The Taser's Edge

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (dir. Woody Allen)

What’s not to love about Woody Allen?  Aside from the fact that some people just can’t stand him as a person, his art, or his personal life, nothing.  I did a count this week, and I’ve seen 28 Woody Allen films (29 counting Antz).  And this weekend, I caught his directorial debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which streams on Netflix.

The closest comparison to Tiger Lily might be an extreme version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Take a crappy movie, and then not only supply fake lines to ridiculous characters for humor’s sake (as MST3K did), but create an entire fake plot.

Woody Allen-level gold (whether or not you like that kind of gold) to follow at :48 and 1:45.  Don’t worry: despite Allen’s press, Tiger Lily doesn’t actually contain any raping or pillaging.  It does, however, contain a hip new soundtrack by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the beginning of which you can catch in the final seconds of this clip:

The movie might be a better symbol of a film career which at its best has been devoted to ambitious ideas and creating risk-taking art than a good film in itself.  Allen would likely hate the comparison, but the pattern of his artistic biography isn’t that far from Miles Davis.’  Their common M.O.: Explore and master an area with a few works, totally self-reinvent, explore and master a new area with a few works, totally self-reinvent, repeat a few times making sure to alienate old audiences and gain new ones all the time, have at least one really self-involved period where your art suffers for a while and your audience suffers with it, have at least one artistic comeback in which you prove that you’re still an undeniable genius, and generally just keep creating and sharing your art like crazy until you die.

Tiger Lily clearly took a ton of skill, and it mostly succeeds.  Success in this case, however, is making a totally incoherent Japanese spy movie into a mostly coherent American comedy with vaudeville and slapstick influences.  I for one think we can use more mostly coherent American comedies with vaudeville and slapstick influences today (think I Heart Huckabees as well as the films of major movie stars whom the Coen brothers get their hands on–Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and the greatest screwball actor of his generation, George Clooney).

A word of caution, however: one other classic film tradition that Allen retains in Tiger Lily is some serious racial insensitivity in the form of crazy faux-Japanese character names that sound ‘funny’ to American ears.  Is it all in fun?  Does it matter if it’s ‘all in fun’?  You can decide.

My Dinner with Andre (dir. Louis Malle, 1981)

If you like Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) or a host of Woody Allen films, then you will likely enjoy My Dinner With Andre.  If those films make you want to run away, then this one will make you want to run away even faster.

In My Dinner, Wallace Shawn (most famous from The Princess Bride, and yes, he does say the word “inconceivable” at least once in this film) and Andre Gregory play versions of themselves, acting out a script drawn from their own recorded conversations, about subjects from their own lives.  And all but a few minutes of the movie are set as a conversation between the two men at a table in a Manhattan restaurant.

The whole movie is available, happily, in 13 videos on YouTube.  This section from late in the film doesn’t really spoil it, but it does give you a good feel for the main points-of-view.  Here Andre Gregory (played by Andre Gregory) talks about hope for human existence after the fall of Western society due to our lack of truly experiencing life, and then Wallace Shawn (played by Wallace Shawn) responds:

As I already said, this movie was based on real conversations.  In a Criterion edition interview by Noah Baumbach, Andre Gregory says that the transcripts of the conversations (3 months worth, with 2-3 conversations a week) on which the script were closely based was 1,500 (yes, 1,500) pages long, single-spaced, on about 80 different themes, which were then pared down and revised for the 110 minute movie.

The time in which My Dinner with Andre was written and produced (late 70s to 1981) is important to understanding its characters’ outlooks.  Andre is an interesting spokesperson for relatively new New Age ideas of the time and the hope they offered for a brighter human future.  Although I don’t think he ever uses the phrase ‘New Age,’ Andre does talk at length in the film about his experiences with the pioneering New Age community at Findhorn, Scotland.

For me, by the end, Andre’s quest for enlightenment comes off as entirely self-absorbed.  One of his own crazy stories metaphorically sums this up (from 31 minutes in, long before the excerpt above).  Here Andre is talking about how he travelled by camel through the Sahara Desert to stage a version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince on location, with the title character played by a Japanese Buddhist monk named Kozan, whom Andre had met in New York.  For my reading of these lines, replace “the desert” with “life”:

The desert was pretty horrible, and it was pretty cold.  We were searching for something, but we couldn’t tell if we were finding anything.  You know that once Kozan and I, we were sitting on a dune, and we just ate sand.  No, we weren’t trying to be funny.  I started, then he started, and we just ate sand and threw up.  That’s how desperate we were.  In other words, we didn’t know why we were there, we didn’t know what we were looking for.  The entire thing was just completely absurd, arid, and empty.  It was like a, like a last chance or something.

To me, this movie is fascinating and entirely worth seeing.  I highly recommend it.  And I’d be interested in knowing if Andre comes off as completely self-absorbed to you, too.

Interestingly, in the Criterion interviews, when Noah Baumbach interviews Wallace Shawn, Shawn says he really didn’t like his character (or the part of himself which it portrayed), whom he saw as entirely fear-based.  My read was different (an odd thing to say, since Shawn is effectively talking about a version of himself).

While Shawn’s character’s defense of the Enlightenment science-ification of everything as a means to making the universe more ordered and less scary (found at the end of the excerpt above) doesn’t work for me at all, the biggest ray of sunlight I found in the entire film (which is, at some level, a film about hope and our sources of hope) was from his character, when he talks about enjoying his quiet life.  Admittedly, his character clearly does not actually enjoy that life and has previously complained about his lack of success, but the joy in the everyday that he claims to have is something I find incredibly admirable.

I really desire to have that greater contentment, greater joy, in daily life, in simple things, which Wallace Shawn’s character argues for.  Most of the time I am much more like Andre, constantly asking myself those Stanislavsky questions (Who am I?  How did I get here?  Where am I going?  How do I get there?) that Andre, a theatre director and actor, says we must ask of ourselves in order to have an awakened life, and not realizing the danger which Andre bears out–curving and winding our way ever deeper into self-involvement.

International Appeal
January 12, 2009, 12:48 pm
Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , ,

Yesterday, after posting my review of Slumdog Millionaire, I was happily surprised to receive a comment from a complete stranger, and a native Indian, Anorak of Cinematically Speaking here on WordPress.  He asked me to stop by and read his review of the film, which I did.  And then I went through his comments to find BobbyTalksCinema, another native Indian and WordPress user.  I have read at various times of Bollywood cinema stripping American movies of their plots and even camera angles in totally unauthorized remakes, but Bobby provides an incredible list of 2008’s “Bollycat” films, with Indian titles paired to the names of the Western films which “inspired” them.  You should check it out, because it’s incredibly interesting to see it laid out so clearly.

Highlights of the list for me:

-I just watched Woody Allen’s original Husbands and Wives for the first time last night, and my mind is racing to picture the possibilities of an Indian remake.

-Bobby writes that two 2008 movies stole the plot from Bruce Almighty, but it looks to me (based on the title alone) like the Indian Oh, My God was probably stolen from the John Denver/George Burns 1977 masterpiece Oh, God!

-Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic was apparently inspired by Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and City of Angels.  I would love to see how those three films could make a single one.  A possibility: chipper, singing housekeeper fights off Nazis by pulling an anti-aircraft battery out of her bag and then floats away on umbrella only to have an angel fall in love with her and become a human who plays a one-man-band in the park.  At least it might explain why laughing makes people float up to the ceiling, when angels are already involved.  Of course, this is complicated all the more because City of Angels is a terrible remake of one of my absolute favorites, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.  Did I mention that Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic is filmed in grainy black and white and features a live performance by Nick Cave as Bert?