For me, 2016 has been one of Woody Allen’s best years in a long time. Not only did I enjoy Café Society more than any of his films since Anything Else, but his six-part Amazon Prime series, Crisis in Six Scenes, turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, because this has received the worst reviews of any Allen venture in some time. Unexpected, too, because Allen has been quite vocal about how much he disliked the project, as well as how much anxiety it caused him to get it delivered on time. Yet all that really suggests is that Crisis in Six Scenes is somehow different from Allen’s recent films and, given that I haven’t much liked those, there was something about this foray into television that I found quite refreshing.
Of course, above and beyond the specific content, there’s something titillating about seeing Allen tackle a television series. Of all the auteurs – Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Fincher – who have turned their hands to the small screen during the era of “quality television,” Allen would, at first glance, seem to be one of the most unlikely. Yet there has been something almost televisual – certainly something serial – about the sheer proliferation of Allen’s films over the last decade, with a new release seeming to come out with the regularity of a new television season. At the same time, the smaller scale of television does lend itself to two much older strands in Allen’s work: namely, his more European-inflected chamber dramas and his anarchic, messy, situational comedies, which drew in turn from his early work on variety and stand up television. To some extent, Crisis in Six Scenes takes its cues from both, playing out across a fairly circumscribed series of spaces and strongest when it’s situational, rather than when it is aiming for a broader narrative.
Still, there is a narrative here, as there has to be, and it revolves around an ageing couple, Sidney and Kay Munsinger, played by Allen and Elaine May, as they try to come to terms with the upheavals of the 1960s. Most of the story unfolds around their house in upstate New York, which is turned on its head with the arrival of Lennie Dale, played by Miley Cyrus, a radical activist and former student of Kay’s who needs a safe house for a couple of days. The stage is set for a comic clash between the generations, but it already feels as if there is something of a generational gap between Sidney and Kay, and between Allen and May. On the one hand, Kay is quite open to new ideas – it’s her idea to shelter Lennie – while May feels quite at home in this 60s milieu, with her delivery still demonstrating the same panache that she brought to her improvisational act with Mike Nichols, even or especially as Allen gives her a fairly thankless script to work with. Out of all the actors in the series, she’s the only one who feels as if she’s genuinely making stuff up as she goes along.
On the other hand, Allen’s character, Sidney, is presented as an old-fashioned stick-in-the mud, which is kind of appropriate given that Allen is revisiting a radical 60s landscape that he never really participated in at the time, at least in his films. From the opening montage of iconic countercultural moments, and the rock score that accompanies it, we’re light years away from Allen’s sensibility, and the nostalgia for the 30s and 40s that haunts so much of his own 60s output. I’m tempted to say that there’s something self-deprecating about that, as well as something self-deprecating about a director revisiting their heyday as an ageing character, but self-deprecation has always been a studied part of Allen’s persona, and an excuse for a certain snarky pretension that’s refreshingly absent from Crisis in Six Scenes. So perhaps it makes more sense to describe Allen’s displacement from the milieu he’s depicting as a modest gesture rather than a self-deprecating gesture, or as a new kind of self-awareness and abeyance of pretentious momentum in the face of impending old age.
For Crisis in Six Scenes is the first performance in which Allen really looks old. While he’s popped up in side parts and choral roles over the last decade – he narrates Café Society, for example – he hasn’t played the protagonist of any of his films since 2002’s Hollywood Ending. Moreover, Crisis provides him with one of his most substantive and demanding roles to date: while it may only be a limited series, it’s still close to three hours of acting, longer than any of his films to date, as well as any film in which he’s appeared. Given Allen’s fairly strenuous writing and shooting schedule – he has another film coming out next year – it makes sense to assume that he shot Crisis as a single feature, and that’s very much the way it appears, not least because Amazon Prime follows the Netflix model in presenting it all simultaneously. For the audience, then, there’s something exhausting about simply watching Allen in a three-hour role after such a prolonged absence from the centre of his own filmic universe. In the process I found myself realising that I had only really glimpsed him over the previous decade, dating most of my impressions from how he looked and spoke from his appearances around the turn of the millennium.
The fact that Allen always, like Leonard Cohen, seemed to be aged ahead of his time just makes his age all the more striking now that he has finally caught up to it. All his career he’s felt like a crotchety eighty-something, so there’s something striking about actually seeing him acting from that particular vantage point, which is perhaps why Crisis feels like it marks new kind of honesty in his career, if only inadvertently. With so much time to fill and without the manicured ensemble casts of his recent films, Allen is forced to do something he hasn’t done in a long time – ramble – and yet that rambly, messy quality works brilliantly to cut through the staid, aphoristic dialogue that has frozen so much of his twenty-first-century work into inert parodies of his greatest films. To be sure, there are still inert moments here but they are woven into the narrative in surprising and ingenious ways – such as an extended sleepwalking sequence – while Allen’s aphoristic archness is undercut by his courage in presenting himself as a doddering old fool, almost on the verge of senility.
Even that isn’t completely new, since Allen, like the Marx Brothers before him, has always loved dagginess – jokes so bad that they’re good. Here, however, that’s shorn or any edginess or knowingness, creating a quasi-sitcom vibe that might scandalise fans of such “highbrow” outings as Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, but which I found quite relieving, and almost charming. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if Allen is actually writing and delivering dialogue, or that he’s at least working with a cast that are prepared to traverse the limitations of his dialogue. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Miley Cyrus, who steals the show as the radical who continually berates Sidney for being a “mindless cowardly follower.” Cyrus is nothing if not irreverent and her sassy energy completely enlivens Allen’s mise-en-scenes, not least because there is no real ensemble cast to comfortably contain her and cushion her impact.
Of course, Cyrus’ sheer incongruity would seem to make her of a piece with Allen’s recent ensemble films, even if there is no ensemble operating in this particular case. Over the last five years, in particular, it has felt as if Allen’s films have more or less subsisted on the incongruities and improbabilities of their respective ensemble casts rather than anything about the craft of filmmaking itself, to the point where I sometimes wonder if Allen is the only director making traditional ensemble films anymore. To hear of the cast of an upcoming “Untitled Woody Allen project” is to effectively see the film – or so it seems – while his actors seem to exude a sense of election, an awareness that they have been inexplicably and fortuitously combined in the name of an ensemble filmic vision whose entirety they can never fully comprehend. If Allen’s films have become smug, then actors seem to become smug when they inhabit them, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Cyrus would be no different, especially given her rapturous posts on social media about being “chosen” for the project.
It’s a wonderful surprise, then, that Cyrus seems to exude absolutely no sense of excitement or entitlement at being featured in an Allen project. Many critics have noted that she is not a natural actor, and that may well be a part of it, but I also wonder whether it is a matter of Cyrus being too young, and too indebted to a newer media ecology, to really be able to revere Allen in the manner of people who were raised on his films at cinemas and video stores. That’s not a criticism, just a fact, and it’s a great fact, since it means that Cyrus simply doesn’t seem to understand how to be an “Allen girl,” as much as her character might seem to demand it. In fact, her performance made me realise the extent to which the “Allen girl” is an accretive phenomena, with each subsequent actress drawing upon and quoting the previous actresses that Allen has made his muse, to the point where all of his female characters feel like a riff on either Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, the two archetypes that haunt his work.
While these muses all have their own quirks and peculiarities, they tend to confound the role of lover and daughter, placing Allen in a position in which he has to act as source of both sexual and intellectual authority. For that reason, the absence of daughters in Allen’s films is as noticeable as the presence of intellectually self-sufficient women – at least as love interests or heterosexuals – so it’s striking to see Cyrus slot right into the role of contemptuous, impatient daughter (or granddaughter), as Lennie not only refuses to allow Sidney to make her his protégé but continually lambasts him for his decrepit and distasteful worldview. Suddenly, all the quirks that made Allen seem so eccentric simply seem like the symptoms of old age, while his profound oblivion to everyone around him – even in his eighties, he still talks over everyone – feels like just that: oblivion, rather than some kind of endearing character trait or sign of a higher calling. Instead of being thrown by Sidney’s knowledge and erudition, Lennie just joins the chorus of people telling him that he’s ranting, rambling and raving, talking over him in turn as if he’s just another bit actor.
In that sense, it’s a brave performance and script from Allen, one that queries both his contemporary and canonical standing in equal measure. While Hollywood Ending was his last major role, he hasn’t played a romantic protagonist since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry (the first Allen film, incidentally, that I saw in a cinema). And, while the tone of Crisis in Six Scenes may be gentler and more ambling than Deconstructing Harry, the self-critique feels just as merciless. For an auteur who is as thoroughly and programmatically self-deprecating as Allen, there’s something striking about real self-examination and self-critique. Twenty years later, he’s managed it again.