MELINDA AND MELINDA
starring Will Ferrell, Radha Mitchell, Chloë Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor
written and directed by Woody Allen
Gegen die Wand
starring Birol Ünel, Sibel Kekilli, Catrin Striebeck, Güven Kiraç
written and directed by Fatih Akin
by Walter Chaw I was pretty sure that the stultified paralysis of Anything Else would eventually cause me to do myself serious injury and felt fortunate that when the lights came up, most of the intensity of my dislike for the Woody Allen of the last several years dissipated like the details of a bad dream. It's possible to leave the diminutive auteur in the dark, it seems, and such is the fate, too (and not a bad critique), of the more palatable but no less appallingly reductive and juvenile Melinda and Melinda. It's metaphysics by way of Strindberg, of course, and only as good as Allen ever is at capering around his familiar autumnal Manhattan fantasias in his "serious filmmaker" cap. His milieu, his Yoknapatawpha County, has always been the mating rituals of "blocked" artists--often filmmakers casting or directing films within films (What's Up, Tiger Lily?, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hollywood Ending)--orbiting around one another in impotent, inevitably mortal, orbits. If he doesn't star in them himself, he hires someone to impersonate him--the Woodman is never far from his own lover/hand, and his casts of invariably grateful manqué dutifully take on his cadences and exhortations to debate Bartók and Bergman in airless dinner parties that would drive even Buñuel nuts.
Melinda and Melinda begins at a dinner where two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) argue about the essence of man boiling down to those comedy and tragedy masks that theatre majors hang ceramic versions of in their dorm rooms (to the right of that Robert Doisneau photo of French people kissing and above a framed playbill from their high school production of "Hello Dolly"). Take death masks of Shawn and Pine and they'd be scary approximations of that same dramaturgical polarity--and a death mask is a pretty fair comment on Allen's last five films or so: recognizably him yet a pallid imitation, leeched of vitality and inspiration and incapable of new expressions. So Melinda and Melinda vacillates between Allen's sad, antiquated attempts at comedy of late and Allen's always-sad, hamstrung attempts at Ibsen by way of Fellini/Chekhov by way of Bergman, in telling a story with similar elements twice: once as a comedy and once as a tragedy, with only the soundtrack to distinguish the two. It's serious if it's Stravinsky, it's funny if it's Duke Ellington, though I'd offer that the opposite often holds true. The literati would wag their shaggy heads at me and tell me that this is exactly the point yogi Woody is trying to make, that the line between tragedy and comedy is the difference, as Mel Brooks once defined, between cutting his own finger and you falling into an open manhole and dying, i.e. not so different after all.
But that doesn't mean Allen hasn't lost the ability to make a funny movie (even with Will Ferrell playing Allen), nor does it mean that his tragi-dramas have gotten any less suffocatingly formalist. Think of him as another George Lucas, sitting on past success and suckling off a shrinking, but fervent, flock of mindless sheep, having not popped his head out a window in the last twenty years or had anything like a check to balance his missteps; he's still of the mind that references to Nuremberg and the wreck of the Hesperus mark a character as the height of au courant intellectual hipsterism instead of a kitsch parody of the same. (Was a time he knew the difference.) Consider a scene where (in the "tragic" story--but, again, who can tell?) the adulterous husband (Jonny Lee Miller) of poor neglected music teacher Laurel (Chloë Sevigny, luminous) encourages his young lover to read the Desdemona part in "Othello", and then consider what Allen asks of Mitchell in her "cuckoo" scene with her own black boyfriend Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A younger Woody Allen would have mined the parallel for irony--this Woody Allen tries to turn it into an existential statement on sex and gender. When the "dark" Melinda (both Melindas are played by Radha Mitchell, trying to pull off a fabulist schizoid tour-de-force like countrywoman Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive) drops bombs like her murder of an ex-lover and the suicide of her mother, they come off as every bit as hilariously ill-timed as one of Ferrell's desperate, castrated cries about burning dinner (his character's wife (Amanda Peet, natch), is working on a film (double natch) called "The Castration Sonata"). Allen's tragedy today revolves around the slapstick of falling into open manholes, and his comedies are the stuff of papercuts. It's become sport to identify which of the actors in Allen's casts transcends the material enough to leave an individual impression--sort of a sad state of affairs when what was once the most vibrant satirical force in American film is now a black hole that only a lucky few can escape.
Maybe it's that I've watched a ton of Herzog and Fassbinder lately, but my gut's telling me that German is not only the only language in which opera should be performed, but also possibly the only language in which films should be made. Something about the ridiculously harsh glottal noises and the serpentine sibilance brings the images into a sharper focus while pushing the narrative into a cooler remove; I'm sure I'll return to my senses, such as they were, sooner or later. For now, though, the pleasures of German, especially as employed by the films of a literal young Turk named Fatih Akin (his In July a little gem from a few years back) are astringent and fine. Take Akin's Head-On (Gegen die Wand): a little It Happened One Night, a little Fearless, and a lot Barfly, it is, à la In July, an invigorating shot in the romantic comedy arm that substitutes sudden, shocking arterial sprays for baguettes peaking out of shopping bags and a scene where our white knight drives himself into a brick wall to the tune of Depeche Mode's "I Feel You" (repeated for the maiden fair's scary solo dance when all seems lost) for the requisite "falling in love" and "falling out of love" montages. Like Melinda and Melinda, it tackles the idea that farce flows fast on the heels of tragedy, that the emotions of love and murderous rage are sprung from the same tap, and that complicated characters can be such without being literally split in twain by a desperate Dickensian doppelgänger ploy.
Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a Bavarian Bukowski, drinking himself to death and picking fights between noodling piano bar versions of Talk Talk tunes in a blasted Hamburg. After having a little accident, he finds himself propositioned at a clinic by another patient, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who wants him to indulge her in a marriage of convenience so that her traditional Turkish family will get off her back and she can indulge in the sort of hedonistic wonderland that Cahit does. Things predictably get more emotional than either expected, culminating in a sexy, romantic scene where the coitus is interrupted at the moment of penetration once both realize that an extra inch or so means that their lies become truth. From a meet-cute that involves a broken bottle applied liberally to a pale wrist to a long courtship featuring violent love with strangers, a pair of devastatingly violent sequences, and, finally, an epilogue the more tender and bittersweet for the lengths to which the film has gone to earn it, it's a familiar film done in fabulously unexpected fashion. There are no easy answers in Head-On, no easy resolutions or images for character or audience--it is, for all intents and purposes, a fluid-drenched updating of Hal Hartley's star-crossed masterpiece Trust while simultaneously belonging to the same breed, vintage and master, as Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's Sin City and Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. They're a trio of wake-up calls in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, as well as a hope that while guys like Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood continue to spin themselves to dust, there are others out there with answers to old questions that breathe like things possessed. Originally published: April 8, 2005.