Tag Archives: woody allen

Yellow Fever

Sunny Chae as the Chinese prostitute in Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen’s movies see the world through nostalgia-tinted lenses. Sometimes this has positive consequences, as when they delve into the annals of history: Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Shadows and Fog, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown. Each of these films recreates the past (as well as its attendant cinematic/theatrical traditions) with affection and detail; in each case, Allen’s nostalgia and encyclopedic knowledge are assets. But more often, especially when his films are set in the present, this nostalgia is blinkering. It’s embarrassing. And, when it’s coupled with the solipsism that pervades Allen’s films, the consequences are disastrous.

For example, I’ve noticed a strain of really noxious, nostalgia-inflected Orientalism in Allen’s films from the ’90s.* Granted, Allen’s not the only filmmaker who indulges in this. American pop culture has exoticized Asia, using Asians as villains or comic relief, since its inception. But I’ve been struck by how consistent these examples are—how these three films from the same director, made across seven years, convey precisely the same racist mindset. The films and offending scenes are as follows:

  • During a montage of Halloween performances by little white kids in Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996), three of those kids—dressed in stereotypical Chinese robes and conical hats, but mercifully free of yellowface makeup—sing a few bars from the jazz standard “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” (This is followed by more white kids performing “Chiquita Banana,” complete with maracas.)
  • In one of the vignettes that form the spine of Deconstructing Harry (1997), a young Woody Allen stand-in named Harvey (Tobey Maguire) is advised by a friend to spend $50 on a Chinese prostitute (pictured above). She’s “schooled by tradition in the art of pleasing men,” says the friend, and a narrator (voiced by Allen himself) later describes her as Harvey’s “oriental passport to paradise.” The woman, played by Sunny Chae, has four short lines. All of them mention Harvey.
  • The final and biggest example is from Alice (1990). Discontented bourgeois wife Alice Tate (Mia Farrow) is, like Harvey, advised by a friend to visit the herbalist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke) at his office in New York’s Chinatown.* There, Yang dispenses hypnosis, magic herbs, and fortune-cookie wisdom in broken English. Although he has hints of personality—sage, enigmatic, stern yet supportive—he’s still strictly a plot device, existing only to facilitate Alice’s self-discovery.

So what do these scenes and characters have in common? 1) They’re reductive, drawing their notions of “Chinese identity” entirely from stereotype; 2) the stereotypes they nostalgically employ are based in decades-old racist imagery; and 3) they represent Chinese people and culture as tools, adding color to and/or fueling the plots of white stories. (Another commonality: cringe-worthy musical cues. You know the kind.) Everyone Says I Love You is alone among the three in that no Chinese actor is ever actually onscreen—as far as the film’s concerned, China could be a made-up country, fabricated by jazz musicians for the sake of entertainment.

In the other films, however, Allen trots out real, tangible people to act out stereotypical roles. On the basis of their accents and epicanthic folds, he identifies Chae and Luke as alien, exotic, mysterious. In Deconstructing Harry, these traits are fetishized. The prostitute’s “oriental” eroticism not only makes her an especially satisfying lay, but also amplifies Harvey’s postcoital guilt. This is that solipsism at play: the prostitute is only a projection, a one-note fantasy that Harvey desires just as he loathes himself for that desire. Of course the prostitute doesn’t get an identity or any desires of her own, because this is Harvey’s story.

It’s much the same with Dr. Yang. His screen time may be greater, but the character (and by extension, all of China) is still an appendage to Alice’s white self-absorption. Like similar stock characters—the “sassy gay friend,” the “magical negro”—his inner life is negligible and his outer behavior is devoted to helping the heroine. Alice, meanwhile, gets to have neuroses and adventures. She gets the semblance of a full, real life. Granted, caricature can be a powerful tool in comedy, and it’s pivotal to many of Allen’s best jokes. But this isn’t merely caricature. It’s racial cartooning, with some very clear, off-putting implications.

Furthermore, it’s bad writing. It lazily condenses a whole continent into a vague construction informed by badly dated pop culture. It lacks even the most tenuous relationship to reality. I go to fiction (yes, including Woody Allen’s) searching for some kind of truth, and these Orientalist cartoons do not ring true. Hell, they’re contradicted by my own experiences of having real Asian-American friends, ones with multiple traits per person, whose lives do not revolve around servicing my sexual or emotional needs. I love many of Woody Allen’s movies and I even love his nostalgia. But sometimes, he serves as an aggressive reminder that you can’t learn everything about the world from jazz and old movies.

*This is my obligatory note that yes, it can be tempting to draw biographical parallels between this Orientalism and Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, but I have absolutely no interest in doing that.

**Chinatown, that enclave of exoticism tucked inside the American metropolis. Cf. the title and climax of Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, if you dare.


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After Midnight

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as one of my “Most Disappointing Movies of 2011.” Then, as the year came to an end, I kept seeing it pop up on best-of-the-year lists, always praised as “witty” and “magical.” And now it’s right on course to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, with good odds of winning the latter. So, from the depths of my confusion and curiosity, I have to ask again: what is so great (or even good) about this movie?

Hell, I’ve been so earnestly curious that I rewatched it. Maybe I’d somehow missed the magic that first time around! But no, it actually got worse. I still love the wall-to-wall jazz soundtrack and the amber-tinted Parisian scenery; it’s certainly a pleasant movie to look at. (Although a tourist brochure does not a great movie make.) And it has a handful of supporting performances that make me smile: Marion Cotillard as “art groupie” Adriana, Adrien Brody’s rhinoceros-obsessed Dalí, and Corey Stoll as a hilarious, swaggering Hemingway.

But the whole movie’s premised on one long joke. It’s just Owen Wilson’s Gil being introduced to one Lost Generation luminary after another, then stammering in disbelief, “Hemingway? The Ernest Hemingway? Tom Eliot? You mean T.S. Eliot? Picasso? As in Pablo Picasso?” At first, it’s endearing; an hour later, it’s tiresome. The 1920s scenes are affable and sometimes funny, but they never go beyond facile wish fulfillment. They lie somewhere between a costume party and a wax museum, depicting their era as a time when everyone was a genius, went to parties, and fell in love with strangers from the future.

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Most Disappointing Movies of 2011

2011 was an incredible year for movies. I’ll be delving into its bounty next week with a year-end round-up. But as always, some movies just didn’t deliver. Saddled with impressive pedigrees or reputations, these three left me frustrated and disappointed…

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is back, I was told. It’s a return to form! His highest-grossing movie ever! Brimming with magic and wit! So I watched it, and saw… well, a series of Lost Generation caricatures more befitting a New Yorker article than a feature film. It’s pleasant enough, representing 1920s Paris as a haze of champagne and Cole Porter music, but also terminally self-satisfied. Its iconic writers and artists aren’t meant as real people, but automatons: they come onscreen, stroke the ego of Owen Wilson’s Allen surrogate, spout some stereotypical dialogue, then disappear. Corey Stoll has fun with Hemingway, and Adrien Brody makes a hilarious Dalí, but they’re still just idealized sketches. The film ends by disavowing nostalgia, yeah, but in a really facile and half-assed way. It’s a cute, fuzzy lark of a movie, a mildly cultured wish fulfillment fantasy, but that’s about it. (Extra points off for totally wasting Rachel McAdams as a one-note shrew.)

The Ides of March

I’m always game for a good political thriller. And a cast including George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti? I couldn’t be gamer. But The Ides of March squanders them all on a silly, self-important story whose twists and turns are more funny than thrilling. Gosling plays a doe-eyed campaign strategist who worships at the feet of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate. But the second he discovers that Clooney gasp spoiler once had sex with a cute intern, he pulls a 180 and becomes hell-bent on clumsy, nonsensical revenge. The movie’s political landscape is a total fantasy; its women are dispensable plot devices; and its dialogue is inert and overwritten, punctuated by random fucks like a bad Mamet imitation. Hell, the film’s most enjoyable moment is when Hoffman growls the words “tits and all.” I love movies about tense political chess matches. The Ides of March is a drunken game of political foosball.

The Future

In theory, I love a lot about Miranda July’s sophomore feature. I love the idea of filtering midlife ennui through oddball metaphors with all the clarity of a children’s book. I love loose, unconventional approaches to storytelling and I love kitties. But wow, I hated watching The Future. July and co-star Hamish Linklater play a thirtysomething couple who, dominated by entropy, move incrementally toward pet adoption. When they speak, it’s in a halting deadpan; when they make choices, they bow to the gods of whimsy. Eventually they break up—and this would be poignant, but all emotion has been smothered out of The Future by a pillow of affectations. The film’s occasionally inspired, as when July chats with a pair of friends who age, give birth, and die over the course of a few shots. But it’s all so solipsistic, so barren, and so grating, with two protagonists who only vaguely resemble real people. A hellish Future indeed.

Did you enjoy these, or were you similarly underwhelmed? What were your great disappointments of 2011?


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Link Dump: #54

Ah, Tigger: top made out of rubber, bottom made out of string, the hyperactive bane to parents everywhere. Did you see the new Winnie the Pooh movie? It was a really cute, modest effort that got financially crushed under HP7.2‘s enormous heel. But it’s still very funny, well-cast, and worth watching. (Hell, “Everything Is Honey” and the not/knot routine are both solid gold, and it’s only an hour long.) Now that I’ve plugged one of 2011’s sweetest animated treats, here are some links…

We had a few odd, off-putting search terms this week. First, as usual, are the vaginal ones: “truly the best pussy movie show” and “funny thinkings that women put in cunts.” Then “dark blood satanic pentagram,” which sounds like an excerpt from My Immortal. And speaking of bad Harry Potter fanfiction, “albus and rose incest.” Yep. All right.

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You Cannes Always Get What You Want

By Andreas

Now that Cannes 2011 has wrapped, here’s a short list of my most-anticipated films from the festival. With any luck, most or all of them will be headed to an arthouse theater near me soon!

  • Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The lackluster trailer and Woody’s recent track record weren’t exactly getting my hopes up, but once I learned that Kathy Bates and Scott Pilgrim‘s Alison Pill play Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald respectively, I knew I’d have to see it. Will Owen Wilson make a suitable Woody surrogate? Will it be so cutely erudite that I’ll throw up? I can’t wait to find out!
  • Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I already wrote about how intensely I want to see this, and that intensity continues to grow. An Oscar-caliber Tilda Swinton performance! John C. Reilly! Stream-of-consciousness narrative! YEAH.
  • Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. I’m excited by both The Artist‘s plot—it’s a silent comedy/melodrama about Hollywood’s transition to sound—and its loose resemblance to Guy Maddin’s movies. It sounds like the best kind of cinephile junk food.
  • Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. I can’t wait to see Durkin’s debut feature, a harrowing cult-themed drama (which, like Midnight in Paris, played out of the main competition). The fact that it co-stars John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone is icing on the cake.
  • Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Although sometimes put off by his ponderousness, I adore Malick’s childlike wonderment at the world. (And just try not to be blown away by the house-burning sequence in Badlands.) I’m a sucker for cosmic spectacle, so Malick’s long-awaited Palme d’Or-winner might just do the trick for me.
  • Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Speaking of cosmic spectacle, the trailer for Melancholia really impressed me, and the casting of John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as an old married couple would get my ass in the theater to see Transformers 3. When mixed with Von Trier and the end of the world? Ohhh yes.
  • Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. I’m just crazy about face transplant movies like Face Behind the Mask, Eyes Without a Face, and The Face of Another. If I can get that with Almodóvar’s uniquely dark, sensual sensibility, I will be a happy moviegoer.
  • Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. This is tied with Kevin, Melancholia, and MMMM for “most most-anticipated.” Ryan Gosling in an existential action movie? Yes please, and thank you.

What Cannes-tastic new movies are you excited to see?


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