When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”
Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
Woody Allen averages a feature film per year with 50 films to his credit as of this writing. His trademark style is a blending of profound concerns, like life and death, with banal circumstances, like marriage and adultery, usually wrapped up with a witticism. But this is too reductive to address the many genres his films have incorporated. He has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay sixteen times and won three times.
Although he has never attended the Academy Award Ceremony, he has been nominated for its awards more than any other person in history. He keeps his budgets modest in exchange for near-complete control creatively.
For all their diversity in treatment, Woody Allen’s films are direct outgrowths of his personality. They feature the things he likes: jazz, psychoanalysis, magic, old movie theatres, and women of a more intellectual sex appeal.
When asked if he looks to other movies for inspiration, he claims that it is an automatic influence. “I watch them for pleasure. I don’t study them for the lighting or the camera angles or the blocking. I watch them strictly for the story and for pleasure. And they do influence you. You see good movies and you want to make a movie like that sometime, because it was so much fun and you got such a kick out of watching it.”
His list of favorite films for Sight & Sound is a good portrait of his taste in other directors, but Woody Allen does not consider his own work to achieve such artistry. While his fans may disagree, he sees himself as a dutiful craftsman without the glamour of true genius. So, some of his favorite films are present here but others are not. Some films listed have little-to-no explicit endorsement from Woody Allen, but I hope their inclusion will prove justified.
1. The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman
Allen is one of the loudest devotees of Ingmar Bergman. When pressed to choose just one of the director’s 45 directorial efforts, he chooses the Seventh Seal. It most obviously influence Allen’s “Love and Death” but the thematic similarity was carried through much of Woody Allen’s creative output.
The most central theme that Bergman and Woody Allen share is an obsession with mortality. Allen calls it “the ultimate subject matter. It doesn’t get any more deep than Man’s confrontation with ‘Is there a God? Is there no God? If there’s no God, how do we live and what do we do and why is everything so terrifying that you’re paralyzed?’”
Typically self-denigrating, Woody Allen compares himself to Bergman as a housepainter compared to Picasso. Only in his biggest failures do we see any attempt to replicate the stylisms of Bergman. Interiors is filled with Bergman quotations, as is Another Woman.
The fact is that Woody Allen at his best is pure Woody Allen, a style unto himself. So we look to the failures like Interiors, among the many movies behind him, to reveal the craftsman-like quality of his films. Woody Allen films are fantastic, or psychological, or just plain witty. What they are not, and what Allen most adores of Bergman’s films, is a unique style of cinema that can express what is indemonstrable: the inner struggle.
Still, there are some films were the other Bergman (the entertainer whom Allen insists is the authentic Bergman rather than the cerebral intellectual of grim ruminations by which his reputations stands now with the wider public) has a more convivial influence on Woody Allen’s successful films. Such as..
2. Smiles of a Summer’s Night (1955) by Ingmar Bergman
In the summer of 1955 Bergman realized he had two options open to him. Either write a different kind of script for his 16th directorial effort, a big budget comedy, or commit suicide. Smiles of a Summer’s Night was the biggest production of the year in Sweden and Bergman did not even know that it was sent to the Cannes Film Festival until it garnered the praise that would allow him to make The Seventh Seal and thus secure his place on the international film circuit.
It is also a delightfully funny movie, rich in irony and wit, with plenty of sexual obsession to auger Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. They both trade in the same comedic premise: that several persons gathered at a single country house are paired with the wrong mate. They both are set in a gauzy past full of whimsical detail. And they both mix with astute timing the necessary amount of morbidity to lend depth of feeling to the sexual hijinks.
Without the whiff of death, sex comedies are juvenal and debased. Mere soft-core porn struggling to substitute titillation for Eros and make it past the censors. Without suffering, the insanity born from erotic desire tells us nothing about our frailty or our courage. Deconstructing Harry (made close on the heels of his sex scandal) is a good example of how Woody Allen took the wider range of suffering from the inconsistencies of love and connected it to the chaos of creation.
Woody Allen has said that this is not his favorite Bergman film. He would rather go to Bergman for the weighty dramas that appeal to Allen, who after all claims to watch movies exclusively for his pleasure. But it cannot be denied, and is perhaps enforced by comparison, that Woody Allen’s career-defining comedies are comedies in the spirit of no other person than Ingmar Bergman, best represented by Smiles of a Summer’s Night. He can love the Seventh Seal, and parody it in Love and Death, but his own work looks much much more like the suicidal wackiness of Smiles of a Summer’s Night than it does of any Hollywood comedy.
3. Duck Soup (1933) by Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers have no definitive film, but Duck Soup comes close. At least it is the reason Woody Allen’s character decides to choose life over suicide in Hannah and Her Sisters, so it will be the symbolic entry for this foundational influence on Woody Allen as a comedic persona, and Woody Allen as a filmmaker.
Several of his films feature Marx Bros references. Annie Hall opens with a monologue that quotes Groucho Marx. Woody Allen and Groucho Marx developed a friendship that would last 16 years.
Woody said Groucho reminded him of “a Jewish uncle in my family, a wisecracking Jewish uncle with a sarcastic wit.” Woody’s character in Mighty Aphrodite loves Marx Brothers movies rather than the classier cultural products his romantic partner loves. A New Kind of Love references the Monkey Business song. Scoop parodies a canoe scene first found in Horse Feathers.
But Duck Soup is a special influence on Woody Allen films because of its willingness to follow the absurd whims to their most fantastical extreme. In a 1976 interview with William Wolf, Woody Allen called Duck Soup “probably the best talking comedy ever made.” His 1971 comedy Bananas, which follows a typical Woody Allen character’s outrageous fortune in becoming a dictator on a Cuba-like island, has been called a “spiritual sequel to Duck Soup”.
At the time of its release, Duck Soup must have puzzled audiences, who were acclimated to comedies including romantic subplots and musical numbers. Modern audiences are used to comedies that aim for a joke in every scene, with plenty of visual play to complement the comedians’ winning personalities. Several other Marx Bros films that were stalled in development hell were cannibalized for gags, no doubt adding to the erratic feel of the final result.
It was made under dire circumstances. Harpo Marx claimed the film set to be the most depressing he ever experienced because the radio was on everyday broadcasting Adolf Hitler’s speeches. Surely this added bite to the humor and impudence to the satire. Later, it was banned in Italy by Benito Mussolini, who considered himself the chief object of ridicule. This reportedly delighted the Marx Brothers, though Groucho downplayed the political satire by saying, “we were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”
Later, when the film enjoyed a revival among the anti-war movement of the 60s, Groucho would forget the disappointing reception upon release and call it his greatest movie. Woody Allen’s appreciation for Duck Soup rests on the total lack of logic in the face of serious, even weighty, subject matter. And in this way, Duck Soup is reminiscent of our next film entry.
4. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) by Luis Buñuel
In a series of vignettes, six bourgeois friends are unable to have dinner together thanks to miscommunications, cocaine, paranoia, terrorists, horniness, death, and audiences. There are side plots, and counter pointing the main action are dream sequences from some of the individuals.
The main project being, on Buñuel’s part, to dismantle the façade of respectability that protects the Bourgeoisie from scrutiny, ridicule, and scorn. The prosperity associated with bourgeois distinction fails to address the universal yearnings that class hierarchy cannot satisfy.
Food and dining have been a consistent theme in Buñuel’s films. He spoofs The Last Supper in 1961’s Viridiana. And in The Exterminating Angel—perhaps the companion film to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—a group of diners spend weeks in the same dining room, unable to escape their meal.
Dinner, as a social event, is a ritual that Buñuel finds fruitful for subversion. By preventing the social event to occur at all, Buñuel pushes the characters to outrageous extremes that would be unwarranted in other circumstances.
If one was to ask why any of this is important, Buñuel’s answer would be to admit that from a purely rational standpoint, there is none. Buñuel is uninterested in film drama derived from reasonable circumstances.
This is where we find a rich connection to Woody Allen, whose early comedies were very zany and irrational, while the middle films were often banal in situ but filled with irrational people, and whose currently successful light entertainments are built around bits of fantasy and irrational temptations. Stylistically, there is a casualness to the way Buñuel makes movies, like his martinis, that bespeaks to Allen’s own lack of interest in wowing audiences with cinematography.
5. Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa
The film that made Kurosawa known to the Western world is memorable for a series of flashbacks as witnesses give their version of events regarding a lady’s rape and a samurai’s murder by a bandit. We see the testimony of the woodcutter who found the samurai’s dead body and reported it to the police, a priest who happened to be walking by the scene, the bandit himself when he is caught, the samurai’s wife, and the ghost of the dead samurai gives his own version of the event when he is channeled by a witch.
Each version has the same facts but are incompatible with one another. We can guess at the motives of each person wishing to portray themselves in a certain light, but ultimately no definitive truth can be uncovered.
Woody Allen knows Kurosawa to be one of the all time greatest filmmakers of cinema history. His choice of Rashomon must come from a youthful experience of seeing it at the more impressive movie theatres in Manhattan where it played after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and an Honorary Academy Award the following year. It marks the inclusion of Japanese film in the international market, even though films were being made in Japan just as long as in America.
But its inclusion in this list is due to a more subtle feature of the film that has been used in Woody Allen’s better dramatic stories. The story of the trial and the witness testimony is framed by a smaller story in which the priest, the woodcutter, and an unnamed peasant seeking cover in a rain storm at the dilapidated Rashomon gate. The woodcutter’s story is cut short by the cries of an abandoned baby, whose cloth and protection amulet the peasant steals.
The woodcutter attempts to stop him but the peasant has deduced that the woodcutter is also a thief. He leaves declaring that everyone is motivated by self-interest. These goings on cause a crisis of faith in the priest. Then the woodcutter adopts the abandoned baby to raise it with his 6 other children, thus restoring the priest’s faith in humanity.
However, there is reason to believe that the woodcutter is not adopting the baby, but rather reclaiming it. Very likely he could have been the one to abandon it. He could have taken exception to it being robbed by the peasant, not out of an ethical principle but a parental one. With six children already to care for, he could have been tempted to abandon the most recent seventh for fear that he could not support it. And the baby stops crying when the woodcutter takes it from the priest, so it could be familiar with him from early imprinting.
If this is so, then the priest’s restored faith is founded on a lie, a deception of guilty conscience appearing to be altruism. It is marvelously clever to give such a dark and cynical story an ending that can be interpreted as uplifting, while leaving clues to its less-than-admirable reality.
Woody Allen has routinely returned to the unjustifiable nature of faith, in humanity, in life, in God, in magic or some other divine unseen. We deceive ourselves suggest his movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Match Point; we deceive ourselves because we need it more than truth in our everyday survival.
By believing in goodness, redemption, love, or some other metaphysical comfort, we choose to deceive others and ourselves of the harsh realities that would destroy us. Even the lighter entertainments Woody Allen has made, like Magic in the Moonlight, speak to this awkward possibility that we fool others by first fooling ourselves.