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Robert Altman Week

Entries in broadcast news (1)

Wednesday
Jul012009

In Which We Refuse To Play Ourselves

Where He Lives

by JULIE KLAUSNER

There’s this game, Find the Filmmaker, where I decide from the characters in a movie which one of them best represents the point of view of the person who wrote it. Unless, of course, it’s a Nora Ephron movie, and then I have to play Find the Remote, so I can turn the channel to Cake Boss before Meg Ryan hates her neck. He’s the Cake Boss!

In Broadcast News, I figured James L. Brooks was half-Holly Hunter and half-Albert Brooks, because he’s smart enough to hate himself, but can only do so in the form of a tiny Brunette who looks like a ninja when she wears polka dots.

It’s easy to play Find the Filmmaker in an Apatow film: you just split Paul Rudd’s Awkward with the guy who’s making you LOL. And with Kevin Smith, it’s not even a game, because all of his characters congeal into one many-mouthed monster with his voice. How funny that he casts himself in his movies as the "silent" one! Kadooze, Mr. Smith!

But it’s trickier than you’d think to find Woody Allen in his films, because sometimes he’s not playing him. And I’m not talking about that minstrel show, Celebrity, starring Kenneth Branagh in Jewface.

Celebrity

I mean in Hannah and Her Sisters. You’re so distracted by Allen’s character, Mickey, with his hypochondria and suicidal tendencies and cartoonishly Jewish family and his comedy writing job, that you forget to look elsewhere for Woody. Because there are deeper strains of him marbled into the flesh of the more dangerous narcissists in Hannah, starting with Michael Caine’s character, Elliot.

When we first meet Elliot, we learn from his earnest voiceover about his debilitating crush on his wife’s sister. He’s married to Mia Farrow’s Hannah, but ends up cheating on her with Barbara Hershey’s Lee; the one who competes with the rain for having the smallest hands. Elliot feels bad about acting on his urges, but he still does what he likes, and manages to compliment his huge brain in the process. “For all my education, accomplishments, and so-called wisdom,” he muses to the world’s most underpaid psychoanalyst, “ I can’t fathom my own heart.”

Elliot is the worst. His villainy is so odious, it earned Caine an Oscar five years before Hopkins won for his Hannibal Lecter. When Elliot yells at Hannah, fresh from being wounded by her sister’s rejection of him, and tells her it's "hard to be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return," it is heartbreaking to watch, in the shadow of Allen’s and Farrow’s real life break-up.

Because the cruelty of using poor, fabulous Michael Caine to say what you can’t, in public, to your partner once she is out of character, exceeds the terrain of narcissism and bleeds into some kind of gruesome art. Making this movie to talk to Mia about her adoption hobby, her selflessness, and her general wishy-washiness was a poisonous simulacrum—like talking through one of your Barbies during playtime with your sister. And nobody should learn they’re adopted from Skipper.

In one scene, after excusing her and Woody’s actual children, Moses and Satchel, from the dinner table, Mia, as Hannah, turns to a brooding Elliot. She’s dressed in a tie and a vest, with rolled-up shirt sleeves, like a grown-up Annie Hall, but good for more than just the eggs. And when Hannah asks Elliot if he loves somebody else, he snaps her head off.

“Supposing I said ‘yes.’ ‘I am disenchanted. I am in love in love with someone else,’” he baits. People who do despicable acts enjoy tempting the boundaries of their wrongdoing and its consequence. It’s why serial killers go back to their crime scenes—it’s not just for voyeuristic thrills or Wicca rites.

“Are you?” Hannah asks. And then, the longest pause since The Countess took a drink of water before telling that poor black girl she was too fat to be a model.

"No!"

Woody doesn’t just live in that pause, in Elliot’s cognizance of his bad choice to lie. He’s in Frederick, Lee’s older artiste beau, who protests "I don’t sell my work by the yard" when rock star Daniel Stern shops his studio for a painting that matches his ottoman. He’s in Mickey’s father, who shuts down his son’s neurotic philosophizing: “How the hell do I know why there were Nazi’s. I don’t know how the can opener works." And he is in Hannah’s father, the patriarch holding court with grace at the piano, who tolerates his diva wife’s occasional hysterics.



But maybe most of all, Woody is in Dianne Wiest’s Holly—his character’s adversary-cum-soul mate. The one who wandered professional callings the way Mickey traversed religions; the girl who got passed over for Carrie Fisher by an architect who liked opera; the downtown crackerjack who could pull off a sailor shirt and a beret and still manage to look fuckable. And the one whose observations are at once, the most self-deprecating and astute. Holly ends up being a screenwriter—and a great one.

And Holly is the one Hannah eviscerates. Poor Hannah never got to dig her talons into Elliot, the man who cheated on her, nor Lee, the sister who betrayed her. Instead, Hannah attacks Holly once she finds out she’s been written about in one of her scripts.

"People always look for clues [about me] in my movies. . . no matter how many times I’ve told them over the years I make this stuff up,” Woody Allen told NPR this month. But whatever he believes out loud in the company of Terry Gross doesn’t exonerate Allen from using himself in his own work, or writing about people he loves in a way that’s so revealing it can actually hurt. "I’m real upset about what you wrote," Hannah tells Holly, who’s done nothing but successfully test her patience until that moment. And Holly, defending herself, responds like anyone who makes art from of what they know to be true about people they love: "It’s a made up story!"

Julie Klausner is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer and comedian living in New York. She blogs here, tumbls here, and you can buy her new book here.

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