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Essay: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Woody Allen?

Pascal Le Segretain
Getty Images
Director Woody Allen attends the 'Cafe Society' Photocall during The 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 11, 2016 in Cannes, France.

Woody Allen is one of the most recognized and controversial film directors. Since 1965 he has made about one film a year. Often his films center on an older lead man and his young female partner, or explore themes of difficult relationships and existential concepts.

Allen’s latest film “Café Society” was released this month, and film critic Duane Dudek shares his thoughts on the prolific director:

How do you solve a problem like Woody Allen?

Counting his new film “Cafe Society” Allen has directed a Herculean 51 films since 1965 - or about one a year.

"Cafe Society," is a romantic comedy set in the 1930s, complete with the older man younger woman theme that runs through his work - in this case Steve Carrell and Kristen Stuart.

It may be the first Allen film to not have a critics preview here before opening. This is less about a drop in Allen’s status than a regular occurrence in a city now without a daily newspaper critic.

Allen used to play clarinet in a dixie land band and a documentary about their tour of Europe was called “Wild Man Blues.” It offered insight into a man so rarely intimately exposed, and it captured his domestic routine with Soon Yi Previn the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow, with whom he never lived or married. His relationship with Previn cost him the good will of many.

Most disturbing, however, are charges that he molested his adopted daughter with Farrow, which he denies. Both he and Farrow have defenders. But he was never charged or convicted.

So to the question of - how do you solve a problem like Woody Allen - my instinct is to let his films do the talking, because my only relationship with his is as a film artist.

Careers as long as Allen’s have phases.

He has explored a diversity of styles since the 1977 film Annie Hall whose Best Picture Oscar earned him a creative autonomy unique among filmmakers.

He was inspired by European filmmakers like the Swedish psycho-dramatist Ingmar Bergman and the Italian surrealist Federico Fellini. Their influence added surreal qualities to his comic films and an existential quality to his serious films.

Over the last decade or so he crafted a string of critically praised films which often won Oscars for his actresses.

These include the sunny sex romp "Vicky Christina Barcelona," with Penelope Cruz; “Match Point,” Cassandra’s Dream,” with Ewan McGregor; the time traveling romance "Midnight in Paris"; and "Blue Jasmine" with Cate Blanchett. Blanchett and Cruz both won Oscars for their roles.

But there were also clumsy vaudevilles along the way like Scoop, Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Endings.

The Allen film that speaks most to me is the 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” an unsettling - morally ambiguous - and pessimistic look at the human condition.

In it the wicked prosper and the good go unrewarded. Martin Landau is a wealthy man who murders his lover. Allen plays his nebbishy self, wooing a producer played by Farrow, his frequent collaborator. And a rabbi going blind is the moral and optimistic centerpiece of the film.

A chilling final scene between Landau and Allen nails the premise that you can get away with murder. It is his creative and thematic highlight, from which all his other work derives.

Allen isn’t in the sequel business but every film he makes is a variation, he once told me, of the concepts he has explored throughout his career, “the emptiness of life...not believing in God and...difficult relationships."

“These questions have troubled people for hundreds of years,” he said, "and they continue to bother and upset me.” But Allen added that he "hadn’t come to any maturing conclusions about them" after all these years.

It’s hard to say sight unseen where "Cafe Society" will lay in this continuum. But the 80 year-old Allen has proven himself the little engine that could.

He is less evolving to changing circumstances than a stubborn and single minded last of a dying breed.

And if the 86 year-old Clint Eastwood, whose new movie "Sully" comes out this fall, is any example, Allen isn’t done yet.

Duane Dudek is the former film critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  He continues to review movies at his website, The Dudek Abides.

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