In his book Crackpot, John Waters devotes a chapter to his guilty pleasure movies – the joke being that the trash cinema most people would describe as a guilty pleasure is exactly what you’d expect Waters to unashamedly love. Instead, the chapter is devoted to achingly sincere, existential art films which Waters adores, and it begins with Interiors. “Yes, Interiors”, Waters adds defensively. “I know readers will think I’m being deliberately perverse…”
Perish the thought. It’s true, though, that Woody Allen’s serious dramas, of which Interiors was the first, haven’t always been well-thought-of. In his heyday they were treated as an indulgence, something the studios presumably allowed Allen to do in the hope that he’d return, refreshed, to the comedy genre afterwards. These days, though, it’s the comedies that usually receive a divided response, whereas 2013’s drama Blue Jasmine has the strongest claim to be his best work of the century so far. With that in mind, it might be time to reassess some of the earlier dramas, and 1990’s Alice, newly released on Blu-Ray by Arrow Academy, is a good one to start with.
Alice shares a lot with Blue Jasmine – not least the presence of Alec Baldwin, who cameos as a dream lover in Alice and appears as the middle-aged, boastful husband of Cate Blanchett’s trophy wide in Blue Jasmine. (Aging in Hollywood is cruel, isn’t it?) Both the films also see Allen writing outside of his usual New York Jewish millieu. Blue Jasmine is set in San Francisco, while Alice’s title character is a Roman Catholic. The switch works pretty well – of course the permanently neurotic Allen relates to Catholic guilt.
The one charge levelled at Allen’s dramas that really sticks is that they’re more derivative than his comic work, frequently using his beloved Bergman and Dostoyevsky as a springboard. Alice has a more unexpected genesis – Federico Fellini. Whereas most Fellini tributes riff off 8 1/2, Alice is based around 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits. What matters, though, is the difference in worldviews between Allen and Fellini. Allen’s discipline and delicacy completely reinvents Fellini’s typically flamboyant source material, creating something that feels much more organic to this director than the likes of Match Point.
Even in the 1970s Allen felt like a man out of time, smothering his films in ragtime jazz and screwball rhythms when his peers were into acid rock and baggy improv. Alice feels like a film that’s much older than its twenty-seven years, sometimes in a negative way (the Japanese doctor who Alice gets her potions from is a stereotype that hasn’t aged terribly well). But mostly it feels classical, immune to the fashions of its era. In particular, Carlo di Palma’s luminous technicolor cinematography harks back to Antonioni (who di Palma worked with) and the Bergman of Cries and Whispers.
This new Arrow box set makes a strong case for the late 1980s and early 1990s as Allen’s most visually rich period, and if Alice isn’t the strongest film in the set (it does, after all, have Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days and Crimes and Misdemeanors to contend with) it might be the most beautiful. The scene where Alice is hypnotised, her bright red coat clashing against the mahogany room as the camera dollies around her, is particularly seductive. In the final reel Allen relents a little and allows his magical props to be used for farce, but it’s not really necessary. Stepping out from the shadows of his comedy work with the newfound confidence of its magically enabled heroine, Alice contains plenty to enchant on its own terms.