’d caught a recent Bob Dylan show, Alvie answered, “Me? No, my raccoon had hepatitis.” (Woody never liked the Beats, or the counterculture in general.)

When Stephen Metcalfe of Slate laid out a case for why Dylan the musician was no poet of Nobel size, he punctuated it with a line whose sentiment comes up sooner or later whenever any writers doubt he deserves it: “We pathetic literati have a few days to pretend to world importance. We just lost another.”

Do we all have such petty, shriveled hearts? Do we look at what the world thinks of writers in general and feel we’re so under-appreciated we can’t clap when the old Stephen Foster and Reverend Gary Davis fanatic gets a medal pinned to him?

I think we can.


Last Woody Allen Post Ever

One week I’m singing the praises of the “lesser works” of great songwriters, the next I am complaining about the lesser works of great screenwriters. Woody Allen, if you follow last week’s logic, would be one of those exceptional artists whose oeuvre is so rewarding, you still want to go and see his failures. That worked for about a decade, but as the 90’s became the 00’s everyone was excused any time they wanted to tune him out. Now it’s 2014.

No single post on this blog inspired so many private messages of “Hold on now” as one I posted about Woody back in February. His fans, and the fans of due process, are correct to point out that he still deserves the presumption of innocence regarding his family life. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon correctly points out that his movies are another story.

If this were a soviet republic, and I were the Commissar of Cinema, I would force Comrade Allen to make half as many films, and to take notes and do script revisions like everyone else does. He’s well into his Mermaid Avenue years, if he were that other Woody, but still living on the Upper East Side, which I suppose is a testament to our lack of imagination. As long as he lines up a few names in his films, we’ll keep seeing them, just enough of us at a time.

Woody on Farrow Island

Something must be spiritually amiss in the lower Hudson Valley this week. Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course. But also new stuff most days about the arm-twisting New Jersey governor. By all accounts the dullest Superbowl in years, and its mini-scandals: Is there or isn’t there such a thing as a Superbowl sex trade? How did Jersey screw up the transit so bad? Yesterday 350.org called an emergency protest about the Keystone XL pipeline in Union Square, and it snowed. (It’s hard to talk to people about average temperatures when they’re looking for a path through the slush.)

None of these, however, makes my stomach literally hurt the way the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow accusations do. I don’t even want to look at social media. My friend Kera Bolonik at Dame Magazine summarizes it nicely. I can add my two cents, which is really one cent:

The return of the Woody Allen scandal is rocking our communities – as writers, as film people, as liberals, as New Yorkers – because now we have to grapple with an accusation in our own midst. It’s not the dumb Penn State football program, not the elitist B.B.C., not the wicked, repressed Catholic Church. It’s our own mentor, someone so close to the epicenter of our identities, when we talk, especially when we deliver a punchline, we are sometimes more or less just impersonating Woody.

And yet, we’re not surprised.  When I look at a photo of Jimmy Savile I think, “Who ever saw this guy and thought he wasn’t a pervert?” And that’s what people outside our scene wonder about us right now: “What were you thinking?”

Bergman on Fårö Island in 1969. Later his retirement home.

Bergman on Fårö Island in 1969. Later his retirement home.

It occurred to me walking home through the snow last night that if this finally ends Woody’s career then maybe, like his hero Ingmar Bergman, he’ll retire to a remote island. I’m guessing he’ll choose one with any name but Fårö.

Blue Jasmine: Another Rorschach Test

Street CarWoody Allen’s recent films are a scattershot bunch of rorschach tests, and I’ve long given up on caring about any kind of consensus about their quality. I just have to report on what a rare thrill it was to see Blue Jasmine in the same room, BAM’s Harvey Theater, where Cate Blanchett brought her much-loved performance as Blanche in Liv Ullman’s A Streetcar Named Desire – presumably the same theater where Woody saw her, and the wheels started spinning for this script.

Woody’s too much of an institution to go worrying about sixth or seventh drafts, and he’s probably learned that the impeccability you get from refining a script that many times doesn’t win him any more loyalty from viewers. His dialogue written for young, working class people seems like it was outdated a generation ago, and his actors have to play his nonsensical, hairpin turns.

The pleasure I get from all his recent movies is the effortlessness one feels in just how often he almost pulls it off. In this case, Cate Blanchett gorgeously hits all the dramatic marks of Blanche Dubois’ descent, but rewritten as if she were Bernie Madoff’s widow (after the suicide we’re all sort of rooting for), while using that Streetcar story as a framing device to retell the story of her marriage to the great shyster falling apart.

Does the acting save this film more completely than it did in "Vicky Christina Barcelona" because the actors were better cast, or because the romantic plot turns were marginally less silly? Look closer!

Does the acting save this film more completely than it did in “Vicky Christina Barcelona” because the actors were better cast, or because the romantic plot turns were marginally less silly? Look closer!

Critics are probably saying that Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, and (oh my God!) Andrew Dice Clay save Allen’s script – I say “probably” because I haven’t read them, because, one, who cares? And two, any time Allen has a new film out, you only have to read or hear enough about it to know that it doesn’t completely stink to know that it’s worth your evening.

You could also say that Allen’s approach here is more personal and original than, say, trying to reset Streetcar itself as an LIRR Train Named Desire. We get to see Blanche when she owned Belle Reve – when she was already a master of self-deception, and without any excuses for being one. And, it puts her husband’s philandering, and not his financial crimes, front and center in the story of their marriage. She’s a self-absorbed, rich ass-pain, like many Woody has no doubt personally known, who doesn’t exactly deserve her cruel fate, but should have known better – and yet we feel for her.

He’s a genre unto himself. Can we ever tell him he made a substandard Woody Allen movie?