Can you discuss a Woody Allen film without discussing the drama in Woody Allen’s life?
Movie critics seem to pose the same question each time Allen offers another film with his characteristic nods to literature and cities where leaves actually fall, and romances that often bloom between an older man and younger woman.
The Cinema and Television Arts Department’s “Auteurs” course offers a semester-long look at Allen’s films. The current class began with discussions of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” followed by “Manhattan” and soon “Bullets Over Broadway.” It’s a speedy 14 films in as many weeks — just a handful of Allen’s oeuvre or body of work, says lecturer David Desser, who leads the class.
“Certainly, a number of Allen’s references — cultural, geographical, religious — pass the students by, but I am there to fill them in on what they missed,” Desser says.
“It’s 14 of 45 films. They’re not all good, and some of the good ones are left out,” he jokes.
When offered, the elective course focuses on the works of one filmmaker, and students analyze the collection in order to study the creative force and common threads. Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ken Loach and Alfred Hitchcock were spotlighted by previous instructors Gloria Monti and Rebecca Sheehan, associate professors of cinema and television arts.
“Following ‘Annie Hall,’ his breakthrough film, Allen begins to make films in a very European style, as mostly independent films,” Desser said. “Allen’s also known for his interesting use of the loooooong take for drama and artistry, which really begins with ‘Manhattan.’ Many of his references are geographical, literary or intellectual.”
No need to separate the artist from his work, here. Desser calls out Allen’s issues, his personal life and its influence on the films, encouraging students to discuss them. He also asks students to identify the filmmaker’s interests, recurring themes, such as religion, and his techniques. Students write papers comparing Allen’s other films, to demonstrate what they have learned about the writer-director, identify “Woodyisms” and define what “influence” means.
Though students improve their skills in critical analysis, the primary goal of the course is to teach students about the works of an influential and important American filmmaker whose themes, techniques and scripts have much to teach about art and philosophy, Desser said. “In the same way you would study Shakespeare or Milton or Melville or Hemingway, you study the art and craft of major film writers.”