Woody Allen and Narration

Vicky Cristiana BarcelonaWoody Allen has impressed me with his use of narration. I think it goes back to his fundamental orientation as a short story writer. In particular, Broadway Danny Rose is probably the best use of narration in a film ever. And I think everyone remembers the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite.

I’ve gotten out of touch with Woody Allen. I haven’t seen any of his films in the theater since Alice and the last of his films I’ve even seen is The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which is not even that recent. So I’ve been taking steps to get up to date.

My first effort was to watch his 2008 film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It is a pleasant enough film with many things we have come to expect from Woody Allen: clever dialog, truly surprising plot twists, and a vague ending. But that’s not what I noticed. I noticed the narration that blanketed the film.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is narrated by a man who I guess is supposed to be the author of what Allen sees as the novel the film is based upon. It is clearly an omniscient narrator, because he knows everything that is going on in the minds of all the characters. Just the same, he is not any of the characters in the film. And he sticks out in the film, never really melding with the film.

I would have really liked this film if it hadn’t been for the narration. What’s more, it isn’t necessary. Nothing narrated wasn’t clear from the many excellent performances in the film. My question is why: “Why did Allen add this narration?” Was he assuming that his audience was too stupid or distracted to figure out the film without being told?

Also, like I implied, the ending was weak.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Woody Allen and Narration

  1. @Frank-I don’t have anything to really ‘complain’ about with your review. But I have a couple things to say. . .

    What’s your take on holding an artist accountable for his ‘personal life’? Because I’ve encountered a number of people who told me they’ll not watch a Woody Allen film because of the whole ‘daughter situation’, or a Roman Polanski film either, for that matter. Personally, I’ve never been one who took a person’s (or artist’s) personal life into consideration when evaluating their work and I assume you don’t either? But I was curious of your view?

    I saw "Vicky Christina Barcelona" in the theater (Woody Allen is a director I’ll always take a chance on) and honestly, I don’t remember there being narration. If someone asked me, before I read your piece, if that film had narration? I’d say ‘definitely not’. So, I find it odd the narration was so ‘opaque and over-used’, I’m usually pretty sensitive to that. However, from what you describe, it sounds like it certainly *was* bad narration. And from your description, it sounds like the worst kind of narration: adding nothing, containing little to no value and making the viewer feel ‘pandered to’. It seems like the most ‘basic’ error of an ‘amateur’ screenwriter? I’d like to watch it again, so I can speak fully on it. But, (since Allen is certainly *not* an ‘amateur’) I think he may have used the narration either, in an attempt (as you say) to add a ‘literary quality’ (which he’s done before, he’s also been using his old non-produced scripts as new sources-a primary example is "Whatever Works", it screams of being an old script of his from the 70s) and I’d almost think he was trying to be ‘experimental’ if it wasn’t Woody Allen, or it may be that his ever increasing ‘isolation’ (not that he wasn’t *always* a bit isolated) from the public and an increased misanthropy (his own variety, of course) lead him to a place where he very well may have thought: "his audience (is) too stupid or distracted to figure out the film without being told"? I can see both being possible.

    I remember in the late 90s early 00s, I began to detect a strange ‘apologia’ in his work. It seemed he was trying to impart something personal to his audience, while at the same time I noticed a kind of self flagellation. Now, I don’t know if I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t care-I find it fun to speculate. It seemed (about the same time he was being vilified for his transgressions) his films began exposing parts of (what seemed like) himself, his response to his critics and in certain films seemed to be saying: "I’m sorry" (in fact, I think in "Sweet and Lowdown"-which I really liked-the main character says exactly that). I don’t know how much of his work you’ve seen from this period? There are ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ (of course, but most people either ‘love everything’ or state ‘Woody Allen is washed up’ and leave it at that, neither seems accurate) I think his films lately have taken a lot of risks (having the luxury of being guaranteed financing for a film a year must be reassuring? And he’s broken away from filming exclusively in NYC, which I found an exciting move), I don’t remember his work taking the same kind of ‘risks’ earlier (aside from a few films and the much maligned "Interiors", a film I also enjoyed, as psychologically brutal as it was)-anyway, I know I went ‘off topic’ here, but I don’t get a chance to discuss Woody Allen films often, so I apologize for the long veer in another direction.

  2. @karl – I was very unhappy with this article, because I wanted to say a lot more. Unfortunately, it has been so hot here that I’ve had a really hard time sitting at the computer for any length of time.

    It is really great when an artist you love turns out to be a good person. But it doesn’t affect my love of the art in any way. *Chinatown* is one of my favorite films. I would prefer that some of the things I’ve heard about Polanski weren’t true, but it doesn’t matter. As for Allen, I don’t even know how I feel about his life in isolation. Given that he was never a father to her, the only thing that bothers me is the age thing. Even still, I don’t care: whatever floats your boat. And I kind of like that he is no longer a serial monogamist.

    Because I used to be such a Woody Allen fan, there are some movies I don’t like for the same reason I don’t like *Citizen Kane*: I’ve just seen them too much. "Annie Hall" and "Take the Money and Run" for example. Both are excellent, I’ve just seen them too often.

    I don’t know why I stopped watching WA. I used to see all of his films in the theater. I think I saw *Broadway Danny Rose* three times in the theater. It wasn’t that I was disappointed in the films. In anything, he only got stronger. And I am very fond of his supposed failures. *Celebrity* and *Shadows and Fog* are both wonderful films. *Husbands and Wives* is another one. You already mentioned *Interiors*, which I don’t think was that good, but was necessary for him to get past making films like Bergman to films influenced by him.

    I think what you may be getting at regarding the apologetical aspects of more recent films is just a sense of regret. When I was younger, I never realized how profound regret becomes in your life. Even about choices you like, there is still regret. *Vicky Cristina Barcelona* is certainly about regret. Vicky is in this terrible bind where she knows regardless of which decision she makes, she will regret it. Cristina is one of these sad people who pre-regret: she can’t make any decision because of the regret she will have. Of course, she will go on to regret all of her non-choices. And if that isn’t enough, Judy is there as the sad and wise elder trying to heal her own regret by trying to save Vicky from making the choice she made.

    Based upon what I’ve read (Eric Lax’s books), I think Allen went into production without any kind of polished script here. I fear the narration was added to make the ending work. Without it, it would have been unclear. However, I think there were other ways do this. And I’m generally against this kind of thing because I really like vague endings (e.g. *Being There*). BTW: the worst narration ever (perhaps): *Ronin*. What the hell’s up with that?! (Okay: *Blade Runner* is worse.) If you can’t remember any in it, it is because it is only at the very end and totally screws up the film.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more of Allen’s recent work. I still liked VCB. It does remind me of one complaint I have regarding Allen as a writer: it isn’t necessary to always send plots in strange directions. I think he does this because he’s lazy. Take, for example, *Small Time Crooks*. The first act *is* the movie. The first act would have been the movie if Preston Sturges had written it. But it would have been a lot harder. The plot would have to be more finely sculpted, the characters would have had to have been more deeply drawn, and the ending would have had to have been been much more clever.

    But what do I know? STC was a hit and *The Curse of the Jade Scorpion*, in which he did what I want brilliantly, was a flop.

  3. @frank-I totally understand your ‘extreme heat’ condition, I’m dealing with the same thing right now. It’s unbearable! Still, I think you wrote a damn fine piece. It got me to think of an aspect of the film I hadn’t and I always enjoy that.

    I agree with you on Allen and Polanski (I really love Chinatown, I love how it utilizes certain forms/techniques of ‘film noir’ while maintaining a unique vision). I was under the impression, though the girl wasn’t WA’s daughter, that she was Farrow’s child while he was with her? And I think that’s what people found ‘deplorable’? But I’m not certain of that. Regardless, it doesn’t affect me watching his films.

    Very good point on regret! For some reason, I hadn’t thought of that? Now that you mention it, I think it (regret) plays a really big part in his films-especially this later work? I was probably thinking too specifically about the references and what seemed to keep cropping up in the films?

    Huh, I didn’t know that about the "Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ script, I’d like to read that book, seems like it would be interesting? Doesn’t Allen do that, occasionally, with scripts? Or at least, he sometimes doesn’t have a completed, ‘conventional script’ when going into production? I thought I remember reading (you probably know this better than I?) that he didn’t have a ‘shooting script’ on Annie Hall, it was more like a novel? Anyway, if that is the case with "VCB", then I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume you’re right. Ha, ya know it’s funny how similar we are regarding films, because I always like the ‘vague ending’ too-which has often driven friends, girlfriends and family members ‘up a wall’! I’ll tell them of a movie I like and they’ll say: "But the ending seemed like they didn’t know how to end the film?". I love "Being There", what a great little film.

    I didn’t know the narration for "VCB" was only at the end (making it even more ‘suspect’ IMO), for some reason I thought you alluded to the fact that it was throughout the film? But, yes, if it was only at the end, I understand why it slipped my mind. I haven’t seen "Ronin"-er, I saw bits and pieces on TV, but not enough to say ‘i watched it’, so i can’t comment on the narration. However, I *can* say that "Blade Runner" has, perhaps, the worst narration I’ve ever heard! It’s surprising to me the studio even kept it, with Harrison Ford doing everything to make it as ‘dull’ as possible?

    I know what you’re talking about when Allen sends his plots into ‘crazy’ and deliberately ‘odd’ directions; I think you’ll see him do that a bit more in his later work? But, I think you’re gonna like some of his later stuff? I too liked Allen’s less successful films. I too enjoyed: "Celebrity" (I saw it in the theater and I thought I was the only person who liked it, ha), "Shadows and Fog" and "Husbands and Wives"-did "H&W" not do well? I didn’t know that, I assumed it did well for some reason? I think I enjoyed "Interiors" because it was one of the first films I personally saw by Woody Allen where he didn’t act in the film and where it wasn’t a comedy. Up to that point, I was familiar with watching either his ‘romantic comedies’ or his ‘screwball comedies’, so when I saw "Interiors" I thought it really unusual and fascinating, almost like when I saw a foreign film for the first time? I think for that reason I always enjoyed the film? I also liked that it was this complete ‘downer’ of a film, when all I was familiar with at the time was ‘Woody Allen comedies’. But, I think you make a great point about being his transition from films ‘like’ Bergman, to ‘inspired’ by Bergman. I didn’t think about of that aspect.

    I have yet to see "Small Time Crooks", it ‘slipped through the cracks’ on me. there’s a number of Allen’s films that seemed to have done that. In fact "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" did too. I wish Netflix had more Woody Allen films available on ‘instant watch’. When I first joined Netflix they had more I think? But, I put them in my queue and before I knew it they ‘expired’. I’d like to see "STC", even if just the first act is like a Preston Sturges flick. That alone sounds good to me. I’d also like to see "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"-in fact, there’s a number of Allen films, that slipped through the crack on me, and I’d like to catch up with them now.

  4. @karl – The implication was that WA was effectively married to MF and thus acted as a father. Even though there is no biological issue, people tend to look down on it for various reasons. My complaint would be the power differential between father and daughter. But in this case, SYP was grown and living in Europe. As I recall, they had only even met twice.

    I wasn’t saying anything specifically about VCB; I was just speculating. I don’t know about Annie Hall. I do know that they largely created it in the editing room. It was written linearly, I think. I know that when Marshall Brickman saw the rough cut he was devastated. But then, he’d never seen a rough cut.

    I don’t think people appreciate just how horrible things are in the beginning of editing. What I’ve learned (about the only thing I’ve learned) is that you just have to take a little bit and try to improve it. And slowly, it gets better. If you’re good or lucky or both, you might get something good.

    See how these comments affect me? I read *Being There* last night. I think it’s better.

    I’m afraid I dash these off to quickly. The narration is throughout VCB. It is tacked on to the end of Ronin. You should definitely see Ronin. John Frankenheimer directed, David Mamet wrote. It certainly isn’t a great film and it isn’t a perfect film, but it’s worth watching.

    The first time I saw Blade Runner, it was during the theatrical release of the director’s cut. I liked it a lot. But I always thought, "I bet the producer’s cut is just fine." Then I saw it! Now I don’t know how it was so popular. It is a good example of how editing choices that you would think would be minor can make or break a film.

    I don’t know how H&W did. It is possible it did well because that was right when his relationship with MF blew up. It may be that it did well commercially but that critics didn’t like it. Or I could be totally wrong.

    Speaking of Bergman, have you ever seen SCTV’s Whispers of the Wolf?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-wsbKfFhLw

    I think STC works, I just would have preferred the more conventional take, but he’s the master. And most people I know didn’t really like CotJS. But I think a lot of people disregard what he does when it conflicts with exactly what they want. Some people want him to forever make Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    Netflix sucks. I subscribe, but I am constantly unhappy with it. I’ve written about this at least a few times. One of them is called "Netflix is Just Not That Into Movies." Which is true.

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