Shadows and Fog Dec 11, 2017 23:50:34 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Dec 11, 2017 23:50:34 GMT -5
Shadows and Fog (1991)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
Woody Allen and Mia Farrow share a tender moment in Shadows and Fog.
NOTE: Part of "Woody Allen Mondays," an ongoing movie-watching event.
Lofty concepts, insights into this maddening world, and visual poetry litter Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog like breadcrumbs on a windy pathway. Here's the type of film that tries to do it all, from getting us to wrap our heads around philosophical and poetic ideas such as death, romance, and existentialism to adopting manic sensibilities in a vignette-style comedy, and the even rarer type of film to succeed on those very merits. If you had never seen a Woody Allen film in your life and were hardpressed on trying to discern which one to start your journey, Shadows and Fog is as good of a place to start as Annie Hall, the way I see it.
For starters, there's something about Allen and black-and-white photography, aided by the talented cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, one of the director's longtime collaborators up until his death, that go together like peanut butter and jelly. It worked in Manhattan since it aided another intriguing dimension to the landscape of the densely populated New York town, it worked in Broadway Danny Rose because it captured the film's respective era and culture, and in Shadows and Fog, it serves as a personifier of its titular, natural phenomenons. The film serves as Allen's homage to German expressionism and film noir, also narratively but mostly in a visual sense, as the film was shot entirely on the gigantic, 26,000 square-foot Kaufman Astoria Studios set, an apt locale to create a living, breathing world. The film gleefully adheres to the conventions of great German directors like F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang with its favoritism towards character-types as well as its reliance on shadows and hazy atmospheres to set the tone for certain scenes. Some moments feel like they're giftwrapped in fog so thick it renders everything besides the characters unseen and some manage to displace them from the world around them.
Shadows and Fog stemmed from a one-act play Allen wrote called "Death" (1975), which was brewed from Allen's fascination with the idea of darkness and its sociological effect on civilization. "There is a sense that civilization is gone," Allen says regarding darkness's effect on the new world; "the city is just a superimposed man-made convention and the real thing that you're living on is a planet." While this film doesn't concern the complete and total breakdown of social order, it does deal with the way darkness does its part to erase surroundings and turn a formerly active area into a barren plain of emptiness. "It's a wild thing in nature," Allen adds, and after spending 82 minutes understanding where he is coming from, you'd be hardpressed to disagree.
The film opens with Kleinman (Allen), a meek salesman who is awoken in the middle of the night by a mob of vigilantes hellbent on looking for a serial killer who has strangled several local victims. Unsure of what they want him to do exactly, Kleinman wanders haplessly around his neighborhood, which looks like it resides in a mess of grainy filmstock with the only reflection stemming from the pavement, which appears damp. We then meet Irmy (Mia Farrow) and her boyfriend Paul (John Malkovich), performers at a circus that's passing through town, who are more hung up on their marital discrepancies than anything pertaining to their show. Irmy is the circus's sword-swallower, and after abandoning Paul, she runs into a gaggle of prostitutes (Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates) at a nearby brothel, where she finds a young university kid (John Cusack) who is smitten with her enough to offer up $700 to sleep with her. Eventually, Kleinman and Irmy cross paths when she is picked up and mistaken for a career prostitute, to which Kleinman can't understand why his friend Eva (Kate Nelligan) won't put Irmy up for one night; all she is to her is another stranger of the night who just got booked for streetwalking while he is a mousy clerk trying to find a serial killer.
Following this is an exchange between Kleinman and Irmy that ranks up there with some of the best dialog Allen has ever conceived. The two overlook the night's ambiance on a bridge, talking about their place in the world and how the night turns common citizens in the public-eye into ominous voyeurs. Irmy gets a bit personal when she suggests, somewhat out of the blue, what it means to be happy and how her father used to say, "we're all happy, if we only knew it." A little while later, we're back in the brothel, and Jack is mingling with the prostitutes and showing off his university knowledge. He rambles on about how school encourages science and logic, and one prostitute suggests that if her God is the American dollar, it's better to have some God than no God. He brings himself to agree in a modest sense, but continues pontificating, later to Kleinman, about how some are just never able to wrap their head around the idea of a biblical God and can't bring themselves to take the leap of faith.
None of these insights are particularly profound nor ideas Thoreau, Emerson, Kant, or other noteworthy philosophers didn't wrestle with and articulate in their own volumes. It's the way Allen presents it all, in a rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness manner, that is nothing short of remarkable and vintage. The thought of an expressionistic ode from Allen sounded fairly boring and only marginally compelling in my mind until I realized early into Shadows and Fog that the legendary filmmaker seized the opportunity to make it something with great comic depth and use it as an opportunity to flaunt his ability to turn a chaotic narrative into something that can still function very well. Think of it like a well-choreographed, if somewhat exhausting, symphony that celebrates craft. He finds the kind of zippy humor he's made a cornerstone of his career something that can transcend its presence in satirical works and uses it to hit an unbelievable stride in this particular film where almost every joke lands and plot-threads divulge into a cavalcade of well-executed comedy.
It's worth noting that the cast Allen puts together here is one of his deepest ensembles: Farrow, Malkovich, Madonna, Donald Pleasence as an eerie doctor, Kathy Bates as a hilarious prostitute, Fred Gwynne, and Cusack, who Allen would use as the "archetypal Allen" character in Bullets Over Broadway three years after this film. This kind of star-power doesn't immediately make a film but it helps it bypass some of his other efforts where certain odd casting-choices did their part to bring down the quality of the film as a whole. This is never the case with Shadows and Fog; everyone may be at different points in this career and have their particular wheelhouse, but in this instance, Allen builds a neutral ground, so to speak, for their talents to shine.
On a final note, Allen's dreamlike fantasy often ebbs and flows to the rhythm of a stage-play, mostly due in part to the film taking place on the biggest set in the history of the medium. Some may find this a deterrent and claim it gives the picture an unnatural feeling. I found it wonderful and intimate, but I also love the aesthetic that frequently comes with noticeably artificial sets. It's nice to see Allen does too as Shadows and Fog is upper-echelon for his filmography and one of the filmmaker's best works to date.
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Madonna, Donald Pleasence, Lily Tomlin, and Kate Nelligan. Directed by: Woody Allen.