Bananas and Sleeper
Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival
It’s a good deal more crowded here on New Year’s Eve Day, with a heretofore unprecedented number of kids in the audience as well. I haven’t seen Bananas since it came out, when I was approximately six years old. It has a cold opening, the ABC Wide World of Sports coverage of a Latin American coup. Howard Cosell does a very creditable and funny job of narrating the putsch as if it were the world series. Well done, with lots of Eisensteinian Odessa Steps Sequence references (he will save the abandoned baby carriage money shot for a later sequence in the film, but Potemkin, along with a ton of other silent film, notably slapstick, is the buffet from which Allen is clearly grazing). And then the credits, which are not yet the trademark Woody Allen white-on-black Garamond. I once heard about a paper someone wrote documenting how the voices of women in rock music got lower as their careers progressed, not just because of thickening vocal cords and age, but because with greater power as artists, they were no longer required to present themselves in such a high-pitched and concertedly unthreatening manner, to wit: Madonna singing “Borderline” versus later Madonna. Bananas’ credits—yellow letters in an inflated ballonish font against a black background routinely pierced with bullet holes while Marvin Hamlisch’s bumptious score plays—are pre-auteur Woody, essentially his rendition of Joni Mitchell’s canine frequency Morning, Morgantown.
In 1970, Woody Allen—and the city that spawned him—are still in a state of grace and blissful innocence. These were the golden years before all higher concerns were supplanted by thoughts of real estate. His character, Fielding Melish, a products tester, lives in a modest walk-up. The joke is how many deadbolts he has on his door but I had almost as many on the door of an apartment I had on 109th street (even an old police lock, those bars that pinioned into a hole in the floor, just like Fielding has).
Much of the material in Bananas feels nascent, and much of it is clearly taken from his stand-up, including a sequence where he is the analysand lying on the couch. I confess I don’t remember the specifics of that scene since Allen chose to photograph himself from between his legs, a strangely overt crotch-shot, but it leads to his relating a dream sequence of Allen as Christ, being borne along by black-clad pallbearers through the deserted canyons of Wall Street. They find a parking spot, but get into a brawl with another team of Grim Reapers who claim they saw it first. There is more than one extended Groucho riff—a self cross-examination in a courtroom requiring much loping in and out of the witness box—and a take on Chaplin at his most ingratiating as Fielding tries to wheedle his way out of a beating at the hands of a hoodlum played by what looks to be a high school-aged Sylvester Stallone. A charming Louise Lasser as perhaps the first of his hyper-articulate and discursive self-doubters. Near the end of the movie, they walk along the Brooklyn promenade discussing love, sex, and death. A few years later, the conversation will move just across the river to the Seaport on the other side of the bridge where he will tell Diane Keaton that love is an inadequate term for how he feels. He “lurvs” her.
The seeds of later movies are all here, in a most gratifying way. I recently watched Almodovar’s Law of Desire (holds up after twenty years and remains extraordinarily sexy) and the concerns and narratives that weave through all his work are on display: the Church, the sexuality of children and the parameters of abuse and consensuality, the colorized Douglas Sirk female characters, and most notably the beauty and nobility of obsessional love. It can be downright moving to watch how an artist mines and mines and mines material, refining it each time. At my friend Jackie Hoffman’s house I recently watched the first Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon. Neither character is gelled yet, not their voices or their looks or their personalities. The cartoon is a bit of bore, actually, and seems hardly worth it. Executives today would have killed the franchise in its crib, and while it’s hardly 3,000 dead, it would have been a loss.
Words to live by while watching Sleeper which, as a child, struck me as a film whose funniness and futuristic coolness held no equal. I saw my friend Tim at Bananas but he beat a retreat immediately after, warning me that Sleeper doesn’t hold up. He is largely right, as it turns out. Some of the jokes about the future—the ascendancy of hot fudge and steak as perfect nutrition, the endurance of Keane paintings and Rod McEwen poetry—are pretty funny, but there’s a self-intoxication to his antics with Diane Keaton as they pose as doctors sneaking into a medical facility, as he does his Blanche Dubois to her somewhat average Brando. Certainly the children in the audience are loving it, as is the fellow beside me who is almost prostrate with laughter at the fairly lame and increasingly airless antics.
Perhaps it’s developmental, like those old cognitive experiments they used to do to determine that sensory input could influence the actual structure of the brain, burning the neural pathways needed to process the self-same information. By depriving cats of horizontal images at the very moment they were developing the capacity to see such things—ditto with vertical stimuli at their developmental phase—scientists were able to raise some felines who routinely bumped into table legs while others brained themselves with the tabletops. I’ve heard that younger folks are crazy about Napoleon Dynamite a movie that approached Chlamydia test torturousness for me.
But I am full of tender feelings as this strange and beautiful year closes and a new one begins. The words “We must forgive young work,” ring through my head. Otherwise, no one would attempt anything.