Woody Allen: "profound conservatism or arrested development"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri May 26 06:55:26 MDT 2000


All You Need Is Cash

Small Time Crooks

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz,
Michael Rapaport, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch.

Rating: * *

By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Chicago Reader (www.chireader.com)

Small Time Crooks is Woody Allen's 29th feature in 31 years. I don't think
it would be much of an exaggeration to say that all the major developments
in his work to date took place during the period around Love and Death
(1975) and Annie Hall (1977), when he transformed himself from a gagman
with a clunky mise en scene into a fairly graceful filmmaker, and the
period around Husbands and Wives (1992), when he bravely discarded grace
and went on a brief adventure. It led to the relaxed candor of Manhattan
Murder Mystery (1993) and the sour gallows humor of Bullets Over Broadway
(1994), before collapsing into the banality and facility of Mighty
Aphrodite (1995), with its Whore With a Heart of Gold.

September (1987) was an embarrassment, and other low points, the moments
when Allen's energy and invention flagged the most, include A Midsummer
Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Celebrity (1998).
Small Time Crooks never attains the diffidence of the last three, but at
times it comes awfully close. The way exposition is handled says a lot
about a storyteller, and the dialogue signaling that a cynical and snooty
art dealer (Hugh Grant) intends to exploit the nouveau riche heroine
(Tracey Ullman) is just about as perfunctory as movie storytelling gets.
It's not only lazy, it reduces human possibility and complexity to the task
of carrying us from point A to point B in a script; Flash Gordon's Ming the
Merciless is more nuanced. Allen's confidence that viewers will swallow
this reveals a frightening contempt-an attitude that was already evident,
albeit more explicitly, in Stardust Memories (1980).

The only way to excuse this kind of characterization is to conclude that
Allen is trying less to deal with life than to follow movie conventions.
This preference is the most significant limitation of Allen's work as a
whole, though it's also one of the deepest sources of his popularity. It
even helps explain why he seldom changes as an artist and why the public
that supports him doesn't want him to change. Whether this inflexibility is
the consequence of a profound conservatism or of arrested development, it
betrays the attitude that the world is incapable of undergoing improvement
or any other significant alteration.

It's almost unthinkable these days that Allen could make a movie that
wasn't modeled directly or indirectly on a European art-house feature of
his youth. This usually means a feature by Ingmar Bergman or Federico
Fellini, but he's nearly exhausted the oeuvres of both filmmakers. (In his
more fertile periods, he was capable of expanding his list of models,
basing the use of "witnesses" in his 1983 Zelig on Warren Beatty's 1981
Reds and making the starting point for his 1987 Radio Days a relatively
late Fellini, the 1974 Amarcord.) The initial inspiration for Small Time
Crooks was Mario Monicelli's hilarious Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958),
itself a parody of popular heist movies of the 50s such as The Asphalt
Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1955): in it a bunch of small-time incompetents
try to pull off a robbery by digging a tunnel and encounter one messy
problem after another, including hitting a water main. It's true that in
his first feature as a director, Take the Money and Run, Allen played an
incompetent bank robber, but most of the details in Small Time Crooks point
to Monicelli.

Big Deal on Madonna Street carries us through the first part of Small Time
Crooks, during which ex-con Ray Winkler (Allen) joins three other New York
incompetents (Tony Darrow, Michael Rapaport, and Jon Lovitz) who want to
knock off a neighborhood bank. The plan is to rent the former pizzeria next
door and drill the tunnel from there. Ray's manicurist wife, Frenchy
(Ullman), becomes part of the plan when she's enlisted to sell her cookies
as a front, and her dim-witted cousin May (Elaine May) is brought in to
help sell the cookies.

After the heist flops and the cookie store becomes a smash success, Big
Deal on Madonna Street is discarded. The action moves forward a year, and
Allen starts working without a European model (if the Village Voice's J.
Hoberman is right, Allen's now using an American model, Born Yesterday).
The remainder of the movie concentrates on how Ray and Frenchy cope with
their newfound wealth. She goes lusting after culture (and Hugh Grant); he
becomes bored. After they split up, she finds herself bankrupted by crooked
accountants, and he decides to steal a necklace at a party with the help of
May.

Apart from the comic gifts of Elaine May-which Allen should be credited for
exploiting, even if he gives her a less fully rounded character than she
deserves-the second part of Small Time Crooks isn't nearly as funny as the
first. Allen can't seem to find enough sense of play in his material,
perhaps because he's too close to the class-bound sources of his humor.
Someone with an edgier comic imagination and a willingness to take risks
might have taken advantage of this situation, but Allen is unable or
reluctant to exploit such opportunities-which is part of what makes him
incapable of growing.

Perhaps the strongest emotions expressed in Allen's work as a whole are
responses to his working-class background: fear, hatred, and disgust.
Ultimately they can be seen in his preference for movies over life,
expressed more in terms of other movies than in allusions to life
experiences-The Purple Rose of Cairo is a classic illustration. So the view
of poverty we get in Small Time Crooks has little to do with the Brooklyn
of Allen Stewart Konigsberg (aka Woody) and much to do with Warner Brothers
movies about gangsters-underlined by a clip from White Heat seen on TV-as
well as Big Deal on Madonna Street.

This mind-set sees the role of art and culture in general and of movies in
particular not as providing an understanding of life but as providing an
escape from it. In interviews Allen is generally quite up-front about his
bias, making it clear that his idea of art corresponds precisely to the
idea of what mindless entertainment in American culture is supposed to be.
It's a self-annihilating dream, but it's often held up as the model for
what everyone allegedly wants at the movies.

This suggests that Star Wars would provide Allen with a better model than
Wild Strawberries, and here's where the issue of arrested development comes
up. Allen considers himself a philistine and an artist, but because he's a
conformist, he doesn't have the slightest interest in contesting the
equation of culture with money or art with gentility that's so
quintessentially American. To overstate the case, what Allen really seems
to like about Wild Strawberries isn't so much what Bergman does with sound
and image or what he has to say about life but the fact that they served
espresso in the lobby of the theater where he first saw it. More precisely,
what he likes about Bergman's views of life and filmmaking are inseparable
from notions about class-which are what really interest him.

Allen's movies specialize in contemplating the notion that money can
somehow remove vulgarity or produce gentility. Frenchy is a typical
protagonist-and arguably a closer soul mate for Allen than Ray, the
character he plays. She aspires to the "finer" things in life but can't
attain them because she remains "unspeakably vulgar." When Ray first met
her, we're told, she was known as "Frenchy Fox, the topless wonder." When
she and Ray get rich she decides to serve snails at a dinner party. "A
snail leaves a trail of scum when it walks," Ray complains. She replies,
"Not in France." Excluded from this overall debate is any developed sense
that French truck drivers as well as corporate executives enjoy snails
(because they're culturally conditioned to do so) and that feelings of
unworthiness or estrangement tied to class are culturally produced and can
therefore be overcome or at least superseded by other emotions.

Allen's movies aren't interested in such possibilities, and the comforts
they do dispense derive in part from this exclusion. Small Time Crooks may
conclude quite conventionally that money can't buy you everything, but most
of it flirts even more conventionally with the opposite premise.


Louis Proyect

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