Tuesday, March 8, 2011
THE ZOMBIE'S 101 FAVORITE SCREENPLAYS: #69
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Why It's Here
In my previous review for this series, when I called When Harry Met Sally... "the best Woody Allen movie Woody Allen never made", Sleeper was not the kind of film to which I was referring. For so long now, Allen has been enshrined in the public imagination as primarily a maker of literate, witty and sophisticated comedies of upper-class New York manners that it is often easy to forget that he began his career making entirely different kinds of comic films. Allen started out as a newspaper gag writer before graduating to the writers' room of the fabled early-TV sketch comedy Your Show of Shows, where he shared the air with such fellow comic luminaries as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. It is Brooks's anarchic, anything-for-a-laugh spirit that most heavily influences Allen's earliest films, slapdash, uneven funhouse rides so crammed with gags it's nearly impossible to pick all of them up on a first viewing. Indeed, Allen's early work, as much as Brooks's, can be seen as the direct antecedent to the genre-parody scattergun style later perfected by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team in Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun. Still, even within these madcap affairs, one can detect the seeds of the more serious-minded and probing filmmaker Allen was to become, as the films address such philosophically fraught subjects as the nature of the criminal mind (Take the Money and Run), the genuine value of political commitment (Bananas), the maddening mystery of the mating dance (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex), and the way in which media can manipulate images to create emotional affect (all of the above). For my money, the most successful melding of the "early, funny" Allen with the highly regarded serious artiste to come was in Allen's fourth feature as director, 1973's Sleeper, a screwloose dystopian sci-fi satire that mixes hysterical slapstick set pieces with some surprisingly cogent, even despairing sociopolitical observations. It thus becomes one of the few films in the Allen filmography with potentially equivalent appeal to both his earliest fans and the cinephiles who were to embrace him in later decades.
Sleeper was not Allen's first collaborative effort as a screenwriter (Take the Money and Run and Bananas were co-written by Allen schoolmate Mickey Rose), but it marked his first shared credit with Marshall Brickman, with whom Allen would go on to write two of his most critically acclaimed features, 1977 Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner Annie Hall and 1979's Manhattan, for which they were likewise Oscar-nominated. (Allen reunited with Brickman for 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery, an enjoyable but slight spin on the Thin Man formula.) One does not want to wholly credit Brickman for the advance Sleeper represents in Allen's screenwriting, but the film was easily his most narratively cohesive effort up to that point, with the surrealist sight gags and slapstick emerging not from the random lunacy of Allen's comic whims, but from the tension created when a contemporary 1970s man smashes up against the bizarre technology and dystopian craziness of a futuristic, post-fascist society. It's the closest any Allen film thus far had come to creating a coherent world with rules and physical logic, and this willingness to set aside the anything-for-laughs aesthetic of his previous works marks Sleeper as a quantum leap forward for Allen as a cinematic storyteller.
The story that Allen and Brickman have in fact chosen to tell in Sleeper will not be an unfamiliar one to fans of alternate-future science fiction scenarios. Allen plays Miles Monroe, a health-food restauranteur and amateur jazz clarinetist who is dethawed from a cryogenic capsule after 200 years in stasis (he was frozen after complications ensued during treatment for a minor peptic ulcer). The year is 2173, and the world has become the kind of utopia-as-dystopia we've seen in everything from Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 to the Sylvester Stallone shoot-'em-up Demolition Man. White-cloaked citizens drift through their lives in a haze of pampering gadgetry, coddling servant robots, and hacky Jeff Koons-style pop culture, all the while being monitored and controlled by secret police acting under orders from a distant, all-powerful "Leader". Miles's release from cryogenic sleep itself constitutes a crime by the doctors who free him, as Miles is an "alien" with no I.D. numbers, voice-prints or brain scans. In fact, these doctors have released Miles in hopes that he can infiltrate the government, with help from a guerrilla subversive moment, and thwart "the Aries Project", a plan to reconstitute the Leader, who clings to life as the result of a rebel bombing attack. On the run from the secret police, Miles joins forces with Luna (Keaton, being directed by Allen for the first time), a poet oblivious to the evils of her society, to penetrate the government and stop Aries Day from taking place.
Doesn't sound like a lot of laughs, does it? Did I mention that one of the domestic-pampering devices is a sexual-release machine known as the Orgasmatron? Or that the only part of the Leader still alive after the bombing is his nose? Sleeper's plot could easily have provided the raw materials for a straightforward, rather derivative genre exercise, but Allen and Brickman take all the narrative and stylistic cliches of the genre and turn them just a half-twist into the ridiculous. It's genre parody at its most basic, and its finest, with all the insane gags and set pieces coming off doubly funny because the film doesn't look, on its surface, like a comedy, with the costumes and sets perfectly recreating the styles of more serious genre works (Sleeper's impressive production design, by Dale Hennessy, subscribes to the white-on-white sci-fi aesthetic popular in films of the era, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to THX-1138).
Miles is a classic out-of-time sci-fi nowhere man, but he's also a Woody Allen hero, and thus responds to his predicament like we would expect him to...that is, like Woody Allen. Upon finding out he's been thawed out two hundred years in the future, he first faints dead away before verbalizing laments that are almost psychotically beside-the-point: "I knew it was too good to be true! I parked right near the hospital!" Miles would be the first to identify himself as a fundamentally apolitical person and not the best choice for a futuristic suicide mission; he was such a weakling as a kid, he was "beaten up by Quakers". But he's also a natural-born anti-authoritarian, which we see in an early scene where, when asked to identify inscrutable artifacts of the "past", he replies with smart-ass descriptions (my favorite: given a photo of Norman Mailer, he mentions that the author "donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School"). So, when the futuristic shit hits the fan and Miles goes on the run, he proves himself surprising adept at outwitting and duping the secret police, displaying a physical ingenuity and wit the equal of the heroes of the beloved silent comedies to which Sleeper also pays homage. (It's no accident that, when disguised as a serving robot, Miles, with his white-powdered face and ubiquitous black horn-rims, is the spitting image of silent-clown legend Harold Lloyd.) Still, even in the face of a futuristic police state, Miles never loses his essential Allen-ness. He's brutally unsentimental about his past, long-dead life; when Luna says she can't believe he's been without sex for two hundred years, he quips, "Two hundred and four if you count my marriage." He never ceases in his preoccupation with the oldest indulgence known to man; upon first encountering the serving robots, all he wants to know is whether there are girl robots ("The possibilities are limitless"), and, even when he's captured late in the film and brainwashed into a perfect society drone, he still risks punishment by having illicit sex with a blonde with "great tomatoes" who works in his office. He also expresses Allen's usual ambivalence about religion (it's interesting that the Jewish Miles is seen confessing his affair with his co-worker to a Catholic confession computer, complete with cross on top that spins when you've been absolved) and politics, as well as his distaste for the more vapid and self-consciously "arty" aspects of popular culture. When Allen and Brickman want to slam Luna's future-world poetry as shallow and devoid of meaning, they have one of her friends compare it favorably to that of then-popular poet Rod McKuen, and part of Miles's mental restructuring following his capture is his participation in a recreation of the Miss America pageant (Miles, acting as "Miss Montana", breathlessly intones that he would use his crown to bring world peace to all people, "be it black, be they white, be it colored, be it whatever"). Still, Miles, like many of Allen's characters, is capable of surprising bouts of wistful romanticism, as when, almost ready to jump out a window of the government's main "function complex" on a rope, he stops to ask Luna if she really loves Erno (John Beck), the strapping leader of the underground with whom Luna has an affair during Miles's brainwashed absence. It was in Sleeper, as much as any of Allen's earliest films, that the Allen comic persona, wry and intellectually above-it-all, but deeply romantic and to-the-core wounded by life, was codified into a coherent shape, divorced from its earlier, get-the-laugh-above-all-else form.
Sleeper is also the first film in which Allen's character is paired with a heroine who gives as good as she gets. At first, Luna is a distastefully entitled walking symbol of every bad impulse the police state has indulged in its citizenry. When we first see her, she's encased in a purifying facial mask that renders her grotesque as she mumbles her plans to "put some rose oil on my fingertips" as if contemplating matters of great import. She seems to host a party almost every other night, at which her guests discuss nonsense and pleasure themselves with "the Orb", a kind of futuristic drug that knocks Miles, passing it around to the guests while posing as a serving robot, for a serious loop. She's too serious about her ridiculous poetry, while treating sex as a bizarre amalgam of party game and spectator sport, declaring to one of her party guests, "We should have had sex, but there weren't enough people." And this from a college girl who got her degree in "cosmetic sexual technique and poetry", not to mention her Ph.D. in oral sex (Miles jokes, "They make you take any Spanish with that?"). And she's more than happy to maintain the status quo; upon hearing about a friend who got mixed up with the underground guerrillas and had his brain restructured by the government, she laments, "We have so many wonderful things...Why does there even have to be an underground?" Allen and Brickman pack all the worst qualities of the Me Decade's terminal narcissism and unquestioning acceptance of governmental authority into Luna's early scenes, so it's honestly gratifying to see her evolve during her misadventures with Miles. At first she's skeptical of his cynical accusations of governmental malfeasance, but she gets a rude awakening when she tries to tip the secret police off to Miles's presence and their first instinct is to try to zap her; after all, she's been "contaminated by the alien". When Miles is eventually captured, Luna escapes and finds her way to the underground, where she undergoes a complete transformation into a black-clad revolutionary whose socialistic leanings extend to the bedroom; when Miles confronts her about her dalliance with Erno, she proudly declares, "My love is free to give to all the Bolshevik brothers and sisters" (Miles counters eloquently: "Tramp"). Though Luna's character personae break down into a literal black-and-white difference, this simplistic duality is nevertheless leagues ahead of the often woefully inconsistent characterizations given to the women in Allen's earlier films. Here, Allen and Brickman give us a woman who's strong, funny, and who goes toe to toe with Allen in every scene without getting swept off the screen by his character's typically peculiar anti-charisma.
In addition to its strongly rendered science-fiction satire and well-delineated characters, Sleeper is quite simply one of the funniest movies Allen has ever written. He and Brickman provide great one-liners throughout the picture (when asked what it's like being dead for two centuries, Miles replies, "Like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills"), and the film is, like many Brooksian comedies of the era, almost exhilaratingly willing to trade in stereotypes for humorous effect. When Miles and Luna, on the run from the secret police, hide briefly at the home of two ludicrously effeminate homosexuals, it stands to reason that they have an equally fey serving robot who minces out of the bedroom bitching about the mess in his electronic voice. And where does a futuristic citizen buy his clothing? Why, from Jewish tailor robots, of course, whose big-nosed metal-wire faces rotate incessantly as they kvetch at one another. The film also serves as a terrific reminder of how satisfying a well-conceived slapstick gag can be, as the film is crammed with set pieces that effectively pay tribute to, and at times even match the inventiveness of, the silent clowns of the past. The brilliance of Sleeper's slapstick is that it springboards entirely from its futuristic setting, as Allen and Brickman use the plethora of potential futuristic technologies Miles encounters as a springboard for a seemingly never-ending series of hilarious images. Miles, attempting to escape the secret police, grabs a jetpack that activates and flies off into the stratosphere with no one wearing it (he resorts to a pack with a ridiculous propeller, and is forced to flap his arms to achieve maximum loft). Posing as the robot butler, he tries to make instant pudding and conjures a blob-like creature that he battles with a broom. When he tries to shave in an electronic bathroom mirror, it becomes a futuristic homage to the mirror gag in Duck Soup, with Miles's reflection playing tricks on him before the mirror starts to pick up reflections from other houses. Miles flies again with a "hydrovac suit", an inflatable space jumper that turns Miles into something resembling a bundle of flying gray garlic bulbs. Sleeper also includes what I think is the greatest banana-peel gag of all time, as Miles, stealing gigantic fruit and vegetables from a futuristic farm, tries to flee the farmer only to find himself and his pursuer both slipping on the gargantuan peel from the banana he's swiping. These gags and more, emerging completely organically from the film's sci-fi setting, are as well-conceived and executed as the best of Chaplin, Keaton, and Jackie Chan. Most people don't think of slapstick as something that is written, but the bits in this film are a testament to Allen and Brickman's abilities to think in terms of what will look funny on camera.
Even though it takes place in the future, Sleeper, like all of Allen's best films, is not without something to say about life as it is lived today. By giving us an allegedly utopian future society that is nevertheless plagued with the same deceitful and power-hungry politicians and generally apathetic, culturally narcotized citizenry as in 1973 (and today), Allen and Brickman suggest that corruption, rather than simply overtaking the system as the result of duplicitous individuals, is itself inherent to the nature of politics. Miles as much as says so in Sleeper's final scene, when Luna, exalting about the success of Erno's plan to destroy the Aries Project (victory is achieved, in Looney Tunes fashion, when Miles throws the Leader's nose under an oncoming steamroller), is quickly brought down to earth by her more cynical companion: "Don't you get it? In five months we'll be stealing Erno's nose...Political systems don't work. It doesn't matter who's up there. They're all terrible." One might wish to forgive Allen's harsh words in light of the film's release in the midst of the second, to-be-uncompleted Nixon administration, but it's been almost forty years since Sleeper hit theaters, and does the present state of the political union seem less like this film's dystopia to you, or more? Sleeper was willing to advance a notion that only just then was beginning to creep into the public consciousness, that of politics as a perpetual bullshit machine full of liars, thieves and hoodlums worthy of being constantly distrusted, if not deposed outright. The film is equally cynical, in its own way, about the possibility of true romantic happiness. We know that Miles's marriage was an unhappy one (his wife accused him of being a pervert "because I drank our waterbed"), but was it really so much so that he expresses no remorse upon learning that his ex-wife has been dead nearly two hundred years? Even sex, which usually seems to get the desired results for Allen's characters at its most basic physical level at least, has been reduced in Sleeper's world to a literally mechanical function, with the Orgasmatron so overtaking sexual responsibility that all future women are frigid, all men impotent...except, Luna remarks, for the ones whose ancestors are Italian. (In its weird way, Sleeper, presenting a world where straightforward sexual interaction has been negated by machines, may have foreshadowed internet porn.) And in the universe of Sleeper, not only are male-female relationships frustrating, they're hopelessly so: "It's been proven by science." Luna explains that future scientists have discovered a chemical in men and women's brains that make it "so that we all get on each other's nerves sooner or later." Like the suggestion of politics as a gambit for fools and devils, Sleeper's view of the life of the romantic mind is an uncommonly bleak one for a comedy to take, and would serve as the bellwether for a series of future comedies in which Allen, Brickman, and other collaborators would take on equally heady subjects. Sleeper ends on a slightly rosier note than many of these later films, with Miles and Luna sharing a warm-hearted kiss, but the final line before that, delivered by Miles, takes us out on a dark, almost Sartrean note of despair. Luna, defining Miles as being someone with no faith in science, political systems or God, asks him what he does believe in. His reply: "Sex and death. Two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you're not nauseous."
So, this knockabout slapstick farce ends with an affirmation that there are only two things of value in the world: one that makes you physically sick, and death. Shakespeare didn't usually end his comedies on this note. But Shakespeare is Shakespeare, Allen is Allen, and Sleeper is a signal text in the evolution of Allen from a baggy-pants jokester to a maker of serious philosophical cinematic statements. The fact that Allen has managed to couch said statements within some of the funniest films ever made in America is a testament to a worldview and a style, as director, actor and of course screenwriter, that is quintessentially Jewish, quintessentially American...that can only be described, at the end of the day, as "Allenesque". Not many screenwriters get their own adjective, but with his and Brickman's work on Sleeper and others, Allen has earned it.
AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): Best Dramatic Presentation, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Original Comedy Screenplay