400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (221 screens) has earned some good reviews, but not particularly great ones. I'm not sure many critics have really understood its significance. I think they just stayed on their usual pro- or anti-Woody Allen bandwagon and reviewed it according to how funny or not funny it was, or how Woody Allen-ish the dialogue sounded. Or worse, they brought Allen's private life into it and attacked it for its supposedly twisted sexuality. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a major step in the career of this tricky artist, more so than the critical darling Match Point three years ago.
One drawback to Allen's career is that he started out as a blatant comic filmmaker with films like Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. Then, movies like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors cleverly melded comedy into dramatic situations, but the damage had been done: he was once and always "just" a comedian, forever lower on the scale than his contemporaries (Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, etc.). His other drawback is that he keeps making "Woody Allen" movies, in which the credits always look the same, the musical choices are always the same, the cinematography always looks great, and everyone talks the same. Often, but not always, the same actors appear. Who does this remind you of?
In my review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I compared it to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, who is perhaps the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers. Ozu is very highly revered for at least one film, Tokyo Story (1953), which routinely ranks near Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films of all time. Yet it becomes greater still the more familiar one is with Ozu's other works (to date 15 Ozu films are available on Criterion DVDs). Ozu almost always used the same opening titles, the same cinematography and editing, the same actors, the same stories and even the same titles (even fans have trouble telling the difference between Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn and The End of Summer). In working through the same themes again and again, Ozu was able to plumb much deeper into them than any other filmmaker could do with a single film. While he often dealt with family issues, his ultimate conclusion was that families break up, that life is disappointing, and that there's a kind of comfort in realizing and accepting that.Allen has been working through some tough issues since Mia Farrow left his life (and his stock company) and his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn made nasty headlines. His films (especially Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity and Anything Else) have seemed angry and defensive. Some have tried to go back to simple, safe comedy (Hollywood Ending, Scoop). But he has been exploring. Going to London was a good idea, and finding Scarlett Johansson has seemed to help, and now with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he seems to have arrived. He has found that place of comfort and acceptance. The film's characters themselves are exploring, with art, sexuality and marriage, but they ultimately come to the same conclusion that the older characters (one played magnificently by Patricia Clarkson) have come to, and the same one that Ozu came to. The ending is all the same, and even the ride is much the same, but life nonetheless has its wonderful moments.