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Mighty Aphrodite and Manhattan Murder Mystery

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

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Unless one is planning to go shopping—basically begging to be smothered by the ravening throngs of returners and bargain hunters; an embrace as constricting as that hugging machine designed by autistic author Temple Grandin—then Boxing Day feels like a bar after last call when the lights have been turned up. The apparatus is being dismantled. Aside from the stores, the streets are pretty desolate and there’s a muzzy, furry-toothed, hung-over quality to the few people I pass. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own sad and foul humor brought on by a fruitless morning spent waiting in vain for the fucking computer-phone technicians who said they would appear but never did. Hey, Earthlink. Up yours! (Isn’t this semi-public mini-rant, formerly the province of unpleasant lunatic Al Goldstein, precisely the kind of self-regarding personal minutia one is supposed to put into a blog? I think so. I don’t read very widely on-line, but I was once sent a manuscript of a blog that had been turned into a book. On page two hundred forty-something, the author began a paragraph essentially apologizing to me for having forgotten to elucidate earlier her obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that was when I screamed “I don’t care!” at an inanimate sheaf of papers. I confess I am by no means entirely comfortable with having to put writing out there so quickly. Generally I like to take a little time to rewrite before sharing work—by “take a little time to rewrite” I mean, of course, proto-bulimic snacking, furious self-abuse, and some mild narcolepsy.)

There are a lot of messy-haired slinky ectomorph boys who work at Film Forum. One of them is looking for a place to live and might have found a two bedroom up in Inwood at the corner of Seaman and Cumming. I remember laughing at almost exactly this address in college. A friend knocked up his girlfriend in freshman year and, in the years that they managed to struggle along together before they were each finally free, they took an apartment—along with their new-born issue; a woman of, I think, twenty-four at this point—on Seaman Avenue: the street that started their problems in the first place.

This is becoming chore-like already and I still have twenty-three films to go. I leave my house at noon and don’t get out of the movies until 5:00. A cranky cineaste “psst’s” my tiny writing light. I can hardly blame him, but it seems a minor offense compared to the rustling of the loose-leaf tracts in the Strand bag from the near-indigent mutterer behind us. And the sound today is off, to boot. To say nothing of the primordially funky odor emanating from the folds of someone’s garments as if they’d just come from truffling.

Much of Mighty Aphrodite feels improvised, which makes for viewing that can be soul-deadening when it’s not outright annoying, like when characters who ostensibly ought to know the details of each others’ lives (because, oh I don’t know, they’re married), speak in dialogue whose exposition—to say nothing of its class assumptions—makes one want to jump into the scene and introduce and then throttle them. And the discomforting tone-deafness of older Woody is starting to show. It’s odd to see him kissing Helena Bonham Carter or fathering a five-year-old, who it looks like he’s just met by the craft services table. When Woody asks Linda, Mira Sorvino’s prostitute character if she ever worries about being murdered by one her johns, she laughs it off with a helium-voiced, “I always get paid in advance,” which is played for laughs. (On a similar note, Play It Again, Sam has an extended riff between Woody and Diane where he comfortingly assures her she’ll never get raped and she responds with a wistful, “not with my luck…” granted that was close to 40 years ago.) But Sorvino is quite charming and almost heart-breakingly sweet at moments, like when she hands back the snapshot of his son. A Harvard grad in real life, Sorvino is playing dumb, just like Judy Holliday who was, by all accounts, fiercely intelligent. By contrast, her romantic foil, Michael Rappaport, who is not uncharming, exudes natural dunderheadedness of an eye-watering intensity. He’s like one of those freshly unwrapped taxicab pine tree air fresheners in Stupid fragrance.

The crowd swells for Manhattan Murder Mystery, which mystifies me, since I don’t recall loving it all that much. What I most remember is that I was working at HarperCollins at the time the film was made and Woody’s character plays a book editor at this self-same publisher. They filmed on the very hallway where I worked. The fluorescent bulbs under which we generally toiled cast a light that was deemed too warm and inviting for film, so the production crew replaced them with tubes whose beams were even greyer and less flattering. A number of us actually became quite nauseous. Our day was a stream of interruptions, being intermittently told to be quiet or to make sure to duck down in our cubicles when the cameras rolled for fear that we —actual employees of HarperCollins Publishers—might be seen in a shot set at HarperCollins Publishers. It was an abjection heaped atop a job a great many of us loathed with an uncommon despair. But I have to say, my memory is one hundred percent wrong. The movie is terrific. Funny, natural, deft, and with a finale that uses funhouses mirrors and a sample of The Lady From Shanghai of such casual virtuosity that it takes my breath away. During Aphrodite, I had been cursing Allen’s prolificacy, but here, I just take my hat off. And there’s something to be said for not being too precious about it all. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” says the painter Chuck Close. I’ve decided this is to be my New Year’s mantra. Just get down to work and get it done. Sometimes it will be dross, and sometimes it will be jewels. My friend Patty very cleverly pointed out that an output of a film a year is not unlike blogging. So herewith, your daily dose of dross, jewels forthcoming at unspecified date, it is fervently hoped.

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Mighty Aphrodite and Manhattan Murder Mystery

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

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