As Woody Allen awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into Jackie Gleason. The covers had slipped off his belly, so that he looked down from the freshly Brylcreemed pillow upon a hemisphere of flesh, which already was quivering with babyish violence.
What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting this nonsense, he thought. Only six months had passed since Sweet and Lowdown, and Mother and Father were dead. Yet his unaccustomed bulk had begun to intrigue Woody Allen, who wondered at how The Great One used to slide about in this body. Could he, too, move in rolls and waves? With firm resolution, he pushed himself off the bed.
“What’s that?” someone cried, as he hit the floor. Although the bedroom door was locked, Woody Allen knew at once this was Tracey Ullman’s voice. Something in her tone–or perhaps in this apartment, which he now perceived to be cramped and dingy–put him in mind of Audrey Meadows. At once, his limbs began to flail in self-contradiction, one arm stretching greedily as if to enclose his fictional wife, the other cocking back in mimed assault. “Wait, and I’ll let you in!” he called, though she had neither asked for admission nor threatened to leave. Was this what it meant to speak like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners–to miss the point, to babble and fume? He suddenly realized that Tracey Ullman would snap all the wisecracks, while he would be reduced to empty threats and nonsense syllables. All his life, Woody Allen had stammered, as too many ideas fought to reach his tongue. Now he would stammer for want of words.
There, in spirit, you have the premise of Small Time Crooks, one of those comic miniatures that are a particular glory of Allen’s career. I can’t guess what uneasy dream might have inspired him to take on Gleason’s persona, in the way he’s previously emulated Bob Hope. All I know is that a supposedly stable commodity, “the Woody Allen movie,” has somehow retained its identity while morphing into a feature-length version of The Honeymooners, complete with dumb pals, a cockamamie get-rich-quick scheme and the final “Baby, you’re the greatest.”
Of course, when you move from spirit to flesh, you find that Allen is hilariously out of proportion to the role he’s assumed. As Ray Winkler, an ex-con who is currently working as a dishwasher, he first shows up in midstride on the streets of Manhattan, a copy of the Daily News tucked under one arm, his hands stuck deep into the pockets of his walking shorts. The gait is energetic, but the body’s missing; the famous eyeglasses and nose seem to be bouncing on an armature composed solely of elbows and knees. Yet this is the corpus with which he claims to menace his wife, Frenchy (Ullman): a trim woman of middling size, with hair that must outweigh Ray by five pounds. “Get me my dinner!” Ray bellows; and for some reason, perhaps boredom, Frenchy rolls her toreador slacks off the bed on which she’s been reposing, watching yet another TV show about Princess Di. She’s as big as her husband and has him intellectually overmatched. But it seems that Frenchy has weaknesses. First, she actually loves the shnook she married. Second, as the Princess Di fixation suggests, she longs for respectability, and does so with all the fervor of a onetime stripper. It’s this second vulnerability that leads to a quick, rough education for Frenchy and Ray, after they strike it rich.
Although Ray’s initial criminal scheme is a bust, it launches Frenchy on an unexpected career in the cookie business, in which there’s money galore. Yet when Frenchy, now dressed in much pricier leopard-skin outfits, attempts to follow Di’s example and become a patron of the arts, she learns that her talent for things that taste good has not translated into good taste. “Show them your collection of leather pigs,” Ray says encouragingly, as Frenchy gives a cluster of appalled socialites the tour of her new, gilt nightmare on Park Avenue. (The shrieks and giggles of the film’s production designer, Santo Loquasto, are now reputed to echo from a refuge upstate.) And so, with admirable though fatal determination, Frenchy vows to improve herself. Her chosen instructor: Hugh Grant, here cast as a perfectly hughgrantlike art dealer named David, whose savoir-faire and pheromones must surely rub off on Frenchy.
Ray, being incapable of improvement, sulks off into the company of someone who is as contentedly low-class as himself, and even dumber: Frenchy’s cousin, who smiles as if recently struck on the head and snuffles the dialogue up her nose. To improve the joke, this logic-frazzler is played by one of the world’s most terrifyingly brilliant people, Elaine May. Seeing her with Woody Allen is a joy comparable only to the meeting of Chaplin and Keaton in Limelight. With what sweet patience she endures Ray’s sputterings! And with what joy he badgers her! At last, a woman who won’t talk back. Sideways, he can deal with.
In the past, when mocking the stupidities of working-class people, Allen has sometimes vented a rancor beyond his anger at rich and middle-class idiots. Mighty Aphrodite provides one example of the trait, with a walloping dose of misogyny thrown in. Small Time Crooks offers the redemptive sight of Allen’s biases running the other way. This, too, may be to the credit of The Honeymooners. It was the show with the grimmest-looking set on television, where wife and husband, though locked into the strains of lifelong penury, kept rediscovering their mutual affection. Small Time Crooks has none of The Honeymooners‘ old-neighborhood sentimentality (just as Allen lacks The Great One’s bulk). And yet loyalty and lack of pretense count as overriding virtues here, as they did on Gleason’s show, lending a surprising warmth to the humor of Small Time Crooks.
The visual equivalent would be the rooftop sunset that cinematographer Zhao Fei renders, with magical skill, toward the beginning of the film. It’s one of those views of urban prettiness for which Allen has always been a sucker. Maybe it’s also the sign of a late-career glow.
All art aspires toward the condition of music, wrote Walter Pater at the dawn of Modernism, codifying a tendency of his particular era as if it were general law. For no more than a hundred years after he set down this rule, artists rejoiced in (and struggled against) the urge to create self-sufficient works, which, responsible only to their own inner motions, might float free of the everyday. Gravity has since then grabbed us back, with a vengeance; once more, and too well, we understand the pull of patronage and social function. But those who gloat at this return to normality might at least nod toward the achievements of Modernism, which include the collective creation known as the movies.
At their highest level of abstraction, the movies (as distinguished from film) are a delirium of bigger-than-life ghosts: figures who are overpoweringly present and yet insubstantial, impossibly beautiful and sure to suffer for their beauty. At least, that’s the condition the movies used to aspire toward: the plane that Hitchcock termed “pure cinema.” In our postmodern era, only a handful of moviemakers still hear that music, let alone know how to play it–which is why I’ve given my heart to John Woo’s latest étude in lyric slam-bangery, Mission: Impossible 2.
As an antigravitational artwork should, M:I 2 takes place largely in midair; its godlike stars are forever dangling from helicopters, launching heavenward on motorcycles, plunging headlong out of skyscrapers or (in a traditionalist spirit) hanging from cliffs. Who are these vulnerable yet invincible beings? They are master spy Tom Cruise (as suave as Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, and twice as acrobatic), teamed with master thief Thandie Newton (as beautiful and doomed as Ingrid Bergman in Notorious). They meet on a flamenco-mad night in Seville, amid blue light and flashing red skirts. They first kiss on a terrifying mountain road, inside the wreckage of the sports cars with which they were attempting to kill each other. At the movie’s midpoint, within a gleaming secret laboratory in Sydney, Australia, they give voice to the torment of their consciences, in a conversation frequently interrupted by the need to whirl about and shoot bad guys or to blow the architecture full of big flaming holes.
The heroes and heroines of previous John Woo movies have also labored under burdens of guilt, which can be relieved if the star glides in slow motion through tongues of fire, in the company of a white dove. In other words, sin is expiated both by suffering and by looking really, really cool. In M:I 2, Cruise is so cool that he receives his secret-agent instructions in the form of high-fashion sunglasses. The shades (actually a recording device) are delivered to him on a splendid American mountaintop, by a missile launched from a helicopter. Subsequently, they are flung, in slow motion, straight at the audience, only to explode in midair. We mortals cannot catch the star-gear. Our fate, and privilege, is merely to watch the fragments glitter on the screen.
If you are familiar with Mission: Impossible as an old television series, or if you’ve seen the first of the movie versions, you will note that I’ve said nothing so far about teamwork and planning. Woo actually cares a lot about those aspects of life, but only as they play out behind the camera. His films are logistical masterworks, constructed to draw action out of action in seemingly endless succession–but you are never to think about the work that went into these sequences, only about the impression they give of flamboyance, energy and gaiety of invention.
Of course, as a Nation reader, you will demand more. So I will report that the music of M:I 2 is not entirely pure. There are words in the screenplay, written by Robert Towne; and these words include the bad guy’s explanation that “terrorists and pharmaceutical companies” are lining up to do business with him. What’s more, when the bad guy is being really rotten, he belittles women and demands stock options.
I hope that satisfies you. For myself, I’m happy to know that Tom Cruise has learned to hold his arms straight out before him, the better to pump away with a gun in each hand–just like Chow Yun Fat.
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Screening Schedule: The New Festival, New York City’s biggest and shiniest annual series of lesbian and gay films, is on view June 1-11, serving up more than 150 films and videos from around the world. The great majority of them are either New York or US premieres, so I’m of no help in guiding your ticket-buying. All I can tell you is that the box office is located at 151 West 19th Street and may be phoned at (646) 638-2327. Further information may be solicited by phoning The New Festival directly at (212) 254-8504 or by visiting www.newfestival.org.
And if your appetite still isn’t sated, consider “Sapph-o-Rama,” Film Forum’s current series of lesbian cult movies, on view through June 15. Phone (212) 727-8112 or visit www.filmforum.com.