Whatever Works

Cover of "Whatever Works"

Cover of Whatever Works

 

Whatever Works, in my opinion, ultimately expounds two hypotheses. Firstly, in Annie Hall Woody Allen says “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers[.] I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” This is what Mr. Allen demonstrates in this film, with a string of characters that come to New York, and become – well, homosexual pornographers, in the best possible sense of that term. The film is about the healing power of New York; a bastion of reason, no matter how neurotic, in a fundamentally insane country and world. The various mishaps that lead to the spectacular change in the characters is unrealistic, yes, but it is not meant to be realistic. It is a self-aware reduction of the rest of the world outside of Woody Allen’s own head into the Freudian terms which he understands; and as far as reductionism goes, it’s very forgiving.

 

The second thesis is the one that is most simply put by the words “whatever works.” Ultimately, Woody Allen’s characters are painfully aware of the fleeting nature of life, none more painfully than Boris, played by Larry David. His several failed suicide attempts have left him an old, bitter man, one that it is decidedly difficult to like in certain parts of the film. It is he, however, that provides the formula to get through the painful existence. Namely, whatever happiness, whatever fleeting moment of love one can find, it is imperative to simply hold onto it for as long as one can. Don’t be ignorant of the possibility of the end – indeed, ignorance is the one thing Larry David’s character cannot be accused of; but instead be a little less concerned with the it. While certain aspects of the theory could be perceived as depressing, it is, in my opinion, actually very romantic. Woody Allen seems to have found a way to make luck, irrationality of love, and quantum mechanics not put down, but rather promote a more romantic outlook on life, choosing to look past the bad parts rather than being unaware of them.

 

Overall, the film is a welcome return to the more classical approach of film-making for Woody Allen. The character played by Larry David is very much the one Allen played himself countless times, and the breaking of the fourth wall, certain characters’ self-awareness is reminiscent of Annie Hall in a significant way. The writing is, at times, great. The one liners are as funny as only Woody Allen can deliver, and the young girl’s repetition of Boris’s jaded theories on the emptiness of existence is hilarious. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance here is played with a welcome comedic awareness and conviction so lacking in some of the more modern comedies. Patricia Clarkson’s performance as the girl’s mother plays a scheming mother-in-law is remarkably likable despite her occasionally despicable actions. Larry David’s own performance is occasionally somewhat wooden, but his comedic delivery is difficult to dislike.

 

The film definitely ought to be seen by all fans of the earlier Woody Allen films. While his own acting is certainly missed, the experience is one which I found extremely uplifting. Besides, I have waited for years for Woody Allen to return to New York.

Kino Pavasaris’ Documentaries

There are many interesting documentaries in the Kino Pavasaris program this year, and yesterday I saw three of them, that dealt with three very distinct people, trailblazers in their fields. The documentaries, Searching for Sugar Man, Woody Allen: A Documentary, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi approach their subjects differently, but with appropriate love and admiration, each highlighting the different brands of genius on display.

Searching for Sugar Man is the story of an American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, who, despite achieving phenomenal success in South Africa, never received any recognition at all in the United States, despite recording several albums. Interestingly, the musician never learned of his popularity overseas, where his music became the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement for a generation that needed all the encouragement they could get. Rodriguez is still a household name in South Africa, on the same level as Elvis Presley. Rumors there claim he committed suicide on stage years ago, either by firearm, or by setting himself on fire. The fascinating part of the documentary is the character of Sixto himself, an extraordinarily simple, hardworking man who wasn’t at all above doing simple hard labour to make money. In fact, he seemed to revel in it, showing that a true artist can elevate the simplest of things to the level of art. That, combined with the beautiful, hauntingly sad folk songs of Rodriguez makes this film a must-see for fans of music everywhere.

The theme of elevating simple work to the level of art carries over into Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The subject of the film, Jiro Ono, is the world’s foremost sushi chef. Being the first sushi restaurant to have received three Michelin stars, Jiro’s place is in Tokyo’s subway, and seats only ten people. The exclusivity of the privilege to dine there dictates that reservations must be made months in advance, and the price of the meals starts at 30,000 Yen (over 300 USD). Jiro himself began the business humbly, however. According to him, his children did not recognize him on the rare occasions they saw him during his time training to become the best at his chosen occupation. Now his children are following in his footsteps, but the stress placed on his eldest son to take over after his father’s retirement may be too much – even if his skill was comparable to his father’s, his father’s innovation was such that merely performing at the same level would not be enough. On the most basic level, the ins and outs of the business of top-quality sushi restaurant is interesting enough, showing the process, for example, of tuna auctions. More particularly, however, it is about dedication and discipline, which could be attributed in part to the culture of self-discipline in Japan. In this way, Jiro’s story could be seen as representative of anyone who has had to make sacrifices in order to achieve success and perfection of skill. Jiro himself admits readily, however, that he will never finish improving. Innovation and discipline in him has come to a point where he does not stop creating even in his sleep, literally dreaming up new ideas for sushi. All of this is, of course, attained by rigidly adhering to a strict schedule, and always planning for the next day.

The process of tirelessly looking forward to the next project also applies to Woody Allen. The documentary film about him, simply titled Woody Allen: A Documentary, will be a nice retrospective to those of us that are intimately familiar with his work, providing a historical/biographical perspective one would not get from simply watching the director’s films. Alternatively, it could serve as an introduction to those who perhaps have not yet familiarized themselves with the one-time stand-up comedian’s work. The man himself does not speak very much in the film, but the insight he gives into his process, combined with the perspective given by people that know him well, shows a man who believes in steady output, restlessness, and always working on the next idea. His process is almost deceptively simple, literally keeping ideas in a drawer, and stapling in hand-written portions of text into his scripts, which he types on the same typewriter he’s used for decades. Finishing the filming on one project, Woody immediately launches into writing the next, and he does so quickly. The critics that speak in the film do not universally praise each of his works, but instead highlight the ones that made a significant impact. Woody scoffs at the idea of slowing down and putting out less films. He would rather make many films, all of them striving, but not necessarily succeeding, and hit, with at least a few of the projects, either some critical, audience, or personal satisfaction – it becomes clear throughout the film that his personal favorites do not match closely those that others elevate to the status of a masterpiece. Nonetheless, due to this tight self-discipline, and by principle not submitting to the meddling of studios, Woody Allen has been able to make precisely the films he wants for over forty years now, and as each truly great film of his is discussed, the mind reels at the body of the man’s work.

Stylistically, of course, the three documentaries are rather different, but each manages to engage the audience by displaying the product the different subjects work for so diligently on the screen. Sugar Man is filled to the brim with the singer’s music, Jiro’s sushi glistens in all of its mouth-watering glory on the screen, and comedic clips from the entirety of the filmmaker’s history provide much of the entertainment in the Woody Allen documentary. Whether one enjoys music, films, or food, therefore, they’ll be able to find something to match their tastes in the documentary film program in this year’s Kino Pavasaris festival.

Of the three, however Searching for Sugar Man is the one that deserves the most acclaim as a film, providing an engaging narrative on its own, which could match the surprises and twists worthy of the best of fiction. If one is to see any documentary film this year, this one should probably be it. Hardly surprising, perhaps – the movie won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature a month ago, an honor which it heartily deserves.

Sidewalls

Sidewalls is very genuinely touching, funny, and smart romantic comedy. The characters at one point watch Woody Allen’s brilliant film Manhattan during one scene, and the comparison is actually quite valid. The wonderful thing about it is, however, that the filmmakers doesn’t attempt to make a Buenos Aires version of the film, but instead finds its own subject. The subject is that of separation – the main characters, a web designer and an architect, struggle to find human connections.

Martin (Javier Drolas), the web designer, is something of a shut-in. While he does leave his apartment building occasionally, he does not drive and refuses to take public transit. He finds it difficult to connect to people, and is withdrawn into a world of computer games, television, and internet. He does everything he can, including having relationships, over the web. Across a few thin walls, lives Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), an architect employed designing store window displays. She also has trouble with relationships with other people, having recently undergone a break-up. She finds that the city planning is based on the concept of separating people. The majority of the film chronicles their near-misses in meeting, and the parallels in their lives making it clear that they are, in some way, destined to come together.

Gustavo Taretto, writer and director of this film, blends animation, photography, and seemingly every other visual medium to create this story, while still maintaining a firm grasp of the basics of feature filmmaking. The style created is therefore deeply original, yet somehow comfortably familiar. This is his first foray into feature film, and with a debut like this he is certainly a young artist to watch for in the future.

The lead actors deliver exceptionally strong performances in this. While the characters are self-admitted recluses, the film truly chronicles their attempts to get out into the society and build relationships with people. The people they encounter, however, are either emotionally distant or often simply uninteresting. This dynamic, the characters’ constant attempts to “get out there”, therefore, allow them to be much more than merely unsociable neurotics.