How to Lobotomize Female Agency

In the wake of this year’s on-going news cycle regarding sexual harassment in Hollywood, the question of separating art from the artists has never been more prominent. On a superficial level, there is a forced comfort when the art in no way reflects the values and morals of the person who created it. However when common traits bleed into said works, it becomes more difficult to suppress the moral dissonance  that is being presented. No more is this confliction obvious found than in the works of Woody Allen.  The man has successfully and slavishly been able to keep up the longevity of his filmography by making a new movie every year since 1982. Although, one common theme that is found in several (but to be fair, not all) of his films involves the impractical May-to-December romance. It never reverses the genders, it is always a put-upon older man often resembling the director himself if not actually being played by him who ends up being enchanted by a much younger woman. This more than anything makes it impossible for some people to separate Allen’s work with his personal life; one that is controversial and more now than ever, is seen in a constant state of question and uncertainty.

For the purposes of this essay, we’re going to refrain from real world discussions involving Woody Allen or anyone else that is under that umbrella of sexual deviance that has come into the light lately. What I am interested in is dissecting that May-to-December romance and discussing the slighted nature of male and female dynamics on film. For some time now I’ve been simmering on two movies in particular regarding this issue, one involving the only Woody Allen movie I’ve seen: Irrational Man. This movie baffled me for the longest time upon watching it, in that I could not decided if I hated it or admired it. Was I imagining this idea that the film was aware of itself? At times it sure seemed that way, but the closing moments truly seemed to undermine any humor to be pulled out of the film and ultimately indulge in what is obstensively a beta male-power fantasy. It disgusted me, and ultimately irritated me to no end because I had made the conclusion earlier in the film that this was a reductionist version of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Shadow of a Doubt.

To the unfortunate reader who was looking for insight on the film as opposed to the critic’s opinion on Woody Allen himself, there were not a lot of worthy viewpoints on Irrational Man, particularly on its merits as a pseudo-crime thriller. This review by Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic nails the meshing of criticizing the artist with his filmography in a time where all anyone could talk about was Dylan Farrow’s then-recently published letter. [So you know if you want a refresher, go there before proceeding].

I had hoped terribly that someone else had seen the parallel of the two films, but that has never seemed to be the case and there does not seem to be any interest in revisiting this film due to its mediocrity And inherent ick-factor that proceeded it. I however, have been stewing on this for over two years now; because I couldn’t believe Woody Allen completely retextualized Shadow of a Doubt and grossly misunderstood the key relationship of the film. Instead he sexualized it at the cost of one of the main characters, the female lead (Emma Stone’s Jill), which in turn removed any sense of identity and self-interest that made the Hitchcock film interesting and suspenseful.

Why does this matter at all? On what authority do I have to talk about how Woody Allen writes female characters? As a female writer, with an inherent interest in character work, consider this a reactionary piece to writing about women without a sense of identity that doesn’t relate to any man she interacts with. Fundamentally speaking, female characters are in someway always intrinsically linked to male characters. They are their wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters or mothers, and often their agency in some capacity revolves around their relationship with one or several men. (Yes, Irrational Man actually does make this same tone-deaf arguement).

There is not a female equivalent to a film like Reservoir Dogs, because we are conditioned to think that men can have self-serving agency that is removed from emotional or personal relationships whereas women are not. There is a recent trend in repurposing properties to include women-only casts, such as the reboot of Ghostbusters or the upcoming Ocean’s Eight, but there isn’t a movie that is made in the vain of having a premise that is illustrated with a cast that is not gender-specific. I think about this constantly.

[Note: Reservoir Dogs and John Carpenter’s The Thing are two of my favorite movies and have an astounding number of merits that surpass the nature of their male-only casts, but it doesn’t erase the fact. If anything, they only motivated my interest in the matter.]

So if we are not at a point where we can have movies that do not codify gender roles instantly, thereby separating what female characters can and cannot do on film as opposed to male characters, then we can evaluate how these relationships are written as it stands. The symmetry of Shadow of a Doubt and Irrational Man is of note because they hit the same cinematic beats but repurpose them in a way where one shades in emotional details for its central characters and the other constantly indulges in bloviating how interesting and important the male character is to the effect of ruining the other characters.

This discussion cannot go further without massively spoiling either movie, because while the plot of Shadow of a Doubt is consistently thorough in its premise, Irrational Man turns from this rambling comedy-drama into what is obstensively the entire plot of Shadow of a Doubt in its final act. Being the nature of critical media, this final act isn’t really brought up in many of the reviews, at least not in the way that I would need to talk about it. From my personal experience, the film didn’t truly click for me until it got to this reveal that would influence the remaining course of the story, because I realized what I was watching and figured out exactly how it was going to end. By foreseeing the conclusion to Allen’s film, it only led me down a path of increasing frustration and eventual infuriation at how the seemingly satirical perspective of the central character was rather played straight all along. The title of the film, Irrational Man, is misleading and does not want us to really think that that “man” was being too “irrational”. And in fact, if we all had the chance, we’d fuck his brains out.

I don’t like this movie. I find it preposterous and disgusting actually. Have I made that clear?

For the intents and purposes of this comparison, I’m going to try not to divulge into the first two acts of Irrational Man unless they merit relevancy to Shadow of a Doubt. Like I said, there are dozens of reviews that, unfavorably mind you, detail the setup of the film and explain why it’s overwrought thoroughly enough (see Gilbert’s review above).

So let’s focus on 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. What is considered to be one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites, it is also arguably his most “American” styled film. Set in the idyllic and charming Santa Rosa, California, the film is a psychological dissection of a classic American family. The intimate relationships of the Newton family are thrown into the wind at the arrival of the matriarch’s youngest brother Charlie (Joseph Cotten) who brings to light the insidious nature of the immoral actions of man and the corruption of innocence. The person most dramatically affect by this is young Charlie (Teresa Wright), that is Uncle Charlie’s niece, in which she was named after.

Part of Uncle Charlie’s corruption upon his niece begins when she suspects his insidious nature and the eventual reveal that he had in fact fled to their home after committing murder. However, Uncle Charlie is so warmly accepted by her family and even the entire town, that it becomes her own personal struggle to challenge his actions and try to be morally right by him. This is in conflict with her teenage listlessness and her admiration for her uncle. They are forged in connection with each other by their names and blood, how could she live to be a representation of a man who is so disturbed?

Excusing the basic plot: A young woman suspects her uncle of having committed murder after he returns to her home after an extended absence; this movie has given the main female character a lot of pathos to work with. When we are introduced to Charlie, we relate with her boredom of her teenage life, one that is reaching an end due to her maturity and the confinement’s of the innocent nature of her safe hometown. Removing the opening sequence, the film could easily be mistaken for a quaint little romantic comedy with its folksy characters and nigh-Disney-like wholesome aesthetic. But most important to note, is that she idealizes and fantasizes about her Uncle Charlie, envisioning her ideas of freedom and individuality that being an adult is surely going to grant her through him.

This movie is driven by Charlie’s journey into adulthood by the devious nature of her uncle. The horror of Uncle Charlie’s actions is all left to Charlie, who throughout the course of the movie gains a sense of determination that conflicts nastily with Uncle Charlie to the point where the two become enemies hidden under the facade of loving relatives.

In the above scene this illustrates not only their brewing conflict but the familial dynamic. Each of the characters in the film play a part in characterizing either the town or Charlie herself. Her siblings are much younger and therefore inquisitive but not aware of the adult subtext lying in front of them while her mother is completely and blindly smitten with her brother to the point of insisting that he never leave. (Even after such a creepy monologue). One bit that is missing is that in an earlier scene, Charlie’s father, in what is a seemingly innocuous conversation with a friend instigates this curiosity inside of her to even consider the nature of Uncle Charlie’s actions and reasonings. The relationship of Uncle and Niece fall apart the further Charlie pushes the boundaries not just of the confounds of her home but the warning signs that Uncle Charlie both verbally and physically emposes on her.

The disillusion Charlie faces is the ultimate dramatic arc of the film. By perpetuating this idea of maturity and identity upon Uncle Charlie, she has allowed herself to be exposed to the grueling reality of adulthood and the destructive nature of amorality. To be clear however, we are not left unexposed to Uncle Charlie’s theology and rationale. In fact he very perfunctorily states his personal philosophy, “What’s the use of looking backward? What’s the use of looking ahead? Today’s the thing.” This in accordance with his sister’s story about a bicycle accident that possibly caused some kind of physical trauma that effected him psychologically, reflects on the thrill-seeking behavior that he’s endured in a negative way.

Both Charlie’s are looking for some kind of out, neither one considering the ramifications of one’s actions until the moment immediately presents itself. The difference being that young Charlie comes to regret her impulsive desires that she saw in Uncle Charlie and realizes that this mindset has set him off on a very destructive path. Interestingly, this is the same kind of parallel that sets off the inciting motion in Irrational Man.

In redundant coinciding narration, Jill (Stone) simplifies and pontificates on the increasingly erratic behavior of Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who in turn spouts off terse cliff-notes of philosophy because he finds life utterly meaningless. The two are also seeking a higher meaning out of their comfort zone; though Abe’s is beyond simple pleasantries of love and life (because he’s read everything, and done everything, and fucked everyone, and been heartbroken, and been beaten down by life because he went to ALL the political rallies and spent time in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and was so disenchanted with EVERYTHING BECAUSE HE’S SO DEEP) [and the writing never gets any more specific than that, a few name drops here and there but it’s surface level exposition vomit].

Meanwhile Jill is determined that her obsessive declaration of love for him is what will fix this down-trodden and broken man, even though she has a steady relationship with a boy who cares about her and up until a certain point keeps getting rebuffed by Abe. Her insistence to advance their relationship in a sexual way is never condemned or even properly scrutinized; she never considers how this is a violation of the student/teacher relationship let alone her own boyfriend whom she strings along and never justifiably has reason to leave him. These two are extremely narcissistic in a way that made me wonder if this was truly playing for laughs, because neither are aware of anyone else’s feelings let alone each other’s and both come across as rather sociopathic.

This comes to a head when Jill finally puts together that Abe set out to achieve his goal in murdering a judge who was going to punish a divorced mother by taking her children away from her on the grounds of bettering her life (and by extension the world because everything is in absolutes). [Does it matter who this woman is? No.] This wouldn’t be so ridiculous if the movie hadn’t fixated on such a myopic viewpoint of these two characters which makes any of their dialogue after the scene in the diner pretty damn obvious because no one else factors in to the movie, so for Jill not to realize that he was planning this is grossly ignorant on her part. But I digress, the following dialogue is the moment that I thought this movie was turning around and the symmetries of the two movies were coming together.

Jill: I believe that you think you did something morally worthwhile.

Abe: I did!

Jill: I do believe that. But you can’t, you can’t justify it! You can’t justify it with all this bullshit. With all this bullshit, French post-war rationalizing. This is murder. It opens the door to more murder Abe.

Unfortunately I’m unable to find the full scene online, but here the movie offered a chance to not only turn its characters around but also propose a title-based theory. If the “man” in question is “irrational” based on his actions of morality, then does that make the “woman” in this case “rational” to be able to see beyond his viewpoint and realize the extreme ramification and consequences of his actions? This point in Shadow of a Doubt comes from a conversation between Charlie and her uncle in a bar, where she has found herself unable to escape his influence both physically and mentally. The two sit across from each other in a bar where Uncle Charlie delves deeper into his philosophy of immediate reaction to the meaningless of life by describing it’s ugliness. This moment signifies a change in the two:

  1. Uncle Charlie has removed any indication that he is willing to change his ways and is happy to embark on his malevolent path so long as no one gets in his way. He believes he can achieve this easily through the emotions and prowess of women, that of which he preys on. He preys on women to murder in order to gain their material possessions but more importantly he has preyed on Charlie and her mother’s affections and used that to manipulate them. There’s a sneaking sense of sexual superiority in Charlie’s motives, hence why the movie chooses to focus on Charlie the young woman instead of the young man.
  2. This factors into how Charlie changes for the remainder of the movie. She understands the danger that he has brought upon her entire life, and while she is afraid of him, she feels obligated to protect her family, particularly her mother. She even goes as far as to threaten him should he go near her. Charlie has accepted her responsibility as a daughter and an independent adult and how that requires courage and legitimate action on her part. She is willing to kill her Uncle.

The parallels between Charlie and her Uncle are the clearest here in the confrontation between Jill and Abe. I believed that this movie was going to turn Jill into our hero, and in a way it did. However because Abe’s act of murder is so removed from our perspective, in that we only experience it through Abe’s resurgence for life and without any consequences to follow, it makes the act bland. There is no sense of mystery here, no indication that Abe is even intelligent enough to throw Jill off. He does because she is stupid, not because he is crafty. (Uncle Charlie gives Charlie a ring that he had stolen from his murder victim, that sets a prescendent for how dark and demented he had become and how he is willing to exploit that, in accordance with his manipulation of the family). Abe’s disregard for what he has done could either have been played more comedically or darker than what is presented, but seeing as the movie has no clear discernible tone, his reactions in the dialogue with Jill become secondary. It becomes Jill’s story.

So as it stands, what have we come to learn about Jill in the movie? Besides the contextual details like she plays piano, she is in good relations with her parents, she’s a bright student, she horseback rides and there was a non-descript concert she wanted to go to but ended up blowing it off to bang her philosophy professor instead. The contents of her dialogue are adnausem just her gushing and gushing about Abe, even when he’s the one she’s talking to, which becomes tiresome rather quickly when we account that narration that’s going on over the dull “tell-not-show” dialogue that plagues the entire movie. The moment the film starts, she is talking about Abe, she has no identity outside of him it seems. She’s not even attached or defined by her relationship as she spends all of those scenes with her boyfriend talking about Abe. Former Dissolve and current Verge writer Tasha Robinson correctly points out how annoying this is to follow:

Jill’s sexual scheming is less excusable, given that it affects a much more visible character, that it’s pitched so shrilly, and that her sexual demands become ploddingly redundant. Yes, Abe’s a murderer, but Jill‘s annoying. … this is a film in which the sexual predation of an obliviously selfish college girl is portrayed as uglier than murder…

Character agency in storytelling revolves around the distinction of “active” versus “reactive”. A character who is active, is perpetuating the story forward, while a reactive character is having the story thrust upon them. There are three key elements of Charlie’s actions during the course of Shadow of a Doubt: 1. Her desire to endure a matured and valued relationship with her Uncle. 2. Her curiosity and ambition to discover his secrets once the police show up. 3. Her immediate need to protect herself and her family from her Uncle once he reveals the kind of person she feared him to be.

Jill has one constant action throughout the plot, pursue a romantic relationship with Abe. She only achieves this once he has actively murdered someone and she is reacting to his influence from such a deed. When she finds out what he has done she insists on not seeing him anymore and after much passiveness decides to go to the police only after someone else is arrested for his murder. This action he took does not influence her character in any way other than running back scared to her boyfriend. This wouldn’t bother me so much if that moment of clarity she had when she realized what Abe had done had stuck with her throughout the remainder of the movie. But the very next time her voice pops up in the narration she insists that she still loves him and that his act was that of heroism. Her entire dialogue at the end of the movie has her appreciating him for teaching her a lesson about the meaning of life after he tried to kill her.

The thing is, is that Irrational Man doesn’t really come to life until Abe murders the judge, thus making the last twenty minutes or so engaging. This is the starting point of Shadow of a Doubt, which allows us to spend the remainder of the film watching the family dynamic unwind. Here however, without a consistent tone or likeable characters or anything beyond banal dialogue, it’s just absurd how it doesn’t do anything interesting with a rather basic setup. As a story about romanticizing another person to find meaning in one’s own life, Irrational Man can’t even manage the romantic aspect.

Both films rely on a woman’s interaction with a man she is close to. Both women are naive about this older man and the world itself, assuming that they are mature enough to handle any new experiences that come before them. Both men can only find true comfort and solace in their criminal actions, even though both are offered unscrupulous amounts of love and respect. The dangerous actions of these men traumatically effect the women and in turn change their perspectives by the end of the film.

So how is it that I can justify Shadow of a Doubt heavily relying on the dynamic of female characters relying on male characters for means of active and reactive support, whereas I can’t let it go that Irrational Man fails miserably at this?

The way I’ve come to look at is that male and female relationships are the basic foundation of society. When it comes to submitting characters to a screen, regardless of gender, there has to be a need for this character to appear. They are serving a purpose that is either active or reactive and is going to help forward the momentum of the story. But it is also necessary to understand why the story is being told. I tend to do character work long before going into a plot, and by understanding the characters, it helps mold the story. Once I understand who the characters are and what their story is, I can go back and refigure aspects of their traits or what is supposed to happen to them.

Character work should be malliable and the characters should not be immediately stagnated in their roles. This applies to male and female characters in that if we constantly position them in designated roles that they are always seen in, there is never going to be change in the broader sense of how we tell stories. Both Shadow of a Doubt and Irrational Man are noir concepts. However the former takes the basic beats of that premise and puts a twist on it by re-establishing the male and female dynamics.

It’s very easy to imagine a reality where Shadow of a Doubt had Uncle Charlie and young Charlie not be relatives but rather estranged lovers, as that was wont for the genre to include two star-crossed lovers. It’s even easier to imagine because Irrational Man did just that without making any interesting observations about the relationship, other than continuing this gross trope that has plagued Hollywood films for years. If this is supposed to be satirical, it doesn’t work because Jill doesn’t have a sense of agency outside of her ridiculous obsession with Abe. And the plot itself doesn’t kick off until the 3rd act which makes it a poor murder-mystery, if we can even call it that.

The thing is, young Charlie is not a complicated character and she is not in a complicated movie. But the consideration of the movie that lets us get to know her, her siblings, her parents, her environment, and her relationship with Uncle Charlie allows it to permeate in your mind by the time the film comes to a close. It is so easy to shoe-horn female characters into a script and give them nothing to work with but disguise it with the presence of a genuinely talented actress, of which Emma Stone is. That’s so ungenerous to her as an actress.

As writers, we must consider each of our characters. Why are they here? What are they doing? How do they think and talk? What would they be doing if they weren’t in this scene?

I shouldn’t be having to ask these questions when the writer in question is someone who’s been in the business as long as Woody Allen. I know, I know, Hannah and Her Sisters. Again, this is a comparison in writing than it is a critique of the directors. Hitchcock was a shit to women too, but you know, at least his personal life didn’t bleed into his work.

  • Drunk Napoleon

    What did we watch?

    • Drunk Napoleon

      LOST, Season Four, Episode Five, “The Constant”
      “Why would I put you through the headache of time travel?”

      “I won’t call for eight years.”

      Here it is, one of the all-time great time travel stories. I recall at the time finding both the brain-hopping method and the Constant thing extremely frustrating, not-even-pseudoscientific explanations for how it worked, but I find time travel too cool to not like a story about it; since then, I’ve learned the former is kinda in the vicinity of current theories on time travel and the latter is, while frustrating, at least consistent with the show’s mythology. I find arguments on genre more tedious than arguments on semantics, but I like the idea of the show using fantasy elements to generate science fiction stories (which, in turn, generates character drama).

      The other neat thing about the time travel is how it builds on Desmond’s previous episode to fully put a character in our flashbacking shoes and generates an actual plot out of it. When we watch the show, we try to spot the constant between the present and the past/future; now a character has to do that. Also, what makes Desmond and Penny’s story one of the all-time great romances is that, while we see more of Desmond, Penny is also actively chasing their relationship, and not just in a ‘when will my husband return from the war’ way, in a ‘I’m gonna literally search the globe expending vast amounts of my fortune’ kind of way.

      Dan’s inability to lie kicks off the plot again. Interestingly, in the past, while he’s still weird, he’s not as actively fucked up as he is now.

      Ownage: This is our first appearance of Keamy, who owns his way through.

      Prince Of Darkness, John Carpenter
      “The outside world doesn’t want to hear this kind of bullshit.”

      This movie as a whole is another Marmite situation; put me down as someone who really doesn’t care for it. Superficially, it’s because it combines godawful pacing with some of the most terrifying individual sequences Carpenter ever did, which makes it a hard watch, but on a second watch it really seems like Carpenter consciously going so completely out of his wheelhouse. This isn’t icons doing basic problem-solving in a bleak and indifferent universe; this is an exploration and development of a worldview and philosophy, and while I admit to not knowing much about the concepts Carpenter talks about here, I know enough to suspect he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

      Carpenter not doing his usual shtick also leads to him being surprisingly bad at what he normally does. The casting in Carpenter’s previous films was always dead-on; everyone looked and acted how they were supposed to, even all the way back to Assault On Precinct 13; the casting here feels almost Ed Wood-esque in how it just seems to grab whoever’s available. And the plot isn’t a lean motherfuckin’ engine, it’s an assortment of loose riffing and occasional downright gibberish.

      It’s a shame, because there are quite a few elements of the story I do like. Obviously, the music is awesome, but I also love some of the imagery floating through – my favourite being that iconic transmission dream, which leads to the spooky, open-to-interpretation ending, and of course the premise of a bunch of grad students accidentally opening a can of Satan is totally boss. I can’t even quite put it into words; it’s as if even the basic filmmaking choices feel like the wrong ones (I can feel where there should be a cut where Carpenter holds on the wide, for example).

      This is also the second film in Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, after The Thing.

      Ownage: The priest does cut that chick’s arm and head off, that’s pretty sick.

      • The Constant is quite possibly the high point of Lost.

    • Mr. Monk and the Psychic: I suspect that when I am brain dead after a long day, I am going to be watching a lot of Monk until it drops off Amazon. This particular episode is more in a Columbo vein (we saw who did it right off) than a Murder She Wrote vein, but overall it’s about what I expect from Monk. I think that if Shalhoub weren’t so invested in both the weirder aspects of Monk’s behavior and the brilliance of his investigations, the show would founder fast.

    • clytie

      YouTube videos. Does anyone else watch Jack’s Movie Reviews? It’s pretty great. I watched the one about biblical morality in Fargo and Jack mentioned an article on the same subject, which is also great.


    • Miller

      End of Season Five Offices – Cafe Disco is a weird little fantasy episode that would not work as a general tone for the series (and its overwhelming fun and niceness feels Parks and Recian) but it’s a lovely little step to the side and it makes me feel good. Robot Michael’s “I was just learning to looove” when his “battery” is taken out is a rare example of Michael actually being hilarious on purpose. And he interestingly ends the episode just watching and enjoying other people rather than demanding to be the center of their attention – this continues in the finale when he enjoys a great day with Holly but does not try to win her back as he planned. Some maturity is finally peeking through, Michael is learning to lay back.

    • Bright – Was suckered into this, and it’s not the worst movie of the year, but it was still dull. I think if Will Smith hadn’t been the lead, with his natural charisma doing the heavy lifting, it would’ve been tedious. The make up effects were fantastic and deserve a much better movie (they’d probably agree). It’s treatment of police racism was middling at best, the kind of allegory you could expect from a 1960s/70s issue movie, where it asks us to get along without probing deeper into why we don’t. Action was decent, if nothing exceptional (I really liked Fury, and I wonder why Ayer hasn’t delivered since then). I mean, there’s worse ways to spend 2h, but there’s also better.

      I do find it interesting the split between critics & general audience here – I wonder why it’s so well-liked overall?

      • Miller

        Total off-the-cuff hot take answer to your question – because Netflix is still TV and a TV movie – or more appropriately, a movie on TV in the vein of the Comedy Central movie (like Stripes or PCU) or the TBS movie (like US Marshals or The Negotiator) — is watched with a more relaxed attitude.

      • Defense Against The Hark Arts

        I was kind of interested to watch this until I read about Max Landis.


        He seemed like kind of a dick and he obviously has mental problems but that’s no excuse for terrible behavior.

    • Conor Malcolm Crockford

      Showed my sister the first two and a half episodes of Deadwood. This cocksucker of a show IMMENSELY rewards rewatching, as so many subtle gestures can get lost. There’s a lot to say but I’ll stick to basics.

      Pilot – The opening and closing scenes dictates the morality of the series – better to hang a man now rather than leave him to brutality, and sometimes you just need to put trust in people even when they don’t always merit that reward. So many painterly and cinematic shots, like the wide of Al, Trixie and Doc in a warped pieta.

      Episode 2 – This one really cements that Seth is an angry, angry man, and any notion of him running a furniture store to the end of his days is laughable. He needs a gun and needs conflict. I never caught til now that Al doesn’t believe Dan that Seth took Sophia and intuitively understands that Dan can’t kill her. It’s the first inkling that Dan and Al’s relationship is weird and paternal and oddly sweet. None of the social relations are easy but they’re necessary. Doc thinks Jane is fucking nuts (as would I if she pointed a gun at me) but knows she’s doing the best she can with her broken self.

      Not much on episode 3 yet but Keith Carradine carries Wild Bill Hicock’s swagger and weariness beautifully. He’s a rock star reduced to a county fair, unable to break his addictions and turn away from his nature. He’s the strongest connection to the Old West of cinema, and like Ethan Edwards or Shane he can’t stop being like this. Every single moment of his life is spent in recognition and in the knowledge that somebody could kill him, and it won’t end (he likes Bullock instantly because Bullock, while not infamous, always lives like violence is about to erupt any second).

      What I pick up from Deadwood is, like the Sopranos, a sense of life moving forward whether you like it or not. They’re both shows where the big stuff happened either before it starts or after (Johnny Boy, Little Bighorn). But Deadwood is fundamentally hopeful, non-judgmental, where the Sopranos is rooted in despair and horror. And I don’t think I disagree with either.

    • The Ploughman

      Star Trek: The Motion Picture
      Me: I haven’t seen this since middle school.

      Ploughwoman: I don’t think I’ve ever stayed awake through the whole thing.

      [movie starts with literally 90 seconds of light classical music and a black screen]

      Me: I can’t imagine why.

      Damn it, Bones, I like this movie a lot. It’s an interesting beast. It only got made because Star Wars was a hit, yet it wants to be 2001 so badly it’s painful. Yet it leans on those illogical human emotions – the conflict between Decker and Kirk, the love story, the friendships – and comes out as something, if still vastly inferior to 2001, that at least avoids diminishing in an exact comparison.

      The slow sequences are painfully slow (Kubrick did these but he shot more than four angles to cut between), but the film stands out from the other ST movies because it’s made for the big screen. The BIG screen. The Enterprise is established as the giant, giant ship that it must be to house a small city of crew, then it’s dwarfed by V-ger’s inner chambers. There’s a sense of scale few sci-fi films achieve, no matter much they giant-size their Death Stars. Even conversations are setup to take advantage of the wide screen, rather than just bouncing between reverse shots to get dialog out.

      I have fond memories of Wrath of Kahn, too, but I daresay if this film had been the mold for a successful ST film instead, we’d be a lot better off.

      • Defense Against The Hark Arts

        Star Trek: The Motion Picture needs more singing whales and zero-gravity phaser fights. That’s what made ST 5 and 6 my favorites of the series.

      • It’s the rare film that makes space actually feel spacious, and that we’re just dabbling in the cosmos.

    • Guys. I’ve said this before that I don’t like the What Did We Watch thread in my articles. I did not stay up late writing this article just for the majority of the comments to ignore it. I don’t write that often here so I would appreciate it if you all could refrain from doing this.

  • Miller

    Nice article – I think something like this is a lot more interesting and concrete than an art vs. artist debate that only looks at the artist in question, this gives a more complete picture of the intertwining via comparison. Regarding a female Reservoir Dogs – would Set It Off count? And this is not meant as a “well actually,” just as a possible recommendation (I haven’t seen it, just know it’s out there).

    • I’ll have to look into that movie, it’s definitely a question worth being answered.

      • Miller

        Not to mention that great scene with Jackie and Melanie in the dressing rooms — Melanie is trying (and ultimately succeeding) to sow dissension with her girl power talk but I don’t think she’s entirely bullshitting, she can see Melanie is in a position that she herself is working to get out from under. There’s a Poison Ivy/Harley Quinn team-up waiting to happen there, but one of the movie’s many tragedies is that things have gone too far for that to happen.

  • The Ploughman

    Well observed comparison. I love a good deep dive into a comparison that gets overlooked like this. My only pushback would be on the idea that Hitchcock, he who made Vertigo of all things, never let his personal life enter his work. Maybe fair to say it never interferes with his work – he always delivered a cogent, entertaining film before any other concerns or buried statements.

    Do you think Irrational Man would have been more successful starting with the murder element (as you point out was the case in Shadow)? Or did the characters doom the whole exercise from the start?

    • Marnie, too, is a tough watch, given what we know now about Hitchcock’s treatment of Tippi Hedren.

      • Son of Griff

        Hitchcock’s return to female-centric narratives in the 1960s offers a fascinating contrast to the domestic suspense melodramas of the 1940s, MARNIE inverts the generally emotionally intuitive emphasis of the WWII era films with a more Freudian perspective that normalizes the “male” gaze of psychiatry, associating it with reason and the control of the female self. Hitch’s treatment of Hedren is the icing on the cake. (I won’t get to my MARNIE review this month, but I’ll post it in the next couple of weeks)

      • Babalugats

        Marnie was a tough watch even when we knew nothing about Hitchcock’s moral failings.

      • Conor Malcolm Crockford

        It’s a strange, kind of appalling movie although I agree with Brody’s assessment that the movie’s too fascinating and personal to dismiss (and clearly directed by a genius).

        • Son of Griff

          When I first saw it in college I placed it immediately in my top 5 Hitchcocks, only on the basis of it being impeccably photographed, framed, and edited. As I became more conscious of gender and representation its reputation really dived in my eyes. Many Hitchcock movies can inspire lively debates regarding their treatment of women, but MARNIE seems pretty unambiguously misogynistic in its crypto-psychiatry.

    • I had a feeling I was overgeneralizing too much on Hitchcock’s part. I guess I should have said how women were treated wasn’t talked about in his era unlike Allen.

      I think the only way IM could have worked is if the movie had considered any other perspective besides the two main characters. I didn’t talk about Parker Posey’s character but she is as much as an inactive character as Stone is. Starting with the murder would have given us time to spend with Abe discovering his lust for life and probably would have made his relationships with the other characters more on edge.

      • “I think the only way IM could have worked is if the movie had considered any other perspective besides the two main characters”–this holds true for a shit-ton of Allen’s works. Pretty much everyone outside the central character (if we’re lucky, the central two) exists as a function in the whatever argument the central character makes. Part of why I love Husbands and Wives is (lesser reason) there’s a strong quartet of central characters, not just one or two and (greater reason) the movie, quite possibly against Allen’s intentions, threw all my sympathy to the non-central characters. (Somewhere @disqus_7AOfmTpErb:disqus sez that Liam Neeson is the Rickety Cricket of this movie, which is dead solid perfect: the four main characters are an upscale Gang.) (Also, holy shit, Lysette Anthony had so much bravery to take that role and crush it after what happened to her.)

        • The Ploughman

          I meant to post something about it here and didn’t get around to it, but I watched The Purple Rose of Cairo the other day and it’s charming and funny and submissable as evidence that Woody Allen is (or at least became) a very lazy director. Farrow and Bridges are great, but I feel like all the burden is put on the actors to find their own way and give the scenes momentum in single-take wides. Other scenes that don’t feature one or both of them seem like a filmed rehearsal (I’m thinking specifically of the motion picture executives discussing the revolt of other characters in screens across the country). Later, he would also become a lazy writer as well.

          I don’t bring this up just to shit on Allen but to suggest Allen’s true worldview might be more evident than Hitchcock’s because he’s making films autonomously and his first drafts aren’t being buried under a heap of craft (okay, I might be shitting on Allen a little). Hitchcock, who polished each frame to a shine and worked with writers, would have his personal gender issues appear only secondary to a lot of other factors.

          • Son of Griff

            I think your assessment of Allen filming his first drafts is a pretty deft observation. If his scripts were novels they’d most likely never see publication. He is occasionally saved at being able to establish the parameters of a character’s personality quickly, but he lacks the ability to make them authentically interact within a professional or familial setting (mostly). I think he can also come up with tantalizing concepts, but he needs to hand these out to collaborator’s, and maybe even other director’s, at this point.

          • Babalugats

            Another article from the Atlantic on Allen, really gets into this. It’s a pretty damning take on his late career approach that is hard to argue with.


          • The Ploughman

            Allen’s movies bear this out 100% (very pertinent here as the article mentions Irrational Man so many times). I’d say he’s been coasting a lot longer than this even suggests, the way it frames The Purple Rose of Cairo.

            Allen would be the most deserving and least interesting choice for a Blank Check mini-series.

          • Babalugats

            It would be soooooo long.

    • Son of Griff

      In any natural circumstance, Phoenix would have been familiar with the idea of a “moral” murder and probably would have committed it earlier. It seems baffling that the characters in this movie treat the life of the mind in pure abstraction until dramatic necessity demands it gets played out in practice.

      • This is another thing with Allen that often feels half-baked: Allen often sets characters in the modern world, but he usually has them interacting with philosophical ideas that predate the 1950s and usually date back to the 1800s. At his best, he’s able to spin fresh iterations of these ideas into interesting conceptual and/or character pieces (I’d argue that Irrational Man mostly does this, though I know I’m in the minority there), but oftentimes, it just comes off as lazy philosophical shorthand for played-out ideas.

        • Son of Griff

          Allen’s observational comedy is a product of the social ramifications of higher educational opportunities enjoyed by the urban white working class after WWII. As a guy who began making a living writing professionally in high school, he never really partook of this popularization of the liberal arts in an institutional setting. He was more of an autodidact, which accentuates the hermeticism that effects many of his movies. While Allen was once smart enough to capture the elitist foibles of the educated bourgeois by milking laughs from certain middlebrow cultural signifiers , he hasn’t really dealt with the changing face of that culture since the 1960s/70s.

          • Definitely. Which is why a lot of his better late-period movies are period films, I’d say.

  • Son of Griff

    A consistent intersection in Hitchcock and Allen’s work is the emergence with the moral philosophy of the “Superman” in an era where the virtue of subservience to a Judeo-Christian morality has been replaced with a focus on the health of the individual personality. Both directors utilize the structure of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, where murder is couched in terms of a “superior” moral position to standard social norms, to explore the dimensions of this argument. As a filmmaker operating under the narrative constraints of the Hay’s code, Hitchcock’s amoral characters face some form of exposure and retribution from society. Moreover, it might be fair to suggest that Hitchcock’s own Catholic outlook inhibited his full approval of his villain’s actions. His meticulous depictions of the interactions and foibles of the family in SHADOW OF THE DOUBT create a sympathetic counterweight to Uncle Charlie’s Neitzchean philosophical outlook.

    Allen tries to avoid the inherent nihilism of murky moralities in a godless environment, but often falls victim to his hermeticism and social isolation. He shows no familiarity with how classrooms, academic politics, or family work in IRRATIONAL MAN, which reduces his character’s to abstractions constrained by the limits of his imagination. Stone is kind of a sage waif who emerges from time to time in Allen films (see MANHATTAN), but, as in MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, he undermines her character’s power by making moral indecisiveness her defining trait. Even the ending, which mirrors SoaD, denies the agency that Hitchcock gave Charly. In the earlier film, the heroine makes a key defensive maneuver that causes her uncle to loose his balance. Phoenix merely trips on a flashlight. IRRATIONAL MAN in all respects projects a nihilism that it seeks to critique, if only because it lacks a genuine sense of the diversity of human interaction.

    In short, this is a remarkable compare and contrast essay.

    • I’m very tempted to copy and paste this into the essay.

      • Son of Griff

        I love dialogic double features, and I never really considered putting these two movies in a conversation until you posted this. Feel free to use these comments to add to your points.

      • That’s @SonofGriffenstein:disqus for ya 😏

  • Guys. I’ve said this before that I don’t like the What Did We Watch thread in my articles. I did not stay up late writing this article just for the majority of the comments to ignore it. I don’t write that often here so I would appreciate it if you all could refrain from doing this.

    • psst. . .do you want to feature this comment?

    • Guillermo Jiménez

      Honestly, I’m always baffled by the ubiquity What Did We Watch threads on The Solute articles. They don’t HAVE to be on every article, guys.

      • DJ JD

        Late to the game but it’s really just an excuse to hang out and talk about whatever. When I’m in school I don’t watch anything fun, ever, but I still show up in those most days.

  • Mr. Max

    I love dialogic double features, and I never really considered putting these two movies in a conversation until you posted this. Feel free to use these comments to add to your points.

  • DJ JD

    Great comparison and contrast. I stopped watching Woody Allen films a long time ago, initially more for my sense that it was lazy, repetitive, reductive work than out of a sense of gnawing moral disquiet (although that was there too and never stopped growing, of course.) I’d never connected these two films but I really enjoyed reading about the relationships between the two that you drew.

  • Excellent piece. I’m a big ol’ Woody Allen fan, and I even like this movie quite a bit, but I won’t pretend that the flaws in his work people bring up aren’t there, especially the flaws about the agency of women you’re talking about.

    What’s kind of fascinating about his filmography is how often the tropes of his filmmaking can fluctuate between strengths and weaknesses from film to film. For example, recontextualizing/remaking classic films is a consistent device in his filmography, and sometimes it results in an exciting and usually personal engagement with older cinematic dialects/plots (Stardust Memories is probably the best case here), while other times, it feels like Allen has merely flattened the original (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, for example, or Magic in the Moonlight). The same goes for his depiction of women, I’d say–there are times when (I’m thinking Purple Rose of Cairo) his trope of powerless women/women in relationships with “problematic” men becomes, if not exactly groundbreaking, a profoundly empathetic rendering of those characters’ experiences, while other times (honestly, most of the time these days–Husbands and Wives was the last time Woody Allen seemed constructively self-aware about his relationships with women, and Sweet and Lowdown seems the last time he was self-aware at all) it just seems like Allen doesn’t give a shit about women outside of the narrow way he has framed their personalities and experiences.

    All that said, I don’t think the May-December romance thing ever worked in Allen’s output, though there was at least a time when he appeared to be trying to say something about that idea rather than just taking it as a given.

    I’m kind of losing the thread here, so I’ll wrap it up. But thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed it.

    • Son of Griff

      Out of curiosity, what is the source material for MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. I did an elaborate presentation on it a couple of years ago that I might re-write and post here should the opportunity arise, and I’d love to see some point of origin.

      • Please do! I almost watched that one when we had it in theaters (and I was still a theater employee) but couldn’t bring myself to watch it because the pairing of Emma Stone and Colin Firth grossed me out too much. I tried to justify it due to the time period of the film, but I never got around to it.

        • Son of Griff

          I may push that one up in line then.

      • I might be remembering wrong, since the movie didn’t make that much of an impact on me, but isn’t the film at least somewhat a riff on My Fair Lady? The final act certainly is, but I’m trying to remember how the first hour of the film goes.

        • Son of Griff

          The set up involves Colin Firth as a Harry Houdini like figure who, due to the prodding of a friend, tries to expose a spiritualist (Stone) staying at his mother’s estate. The ending comes from MFL (technically, it is also the ending that Shaw wrote for the screen version of PYGMALION). There is an Agatha Christie like vibe to it, now that II think of it.

    • Indeed everything I’ve read regarding this essay and all of your comments has become really fascinating to me in regards to his craftsmanship, in that it just seems incredibly lazy and unwilling to break any tropes he has established for himself. So I can’t imagine being a young actress getting called into read for him being really shocked when she reads the script and finds out what kind of character she’s playing.

      But anyway, I’m speaking from relatively an outsider’s perspective. Can you elaborate more on your thoughts on the movie and why you liked it? I’m just curious.

      • I think that it’s a pleasant-enough experience on a moment-by-moment scripting level (he has much lazier screenplays), and the acting–something that often makes Allen’s lesser screenplays serviceable–is pretty excellent across the board, as well as well-cast (more Parky Posey in Woody Allen movies, please). It’s also really well-shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, which is another thing that can carry some of Allen’s lazy choices (especially his lazy visual choices). But there are two main things interesting me about it, one that’s Woody-Allen-specific and one that’s more universal. In the context of Woody Allen’s career, this movie is in conversation with his two other “philosophical murder” films, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. Both of those movies are much better than this one, but it’s still interesting to me to see Allen engaging with his own cinematic past like this. On a more universal level, I think this movie has interesting things to say about the limits of applying rational abstract thinking (particularly of the kind that occupies some academic philosophers) to the real world.

        But none of this really helps the gender dynamics of the movie, or the fact that the plotting itself is pretty disjointed and poorly structured.

  • thesplitsaber

    I didnt see it mentioned anywhere below, but for another take on Shadow Of A Doubt check out Chan-Wook Park’s Stoker. It was met with a big old shrug on release but ended up being my favorite movie of 2013.

    Its unlike any other movie i know of-a mix of americana, hitchkockian suspense and Korean melodrama, with an amazing anti heroine performance from mia wasikowski and pretty much the apex (imo) of nicole kidman’s maternal ice queens.