Thursday, 10 June 2010

September

Woody Allen's emotionally devastating modern day chamber drama September (1987) is another product of the writer/director's often overlooked or disregarded 'dramatic period' of the late 1980s. A brief moment in the filmmaker's career when he was somewhat self-consciously attempting to break away from the confines of the more familiar comedy/drama approach of films like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), to instead focus on complex issues devoid of the usual ironic self-deprecation or cutting wit. Though the more subtle characteristics of Allen's previous work are nonetheless evident in many aspects of these films, not least the preoccupation with neurotic New York intellectuals prone to periods of angst and agitation, the general influences of this period seemed to lean more heavily towards a writer like Anton Chekhov - specifically the plays The Seagull (1896) and Uncle Vanya (1899) - and the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Although it is the Bergman influence that most critics tend to focus on when discussing or dismissing these films - September in particular - it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the theatrical aspirations of the production, which not only define the style of the film, but also to a large extent, the general tone. Allen's initial creative inspiration for September was, in his own words, to create 'a play on film'; a picture that could be shot in a single location, in almost real-time, with a small collection of characters able to interact with one another, freely and simultaneously within the frame, as if occupying a stage.


September directed by Woody Allen, 1987:

The basic story of September concerns six main protagonists gathered together during the late summer at an idyllic farmhouse in Vermont. The house belongs to Lane (Mia Farrow), a shy young woman recuperating from a nervous breakdown, a failed relationship and years of guilt and speculation involving the murder of her abusive step-father. Amongst the group is Peter (Sam Waterston), a struggling writer who is lodging with Lane and who Lane has a crush on. Peter however is in love with Lane's best friend Stephanie (Diane Wiest), who is also staying at the house in an attempt to escape the tedium of her husband while their children are away at camp. Stephanie initially seems close to Howard (Denholm Eliot), a family friend with unrequited feelings for Lane; while the eventual appearance of Lane's vibrant and gregarious mother Diane (Elaine Stritch) and her new lover Lloyd (Jack Warden), creates further chaos in this already overcrowded environment.

With these elements in place, the set-up for the film, with its trio of conflicting love triangles and its narrative full of mystery, could have been used for the basis of a rather genial screwball comedy, rife with the kind of romantic entanglements usually reserved for the greatest of French farce. However, instead of any light-hearted declarations of amour fou or playful scenes of comical misunderstanding, Allen takes the all too familiar concept of one person in love with another person in love with someone else and uses it to ruminate around deeper themes involving the need for love, understanding and acceptance in the face of loneliness and isolation.


September directed by Woody Allen, 1987:

This sense of often paradoxical closeness and confinement, as characters isolated from one another are simultaneously bound together in a single location, is exaggerated by the deliberate staging of the film, where Allen emphasises the underlining theatricality of the piece by refusing to leave the confines of the house for the full 80 minute duration. This places the audience on the inside of the drama, experiencing each moment of interaction as it happens, and allowing us to fully observe the solitude of these characters and their desperate attempts to forge a vague connection with the various other lost souls that linger in the half-light. The nocturnal otherworldliness that is created through this however can only sustain the serenity for so long until the intensity of the environment and the natural friction of these relationships within relationships cause the emotional meltdown of an already frayed central character in the film's shattering final act.

Allen maintains a connection with these characters by deliberately filming scenes in long, unbroken takes. This draws the audience into the discussion and into the various inter-connected relationships, while also maintaining that creative emphasis on unobtrusive, observational theatricality. Although the general presentation is too stylised to be mistaken for an actual "filmed play", the use of light and the framing of these characters, often with a sparing use of close-up, does give the impression of something existing outside of the natural parameters of everyday life. The look and feel of the film is therefore closer to the Brecht-inspired performance/flashback sequences in the subsequent Another Woman (1988); where the faces of characters, half hidden, half revealed, emerging from the darkness of the frame, become as enigmatic or engaging as the figures in a Caravaggio painting.


Another Woman directed by Woody Allen, 1988:


The Lute Player [Hermitage version] by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1600:


September directed by Woody Allen, 1987:

Allen's creative use of the camera to block or reveal his characters, maintaining that interest in having one actor on screen quarrelling or pleading with another actor just off camera, is a great way to lead the audience in any potential interpretations of these arguments, relationships and events. Although the concept is still theatrical enough in nature, Allen's approach to this is brilliantly cinematic, directing and misdirecting the audience in seeing the relationships unfold from the different emotional perspectives, so that we can appreciate the subtle changes in personality when, for example, Peter talks to Lane, or alternatively, when Peter talks to Stephanie.

Such considerations can also be seen in the conscious way in which Allen structures his scenes, so that moments of dialog are punctuated by moments of crippling silence, or where individual encounters, confrontations or moments of solitary reflection are allowed to play out in semi-darkened rooms lit by candlelight or very low sepia bulbs. The feeling that this creates is one of mystery and desperation, offering many secluded areas for the group to retreat, split up, take solace in their secrets, while also going some lengths towards visualising the deep-seated animosity that rests at the heart of these characters or the situations they've found themselves in.


September directed by Woody Allen, 1987:

In many respects, it could be interesting to look at September as the middle-part of a dramatic trilogy of films by Allen, which began with the bleak Interiors in 1978 and concluded ten years later with the bleak but wholly more interesting Another Woman. On the whole, September is a much more direct experience than Interiors, though perhaps lacks the possibilities of deeper interpretation present in something like Another Woman. The story is slow - deliberately paced in order to convey the feeling of something taking place in near real-time - but is generally worth sticking with; particularly for the clever unravelling of events and that jaw-dropping moment towards the end of the film, in which the root of Lane's problems and the inherent animosity towards her mother is finally revealed.

The performances throughout are exceptional, with Farrow and the always dependable Wiest giving possibly the best performances of their respective careers, ably supported by Waterston, whose look of utter contempt and disgust as the final revelation is made known is easily one of the defining images of Allen's cinema.


September directed by Woody Allen, 1987:

The filmmaker's complete understanding of character, atmosphere, design and direction in pulling off such a dour and depressing piece of work is evident right from the very first scene; even if most critics seem more preoccupied with citing the influence of Autumn Sonata (1978) than in actually picking out the nuances of these performances, engaging with the story, empathising with the characters, etc. Such extreme, almost dismissive reactions are always to be expected when approaching an unconventional work from a filmmaker so defined by their own iconic screen-persona, or ingrained within the cultural zeitgeist as a result of their earlier success. However, repeat viewings of September, specifically within the context of Allen's career throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, reveal a film that is rich in detail, beautifully filmed and edited, and genuinely cinematic, even in spite of its theatrical design.

It is a film defined as much by the empty spaces of rooms, doorways, or the literal blackness of the outside world, as it is by the emotional drama reflected on the face of each respective character; a film of great pain and sadness, guilt and regret, though one that leaves its audience with the suggestion that a change for the better is always within reach. As with the vast majority of Allen's work, September is an exceptional piece of filmmaking far more moving, satisfying and essential than the majority of critics might care to suggest.