Contemplating Status and Morality
In his latest film, Cassandra's Dream, Woody Allen contemplates the nature of status—how it is gained, lost, and internalized with consequences that cut to the very core of identity and self-esteem. This is not a new theme for Allen—in fact it is arguably a central theme infusing almost every one of his films since Annie Hall in 1977. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Allen's characters seem continually to negotiate their perceived positions as they formulate dreams, desires, and aspirations and as they conduct their relationships. As his films work and re-work this idea—whether in the context of comedy or drama, Allen invites us to ask whether sincerity of emotion or action is possible in a world driven by collective desires for material acquisition, approbation, and love, which itself is often clouded or misguided. “Can love and desire function, free from perceptions of status?” Allen seems to ask. He most explicitly addresses this question and its ethical implications in Manhattan (1979), a film in which characters feel compelled to “trade up” or down in their relationships. Although the teenage Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) appears exempt from such motives in her relationship with Allen's Isaac Davis, some thirty years her senior, her final words are pivotal when she asserts that “not everybody gets corrupted—you need to have a little faith in people.” The sustained look of uncertainty, sadness, and perhaps an ironic resignation these words evoke in Isaac encapsulates much of what Allen explores and expresses in his films to follow—so many of which seem to appear dedicated to testing out Tracy's thesis.
Though a less accomplished film than Manhattan, Cassandra's Dream is no exception. Set in London (and Allen's third film shot there), it tells the story of two working class brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), who long for a better life. The workaday world the brothers inhabit is defined by their father's (John Benfield) failing restaurant, a fact their mother (Claire Higgins) never ceases to mention, at first indirectly, through comparisons with her brother Howard (Tom Wilkinson)—a California-based plastic surgeon whose enormous success and much-needed aid to the family are her means of maneuvering her power and buttressing Ian's determination to break from the family business. Terry has managed a pseudo-escape through gambling, drinking, and a less than inspiring job servicing vintage and high-end cars. The cars confer meager status when he “loans” one to Ian, who impersonates the man he'd like to be—powerful, rich, refined. On one of his drives, he rescues Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell), a stage actress whose car has stalled. Seduced by her beauty and her hip circle of London acquaintances, Ian convinces her that the car and the vague references to American real estate investments are for real—an impression given further credence by the sailboat he and Terry have purchased with Terry's winnings at the dog track. They name the boat “Cassandra's Dream” after the winning greyhound—the eponymous implications, of course, portending dire and fateful events, with signposts of warning characters refuse to acknowledge, just as the truthful predictions of the mythological Cassandra are ignored.
Enter Uncle Howard, who offers the money to make Ian's American dream come true and to pay the enormous gambling debt Terry has accrued. Howard asks a simple favor in return: Terry and Ian must “get rid of” his business partner who threatens to expose Howard's financial misconduct. Trading on family loyalty and largesse, Howard makes an offer that the more ambitious Ian cannot refuse, while Terry remains reluctant, even though he's got the most to lose with loan sharks circling. So far, these plot elements could be played for laughs, as they are in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets over Broadway (1994), and Scoop (2006).
But there is no mistaking the serious tone and intent in the opening strains of Philip Glass's musical score—one of the few original scores for Allen, who uses existing jazz recordings, primarily, to accompany his films. From the start, the minimalist circularity of the score telegraphs the claustrophobic and ominous atmosphere even when characters sail on calm and open waters. The score gives too much away too early, draining potential nuance and ambiguity from the narrative and the visual frame. While Cassandra's Dream is most closely aligned in subject and tone with Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005), the jazz interwoven with a Shubert string quartet in the former, and the scratchy Verdi arias performed by Caruso interwoven with modern Verdi recordings in the latter work to create a subtle, textured, and unpredictable counterpoint with narrative and image. It is not until Terry's anxieties heighten leading up to the murder and he begins to unravel following the murder, that the music begins to earn its place in the narrative—particularly as Ian contemplates the only “available” option—murdering his own brother who threatens all that Ian potentially will gain.
The ironic twists that follow tap into themes of fate, chance, expediency, and morality so masterfully expressed in Crimes and Misdemeanors and later in Match Point. We are thrown for a moment into the chaotic and incomprehensible—a powerful glimmer of what Crimes and Misdemeanors was able to more fully sustain and contemplate. Although Cassandra's Dream is not the strongest or most compelling film in Allen's oeuvre, it nevertheless has its wonderfully astute, stylistically nuanced moments. The film is never better than when it sits us down at the family dinner table, the claustrophobic framing and mise-en-scene evoking a lived-in familiarity and carefully calibrated dynamic that dictates the roles and interactions as circumscribed by years of routine and “rehearsal.” And when Uncle Howard takes the family out to dinner, Allen captures the tiniest gesture and glance, speaking volumes about ambition, suppressed desires, insecurity, and false bravado. Cineaste spoke with Mr. Allen by telephone the day before the film's New York release, touching upon, most significantly, his concern that in a world where crime so often goes unpunished, the morality of the individual is our only hope.
Cineaste: So many of your films are concerned with status—how characters gain it or lose it—and the consequences on both sides of the equation. Can you talk a bit about what draws you to that subject?
Woody Allen: One has various ambitions — they could be social ambitions, romantic ambitions, ambitions for material possessions — and status certainly involves all of that, and sometimes status in itself is desirable. In terms of the Greeks, themes of status put morality to the test to see just how far you'll go to achieve what it is that you want — the social climbing, the notoriety, the fame, the fortune. Whether it's Macbeth or some other work, it's a standard motivating factor.
Cineaste : Could stories like those in Cassandra's Dream and Match Point have been adapted to an American setting, or do you see the class and status issues as more particular to a British setting?
Allen : It's not at all connected to that — that's just a chance by-product. I wrote Match Point originally about an upper class family in the Hamptons. I made the switch to England where the social imperative gets magnified. The same is true of Cassandra's Dream. I wrote that and set it in England but I could have easily made it about two brothers living in Brooklyn, Queens, or Manhattan and an uncle with a proposition and with the same tragic events that occur, though status does get magnified in the more socially conscious, class conscious society of London.
Cineaste : As I watch Cassandra's Dream and think about Match Point, I'm struck by echoes of Patricia Highsmith, and to some extent of René Clément's adaptation of Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley in Purple Noon.. To what extent might you consciously or unconsciously have had Highsmith or Clément in mind when working on Cassandra's Dream?
Allen : I didn't. I'm really not an enjoyer of Purple Noon. And I'm not a fan of Highsmith's writing, though when she's been adapted by Hitchcock it's a different story. In this case it was just an idea that came to me because I had written a play about a family that was looking forward to their uncle coming to the house because they all had favors they wanted to ask of him. In my play he doesn't have any favors he wants to give out. He comes with his girlfriend and one of the brothers gets involved with the girlfriend — it's a different kind of a story. But in this case what occurred to me is, what if the uncle had a favor to ask — a favor that brought up a strong moral issue, a crisis of conscience? That gave me an interesting idea for a movie that could be suspenseful and tense, with a crime plot that could be entertaining.
Cineaste : As you're speaking I'm thinking a little bit about Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.
Allen : Well, that is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. I wasn't thinking of that in relation to this situation, but it is a wonderful movie.
Cineaste : For the record, what's the name of the play you wrote about the visiting uncle?
Allen : Ahh…can you believe it? I wrote the play and can't remember the title… It's running in Paris, in French. . . it's called. . . A Second-Hand Memory.
Cineaste : In Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point the insularity provided by money and social class—as well as the sense of entitlement that goes along with it—seem largely in play when the main characters literally get away with murder. Is the very different outcome for the brothers in Cassandra's Dream largely a question of class—or one of conscience?
Allen : Let's not forget that in Cassandra's Dream the uncle gets off Scott free. So it comes through the fact that I grew up in a society and a culture where those who preached to us said that crime didn't pay and that the bad guy always wound up trapped in the end and the good guy triumphed. And I think, yes, life would be wonderful if it was that way, but it was clear to me that life was not that way. So I always felt that, barring a heaven and a hell — a religious solution, which I did not believe in — and barring the fact that the bad guy does not always get caught, the only thing you have is your own sense of morality. If it doesn't bother you to commit a crime, then it doesn't bother you. And if you get away with it, you get away with it. It's not like a fairy tale; there is no penalty. Everyday we see crimes ranging from sleazy little ones in the street like drug deals, to white collar crimes and governmental crimes on the national level. And people get away with it. There are some people in the government, some people in the streets — wherever — who have consciences and that's the only thing that saves them, but some do not. I was interested in those stories — and the stories mostly of those who do not because they have more tension, more conflict, and a more intellectual argument about morality.
Cineaste : You've said that Cassandra's Dream is about fate. How does that theme figure into the visual design of the film?
Allen : I thought the film should be shot naturalistically and that things should unfold in a simple narrative. It was not the kind of film that should have any stylization — it shouldn't have any dream sequences in it; it should be a naturalistic evolvement of that particular idea.
Cineaste : It's interesting, though, because the Philip Glass musical score seems to add a layer of stylization that isn't typically present—on a musical level— in your films. I wonder if you can talk about how you feel the score works. Is this the only film in which you've used an original score?
Allen : No, I've done a few. Out of the thirty-some films I've made a few films — maybe two, three or four — have had original scores. But overwhelmingly I've not used original scores. In this one, I couldn't think of what to do, and then the idea of Philip Glass came up. I called him and he was very interested. I wanted something that complemented the tragedy of the story. He came in — and, of course, his music is so heavy, so ominous…he's a genius. He came in with an enormously ominous heavy piece of music, and I said, “My God, this so ominous and peculiar — giving the audience the whole content of the story, and he said, ‘Oh no, that's the love theme when he meets the girl. I haven't put the ominous part in yet.'” That's definitive about where he was going with the music, and we managed to get a very good score.
Cineaste : I guess so, but for me it adds a layer of stylization that, depending on how you look at it, works to either contradict or complement the naturalism of the film's visual style.
Allen : I feel the film is shot naturalistically and the scoring was natural scoring; it was done just to complement the action of the movie. This was not a stylized score as in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette , in which she used contemporary music. Her idea was very inspired and risky but quite brilliant. In Cassandra's Dream I didn't want to do this; I wanted to do a score that complemented what was going on in the movie to keep it a natural narrative movie.
Cineaste : You've said that you tend to use the “master shot” out of laziness because it helps you avoid the necessity of cutting and doing many more takes. Yet, in shots like the one in which Ian and Terry discuss Uncle Howard's proposition, they move, ironically, from darkness into light as they emerge from under a bridge. It's a beautifully composed shot that makes palpable the very concept of movement on a psychological and moral level. It seems a very complex choreography of camera and character movement is at play.
Allen : You figure out the location and the lighting to complement the theme and the effect of the scene that you want. When I was saying “lazy,” I actually meant it. For example, there is a long scene with the brothers and the uncle set under a tree. Now that was a very long scene if you look at the script — it's many pages of dialogue. Somebody else — and very effectively, as well — could have shot the uncle, and Colin [Farrell] and then Ewan [McGregor], then over the shoulder of Ewan and then over the shoulder of Colin, all different combinations. They could have worked on that thing for two days. I didn't; I started the camera once, and dollied around the trees and filmed seven pages of the scene before I was forced to get into some cutting. And I do that out of laziness because I don't have the patience to make the actors do it or to do it myself — shooting the scene, and then shooting the same material again, and then shooting the same material again on the other actor and shooting it again over-the-shoulder and shooting it again, over and over, so that you're constantly droning on doing the same scene over and over all day. I can't do that. I choreograph so I can get everything in early in the day and at, say, two in the afternoon, we'll shoot. We cover seven pages in one shot and maybe the first time they screw it up, but by the second take or the third take, they've got it, and I get the whole scene. The actors appreciate it; they don't have to do it endlessly. They can sink their teeth into some acting for seven pages instead of doing one line before a cut — that's not acting. It's worked out very well for me, but the convenience of it is that I'm lazy.
Sally Hawkins as Kate (far left) and Hayley Atwell as Angela Stark with Ian and Terry
Cineaste : It works very well by allowing us to see the characters in the context of their surroundings and in relationship to each other in a very powerful way. Another group of scenes I like very much in this movie are the family dinner scenes, which are shot in much the same way, it seems to me. I admire the way you handle the family dynamic—particularly in the first dinner scene, in which we see how tired everyone is of hearing the mother go on and on about Uncle Howard and his success. In a later dinner scene, she seems truly happy with her son's success and doesn't even mention Howard, until one of the sons brings the subject up—almost as if obeying a fateful family ritual—‘we can't have a meal without raising the subject of Howard and without the conflict that will then ensue.' I thought this was so insightful and true to family interactions. How did you perceive and shape the family dynamic?
Allen : The mother idolized her brother beyond all reality. He spent very little time with the family, and he helped them out financially, which was an easy way to help someone out. He didn't give time but he gave money. He didn't come back and visit very often, but when he did, he would drop in and see that they were taken care of. The father couldn't stand him because the mother was constantly throwing him up as an example of someone who made it and had money and was on the ball and had success, and the father was a struggling guy with a restaurant who was dependent on his wife's brother to give them a vacation or buy them a down payment on the house or help with the business — so the father was sick of hearing about him all the time. The two boys idolized him because the mother did, and he was, indeed, successful. He was generous with the boys.
Cineaste : I know we have to end now, so I'd like to thank you not only for your time but also on a more personal level. Even though I always find it a little naïve when I hear people say that this or that movie “changed my life,” I have to admit that when I first saw Annie Hall in 1977, a year after having graduated from college, it gave me the overwhelming impetus to do what I had always wanted to do—move to New York. I must tell you that I've been grateful to you ever since.
Allen : So, I did some good, finally!
Cynthia Lucia teaches film at Rider University and is the author of Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film
Cineaste, Vol. 33 No.1 & 2 (Winter 2007 & Spring 2008).
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