Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Woody Allen’s ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’

Chris Palazzolo loses his job and discovers SBS on Demand where he finds You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, directed by Woody Allen, 2010

With the closure of the last video store in the world, Network Video Roleystone, I find myself deprived of my regular supply of free dvds (I even got a bill from the debt collector, $44 in overdues – some thanks for 15 years working in video shops!) I’m now at the mercy of online streaming services such as YouTube and SBS On Demand. It is fun though looking up the SBS catalogue. In recent months I’ve caught up with the John Carpenter/Kurt Russel season, a beautifully cleaned up Scanners (I realise how dirty looking the dvd version was now), Cross of Iron, The Bicycle Thieves, even a Charlie Chaplin from 1921. The movie I’m going to comment on now is Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. I actually saw this movie originally on dvd, but I notice SBS screened it this week so that seems like a good enough reason to comment. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years.

Naomi Watts is the dissatisfied wife of an obscure American writer (Josh Brolin). Her and Brolin live in a very nice part of London because they’re being bankrolled by Watts’ mother (Gemma Jones) who is herself having a nervous breakdown because her husband (Anthony Hopkins), in a mid-life panic, has dumped her and run off with a prostitute half his age. Watts keeps her mother functioning by hiring a fake clairvoyant to tell her mother things she wants to hear (hence the title of the film). In the meantime, as their own marriage crumbles, her and Brolin each make disastrous attempts at extra-marital affairs, while Brolin, desperate to regain the recognition (and advances) he got early in his career, pinches the work of another writer who he thinks has been killed in a car accident. Nothing goes to plan. Each character (with the exception of the completely delusional mother) have a uniquely tailored fate awaiting them. It’s like a stacked deck of cards which, in perfect closure, comes up four Jokers in the final hand.

The writing for this ensemble is extremely tight, in fact there is so little give in its symmetries that it almost resembles a theorem. It’s as if some evil scientist, using narrative film as his crucible, is testing out reactions to combinations of certain personality types to demonstrate results he always knew were going to occur. The types are Woody Allen favourites – attractive, well-educated middle class westerners, undone by their own mendacities and sense of entitlement. The reactions are quite a thing to behold. They shed an unpleasant light not just on the principles but on everyone and everything around them – Watts’ boss (Antonio Banderas) trawling his female employees for the cheapest mistress; Brolin’s lover (Freida Pinto) so dumb she dumps her very promising fiancé to run off the with the older American writer who is in fact a fraud; Hopkins’ young wife (Lucy Punch) playing up with the gym boys after Hopkins has bankrupted himself keeping her in furs; the venerable London publishing house rejecting Brolin’s own work (because it’s about ‘intellectuals’) and publishing instead some prurient crap about a paedophile because that’s what’s marketable to the debased tabloid tastes of the British reading public.

This is comedy in the haute mode. It observes with aristocratic strictness all the rules of classical composition; cuts never occur unless they have to, camera movements and close-ups are rare, long takes and medium shots rule, and actors are expected to work (no hiding fluffed lines with flashy jump cuts and vulgar camera movements); serenity, good manners, and architectural balance all turned to a lofty and malicious wit. There is no wastage, no untied threads; every element of the composition comes together in the end with a completely satisfying (that is to say, completely cringeworthy) clap.

Schadenfreund is the schtick. The guilty pleasure we get watching people who resemble us doing stupid things and suffering spectacular humiliations that leave not a shred of dignity intact. The characters are not in any way profound; they are figments of our own social terrors. The pleasure is like that of a pagan ceremony; we watch the characters constructed like effigies out of ricks, we watch the match lit underneath them and each become a bush of flame.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

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