I’ve liked all 47 titles written and directed by Woody Allen, almost—we walked out in the middle of Whatever Works (2009); I didn’t like Sweet and Lowdown (1999); and I couldn’t even face Anything Else (2003) or Scoop (2006). Yet although Café Society premiered last May at the Cannes Festival, I didn’t screen Allen’s 2016 movie until just this week. Here’s the conundrum: like me, the filmmaker is getting old (Allen is 82), so in the last fifteen years, I approach his most recent work already suspicious that it will not be among his best and fearful that my admiration of his earlier work will consequently be diminished.
Although Allen’s movies are about universal types: fathers, mothers, lovers, and small-time crooks, he most famously portrays creators of art and the people who follow them. His stories are often about artists and charlatans and the symbiotic Art and Museum Set of academics, critics, pseudo-intellectuals, groupies, and the socially elite. In 1979’s Manhattan, Isaac (Woody Allen) and his posse of New Yorkers banter about the changing academic reputation of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the populist pronunciation of Van Gogh. Thirty year later in Midnight in Paris (2011) when New Yorker Gil (Owen Wilson) escapes into the previous century in the City of Light, it is to share la Vie Bohème with Fitzgerald, Dali, Man Ray and other artistic icons of the Lost Generation being geniuses together.
In his movies, Allen has exhibited a particular interest in the art and industry of moviemaking: the Dream Factory. New York writer Alvy Singer is a fish out of water shooting TV in Hollywood (Annie Hall ); when Val directs his movie on location, he does so blind because of a conversion disorder (Hollywood Ending ); and in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Cecilia begins an impossible love affair with a character in a movie who has come off the screen in her local movie palace and justifies, "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything."
When he is the Director of his screenplays, Allen is a cinematic stylist immediately recognizable in his opening credits, dialogue heavy scenes, and the impeccable inclusion of music on his soundtracks. Allen often writes screenplays with particular actors in mind, but he casts actors for his films in brief sessions. He casts actors from Broadway’s as well as Hollywood’s A Lists and pairs celebrities in tandem with Actors with a capital “A”—think Diane Keaton, Parker Posey, Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, Leonardo di Caprio, and Allen himself. He incorporates famous (and infamous) movie legends as well as young actors building their careers. Consequently, he has constructed ensemble casts to work in each or several of his films over six decades. Allen extends this inclusionary process to assembling his crews and has assimilated the enormous evolution in moviemaking techniques and technology to provide his productions with organic, contemporary energy.
So, about Café Society. Café Society is a Woody Allen film: it looks like a Woody Allen film marking the 29th time Allen partnered with Production Designer Santo Loquasto to replicate an era on screen. And it sounds like an Allen film: Bullets Over Broadway (1994) was a comedy punctuated by violence. In Radio Days (1987), a family excursion to Radio City Music Hall sent a Valentine to 1930’s Old Hollywood glamor; The Purple Rose of Cairo remembered the Hollywood Studio System as dream making tinged by regret. Woody Allen made this most recent movie in his personal style in collaboration with an amalgamated old and new cast and crew on the set. This collaboration endowed Café Society with a sense of film history and a moviemaking provenance unique in American cinema.
Working again with Loquasto, Allen also teamed with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and shot on Digital, both for the first time. (Storaro used Sony's F65 4K camera with the F55 on a Steadicam). Allen counterpointed his confection about Tinseltown with a “tone poem” about New York. Violence was a narrative refrain in the Voice-Over revealing an underlying melancholy for Depression age familial dependency. The movie exposed that Dream Factory aspirations are dreams inevitably doomed by reality. The movie’s ambiguous conclusion questions not “if” but rather “how many” bittersweet dualities will prevail after the final fade. Consequently, Woody Allen’s Café Society is also a new film in its own right.