Part of Arrow’s Woody Allen blu-ray box-set that I bought last year, Shadows and Fog is one of his films that I hadn’t seen before, and I came to it not knowing what to expect, but you know, it’s a Woody Allen film, so you expect it to be… well, everything this film largely isn’t, as it turns out. Because this was a very, very, strange film- which is possibly the kindest thing I can say about it (the unkindest thing I can possibly say is that it demonstrated some kind of masturbatory level of self-indulgence).
Watching it, I quickly came to the suspicion that it was a shambolic mess, experimentally shot like a latter-Terrence Malick film, without any script and just ad-libbed on the fly by actors briefed on a rough outline on what was to happen in each scene. It seemed that loose and unstructured- but of course, this is a Woody Allen so that’s obviously not the case, and it’s clear from the familiar Allen-styled dialogue that this was indeed scripted, unfortunately it’s just a really bad script… unless…
Unless, well, here’s the thing- I’ve been pondering this film most of the day and I’m just beginning to wonder if there is some kind of mad genius at work here.
Here’s the problem: Shadows and Fog is unfortunately an extreme case of style over substance, which is in itself a really odd thing for a Woody Allen film. Up to now, every Woody Allen I have seen has been pretty basic visually, there’s not usually too many bells and whistles, he’s usually just telling a story in a way that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. The story and the characters are the thing and Allen never wants to distract us from the characters or what they are saying and doing.
Allen’s genius (if that’s the word) is his gift for conflicted characters with neuroses and doubts and a world that is ignorant of them- usually his protagonists have no impact at all on the world around them.
That’s maintained here but the style here is everything- this seems to be Allen’s response to (or declaration of admiration of) film noir and its origins in German Expressionism and the b&w films of the 1920s and 1930s, and visually it’s drenched in those sorts of visuals and motifs- lots of backlighting and darkness and shadows. This is the thing that has bothered me all day- in this film, the world dominates the characters so much so that they (literally, I suppose) get lost in the fog. The film has a very dreamlike feel, and looking back on it, I have begun to wonder that perhaps this is indeed all a dream of its lead character, Kleinman (Woody Allen). It would explain such a great deal. For instance, the time and place, and the space that the characters move in, seems deliberately vague, and Kleinman seems distracted by anxieties about work, about relationships with freinds and neighbours and particularly women, as if its his subconscious dreaming mind filing away all his daytime issues. The film is quite episodic, and Kleinman bounces around not knowing what he is supposed to be doing and always seems pressured and bullied by others. In this respect, it makes some sense of the nonsensical attributes of the script, in how he moves in dreamlike fashion through dreamlike settings and meets presumably exaggerated dream-versions of people from his waking life. At one point he approaches his ex-fiance for help, and she ridicules him for jilting her at the altar before dismissing him: the encounter adds nothing to the narrative at all. But if this is indeed a dream narrative, it sort of makes sense. How, as well as his ex-fiance, he encounters his boss and later his chief rival from work, all as he aimlessly wanders the foggy streets on this timeless, endless night. It would also explain, in particular, his fascination with magic- a magician that may be a childhood hero, a circus that might be a childhood memory and the concluding moments of impossible magic/sleight of hand that could only happen in a dream.
Hmm. Maybe I need to see it again, because this ‘reading’ may actually help explain and improve the experience of the film. That’s the funny thing about films- watching this one I thought ‘this stinks, pretty much’ but having thought it over during today, I’ve more deeply considered its dreamlike attributes and arrived at this reading of the film- misguided as it may be. Even the bad films can linger and play around for awhile in your head.
So sure, maybe it’s just a lousy Woody Allen film and possibly one of his worst, but you know, maybe there’s something else going on here. But then again, there’s no excuse for Madonna being in this, unless he’s clearly exaggerating the dreamlike otherworldliness of the film with his casting.