Genteel or Gentile?
by PAULINE KAEL
The people in Woody Allen's Interiors are destroyed by the repressiveness of good taste, and so is the picture. Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman.
Interiors looks so much like a masterpiece, and has such a super-banal metaphysical theme (death versus life) that it's easy to see why many regard it as a masterpiece: it's deep on the surface. Interiors has moviemaking fever, all right, but in a screwed-up form — which is possibly what the movie is all about.
The problem for the family in the film is the towering figure of the disciplined, manipulative, inner-directed mother (Geraldine Page). She is such a perfectionist that she cannot enjoy anything, and the standards of taste and achievement that she imposes on her three daughters tie them in such knots that they all consider themselves failures. Alvy Singer, the role Woody Allen played in Annie Hall, was just such a compulsive, judgmental spoilsport, and Allen's original title for that film was Anhedonia — the lack of the capacity for experiencing pleasure.
Among the many puzzling aspects of Interiors: How can Woody Allen present in a measured, lugubriously straight manner the same sorts of tinny anxiety discourse that he generally parodies? And how intentional is most of what goes on under the friezes and poses? Are we expected to ask ourselves who in the movie is Jewish and who is Gentile?
The characters are so sterilized of background germs that the question is inevitably raised, and one of the film's few overt jokes is an overheard bit from a television show in which an interviewer asks a boy, "What nationality were you at the time of your birth?" and the boy answers, "Hebrew." Surely at root the family problem is Jewish: it's not the culture in general that imposes these humanly impossible standards of achievement — they're a result of the Jewish fear of poverty and persecution and the Jewish reverence for learning. It's not the joy of making cinema that spurs Woody Allen on (as he made clear in Annie Hall, he can't have that kind of joy), it's the discipline of making cinema.
The movie, with its spotless beaches, is as clean and bare as Geraldine Page's perfect house: you could eat off any image.
The prints of Interiors were processed on a new film stock, and during the showings for the press and people in the industry in Los Angeles, Allen had the print returned to the lab after every screening to be washed. Which makes this the ultimate Jewish movie. Woody Allen does not show you any blood.
The father (E.G. Marshall) asks his wife for a divorce and then marries a plump, healthy, life-force woman (Maureen Stapleton), and so there are two mothers. The tall, regal first mother, an interior decorator (who places a few objects in a bare room), wears icy grays and lives among beiges and sand tones; the plebeian stepmother bursts into this hushed atmosphere wearing mink and reds and floral prints. This is the sort of carefully constructed movie in which as soon as you see the first woman caress a vase and hover over its perfection you know that the second woman will have to break a vase.
The symbolism — the introduction of red into the color scheme, the broken vase, and so on — belongs to the kind of theatre where everything is spelled out. But under this obviousness there are layers of puzzle. The two mothers appear to be two side of the mythic dominating Jewish matriarch — the one dedicated to spiritual perfection, the other to sensual appetites, security, getting along in the world, cracking a few jokes.
It's part of the solemn unease of the film that no one would want either of them for a mother: they're both bigger than life, and the first is a nightmare of sexual austerity, the second an embarassment of yielding flesh and middle-class worldliness. If the two are warring for control of Woody Allen, the first (the real mother) clearly has him in the stronger grip. She represents the death of the instincts, but she also represents art, or at least cultivation and pseudo-art. (As a decorator, her specialty, like Woody Allen's here, seems to be the achievement of a suffocating emptiness.) Maureen Stapleton, the comic life force, lacks class. The film might be a representation of the traditional schizophrenia of Jewish comics, who have had the respect for serious achievement planted in them so early that even after they've made the world laugh they still feel they're failures, because they haven't played Hamlet. Groucho Marx talked morosely about not having had the education to be a writer, and said that his early pieces for The New Yorker were his proudest achievement. For Woody Allen, the equivalent is to be the American Ingmar Bergman.
The three daughters represent different aspect of the perfectionist neurosis. The oldest (Diane Keaton) is a well-known poet, determined, discontented, struggling with words while unconscious of her drives; the middle one (Kristin Griffith) is a TV actress, dissatisfied with her success, and snorting cocaine; the youngest (Mary Beth Hurt), who looks like a perennial student, rejects sham and flails around, unable to find herself. In plays, the youngest is generally the one who represents the author, and whenever you see a character who's stubbornly honest you know that you're seeing the author's idealized version of some part of himself.
With Mary Beth Hurt, if you have any doubts all you have to do is look at how she's dressed. (You'll also notice that she gets the worst — the most gnomic — lines, such as, "At the center of a sick psyche there is a sick spirit." Huh?). She's unsmiling — almost expressionless — closed in, with specs, hair like shiny armor (it says hands off), and schoolgirl blouses and skirts. She's like a glumly serious postulant, and so honest she won't dress up; determined not to be false to her feelings she actuallys dresses down for her father's wedding to the "vulgarian," as she calls her. (She's there under duress, and her clothes are an explicit protest.) She's the Cordelia, the father's favorite who refuses to lie, even to the mother, whom she alone in the family truly loves (she guiltily hates her, too).
The men's roles are relatively minor; Sam Waterston's part, though, is the only one that's unformed in the writing and doesn't quite fit in to the formal plan. Geraldine Page is playing neurosis incarnate, and the camera is too close to her, especially when her muscles collapse; this failure of discretion makes her performance seem abhorrent. But Maureen Stapleton livens things up with her rather crudely written role. Hers is the only role that isn't strictly thematic, and you can feel the audience awake for its torpor when she arrives on the scene and talks like a conventional stage character.
Diane Keaton does something very courageous for a rising star. She appears here with the dead-looking hair of someone who's too distracted to do anything with it but get a permanent, and her skin looks dry and pasty. There's discontent right in the flesh, while Kristin Griffith, the TV sexpot, appears with fluffy hair, blooming skin, and bright white teeth — the radiance that we normally see in Keaton. This physical transformation is the key to Keaton's thoughtful performance: she plays an unlikable woman -- a woman who dodges issues whenever she can, who may become almost as remote as her mother.
For Allen, who is a very conscious craftsman, it is surely no accident that the mother's impoverished conception of good taste is sustained in the style of the film. But what this correlation means to him isn't apparent. Interiors is a handbook of art-film mannerisms; it's so austere and studied that it might have been directed by that icy mother herself — from the grave.
The psychological hangups that come through are fascinating, but the actors' largo movements and stilted lines don't release this messy material, they repress it. After the life-affirming stepmother has come into the three daughters' lives and their mother is gone, they still, at the end, close ranks in a frieze-like formation. Their life-negating mother has got them forever. And her soul is in Woody Allen. He's still having his love affair with death, and his idea of artistic achievement (for himself, at least) may always be something death-ridden, spare, perfectly structured -- something that talks of the higher things.
(If this, his serious film, looks Gentile to people, that may be because for Woody Allen being Jewish, like being a comic, is fundamentally undignified. This film couldn't have had a Jewish-family atmosphere — his humor would have bubbled up.)
The form of this movie is false, yet it's the form that he believes in, and the form of Interiors is what leads people to acclaim it as a masterpiece.
People like Woody Allen for a lot of good reasons, and for one that may be a bummer: he conforms to their idea of what a Jew should be. He's a younger version of the wise, philosophic candy-store keeper in West Side Story. His good will is built partly on his being non-threatening. He's safe — the schlump who wins, without ever imposing himself. People feel comfortable with him; the comedy audience may even go to Interiors — to pay its respects to the serious Woody. Woody Allen's repressive kind of control — the source of their comfort — is just what may keep him from making great movies. Interiors isn't Gentile, but it is genteel. He's turned the fear of movies — which is the fear of being moved — into a form of intellectuality.
September 25th, 1978
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