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Woody: the American friend

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- Allen's Hollywood Ending, screened out of competition, inuagurates the 55th Cannes Film Festival. Europe's favourite American filmmaker profiled by Callisto Cosulich

Woody: the American friend

«This is the sixth film that Woody Allen has written, produced, directed and acted in. You can only admire a comic who manages to dominate the powerful temptation to exploit a number of recurring themes so well while introducing a new and rare grace without ever being violent or timid." That is what French film publication, Positif, wrote about Allen´s Annie Hall in 1977 when the film premiered in Paris. I have been careful not to choose this particular tribute, one of literally thousands that accompany Allen´s films, had it not been written by Emmanuel Carrère. Curiously enough twenty-five years later, Allen is to open the 55th Cannes Film Festival with his 36th feature film today while Nicole Garcia drew inspiration from Carrère´s magnificent book, L´adversaire for her latest movie, one of four French films in competition this year. Truly a strange and meaningful coincidence, falling as it does on the silver anniversary of the marriage of Europe (and its legion film festivals) to the archetypal Manhattan resident.
For Woody Allen Annie Hall was a turning point in every sense. From that moment on he began to lose his foothold in America in favour of a growing reputation for excellence in Europe. If we take a look a Giannalberto Bendazzi´s 1976 monography, we will find that it is full of articles and essays on Allen, all of which were written by Americans. Nobody in France or Great Britain knew or cared very much about Woody Allen. In Italy we only had the vaguest idea of who he was. What struck me most was the almost total indifference of French critics to his rising star; after all, they were some of the world´s finest film experts. And yet this was the same nation that made Jerry Lewis into a national icon. He was one of the first people to indicate Allen to his French friends and acquaintances, correctly forecasting that the New York comic was on the verge of a wonderful career. Everything changed with Annie Hall.
The reason why Europe´s critics and audiences, not to mention our festival directors, fell in love with Allen is easy to see. More difficult is why American audiences and later its critics too began to reject his films. One reason could be that Allen´s creative and formative years were the seventies when it was fashionable for Hollywood to pay lip service to European cinema. Those were the years when the majors realised there was another type of audience out there. They liked to divide their audiences into three distinct slices (sophisticated urbanites, provincial hicks and foreigners) and supplied each with a different product. Then they changed strategies. Hollywood began to court the majority in a big way. And for them, the «majority» meant those with an average age of 13. Allen´s films spoke to an older filmgoer, and therefore a minority. If he has managed to produce a film-a-year, he owes this to his evergreen European success. European success gave him gravitas and authority that allowed him to be the absolute lord and master of his films, choose the co-workers he wanted and get million-dollar salaried stars to work at union rate. And Europe could not get enough of his films.
What is left of Hollywood of the seventies and the unforgettable season of films that we all thought might just manage to change the way the film game is played by the majors? Of the fifty-or-so directors who infused Hollywood and thereabouts with new energy and a desire to take a closer look at artiste cinema, some are no longer with us, others have retired or disappeared. Others are making B-films or went into television and do what they can while their early enthusiasm gradually evaporates. Others are working in Europe, some (like James Ivory) for love, others were forced into this exile by circumstances (Roman Polanski). The last of this Right Bunch is perhaps Brian De Palma who will present out of competition his latest film, Femme Fatale, shot in Cannes with a French producers. Directors like Altman, the all-powerful Coppola and Lucas, and Martin Scorsese are all still very much in the driving seat and the passage of time has only enhanced their personal charisma. Then we have Steven Spielberg, the new king of US cinema and the producer of the films of fellow survivor, Woody Allen, with his Dreamworks SKG. In recent years Spielberg has returned to what he loves most; directing films, but we all know that Spielberg is hardly the type to be content with success just in Europe. Will he manage to restore Allen´s former US glory? And how much will this cost Woody? For the moment, Allen continues to use European festivals (Cannes or Venice? It makes no difference) to break into the Continent. In America he is relegated to being a niche auteur. Will he continue to be the master of his destiny or will this power pass to Spielberg? As long as Woody continues to give us his annual present without exhausting the stories at his disposal.

(Translated from Italian)

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