Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Writing Lesson from Woody Allen

And it's not the kind of lesson you're probably expecting. It was a lesson in what not to do.

I used to be a big fan of Woody Allen, and Crimes and Misdemeanors is still one of my favourite films (note to self, must watch it again to see if it still holds up), but lately none of this films have really worked for me. I think I liked Match Point more than most people did, and I found last year's Cassandra's Dream kind of interesting, if only for him casting Colin Farrell against type, but based on the reviews I checked out on rotten tomatoes, I certainly liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona less than most critics. Why did so many people think this film was so great?

To me, this film was a lesson in why as writers we should show and not tell. It was supposed to be a film about love, exploring many kinds of love and questioning conventional ideas about love, but it seemed intent on pulling the audience as far away from the characters and possibly getting emotionally involved as possible. While the story was interesting and some of the performances were excellent, overall, the storytelling didn't work for me.

I think the biggest problem was the decision to use a voice over narration. Always a risky idea. But I've seen a few films in the past few years with narrations that I think really worked. Little Children, The Assassination of Jesse James... and Into the Wild are three recent ones that come to mind. In all of those, the narration added to the films and made the story telling more interesting. (While I didn't love Jesse James -- too long, too unfocussed -- it wasn't the narration that was the problem.)

But in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the narrator tells us things we can clearly see. It's like Woody didn't trust his actors, or his own choices in staging the scenes, to convey what we needed to know. For example... picture a scene with Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz sitting on a blanket in a pastoral setting eating and drinking and laughing with each other. Do we really need a voice over telling us they went on a picnic and that the initial tension felt between the three had ended??? There were constant examples of this. Even much of the dialogue was the characters expressing emotions that were already clear to us from their performances.

I'm not sure if I missed some great symbolism in this use of narration, or what... but while I was entertained by the film it mostly disappointed me. On the positive side, Penelope Cruz was amazing and Javier Bardem was astoundingly sexy. I also loved the idea of a couple who love each other but need the ingredient of a third person to smooth out the edges so that they can actually be around each other... And Rebecca Hall (who played Vicky) was great. Scarlett Johanssen felt a little flat.. but then her character was supposed to be a little lost and scattered and unsure of what she wanted, so perhaps that was acting???

Anyone else see it?

8 comments:

Sinead M said...

I really liked Matchpoint, but I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan.
I had heard the reviews of his latest were good, but wasn't intrigued enough to go see it in the theatre.
I hate the narrative that tells you what you already know.
It reminds me too much of reality Tv, where you see the drama between contestants and then one of the contestants recaps the drama, repeat, rinse, recycle.
It's as if they don't trust the viewer to understand and I hate being treated like an idiot.

MaryF said...

The narration was HORRIBLE. Hated that bit. I think you are exactly right that it distanced us. But I saw it twice, Javier was so sexy. And Penelope Cruz was awesome.

I've not liked many Woody Allen movies, though.

Kristin said...

I absolutely LOVED "Match Point," but probably because it was very much unlike your typical Woody Allen.

I don't seem to like any of of his films once you get into about the mid-90s and even some before that are stinkers.

I think it is the problem that some in Hollywood face...people are too afraid to tell these hotshots that their work needs editing, or is just plain bad. I think Tarantino also falls into this category. Would someone please hire him an editor?

J.M. Jordan said...

I am a Woody Allen fan and admiror. To me, this was his finest film in ages- outside of Scoop, which I find to be utterly hillarous. Marchpoint was good, and perhaps it was his masterpiece, but I feel that this film offered more style and technique. I enjoyed the narration, much of Woody's older films were like this-only not so obvious. Take Annie Hall, entirly narrated, and still a marvelous film. VCB is without a doubt one of his finer films. The characterization was so clear and focused, the film was shot in an older stlye, and the element of the city was clearly present throughout the picture. What is there not to love?

matty fresh said...

The narration...

The critique that screenwriters shouldn't "show, not tell," - well, this is Woody Allen. He's a 20+ Academy Award nominated writer. He knows this rule. So, he must have broken it for a reason. Whether that reason/intent was justified can be argued, but that a writer shouldn't even say in voice-over what's happening - I don't think that's really the point.

I don't know what Woody's intentions were, so I could be misinterpreting him. But in my mind, the narration was used stylistically to create some kind of "storybook-fantasy" world. The narration is very simplistic and I thought it was a nice contradiction to the complexity of these characters feelings, actions and relationships. Also, Woody Allen has this world view in nearly all his films that there is no "God," that no one is running our lives and that for the most part it is all arbitrary. I think he's executing that same morality here - that these characters just go through life, one simple action after another which is reflected in the narration ("Vicky walks to the blah blah blah and Cristina took some pictures blah blah blah").

Again, whether or not the narration worked can and should be criticized as so you see fit, but I think it should be criticized at a deeper level than just it's breaking a "rule."

Maureen McGowan said...

Matty.

I agree, I'm sure he did it on purpose... I'm sure he doesn't do something like that without though. And voice-over narration done for stylistic reasons has totally worked for me in other films I've seen recently like Little Children and even The Assassination of Jesse James...

But for whatever reason, it didn't work for me in this film. Maybe it was because of the emotional nature of the story. I found the narration distanced me from the characters when I wanted to be closer, feel more involved in their lives. Maybe that was meant as a metaphor? That none of them were REALLY getting close to each other? But while I did enjoy that film, I just didn't love it like I'd expected to.

Hofan Ciao 周可凡 said...

I loved the voiceovers. It was hilarious. Yes -- there's a general rule of "don't double the information", but there's also a kind of satisfaction in comedy when the audience knows what's going to happen, and they're just waiting to see it fulfilled.

I think Vicky Cristina Barcelona ranks among one of my favourite Woody Allen films.

Rob said...

I thought the narration for Into the Wild was exceptional and worked extremely well with brilliant soundtrack. However, Vicky Christina Barcelona was at least an interesting film and for that i couldnt bring myself to dislike it, despite the condescending nature of the narration.

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