Sunday, January 4, 2015

Double Feature Movie Magic

The last of the Auld Lang Syne renditions have faded on this first weekend after the New Year. A light snow falls outside the window next to where I sit typing. The snow is pretty from my perspective, but treacherous for drivers out on the local roads. Perspective is everything. Occasionally people really do disagree on the facts (or the probabilities), but more often we disagree on which facts are important. We all like to claim we simply advance the facts, the implication being that our opponents stupidly ignore them. More likely, we are selecting facts. The facts that loom large for us differs from the ones for people standing elsewhere. What is to oneself a negligible trifle on the horizon can be a giant oak tree occupying half the view of someone standing under its branches. 
Though perspective is key to debates about weighty matters, to my taste this is far too early into 2015 for weighty debates, so today perspective is enlisted merely to explain the mixed reviews of Magic in the Moonlight (2014). The first movie I’ve seen in the New Year, Magic in the Moonlight is now on DVD and pay-per-view. It is the 49th movie written and directed by Woody Allen, which is one per year since he started in the late ‘60s. This productivity in itself is phenomenal. Woody Allen is the Ray Bradbury of cinema. Ray wrote short stories by the bushelful and recommended the strategy to young writers: 80% of such high volume, he conceded, would be disposable, but the remaining 20% “will save your life.” Woody’s DVDs also fill a bushel. I wouldn’t call 80% of his work disposable. Even his misfires (e.g. Scoop and Hollywood Ending) in my opinion are better than the average fare by others in theaters and on cable channels. Admittedly that isn’t much of a compliment, but Woody’s top 20% (e.g. Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris) are extraordinarily good by almost any standard. Whether Magic in the Moonlight belongs in the set with Scoop or with Blue Jasmine, however, has divided mainstream critics. I suspect that philosophical perspective accounts for much of the division. 
Set in the 1920s, Magic in the Moonlight features Colin Firth as a magician with the stage persona Wei Ling Soo. Off stage his name is Stanley and he rivals Henry Higgins for arrogance and self-regard. Stanley’s Houdini-ish pastime is debunking spiritualists and other supposed practitioners of paranormal arts. As a magician he can see through their tricks. An old friend and fellow magician named Howard enlists Stanley’s help to expose a young spiritualist named Sophie (Emma Stone) who is exploiting a wealthy family by conducting sĂ©ances and capturing the fancy of the young scion. Howard says he can’t perceive any tricks; he wonders if she could be the real thing. Up for the challenge, Stanley joins Howard at the family’s residence in the south of France in order to observe Sophie in action. (Some mild spoilers below.)
To Stanley’s own dismay, Sophie baffles him. If she is faking, she is doing it expertly enough to get past him. He struggles to reconcile Sophie’s apparent gifts with his rationalist world view. In truth, he would like to believe there is some afterlife and some intrinsic meaning to existence, but he doesn’t. Unlike his marvelously deadpan aunt who advises him not to be so certain about everything, he can’t help but believe that what you see is what you get and there isn’t any more. Life ends and that is that: “You're born, you commit no crime, and then you're sentenced to death,” he says. George, another character, explains that Stanley “began as an escape artist. Interesting choice if anyone ever wanted to escape from reality. But, like Freud, he will not permit himself to be seduced by childish thoughts just because they're more comforting. Very unhappy man. I like him.” Stanley is, however, seduced by Sophie who isn’t even trying to do it. For a time she tempts him toward mysticism, but only for a time. Even if in the end she doesn’t convince Stanley, she still provides his escape from the depressing realities, not through magic of either the real or stage kind, but through worldly love and affection. 
If you share Woody’s secularist pessimistic world view – that life is hard, all too short, but brightened by love even if this, too, is transitory – you probably will like this picture. If your perspective is something different, you might think that a perfectly good period piece love story has been unnecessarily compromised by too much dubious philosophy. My own thumbs are up.

** ** 
For the past year my habit has been to pair a new movie with an older one which the first brought to mind for some reason – sometimes a tangential one. This one reminded me of I Married a Witch (1942). (It also reminded me to catch Emma Stone on Broadway before her run in Cabaret ends.) Nowadays we are accustomed to beautiful witches appearing in comedies and dramas as sympathetic characters. But Bewitched, The Witches of Eastwick, Practical Magic and their like all owe much to the 1942 granny of the genre starring a stunning Veronica Lake. 
Veronica Lake and Frederic March
In 17th century New England, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are denounced as witches by Puritan bigwig Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March). They are executed, but not before Jennifer curses Wooley men always to marry the wrong woman. The spirits of Jennifer and Daniel are then trapped in a tree. In 1942 a freak lightning strike releases them from the tree; they make new bodies for themselves in a fire. Discovering that Jonathan’s descendent Wallace Wooley (Frederic March again) is running for Governor and also is engaged to be married, the two decide to take revenge on him – understandable under the circumstances. Jennifer, for the fun of it, plans to make Wooley fall in love with her just so she can reject him. To assist her in this she whips up a love potion. Through an unforeseen mix-up, however, she drinks it herself, placing her at odds not just with Wooley’s fiancĂ© but (much more dangerously) with her own father. Trouble follows with much assist from magic, though in an era when folks don’t believe in witchcraft they resist magic as an explanation for anything. 
The script is funny, clever, and (for the time) original, though lightweight: unlike Magic in the Moonlight, there is not a single mention of Freud or Nietzsche. Thumbs up for this one, too.


  1. I've got Magic in the Moonlight in my NF queue and just bumped it up recently. I agree with you that Woody Allen has put out a lot of good movies throughout his career. I also find it odd that a lot of people somehow don't connect with him because I find so many of his films down-to-earth, and actually, what you have picked up on too, perhaps a throwback to earlier film making. I'd also agree that his worse films are at least competently done, and better than most Hollywood movies. I haven't seen them all, and should get back on the bandwagon to watching a few of those I haven't seen, like Scoop or Hollywood Ending. I think two of my favorites by him are Manhattan and Radio Days.

    I Married a Witch was on TCM, I believe back around Halloween, and I watched parts of it. I probably should give it another go. I generally enjoy Veronica Lake.

    1. Veronica was a scene stealer, wasn't she? Maybe this afternoon is good time to re-watch This Gun for Hire.

      Woody Allen is an icon and so draws the fire of iconoclasts. It is possible to dislike a Woody Allen movie on its merits of course, but the disdain of some critics often sounds forced.