Husbands and Wives

Amazon Husbands and Wives

I know, I know—I just wrote about Cafe Society. And there’s a contemporary cinema worth acknowledging too. (Right?) But I’m working on something that’s got me scrambling to refamiliarize myself with the Allen canon, and streaming isn’t making it easy. There’s not a lot of his work available online at the moment, and most of it’s not what I want to plumb. Husbands and Wives is.


It’s almost impossible to believe the best Allen films ever got made—let alone gained a following—they go so strongly, and sometimes aggressively, against the grain of mainstream movies. But his core instincts as an entertainer, and his need to ingratiate (remember Zelig—and Zelig?), help ensure his best films are pleasurable and engaging no matter where they decide to go.


Husbands and Wives is a known quantity, so there’s no point in rehashing the plot or talking about its groundbreaking technique. So let’s talk instead about this persistent bullshit about Allen not knowing how to direct actors. (It’s like the old—and completely wrong—saw about Billy Wilder being a writer who happened to direct.) And yet there are more exquisite performances in his films than in the films of any other American director. Explain that.


The scene where Sydney Pollack tries to get his flakey girlfriend to get into his car before she embarrasses him is one of the rawest and truest things ever shot. And it didn’t happen by having an incompetent director set two actors loose and tell them to figure it out for themselves.


Pollack was at best a mediocre director—a mainstream hack. He looked humiliated in Tootsie and completely lost in Eyes Wide Shut. So why is he so good here, and so well integrated into the fabric of the film? It’s long past time to give Allen his due.


Di Palma’s cinematography is so subtle that the demons of streaming come close to shredding it. That doesn’t mean it can only be enjoyed on the largest possible screen in the grandest possible setting—there’s something intimate about it that makes that kind of setting almost antithetical. But it deserves respect, and streaming almost feels like a dis.


As brilliant, and almost perfect, as Husbands and Wives is, it can’t be Allen’s best film—it’s about 15 minutes too long and lacks the startling sprightliness of his best work. But it’s substantial, and true, which puts it so far outside the mainstream that it feels, deliciously, like sacrilege. It’s more mature, nuanced, and, in general, accomplished than Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it’s not better. Sometimes, vitality aces all.


Movies are almost impossible to make, and are harder to make the more mainstream they are. So it’s not a matter of taste but simple statistics: When you look at the number of innovative, provocative, engaging films Allen has made, and how consistent but also responsive his aesthetic has been across the decades, he’s probably had the most successful career of any American director ever.


I know that’s hard to believe, but think about it. Then try to dispute it.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Cafe Society

Woody Allen Cafe Society

I’ve never understood—and never will—what anybody saw in Midnight in Paris, except maybe a vision of Allen as a dealer in contrivance and platitudes instead of the serious filmmaker he can sometimes be. It was a not very convincing concatenation of gestures he’d delivered with far more depth and flair in earlier films—The Purple Rose of Cairo in particular.


Meanwhile, Café Society was greeted with a general ho-hum—which is scandalous, given that it’s a far, far better film. No, it’s not perfect—but why would anybody want a Woody Allen film to be perfect? What it is—and what it has in common with Blue Jasmine—is that it’s both astute and felt. And when was the last time you saw a film like that?


It’s a literary film—a dirty word in Hollywood, worthy of death—which is to say it has the pacing and careful observations of a novella. I can understand why that wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but it ought to be worthy of everyone’s consideration.


The digital cinematography is jarring at first, and never quite feels true, feeling too sharp and sterile. But the material and performances are better than the way they’re captured, and add up to something superior, by leagues, to the too contrived, relentlessly smartass confections that currently pass for serious film.


Anybody who passes on Café Society is missing the chance to experience a film that, for all its flaws, gets far more right than it ever gets wrong—which makes it something of a miracle in a contemporary cinema that, lost in its own sound and fury, almost always comes up short.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.