Working Title: Therapy with Woody Allen

This week Will reconciles the fact that he doesn’t want to go to Therapy with Woody Allen…but still is attached to his films.

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Regardless of what you think of Woody Allen, Woody Allen won’t think of you in less regard. He probably wont think of you at all. He’s too busy. His job list unfold something like this: screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, author, playwright, and musician. Yes, yes, I know. Every time you hear someone lauded today, a long list of descriptors and slash-categories normally follow their name to instill artistic gravitas. (Ben Affleck: actor/ director/ producer/ screenwriter/ Mallrat/ Batman. James Franco: actor/ director/ screenwriter/ producer/ teacher/ author/ experimental filmmaker/ weirdo/ body-pillow lover.)

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You get the idea.

However, in Woody Allen’s case he’s been doing this for over 50 years. His pace clocks in at almost a film a year…and that’s just directing. His writing credits are another abundant story. I’ve been acquainted with the films of Woody Allen for near 20 years and had no idea he wrote plays. So much of what he creates can fly under the radar simply because there is so much of it. He doesn’t stop making film or writing plays or playing jazz.

Last week, I was able to sojourn to the east bay and see the Actors Ensemble of Berkley production of Relatively Speaking. This showcases three one act comedies: “Talking Cure” by Ethan Coen, “George is Dead” by Elaine May, and “Honeymoon Motel”by … you guessed it… Woody Allen. Each of these three writers excel in their craft. Yet the JPM (jokes per minute) count falls easily in Allen’s court. He delves into his own creative archetypes (The wise cracking rabbi, the shrewd wife, the witty but morally questionable leading man, the baseball-loving best friend, the young mistress, the wise everyman who shows up with the moral, etc) and then packs in as many jokes as possible.

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It’s terribly funny and the physical hilarity is very well orchestrated. Colin Johnson, who directed “Honeymoon Motel” had this to say, “Our play is gonna feel like the early, funny Woody. Even though he wrote the play in 2011, it’s more in the vein of [his films] Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) and padded with a lifetime of punch lines.” Having watched Bananas recently I can tell you that similarly to “Honeymood Motel” the jokes are rapid, the physical comedy is ridiculously and the plot is…there to hold up the jokes. Since it is comedy, the thin plot works. To quote the movie, if anyone were taking this story seriously it would be “a travesty… a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.” Seeing Woody deliver that line in Bananas never fails to crack me up. Hell, even reading it in plain white print makes me chuckle.

There is no doubt he knows his craft. He’s been nominated for 24 Academy Awards, four of which he won. Six different actors have earned Oscars in his films and three times as many were nominated. We are all aware the list of accolades goes on. The films keep coming. But Allen often appears dismissive of his films. Is this just part of his self-depreciation persona or are other personal issue at play? Does Woody Allen even care about his beloved films? More importantly, does that change how we receive his films?

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Allen has said, “I do the movies just for myself like an institutionalized person who basket-weaves. Busy fingers are happy fingers. I don’t care about the films. I don’t care if they’re flushed down the toilet after I die.”

It sounds as if, he makes film out of compulsion instead of any need for artistic gratification. His creative sensibilities are like a faucet that gurgles and spouts and flows smooth but cannot be shut. It makes sense from that stand point that the Golden Globes named him this year’s Cecil B. Demille award recipient for life time achievement.

Although his quote above was entirely dismissive, Allen also has said this, “All the success over it or the rejection, none of that really matters because in the end, the thing will survive or not survive on its merits.” I would say that regardless of personal taste, it would take a particular narrow outlook to say Woody Allen is without merit. Not many are saying that but from time to time an artist like Allen has his art overshadowed by his personal life. What we often get is a split between private and artistic personas. Allen strays from public life, refraining from plentiful interviews and avoiding award ceremonies. Yet he puts so much of himself into his film year in and year out, it is easy to feel like you know him.

To be honest these issues are hard for me to reconcile. When I started out writing, my point was going to round the “art before the artist” stance. I felt that my interaction with Woody Allen was clear-cut. He makes movies, I watch them. What does it matter what his personal life is like? I don’t have to hang out with him. Often I have this response. I don’t have to get a drink with Mel Gibson, I don’t have to buy a sofa with Tom Cruise, and I don’t have to go to therapy with Woody Allen. Though I do love many of the movies they’ve made. The nature of art and artists are complicated in grey. Oversimplifying does not do justice to either side. My enjoyment is now murky.

In the end, I can definitively say this: Woody Allen’s contribution to cinema is immense, I hold a handful of his films close to my heart, I will continue to see them and you should see Relatively Speaking (with the Allen penned “Honeymoon Motel”) at the Live Oak Theatre. With all of his neurosis distilled down to punch lines, just like the best of his pure comedies, it’s worth the time.

Relatively Speaking runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. til Jan. 25th, 2014

Any number of Woody Allen films can be streamed or rented through the regular streaming avenues.

Sources:

Fine, Alex. Woody Allen Oscar. N.d. Photograph. http://www.whitezine.comWeb. 21 Jan 2014.

James Franco, Spiderman, Ben Affleck, Daredevil. 2013. Photograph. http://www.eonline.comWeb. 21 Jan 2014.

Kaminska, Anna. Final Dress Rehearsal. 2013. Photograph. http://www.aeofberkley.org. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Still of Woody Allen. N.d. Photograph. http://www.imdb.comWeb. 21 Jan 2014.

Cowan Palace: Girls Talk

Ashley Cowan takes a moment away from the theatre scene to talk about HBO’s Girls.

As you may know by now, I’m a theatre lover. I like it way more than just a friend. But before we move on with this relationship, there’s probably something you guys should know about me. I have a weakness for television. Bad reality shows are a guilty pleasure and funny, well-written shows showcasing lots of lady talent are a guilt-free indulgence. So when one of my best friends gifted me season one of HBO’s new hit show: Girls, I was intrigued. A program with the reputation of harsh reality portrayals and written, directed, produced, and starring Lena Dunham? Yes! Besides, I too spent my early twenties living in Brooklyn during the aftermath of Sex and the City (shadows of cosmopolitans and fabulous shoes were everywhere) and was curious to see her version of it.

So without knowing a great deal about the show, my sister and I (along with our boyfriends) watched season one in its entirety on New Year’s Day (don’t judge, we were still developing resolutions).  And upon first viewing, I liked it. I guess I was hoping to feel a little more passionate about it instead of some neutral responses but again, I liked it. We all did. We laughed, we cringed, and we grew invested. There was a sense of authenticity and brutal honesty that I appreciated. I had known girls just like the ones portrayed in the show while I lived in New York (and other cities). And while I found the leads to be unsympathetic on occasion that’s often how I react to those types of people in real life as well.

And clearly, I’m not the only one thinking about Girls lately. The show recently picked itself up two coveted Golden Globes earning both praise and heated remarks from the public. After reading through a few articles (and more interestingly, the comments attached to them) there seem to be a lot of thoughts regarding Ms. Dunham’s creation. For starters, many believe the show is racist because of its lack of cast diversity. It seems to be completely dedicated to first world white people problems with whiny personalities.

I understand some of the backlash. I do. It’s unfortunate that in one of the most diverse cities of the world there isn’t much of an opportunity to venture outside the upper middle class white bubble. When asked about it, Lena said it had been “an accident” and something she hoped to work on if the show continued. While I do feel like these “accidents” can be observed as a sad reflection of our time, I also think it’s important to note that this particular story is told through the perspective of a small group who may live in a more closeted space than expected. But the soul of the show comes from a real place. The four leading ladies are all the daughters of well-known established parents. They had the opportunity to grow up in a more privileged setting and first experienced the world in this capacity. It’s my hope that as the show progresses, perhaps that world can expand to explore some additional characters who can cover some of the beautiful diversity of New York City as a natural instinct rather than to correct an accident.  There’s plenty of room to allow the show and her characters to evolve a bit more.

On top of that criticism, there seems to be an even greater amount of talk about the show’s awkward tendencies (like the plethora of long, uncomfortable sex scenes) and Lena’s unapologetic behavior to showcase her very average body. Which for the record, I think is awesome. It’s refreshing. For some reason though, people are very hung up on this deliberate choice to incorporate a “normal” woman’s nude body. And folks can be cruel. Many comments were targeted at bashing her physicality and angrily pointing out her less than perfect frame. I felt like we were all back inside the cruel walls of a middle school cafeteria. But can I just say, had it been an average man who had decided to strip before the camera, we wouldn’t be reacting like this. We would have laughed and moved along. And I’m thankful that Dunham is strong enough to stand up to the waves of harsh words because I’m hopeful it’ll help shift the tides entertainment expectations regarding nudity and humor.

Further concerning gender roles, however, there also seems to be a lot of complaints that Girls constantly depicts and criticizes men who are too weak, too sensitive and too effeminate or porn obsessed douchebags who call the shots. Again, it’s not always a flattering or hopeful interpretation of the male population but I have to admit it’s truthful. Not everyone is like that but sure, there are fellas like that out there and there are ladies who help define them. Again, setting these flaws aside though, this storyline happens to revolve around a particular set of people and within that small select group lives a, at times, brutally honest, image. But it’s important to remember that the show doesn’t represent everyone. It hasn’t taken on that responsibility. And within all the shortcomings, Hannah (played by Lena Dunham) seems to embody a great number of them.

Hannah declares herself the voice of our generation in a drug-inspired rant to her parents who have just decided to cut her off from their financial support during episode one and though Lena later claimed she intended it as a joke, she’s not far from the truth. As a generation, some of us are indeed a little lost, messy, and misguided. Personally, I find the best thing about the show has been talking about it. It’s flawed, sure, but we’re acknowledging it and reacting, processing, and having discussions. For me, that’s where the strength is. I’m thankful that Lena is attempting to explore some boundaries while making me laugh. The pressure to truly be “the voice of a generation” may be a bit unrealistic and unfair for this grittier Sex and the City group but I look forward to seeing how the next season unfolds. In between all the great theatre out there, of course.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your reactions Girls and if you think the show promotes a certain image of our generation. Come join the Girls Talk conversation!

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.