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Friday, May 08, 2020

Rainy Days and Mondays

I JUST WATCHED the most forbidden movie in America. Or so it seems. Dropped by Amazon Studios and picked up by no other U.S.-serving distributor, it opened in Poland and has since garnered a respectable box-office return throughout the rest of the world. “A Rainy Day in New York” is a light comedy, skillfully executed, starring big-name stars. But it was written and directed by Woody Allen, whose name has become anathema in certain circles.

Selena Gomez and Timothée Chalamet
Unfortunately, this essay has to be as much about the Allen controversy as about the movie itself. Well; it doesn’t have to, but enough (more than enough!) ignorant bile has been spewed on the topic that I’m compelled to offer a voice of reason in rebuttal.

Let’s start with the movie. It’s the story of a romantic weekend in Manhattan beset by mishap and misadventure, chief among the former the steady titular rain. Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning) is a student at Yardley College, a Vassar-like liberal-arts institution. She has just secured an interview with elusive film director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), which means a trip to Manhattan. This is great news to her boyfriend, Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet), who grew up in that city and is eager to give Ashleigh a personal tour. All he has to do is avoid his parents, because he begged out of the lavish annual party his well-heeled mother gives.

Well-heeled defines an easygoing aspect of this movie. We’re looking at an upper-middle-class environment, which may seem extra-rarefied today, as we handwring over the underprivileged. On the other hand, how else could we enjoy a chase scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The characters in “Bringing Up Baby” were privileged, as were those in “The Awful Truth” and “The Lady Eve.” Such are the films with which “A Rainy Day in New York” is spiritually aligned. It’s a fertile context, allowing us to align a certain measure of our dreams with the protagonists, even as we’re able to feel a satisfying superiority to their handling of the various dilemmas that come their way.

Gatsby is restless, rootless. He’s a too-smart kid who plays a mean piano, luxuriating in the standards, and he’s able to support himself with poker winnings. In other words, he’s a capital-R Romantic, eager to enfold his lady love in the romance of his beloved borough. We know from the start that things won’t work out as expected. Bing Crosby croons “I Got Lucky in the Rain” as the opening credits roll, preparing us for an ironic realization of “lucky.”

And so it proves. Ashleigh is swept into the attractive, angst-ridden world of director Pollard, which includes his scriptwriter, Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), who is trying to keep Pollard’s alcohol consumption at bay even as Davidoff discovers that all isn’t well on his own home front. And then there’s movie idol Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), who has a very chance meeting with Ashleigh but is never one to turn down an opportunity to make time with a beautiful woman.

Gatsby’s carefully planned sequence of meals and museums is pushed to the side by Ashleigh’s constantly changing schedule, and he runs into a succession of friends and friends of friends, all of them intensifying his sense of alienation. And, of course, it’s raining.

This beautifully shot film keeps up a dizzying pace of twists and turns, punctuated by the witty dialogue Allen writes so well. It’s his 48th movie as a writer-director, which is a phenomenal accomplishment, particularly given the high level of craftsmanship he’s achieved throughout this career. As with the best directors, he knows that a high percentage of any success lies in the casting, and he casts brilliantly and is known to give his actors plenty of room to inhabit their roles. Allen has explored many different genres, bringing to them a style all his own. He credits the likes of Bergman and Fellini, but their influences have stopped being as obvious as they once were as a uniquely Allen style took root and grew.

But Woody Allen’s filmmaking career has revealed itself over the decades to be the production of a succession of chamber-music works: delicately scored pieces that offer big themes and rewarding emotional insights. And, as successive generations of movie critics have responded to his work, we see an increasing disconnect between those putative critics and cinema history. Allen’s films can’t be judged against whatever else inhabits the screens; it’s also difficult to judge them against other Allen films, because so many different paths are charted. But they’ve always stood well against the precedent of the vintage Hollywood material that would inspire (in so many different ways) the likes of Bergman and Fellini. Allen’s movies are personal statements unabashedly intended to entertain, whether he goes for out-and-out comedy or explores something darker.

Unfortunately, a new kind of standard has infected the Hollywood lens. It’s a philosophical lockstep inspired by the admirable, much-needed MeToo movement which, like so many sudden reassessments of what once were accepted as cultural norms, inspires some of its adherents to go too far. The accusations against Harvey Weinstein were widespread and credible, credible enough to stand up in court. As the Weinstein accusations grabbed headlines, Allen was quoted as saying that he feared this movement could inspire warrantless witch hunts. He was vilified for that statement. He was also correct. He himself has become a witch hunt victim.

He got months of headline-grabbing scandal as his breakup with Mia Farrow went public in 1992. She had discovered nude photos that Allen had taken of her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who was 22 at the time. Allen, who was no relation, admitted to having an affair with Soon-Yi. All hell broke loose. Farrow was bitter and vindictive, and soon after came up with a tale of sexual abuse perpetrated by Allen upon another of Farrow’s adopted children, the seven-year-old Dylan. The details Mia provided uncomfortably mirror the lyrics of a song titled “With My Daddy in the Attic,” written by 22 years earlier by Dory Previn, a onetime Farrow friend whose husband become Mia’s second spouse. It’s a wild but plausible story that’s detailed here, and it certainly backs up the notion, affirmed by people like Farrow’s psychotherapist son Moses, that Mia was so obsessively angry that she coached her young daughter to exact her revenge. The abuse allegations made their way to court and were dismissed, although articles like Maureen Orth’s 2014 “Vanity Fair” screed purport to offer “undeniable facts” to support the abuse charges that turn out only to be much-repeated allegations.

But that’s the kind of big-print piece that will be taken as gospel by those who’ve also made up their minds based only upon unquestioned emotion, and it leads to supposedly intelligent writers like A.O. Scott writing, in the New York Times, about “My Woody Allen Problem.” Which boils down to the fact that Allen’s film “Manhattan” presents a seemingly too-young love interest in Mariel Hemingway, and that Allen put a rape joke in the script of “Play It Again, Sam” – a regrettable choice seen in today’s light, but 1972 was a very different time.

Leading the anti-Allen drumbeats today is his son Ronan (formerly Satchel), who had made a career out of exposés of sexual misbehavior, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece about Weinstein. As a firm Mia loyalist, he has skillfully crafted a reputation for himself that offers a credible platform for reviving the Allen allegations, and it’s been working.

Amazon Studios, which produced Allen’s previous movie, “Wonder Wheel,” pulled the plug on “A Rainy Day in New York,” terming it unmarketable in light of the controversy. This prompted a lawsuit and settlement, and a return of the film’s rights to Allen. As of this writing, it’s the number-one box-office attraction in South Korea and Norway, and also is enjoying success elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

But castmembers Timothée Chalamet, Selena Gomez, and Griffin Newman have tried to publicly atone for appearing in an Allen movie by donating their salaries to various MeToo-friendly causes, while Michael Caine, Colin Firth, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Peter Sarsgaard, Mira Sorvino, and Evan Rachel Wood are among those who worked in previous Allen films and have now denounced him and expressed their regret for having had anything to do with him.

It resonates uncomfortable with another witch hunt, one that polluted the 1950s, when dipso Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities minions ruined the careers of many a writer and actor with baseless allegations that nevertheless had Hollywood studio execs running scared. In order to work, blacklisted actors and writers had to appear before that committee and name the names of others suspected to be Commie subversives. This is exactly what a new generation of nervous actors is doing – and without subpoenas even being issued!

For the record, there are actors like Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Gina Gershon, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Cherry Jones, Diane Keaton, and Dianne Wiest among the many who have said that they eagerly would work with Allen again. They seem to outnumber the craven.

Allen’s new autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, was to have been published by Hachette Book Group’s Grand Central Publishing, but a walkout by some 75 employees of the publisher prompted it to withdraw and pulp the book. It was picked up and published by Arcade, and I’ll have a review of that book – I just got a copy, and still need to read it – in a future post. Meanwhile, see if you can fight the sequestration blues by tracking down and watching “A Rainy Day in New York.” It’s worth the effort.

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