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Alex Carnevale

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This Recording

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Felicity's disguise

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In Which There Is Always A Murder We Should Be Solving

There's a Murderer in the Building


Two things I'm desperate to have happen before I die:

1. Find myself the reluctant amateur detective in a quaint real life murder mystery involving an eccentric cast of characters. I want to be the traveling detective a tad reluctant to get involved like Poirot, rather than the person giddy for each new homicide you encounter every place you go. That way lays madness and suddenly I'm Jessica Fletcher and with a body count rivaling some marquee diseases.

2. Find myself upper middle class rich at the very least, working in a creative field, probably living in New York, and enjoying sherry and decadent dessert with my equally rich friends from the arts after we've come back from plays and working on our novels. We'll complain about Wagner, talk about missed chances and what a mistake that last vacation with our ex-wives were (because those ex-wives were a mistake), contemplate opening a restaurant, and find ourselves bored and looking for excitement.

Manhattan Murder Mystery is both of these, in classic Woody Allen style, but also about a third thing: the death of excitement in a marriage.

Allen is Larry Lipton and in a grand reunion with his Annie Hall co-star, Diane Keaton is his wife, Carol. They’ve been together for a while, Larry’s a book editor, Carol’s currently unemployed and bored, especially with their son off to college. They humor each other, Larry dragging Carol to hockey games and Carol dragging Larry to the opera, which he later forces them to walk out of. "I can't listen to that much Wagner, ya know?" he tells his wife, "I start to get the urge to conquer Poland."

On their way home from one of these outings, they encounter their next door neighbors, the Houses, who invite them in for coffee. When you’re old and dying slowly in marriage, this is what you do: drag others into your misery for a short time and give them dessert and force your stamp collection upon them. The next night though, Mrs. House is dead, and Carol suspects foul play. Larry is comically nervously unconvinced, but Carol won’t let it pass. Murder! Right next door! It’s exciting and new, two things she’s desperate for in life at the moment, and Larry remains nonplussed at first.

Carol: I don't understand why you're not more fascinated with this! I mean, we could be living next door to a murderer, Larry.”

Larry: New York is a melting pot! I'm used to it!

Carol’s need for excitement in getting to the bottom of this mystery is fed by the couple’s friend, the recently divorced and wonderful Alan Alda, who’s willing to become her partner just in snooping and sleuthing, but in a possible restaurateuring venture as well. And perhaps more than that as he reminds her while on stakeout of a time years earlier when they could’ve cheated on their spouses together.

Is Carol interested in the advances of Alan Alda’s Ted? Probably not, but her growing closeness with him spurns Larry into action, desperate to stop the slowly growing rift in his marriage and join in on the mystery. And that’s when the film really takes off. People will tell you that this is a minor film, which isn’t inaccurate, but it’s also a treat for fans of the Allen catalogue. Some things to especially enjoy:

First and foremost, the behind the scenes story. The film was shot in summer of 1992, in the height of Allen’s breakup with Mia Farrow and the brutal custody battle that was fought afterward. You have to more than assume that is responsible for the theme of romantic deception and betrayal throughout the film.

At the last minute, Diane Keaton stepped into her role, which was originally written for Farrow and because of the timing and the complicated plot points, couldn’t be rewritten for her. It makes for fascinating viewing as the always perfect and electric Keaton makes Allen the straight man for the first half of the movie.

The second half, however, is not only an amazing madcap tour through Larry’s phobias as the couple discovers bodies and attempts to bluff a murderer, but it’s also a treat for mystery and noir fans as bodies are discovered along with dopplegangers and double crosses.

Of course, the movie is a love letter to New York (and if we couldn’t guess that, we’re told as much in the opening musical number, Cole Porter’s "I Happen To Like New York"), but in some ways it’s an imaginary sequel to Annie Hall, not just with the reuniting of Keaton and Allen, but because Anhedonia, Hall’s original title, was originally intended to be a mystery, but those elements were later removed by Allen and co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman to be reused here.

Just as unshocking, this isn’t just a love letter to New York, it’s a love letter to cinema in general, combining Bergman with Wilder and not just referencing Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, but literally forcing characters into a shootout in it.

We can blame this film for Zack Braff, who has his debut here in a brief scene as Larry and Carol’s son whose away at college. Oh, if only he stayed at college. There’s also blink and you’ll miss them short appearances by Joy Behar and Aida Tuturro.

Speaking of tragically short appearances: Anjelica Huston is delightful here as the sexy, confident author whose Allen’s Larry is the book editor for. Her character is witty and tuned in that, even though she’s not involved in nearly enough of the action in her handful of scenes, she can still not only figure out what’s going in this mystery plot, but explain it to the other characters not once but twice.

In a nice throwaway gag, the book of Huston’s that Allen’s character is editing is called Comfort Zones. A thing like that in a Woody Allen movie will never stop being hilarious to me.

And... Alan Alda again. Perfectly sleazy. I only wish I could get away with half of his lazy lothario charm at my age. And yet, as sleazy as you suspect he is or would like to be, he comes off as harmless, getting along more perfectly in a platonic way with the women in the cast rather than the men. Even as I type that, I’m just that much closer to pronouncing this case closed and moving to New York and write plays and retire into a life as an Alan Alda-esque gadabout.

All that said, this movie makes me think that maybe my life is boring. Yours too, probably. Look at us, we’re sitting here talking about filmmakers and actors and next door there’s probably somebody being killed. There’s probably a mystery being hatched just waiting for nosy neighbors to come get to the bottom of it.

Marco Sparks is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. His blog is here, and his tumblr is here.

“For Our Elegant Caste (acoustic)” - Of Montreal (mp3)

"For Our Elegant Caste (depressed buttons remix)" - Of Montreal (mp3)

"For Our Elegant Caste" - Of Montreal (mp3)

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In Which We Are Disappointing To Our Mothers

Genteel or Gentile?


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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In Which This Is One Of The Most Subtle Methods For Showing Concern

Hassidic Tales, with A Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar


A man journeyed to Chelm in order to seek the advice of Rabbi Ben Kaddish, the holiest of all ninth-century rabbis and perhaps the greatest noodge of the medieval era. "Rabbi," the man asked, "where can I find peace?" The Hassid surveyed him and said, "Quick, look behind you!" The man turned around, and Rabbi Ben Kaddish smashed him in the back of the head with a candlestick. "Is that peaceful enough for you?" he chuckled, adjusting his yarmulke.

In this tale, a meaningless question is asked. Not only is the question meaningless but so is the man who journeys to Chelm to ask it. Not that he was so far away from Chelm to begin with, but why shouldn't he stay where he is? Why is he bothering Rabbi Ben Kaddish—the Rabbi doesn't have enough trouble? The truth is, the Rabbi's in over his head with gamblers, and he has also been named in a paternity case by a Mrs. Hecht. No, the point of this tale is that this man has nothing better to do with his time than journey around and get on people's nerves. For this, the Rabbi bashes his head in, which, according to the Torah, is one of the most subtle methods of showing concern. In a similar version of this tale, the Rabbi leaps on top of the man in a frenzy and carves the story of Ruth on his nose with a stylus.

Rabbi Raditz of Poland was a very short rabbi with a long beard, who was said to have inspired many pogroms with his sense of humor. One of his disciples asked, "Who did God like better—Moses or Abraham?"

"Abraham," the Zaddik said.

"But Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land," said the disciple.

"All right, so Moses," the Zaddik answered.

"I understand, Rabbi. It was a stupid question."

"Not only that, but you're stupid, your wife's a meeskeit, and if you don't get off my foot you're excommunicated."

Here the Rabbi is asked to make a value judgment between Moses and Abraham. This is not an easy matter, particularly for a man who has never read the Bible and has been faking it. And what is meant by the hopelessly relative term "better"? What is "better" to the Rabbi is not necessarily "better" to his disciple. For instance, the Rabbi likes to sleep on his stomach. The disciple also likes to sleep on the Rabbi's stomach. The problem here is obvious. It should also be noted that to step on a rabbi's foot (as the disciple does in the tale) is a sin, according to the Torah, comparable to the fondling of matzos with any intent other than eating them.

A man who could not marry off his ugly daughter visited Rabbi Shimmel of Cracow. "My heart is heavy," he told the Rev, "because God has given me an ugly daughter."

"How ugly?" the Seer asked.

"If she were lying on a plate with a herring, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

The Seer of Cracow thought for a long time and finally asked, "What kind of herring?" The man, taken aback by the query, thought quickly and said, "Er—Bismarck."

"Too bad," the Rabbi said. "If it was Maatjes, she'd have a better chance."

Here is a tale that illustrates the tragedy of transient qualities such as beauty. Does the girl actually resemble a herring? Why not? Have you seen some of the things walking around these days, particularly at resort areas? And even if she does, are not all creatures beautiful in God's eyes? Perhaps, but if a girl looks more at home in a jar of wine sauce than in an evening gown she's got big problems. Oddly enough, Rabbi Shimmers own wife was said to resemble a squid, but this was only in the face, and she more than made up for it by her hacking cough— the point of which escapes me.

Rabbi Zwi Chaim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow-Hebrews, who totalled a sixteenth of one per cent of the population. Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God's reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: "Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?"

"We're not?" the Rev said incredulously. "Uh-oh."

This is one of the few stories in all Hassidic literature that deals with Hebrew law. The Rabbi knows he shouldn't eat pork; he doesn't care, though, because he likes pork. Not only does he like pork; he gets a kick out of rolling Easter eggs. In short, he cares very little about traditional Orthodoxy and regards God's covenant with Abraham as "just so much chin music." Why pork was proscribed by Hebraic law is still unclear, and some scholars believe that the Torah merely suggested not eating pork at certain restaurants.

Rabbi Baumel, the scholar of Vitebsk, decided to embark on a fast to protest the unfair law prohibiting Russian Jews from wearing loafers outside the ghetto. For sixteen weeks, the holy man lay on a crude pallet, staring at the ceiling and refusing nourishment of any kind. His pupils feared for his life, and then one day a woman came to his bedside and, leaning down to the learned scholar, asked, "Rabbi, what color hair did Esther have?" The Rev turned weakly on his side and faced her. "Look what she picks to ask me!" he said. "You know what kind of a headache I got from sixteen weeks without a bite!" With that, the Rabbi's disciples escorted her personally into the sukkah, where she ate bounteously from the horn of plenty until she got the tab.

This is a subtle treatment of the problem of pride and vanity, and seems to imply that fasting is a big mistake. Particularly on an empty stomach. Man does not bring on his own unhappiness, and suffering is really God's will, although why He gets such a kick out of it is beyond me. Certain Orthodox tribes believe suffering is the only way to redeem oneself, and scholars write of a cult called the Essenes, who deliberately went around bumping into walls. God, according to the later books of Moses, is benevolent, although there are still a great many subjects he'd rather not go into.

Rabbi Yekel of Zans, who had the best diction in the world until a Gentile stole his resonant underwear, dreamed three nights running that if he would only journey to Vorki he would find a great treasure there. Bidding his wife and children goodbye, he set out on a trip, saying he would return in ten days. Two years later, he was found wandering the Urals and emotionally involved with a panda. Cold and starving, the Rev was taken back to his home, where he was revived with steaming soup and flanken. Following that, he was given something to eat. After dinner, he told this story: Three days out of Zans, he was set upon by wild nomads. When they learned he was a Jew, they forced him to alter all their sports jackets and take in their trousers.

As if this were not humiliation enough, they put sour cream in his ears and sealed them with wax. Finally, the Rabbi escaped and headed for the nearest town, winding up in the Urals instead, because he was ashamed to ask directions.

After telling the story, the Rabbi rose and went into his bedroom to sleep, and, behold, under his pillow was the treasure that he originally sought. Ecstatic, he got down and thanked God. Three days later, he was back wandering in the Urals again, this time in a rabbit suit.

The above small masterpiece amply illustrates the absurdity of mysticism. The Rabbi dreams three straight nights. The Five Books of Moses subtracted from the Ten Commandments leaves five. Minus the brothers Jacob and Esau leaves three. It was reasoning like this that led Rabbi Yitzhok Ben Levi, the great Jewish mystic, to hit the double at Aqueduct fifty-two days running and still wind up on relief.

Woody Allen is the focus of Woody Allen Week. This is an excerpt from the complete collection of Woody's prose, you can purchase here.

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