“It seems to me I’ve heard that song before,” the movie score warbles. “It’s from an old familiar score. I know it well, that melody.” So goes the theme to Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A trip to the Mayo Clinic website today left me with some disturbing news. According to their definitions, I am officially an addict. Of Woody Allen, that is. Scanning the facts, perhaps I have been excessive; I watched twelve of his movies in a week last summer. What’s that, you say? There are other directors out there? The expansion of my film education is at stake? I steer my mind away from my more rational thoughts. In fact, I’ve already seen seventeen, so I really can’t see any harm in just one more … “When you’re addicted,” the website warns, “you may not be able to control your drug use, and you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.” I guess I’m officially hooked.
My friends don’t seem to understand. They criticize the films I adore, and try to point out Allen’s flaws. “All of his films are the same!” they cry, attempting to dissuade me. I’ve heard multiple complaints that his films are repetitive and boring. The final straw came at last year’s YSO show, when students all around me buzzed about who that old man on screen was. Repetitive? Boring? Unknown? These words couldn’t describe my Woody, my favorite director, my artistic genius. So I began to think of other artists — ones whom no one would dare criticize with these kinds of diminutive adjectives. And then, suddenly, it came to me.
In an opening scene from Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” the Academy Award Best Picture winner from 1984, a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is introduced to the court musicians of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Antonio Salieri, the court composer, has penned a celebratory march for Mozart’s arrival. In almost no time Mozart begins to expand on the piece, not only repairing problems that he sees in the original theme, but also improvising beautiful variations on it. And here I have found my point. Allen, like Mozart and other composers of the Classical Era, plays not repetitions, but rather variations.
In classical music, a theme and variation consists of a melody, the theme, and then several alterations of it. These variations might be changes in pitch, harmony, rhythm or mode. Composers often undertook simple themes that the listener would be able to recognize. For example, Mozart wrote several variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” In the first variation he plays the same melody, but adds rushing sixteenth notes underneath. In another variation, he changes the theme to a minor mode.
Allen’s work fits naturally into such a form. Take, for example, his two wonderful films “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and “Match Point” (2005). A basic outline of each film’s storyline would appear identical. A married man has a clandestine, drawn out affair. At some point, the affair backfires and the mistress attempts to reveal the truth. The man panics, killing his mistress. However, the man is never caught and he returns to his life without excessive feelings of guilt or regret. Here we have our theme: the plot. The cinematic equivalent of duplicated musical notation.
Yet, if we look at Crimes and Misdemeanors, the older film, as the original statement of the theme, we may look at “Match Point” as the variation. Allen adjusts the age of his characters in “Match Point,” perhaps akin to adjusting the meter and quickening the piece’s beat. He also changes the film’s exterior context, moving his arrangement from New York to London. Both of these variations create a fresh and new composition. Although we may watch the same theme, we watch it in a new light. In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Allen explores a midlife crisis and the influence of religion. In “Match Point,” Allen emphasizes the beginnings of family and the questionable importance of luck. Thus, Allen’s variations yield potential for new insights and appreciations.
Another example might be Allen’s theme of time travel. Like “Twinkle, Twinkle,” the theme is simple in that an audience easily recognizes it from other works of art. Allen composes variations on the theme in “Sleeper” (1973) and “Midnight in Paris” (2011). Unlike the previous pairing, a repeated genre does not yield an identical plot.
In “Sleeper,” a man unwittingly has his body frozen by scientists and two centuries later finds himself defrosted by rebels resisting an authoritarian regime. In “Midnight in Paris,” an equally unsuspecting figure steps off of a sidewalk in modern Paris into a car that carries him back in time to the artists and flappers of the 1920s. The two films vary not only in their plot-lines and the contexts of their locations, but also in their tone. Allen conducts “Sleeper” in an eerie minor key. Its plot line is completely ridiculous; for example, Allen successfully fools those around him into believing that he is a robot. Yet, the ever-present authoritarian pursuers make the future a world of terror rather than excitement.
Almost thirty years later, however, with “Midnight in Paris,” Allen transposes time travel into a different key. Although this time a certain level of suspended disbelief may yield a more realistic version of time travel, Allen orchestrates entirely in a major tone. Though the protagonist finally chooses to leave the world of the past in exchange for the world of the present, it is not in escape but rather in a realization of the beauty and wonder of every era.
In his introductory music textbook, Craig Wright, a professor of music, notes “the capacity, indeed need, of a great artist for substantive change or modification.” He cites Leondardo da Vinci’s paintings of the same faces, Shakespeare’s endless metaphors for a sunrise. No one would dare call the works of either of these great artists boring. I would like to add Allen, citing each sequential film as a cinematic riff on earlier themes, to Wright’s list of great artists. Far from being simply uncreative or repetitive, Allen uses the method of theme and variation not simply because he can, but because he must in order to fully unfold each of his themes.
“Please have them play it again,” croon the lyrics of “I’ve Heard That Song Before”. “And I’ll remember just when I heard that lovely song before”. No matter what his critics might say, I’ll always be happy to hear Woody Allen’s melodies again and again.