Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 October 2011


There is a particular joy in having seen a lot of films from a certain director. People occasionally insultingly tell me (usually after I've told them I didn't like some film they particularly liked) that I watch too many movies and so that's why I can't enjoy them. The implication is A) they are better judges of movies because they've seen fewer of them, B) that my judgment about that film they loved is wrong because I am a stuffy academic or something, and C) that I don't enjoy a lot of movies. In fact, I like most movies that I see and I am not even close to being an academic about film. I am at best an amateur. And as for being wrong about that film they liked, who cares? We like what we like. My take is, if you like a film, great. We can't argue about whether or not either of us liked a film objectively. It's not an objective discussion and never will be. If you loved Forrest Gump or Click or I don't know The Good Shepherd, you go right ahead and keep loving it. We don't all have to like the same things.

So I finally sat down the other night and watched Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog from 1991. It is a weird little movie. The plot is bizarre and the film jumps from sequence to sequence through a series of episodes with characters we only meet once and who never return. Madonna, for instance, has a single scene, as do Wallace Shawn, Julie Kavner, Kate Nelligan, etc. The whole setup is strange.

And indeed the whole point of the film is really the shadows and fog. Allen and his costars run up and down this sound stage which is built to look like some city in 1920s Europe and the whole movie is lit in bizarre ways, like an extended parody of film noir. It feels like Allen wrote the script just so he could shoot the picture in this way. And he and his DP have pushed this whole concept past the point of any sense, creating shadows with light from impossible sources and filling scenes with gratuitous fog. It is a delight.

The movie is also a comedy about a serial killer – Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is also a sort of murder/comedy film – a singularly odd combination. I had a great time watching this movie, and I think the reason I liked it as much as I did was because I am so familiar with Allen's other movies. The whole time I was watching Shadows and Fog I was thinking about how much fun Allen obviously had making the movie. His joy with the process of filmmaking was evident throughout the movie. And I found this pleasure infectious as I watched it.

I have seen almost all of Allen's movies, and I have this great book called Woody Allen on Woody Allen where he is interviewed by Stig Björkman about each of his films (up through Manhattan Murder Mystery), so whenever I see one I haven't seen before I go look up the interview to see what Allen had to say about it. Some of the fun things he said about Shadows and Fog are...

On being an artist:
I don't agree that the artist is superior; I'm not a believer in the specialness of the artist. I don't think that to have a talent is an achievement. I think it's a gift from God, sort of. I do think that if you're lucky to have a talent, that with that comes a certain responsibility. Just in the same sense as if you were born rich.

And on night and civilization:
Once you get out in the night, there is a sense that civilization is gone. All the stores are closed, everything is dark and it's a different feeling. You start to realize that the city is just a superimposed man-made convention and that the real thing that you're living on is a planet. It's a wild thing in nature. And all the civilization that protects you and enables you to lie to yourself about life is all man-made and superimposed.

Allen ends Shadows and Fog with a ridiculously whimsical sequence that steps outside of reality completely, even the reality of the film. It's a kind of senseless deus ex machina that I found quite charming, although I can see how some people might be really irritated by the device. Critics ate this film alive when it was first released and it doesn't surprise me one bit, but I found the whole thing just unabashedly silly – and that's a good thing, I think. Also, the movie is filled with cameos: It stars Mia Farrow, John Cusack, and John Malkovich, but Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, John C. Reilly, and William H. Macy all make brief appearances.