I love that Woody Allen font.  Plain white letters on a black background.  It's been so consistent for so long now that when I see those credits appear, I settle in, sure that no matter what follows, it'll be interesting.  There are Woody Allen films I dislike intensely, but none that I regret seeing.  When someone makes a film a year for as long as he has, you're going to see good and bad from them.  It's inevitable.  But what makes Woody Allen's full body of work worth watching is the way he constantly evolves, his voice growing from film to film, and the sheer volume of it is what's kept him so vital.  And in this film, having Sergei Prokofiev play under those familiar titles only further sets me up for a good time.

In 1975, Woody was a mainstream figure of some repute.  He was an acclaimed stand-up, and he had already made such hits as "Bananas" and "Take The Money And Run."  As a writer, he worked on "What's Up, Tiger Lily" and "What's Up, Pussycat?", and he had made a hilarious appearance as one of many James Bonds in "Casino Royale."  But he wasn't an Oscar-winner yet, and I'm sure most people wouldn't have even imagined that sort of career was possible for him.  With "Love And Death," though, I think the indicators are clear that Woody was trying to find a way to move from pure silly comedy to films that aimed for something more, and this film serves as a fascinating transition for this great comic artist.

This is one of the only Allen films of the '70s or '80s shot anywhere outside of New York, and it's pretty much the opposite of "dumb" comedy.  If the Marx Brothers adapted a Dostoevsky novel, it would look a lot like "Love and Death," where characters argue about philosophy while crazy-funny one-liners score consistent laughs.  Woody's verbal wit was already his trademark, but this film marked the first time he started to really use the camera to help sell a joke and not just to record it.  He was starting to really think about cinema and approach his movies as a filmmaker, not just as a comedian.

[more after the jump]

He stars here as Boris, a fairly typical Woody Allen character.  He's smart, he's physically inept, he's constantly horny and surprisingly successful with women, and he's utterly unashamed of his own cowardice.  He's raised in Russia, part of a big family, and when he comes of age, he's expected to join in the fight against Napoleon.  All he wants to do is marry Sonia (Diane Keaton), who's sort of the town bike for everyone except Boris.  His attempts to shirk his military duty and then, after he becomes a reluctant hero, to stop the war by killing Napoleon are the main dramatic thrust of the film, but it's really just a framework to allow Woody to make fun of Russian novels and cinema, of the Napoleonic age, and of sexual mores and philisophical camps.  It's heady stuff, and the wordplay is nonstop.  Some of my favorite exchanges in any Allen film come from this one.

Sonja: "Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself."
Boris:  "Yes, I've said that many times."

Anton:  "Grushenko? Isn't he the young coward all St. Petersburg is talking about?"
Boris:  "I'm not so young. I'm thirty-five."
Anton:  "If you so much as come near the Countess, I'll see that you never see the light of day again."
Boris:  "If a man said that to me, I'd break his neck."
Anton:  "I am a man."
Boris:  "Well, I mean a much shorter man."

Countess Alexandrovna:  "You are the greatest lover I've ever had."
Boris:  "Well, I practice a lot when I'm alone."

Drill Sergeant:  "From now on you'll clean the mess hall and the latrine!"
Boris:  "Yes, sir! How will I tell the difference?"

Napoleon:  "This is an honor for me."
Boris:  "No, it's a greater honor for me."
Napoleon:  "No, a greater honor for me."
Boris:  "No, it's a greater honor for me."
Napoleon:  "No, a greater honor for ME."
Boris:  "Well, perhaps you're right. Perhaps it IS a greater honor for you."
Napoleon:  "And you must be Don Francisco's sister."
Sonja:  "No, you must be Don Francisco's sister."
Napoleon:  "No, you must be Don Francisco's sister."
Sonja:  "No, you must be Don Francisco's sister."
Boris:  "No, it's a greater honor for me."
Napoleon:  "I see our Spanish guests have a sense of humor."
Boris:  "She's a great kidder."
Sonja:  "No, you're a great kidder."
Boris:  "No, you're Don Francisco's sister."

Boris:  "I was walking through the woods, thinking about Christ. If He was a carpenter, I wondered what He charged for bookshelves."

Napoleon:  "I heard you speaking to someone."
Sonja:  "Oh, I was praying."
Napoleon:  "But I heard TWO voices."
Sonja:  "Well, I do both parts."

Sonja:  "To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down."

Sonja:  "I truly think this is the best of all possible worlds."
Boris:  "It's certainly the most expensive."

Russian gentleman:  "So who is to say what is moral?"
Sonja:  "Morality is subjective."
Russian gentleman:  "Subjectivity is objective."
Sonja:  "Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality."
Russian gentleman:  "Not as an essential extension of ontological existence."
Sonja:  "Can we not talk about sex so much?"

Boris:  "If I don't kill him he'll make war all through Europe. But murder... What would Socrates say? All those Greeks were homosexuals. Boy, they must have had some wild parties. I bet they all took a house together in Crete for the summer. A: Socrates is a man. B: All men are mortal. C: All men are Socrates. Means all men are homosexuals. Heh... I'm not a homosexual. Once, some cossacks whisled at me. I, I have the kind of body that excites both persuasions. You know, some men are heterosexual and some men are bisexual and some men don't think about sex at all, you know... they become lawyers."

And the two most demented and high-minded references in the film are this throwaway T.S. Eliot joke:

Boris: [composing poetry] 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.'  Too sentimental!"
[crumples up paper and throws it in the fire]

And then this exchange, all built around Dostoevsky jokes:

Father:  "Remember that nice boy next door, Raskolnikov?"
Boris:  "Yeah."
Father:  "He killed two ladies."
Boris:  "What a nasty story."
Father:  "Bobak told it to me. He heard it from one of the Karamazov brothers."
Boris:  "He must have been possessed."
Father:  "Well, he was a raw youth."
Boris:  "Raw youth, he was an idiot!"
Father:  "He acted assaulted and injured."
Boris:  "I heard he was a gambler."
Father:  "You know, he could be your double!"
Boris:  "Really, how novel."

Diane Keaton is my favorite of all of Allen's leading ladies, and I think this is one of the best perforamnces she gave in any of his films.  I know "Annie Hall" is her most iconic role, but I love the way she plays this lunatic nymphomaniac, attracted to everyone except the men she marries.  And she is perfectly in tune with Allen's sense of humor here, giving as good as she gets in every scene.  Allen seems to be having an indecent amount of fun as Boris, and I get the feeling this was an important film for him in his development as a director.  He stages huge battle sequences, physical slapstick, and dizzying verbal duels, and it all delivers.  If you're ever discouraged by the box-office success of those wretched "Meet The Spartans" style spoof movies, just put this in and realize that truly smart and witty comedy has succeeded before, and I have to believe that there's still an audience hungry to be treated with the same respect Allen's always had for his audiences.  And when the film culminates in one of the most joyous and silly representations of what awaits us after death, it's an indelible image, one of the greatest of this great filmmaker's long career.

If you'd like to watch along with me for the rest of the week, you can expect reviews for the following films:  "M." and "Night Moves."

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"After Hours" (3.2.09)

"Blow Out" (3.3.09)

"College" (3.4.09)

"Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" (3.06.09)

"The Errand Boy" (3.07.09)

"Fat Girl" (3.10.09)

"Going In Style" (3.10.09)

"High Plains Drifter" (3.11.09)

"It's A Gift" (3.27.09)

"Joe Versus The Volcano" (3.30.09)

"Koyaanisqatsi" (3.31.09)

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