(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain has such small hands
I doubt he lets it disturb his peace in the afterlife (setting aside my own disturbing doubts about the afterlife for a moment) but poet e. e. cummings’ literary reputation has been in fairly deep doldrums for years now. Once upon a considerable stretch of time, however — as August Kleinzahler concedes early on in a recent, potently persuasive exercise in kicking a poet when he’s down — cummings was (more or less, inescapably) every reader’s and critic’s darling, a favorite for the impish playfulness with which he tempered, or simply sidestepped, high modernism’s notorious knottiness.
If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.
It may not be too far-fetched to imagine Woody Allen occupying a similar niche among filmmakers. He certainly has his defenders among serious critics, but there have long been those who suspect that much of his audience loves him because they feel flattered by him — he allows them to feel smart, sophisticated and urbane simply by repeatedly deploying the same tired, stock markers to delineate a vaguely cultured upper-middle class in which just about everybody is at some point described as “bright” and “warm,” and a picture-postcard vision of a vanished, nostalgified Manhattan represents the good, the true, and the beautiful. And lest we forget, there was a time when he was very funny. The evidence is all on DVD. He’s been making fun of his once having been very funny, and the fans who never get sick of reminding him, for a long time now — at least since HUSBANDS AND WIVES, which, released in 1992, may have been his last great film.
But it’s hardly fair for me to subject you to all of this maundering, when the real point I want to make — perhaps too plainly telegraphed by my last sentence — is that lo! I am myself an Allen apologist. I, like so many others, voluntarily suffer through each new Allen effort like a hopeful ember-sifter hunched over a fading fire. And why? Because MANHATTAN (1979). Because STARDUST MEMORIES (1980). Because, among several others, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS.
Set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — in Mia Farrow’s apartment building, even — HANNAH concerns an apparently (and for the most part actually) warm and bright family of variously creative types, presided over by a bickering, affectionate, now elderly pair of musicians. Their three daughters are strung at least as tightly as they are. This is New York neurosis territory, and a little too familiar for comfort, but Allen and, especially, his actresses (Mia Farrow as Hannah, Barbara Hershey as Lee, Dianne Wiest as Holly) imbue each of these women with her own uniquely palpable intelligence, along with a well-defined set of internal obstacles to achieving whatever sort of fulfillment she’s after. When people praise Allen as a writer of excellent roles for women, this is the film that best backs up the claim.
Here is where you forgive me for not fleshing out much of anything about Woody Allen, this film, or e. e. cummings’ Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond. There just isn’t time, and I want to post this while there are still some hours between now and showtime. So suffice it to say that HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is a great, moving, funny tangle of stories about love, death, art, and family. Woody himself is in here undergoing one of his quintessential turns as a nebbishy latter-day Hamlet; Max von Sydow brings a bit of Bergman to the table in his role as a brilliantly acerbic, reclusive painter; and Michael Caine — in many ways the heart of the film — is the ardent adulterer who seduces his wife Hannah’s dreamiest sister, Lee, by giving her a collection of cummings’ poems and directing her attention to a comparison of the rain’s hands with her own. For a moment — for the film’s length — both poet and filmmaker feel beyond reproach. Come out to the Coolidge tonight and leave a believer.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) DIR.WOODY ALLEN
11/10 // 7pm
Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446