Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
Damn that Astor Theatre! The films I'm most interested to see there are the classics, which screen on Sunday and Monday evenings. Why, I don't know, but I'm told that's the way it's always been. Fridays and Saturdays are my preferred nights, when I don't have work the next day. As previously mentioned, I have an early start for this week and next, and with French lessons Tuesday evening I couldn't stay for the second of the Woody Allen double on Monday. Regrettably I missed out on Manhattan, but will catch it some time in the future (the Astor screens these from time to time).

I've seen the last few recent Woody films, and everyone always says "you've got to see his early stuff". Well now I know why. There's a real insight in this gentle film. There's lust, there's complexity, passion, intelligence and warmth. There's also that nutty guy Woody in it, but he's more a side-show to the real action, a little comic relief. When he's being funny, he is funny and when he's being serious, I found him compelling. The incident with the rifle was both, and had me on the edge of my seat.

I hate reality TV and didn't watch that US show where a bunch of nerds have to impress an equal number of babettes. Others in the family did, and I couldn't help but notice a Woody-like character among those nerds. I'm sure many people found him irritating, but I thought he was - like Woody - quite entertaining and clearly hyper-intelligent. In fact, I went to school with an almost identical character, a noyce Jewish guy called Sammy Pinkus. Our paths crossed a couple of years ago when he started at a company I was leaving - we both work in IT. I swear, he was just like these two (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). He was loud, he was funny, neurotic and SOOO Jewish. There is obviously an archetypal 'Woody' personality type.

The film has a realistic blend of conflicting personality types and Allen deftly handles the complexity of the various relationships, weaving in a whole range of emotions, conflict and humour. The three actresses actually looked like sisters, adding to the authenticity of the film. The film is over twenty years old now, so it was fascinating to see younger versions of so many familiar faces, especially Allen himself. He did well to remain in the shadow of this film, allowing the serious drama to unfold, and showing restraint. I suppose the word I'm looking for is 'discipline', something that lacks in his more slapstick films.

Like a number of New York directors such as Martin Scorsese, Allen obviously loves his native city and the film is clearly a homage to Manhattan. It forms a backdrop and an essential element of the film. It was interesting to try to pick where various scenes were shot and how they had changed over time. I liked the generosity of human spirit, sophistication and intelligence of this film a lot and look forward to discovering more of his early work.


Marty said...

I love Hannah and Her Sisters. I have it on DVD and I have probably seen at least 10-12 times now over the years. Too bad you missed out on Manhattan because that is his best film, IMHO. It will be another year before Astor programs it again and maybe never as they are closing down next year unless they find a suitable buyer. Although it's best to see Manhattan on a big screen, it is available on DVD here as well.

Damian said...

Hannah and Her Sisters is indeed a great movie, one of Woody's best. He has called it his "novel on film" and I think that's an apt description.

It's too bad you missed Manhattan, because that is a brilliant movie. Another one of his best (as well as one of my personal favorites) and I can only imagine how Geoffrey Unsowrth's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography must look on the big screen.

Paul Martin said...

Marty, I made a point of seeing this film on your high recommendation, and glad I did. I haven't heard much about the fate of the Astor. They were going to close a couple of years ago but are still there. My understanding is that the owner wanted a crippling amount of rent. Do you know any more? I hope they'll keep their doors open. I just bought a book of ten tickets (for the first time in many years). And not just for that reason, of course. They are a great source of repertory screenings.

Damien, they screened the shorts for Manhattan when I was there a week or two ago, and visually it looked fantastic. BTW, I love the sound clip of Windmills of My Mind on your blog. Great track.

cineboy said...

nice post. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of my favorite Woody Allen films - maybe one of the top two in the '80s for me personally (could be tied with Crimes and Misdemeanors - a truly great "discussion" film - but I love Zelig and Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo too! all from the 1980s). You are right to say that Allen's earlier films are his best. But I keep holding out. I know he still has genius in him yet - I found Deconstructing Harry to be quite compelling. And Damian is right, you've just got to see Manhattan, along with Annie Hall it ranks as one of his two best films of the 1970s and in the top five ever.

Paul Martin said...

It must be a curious experience, perhaps even humorous, for some of you to read of my 'virginal' cinema experiences with films that have been out for decades. I sometimes find it strange to write about such a film when volumes have already written about it. I don't think I can intellectually add anything to what has already been said, but it's just about the dialogue and the appreciation - ruminating and distilling.

Tucker, you may be right about Allen. Watching Hannah and Her Sisters reminds me of other great comics who (in my opinion) have produced better work when they are serious: Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, et al. When these guys take to serious roles, it messes with our expectations, and they can really surprise us. The effect of that rifle scene in Hannah really shook me in an unexpected way. This film shows that Allen does have both subtlety and insight to produce, as you say, something genius.

Damian said...


I am glad that you like the songs I've added to Windmills. I will be adding more as time goes on... including, most likely, the piece of music that opens Manhattan: Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (one of my all-time personal favorite pieces of music).


I completely agree with you on Crimes and Misdemeanors, Zelig and Purple Rose of Cairo and , like you, I continue to hold out for Woody. I recall my dad and I coming out of Curse of the Jade Scorpion (an enjoyable movie but typical of the quality of his stuff lately) and we were both of the opinion that Woody Allen's days of making "great" films (like Manhattan and Annie Hall) is probably done with, that he's too "over the hill" now to do anything above average and I thought that was kind of sad. So, I resolved that I would continue to watch his movies because I still think he's one of our greatest living American directors but I wouldn't expect too much from him anymore.

Then I saw the brilliant Matchpoint and I remembered why I hold him in such regard in the first place. Matchpoint is easily Woody's best film since Deconstructing Harry (arguably better), perhaps his best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors (it even deals with some of the same issues) and it proved to me, once again, that one should never count a great artist as "down" until he's officially "out."

Marty said...

I also second Crimes and Misdemeanours as a great film and must-see. Matchpoint is certainly his best film since Crimes, for sure. Although, I did like Bullets Over Broadway a lot and thought that, while no masterpiece, it was one of his better recent efforts. Oh, I forgot Husbands & Wives which is also great and a very intense (and funny!) film.

Paul, you should also see his earlier comedy films as well like Sleeper, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, Take the Money & Run and Love & Death. There are some great one-liners in these films.

Damian said...

Man, I forgot about Bullets Over Broadway. Wonderful movie!

Oh, and I think Husbands and Wives is a very underrated film. I find that it deserves to be in such company as Crimes, Hannah and Matchpoint, but the fact that it came out at the same times that th whole Soon-Yi/Mia scandal broke (and the fact that the film's story was uncomfortably close to the real-life drama) hurt it quite a bit.

Paul Martin said...

Damian, I was referring specifically to the track that names your blog. I often find myself humming to the opening words of the song before I get lost in the lyrics (forgetting that it ends with the windmills of my mind).

I also really enjoyed Matchpoint. I thought it was smart and really defied expectations. It could have gone cliche a number of times but avoided it. I probably liked Scoop more than most, because I didn't bring 'old Woody' expectations with me. Melinda Melinda seemed much maligned, but I enjoyed it, particularly seeing the very under-rated Radha Mitchell.

As a slight digression, I met Radha Mitchell's mother when I was a teenager and she played a small but pivotal role in my destiny. Many years later I was managing a restaurant and Radha was a teenager regularly bringing sweets to the restaurant that her mother had made. Radha had a prominent role in one of my favourite films of 1999, High Art (Lisa Cholodenko), and I haven't seen her do anything better since. Cholodenko basically remade the film (with a larger budget) as the inferior but more populist Laurel Canyon. (2002).

Does anyone remember the references to child abuse in Hannah and Her Sisters? It was just a fleeting comment or two in passing, but it takes on a different level of significance now. That scandal you mention, Damian, occurred around the time that I was getting serious about film and probably explains why I didn't see any of his films around that time. So, I'm sure you're right that this hurt attendances.