As a Woody Allen fan, I’ve often struggled with which recycled, old-fashioned ideas of his I find charming, and which I find irritating. For some reason, his conceit that even a radical revolutionary in her early twenties during the second half of the ‘60s has been to a shrink, who of course is a “strict Freudian,” falls into the “irritating” column for me. Allen has gradually accepted any number of changes in society, but he still cannot conceive of a young person who doesn’t spend a lot of time talking or thinking about Freud.
That’s just the beginning of the way he lets down the potentially interesting character of Lenny (Miley Cyrus) in the third episode of Crisis In Six Scenes. We learn some more about Lenny as she talks with the instantly and obviously besotted Alan (John Magaro), a nebbishy Allen stand-in, and she tosses off a condescendingly written bit of backstory: She was turned on to her hardline ideals through the influences of men she dated. In Allen’s world, even the most idealistic protestor got into the movement because of a love affair. This could be satirical if handled well (I think this idea is at very least part of his worldview moreso than a direct expression of sexism), but it’s become such a default for Allen’s work that it’s hard to read much amusement into it.
And as much of a relief it is to see Allen hand off the crushing-and-flirting portion material to Magaro, the spikiest and most enjoyable material in the third episode comes when Sid, played by Allen himself, spars with Cyrus’s Lenny. Most of this isn’t in the writing; beyond the strange pleasures of watching a young woman repeatedly dismiss a panicked Woody Allen while also eating him out of house and home, the actual interactions between Sid and Lenny aren’t that inspired in terms of actual dialogue. But here’s where Allen’s accumulated low-key technical expertise gooses this show a bit: The argument unfolds largely in a single unbroken take.
I don’t subscribe to the Mike D’Angelo theory of long takes with regards to show-offy technical achievements like Children Of Men; movies and TV can be delightful, thrilling, and galvanizing when they’re showing off. But I do think that sometimes bravura long takes (much as I tend to fetishize them; or rather, because I do, because I totally loved that bit in True Detective) can distract from the more subtle ways this technique can be used. Not every long take has to create suspense or high-wire behind-the-scenes thrills, and Allen’s work often provides strong examples of this. There’s nothing technically groundbreaking or gauntlet-throwing or even all that complicated, really, about shooting Allen and Cyrus in one longer take rather than using more coverage and cutting. But going a while without a cut makes the argument feel continuous, rather than a rat-a-tat back-and-forth; it emphasizes the low likelihood of these two characters changing their minds about each other.
When the episode returns to more standard back-and-forth conversations, its pokiness becomes even more glaring. Sid heads to a meeting where he pitches his idea for a sitcom, the caveman-centric content of which raises the question of whether Sid has never heard of The Flintstones, Allen has never heard of The Croods, or both. (It can be two things, as they say.) Sid’s mounting paranoia about the fugitive he and Kay are harboring is mildly amusing, but mostly results in a clanging diner scene where Sid and his buddy do addled shtick about important topics such as whether the phrase about making omelets involves breaking eggs, or legs. Because they are both things that can break, and they rhyme.
It’s entirely possible that this conversation would not be any funnier or more interesting if it was composed in a single take. In fact, it’s downright likely that it would be the same tired, overlong scene that might have gotten away with a minute of screentime in a proper film, tops. But at least it would give the audience something more to look at and absorb beyond the mugging and the creaky exchanges. The episode’s iris-out on a book recommendation from Lenny to Kay seems very much like it could be a post-production addition to tie a little fake bow around an episode that doesn’t really have a proper ending (as it seems none of these episodes will), but that, too, is a visual touch that holds some promise: that maybe the comic repercussions of Lenny’s stay with Sid and Kay will accelerate, instead of trailing off mid-episode.
- I was weirdly excited to hear that Miley Cyrus would be starring on this show. As much as she’s not exactly on the level of a Diane Keaton or, in modern terms, an Emma Stone, she seems game for collaborative experiments (see also the pretty strong album she did with the Flaming Lips as her backing band). So far, she seems to be cruising toward the starlet rite of passage that is being underused in a Woody Allen project. I’m hoping her role will be ramped up a little in the back half of the series. As much of a bummer as it would be to see her fail at starring in a Woody Allen TV thing, it would be more of a bummer to finish watching it and still not be sure if she could handle it or not.
- This episode’s ghosts of Woody Allen movies past: I’ve mentioned Scoop a ridiculous number of times already, but that’s the movie that Allen’s intergenerational sniping with Cyrus most recalls, though so far it’s lacking that movie’s playfulness.