Last week, I got the chance to watch Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989). I am dying to write a shot-by-shot discussion of it. Guess this shows what impression it had on me.
The film is a uniquely heterogenous, and successful, blend of drama and comedy. Heterogenous, because it distinctly carries the flavour of the two genres by juxtaposing two different stories, and their contrasting protagonists. The alternating narration of these parallel stories is so self-assured that each would make a separate film of its own, and would be definitely within their genre-defining parameters. I can’t be so sure, but I don’t remember Woody Allen photographing his characters in close-ups and shot-reverse-shot patterns. He keeps the shots medium-close, with the characters within the physical or psychological edges of the frame. Their staging is purposeful and theatrical, and camera renders them generally as a neutral, objective narrator, without trying to draw our attention to details. Allen’s wonderful writing does that for us. Unlike other filmmakers who tell intimate, personal stories, he does not make us ‘read’ them through their face, though they are psychologically as interesting as any of other great cinema characters. He wants us to sit back and enjoy. I believe this is the style most suitable to all intelligent comedies, mimicking the experience at a theatre. This is the common style of most Woody Allen comedies.But in this film, in spite of sticking to his style, Allen has taken pains to elaborately explore the dramatic potential of his scenes, esp. narrating the track of Judah Rosenthal. He is a rich, and successful ophthalmologist, revered by society, loved by family; apparently, he is all you want a man to be like, despite the fact that he is a ‘non-believer’. And in the first scene itself, we are informed about his extra-marital affair. His track stays absolutely true to the grammar of the drama genre, both in the writing, and especially, in the mise-en-scene. So much so, that it draws our attention to its sticking-to-theory nature.
On the other hand we have the character and the black comedy of Cliff Stern, played by the writer-director himself. He is a loser in every sense – a complete contrast to Judah. There is infidelity in his life too, only it is too naïve and unintentionally funny. And we laugh at this miserable state of Cliff. Essentially Woody Allen stuff, this half of the film is in fact a huge and obvious distraction from the immensely dramatic moral dilemma of the other. I kept wondering on this obvious inconsistence. Only later I understood that the philosophical question behind the film – whether God is our moral guardian with his “eyes always on us” or not – is the spine of both of these stories as well. The writer’s triumph is to give us a fulfilling end – that justifies both stories and their convergence – and the director succeeds in meeting the challenge the writer set-out to achieve – to explode two genres and come up with a unique and memorable work. Roger Ebert says about this heterogenous, parallel narration: “The technique is Shakespearean: The crimes of kings are mirrored for comic effect in the foibles of the lower orders.” This realization suddenly makes things even more significant. But the unusual impact of the film, its brave and fresh attempt at creating something new out of itself was something that impressed me while the end credits rolled.
Hope to come up with the shot-by-shot study some day in the near future.