Like any civilized society, America reveres its artists. Unfortunately, in this as in most other things, we tend to go overboard. Consequently, we are all too often subjected to the spectacle of a ludicrous buffoon like Gore Vidal on national television pontificating on public policy questions, or a Norman Mailer—a man who once stabbed one of his six wives—being taken seriously by the New York Parole Board, with horrifying consequences.

The worst aspect of this unquestioning reverence, however, is the deleterious effect it has on the artists them selves. The road from storyteller to sage is a perilous one indeed.

So it has been for Woody Allen. His first two films, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1967) and Take the Money and Run (1969), were fitfully amusing trifles. Over the next few years, he began to learn his craft as a filmmaker, and his movies got better, although they still suffered from the superficiality, emphasis on gags over character development, and tendency to repeat endless variations on the same joke evident in his 1960’s output.

Then, in 1977, came Allen’s break through film, both commercially and artistically: Annie Hall. There was no longer any room for disagreement. Woody Allen was an artist, and one of great significance at that. Further for ays into this same territory, such as Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979), produced similarly glowing praise.

Now it’s clear, of course, that the reason the critics were praising Allen for his acerbic insights into American life was not that he was writing about ordinary Americans, but that he was writing about them: the self-proclaimed American intelligentsia. They couldn’t care less about the lives of ordinary Americans, but, oh, did they love to hear jokes about McLuhan, Freud, and Kierkegaard.

And yet, even during these last 10 years, when Allen has enjoyed almost universal respect, there have been disturbing notes, which even his most ardent admirers have felt forced to acknowledge, however obsequiously and reverently.

There was, first of all, the appalling dourness of Interiors. The film was clearly a pale imitation of Bergman, which most critics duly pointed out, simply changing the word “pale” to “brilliant.” If they had trouble with Interiors, however, they should really have been scared, for worse was yet to come, at least from their perspective. In Stardust Memories (1980) and Zelig (1983), Allen attacked the very fame mongers who had been so kind to him. Like suburban parents whose child has come home a member of a motorcycle gang, they asked, “Where, oh where, did we go wrong?”

Where they had gone wrong, of course, was in imputing too much affection to Allen’s earlier satire of themselves. He had never liked them as much as they had thought, and when he made it clear, the criticism stung. Most, however, failed to realize this and stuck by him, hoping he’d come back around.

Well, he has, after a fashion, and all has been forgiven. Last year’s The Purple Rose of Cairo was just the sort of muddled nonsense the American intelligentsia adores, and Hannah and Her Sisters, while better, is unfortunately more of the same. While Purple Rose was lugubrious throughout, Hannah is a return to the comic form. Unfortunately, Allen seems determined in this film not to be too funny, lest he not be taken seriously by the critics. So when a scene threatens to become too pleasurable—as when Mickey, his hypochondriacal TV producer, finds out he may really be dying of a brain tumor—Allen cuts the ensuing scene short and quickly races off to another story.

Allen tries to do too many things in Hannah, and the film cracks under the strain. Certainly the most entertaining, humorous, and insightful aspect of the film is the story of Mickey’s realization that he will someday die, and his comic/pathetic attempts to find faith. This plot parallels something that has been going on in Allen’s own life—as is clear both from his films and interviews—but since he apparently hasn’t solved the problem for himself, he is at a loss as to how to solve it for his character. So he relegates Mickey to secondary status in the film’s narrative scheme, which is a shame. We’ve seen Allen’s search for belief coming out in his films more and more clearly recently, and he is to be commended for this. In A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy there is a serious concern with spiritualism, and the ending hopefully posits the existence of an afterlife. Broadway Danny Rose and Hannah set major scenes at Thanksgiving celebrations, and in Stardust Memories a group of extraterrestrials reproaches Sandy, Allen’s alter ego in the film, for “asking the wrong questions” and being too pessimistic. If Allen’s over-reaching in his aesthetic forms is unwelcome, certainly his outreach on the spiritual side is a hopeful trend. Unfortunately, he has a few other problems to solve on the way.

Woody Allen’s real problem is sim ply that he is not a very efficient storyteller. Yet he must be praised for recognizing this fact and working, throughout his career, to minimize its effects. Thus the use of voice-overs, fantasy sequences, asides to the audience, printed titles, allusions to other films and works of literature, and borrowings from other people’s plots all add to his ability to get his points across while minimizing his deficiencies as a storyteller. And, as it turns out, most critics have praised him for the bandages without noticing the wounds.

This formal eclecticism, however, is a disadvantage to him as a filmmaker in two important ways. First, the de vices don’t always work: in Annie Hall the voice-overs add insight to the characters while moving the story along, while in Hannah they are merely used to impart information which the author is unable or unwilling to fit into the dramatic context Second, the de vices serve as a crutch and distract him from what he does best. If Woody Allen has one tremendous talent, it’s his ability to create memorable, enlightening characters: Alvy Singer, Annie Hall, Leonard Zelig, Danny Rose, Lou Canova, Mickey—any aspiring comic artist would kill to be able to create such a gallery of characters. But Allen feels pressed to “grow,” so he creates self-conscious homages to Bergman, Fellini, Shakespeare, etc. The more ambitious he becomes, the more his films suffer.

When Woody Allen has trusted his characters to lead us wherever they want to go, as in Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, and Broadway Danny Rose, he has created some of the finest films of the post-Hollywood period. One can only hope he tunes out the critics and tunes in again to his own characters.


[Hannah and Her Sisters, written and directed by Woody Allen; Orion Pictures]