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Shadows and Fog – Back before he fixated on making contemporary set relationship dramas and comedies, Woody Allen would occasionally have ambitions for getting something more than the light weight material he now specializes in off the ground.  Peppered around his more well known successes are his experiments in Russian (Love & Death) and Swedish (Interiors) cinema traditions.  Among the efforts in this realm Allen took a stab at the grand traditions of classic German movie making.  With $14 million and his clout on the line, he launched into one of his largest productions ever, Shadows and Fog.

Fog was meant as an echoing of the German expressionism movement from the grand silent era of the 1920’s.  It was also to be a Kafka influenced story of paranoia and persecution.  As delightful as that all sounds, it largely played to empty theaters and disappointed critics.  I can hear your shock from here.  Siskel & Ebert, men who made a living worshiping Allen, labeled it one of the worst pictures of the year.  And this was the same year that saw Toys and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot come out.  It’s without question an odd creature of a movie, solitary in its nature and unlike much else, but also greatly misconceived and missing elements it sorely needs to be more than an indulgent lark.  Such as something more than the vague story it occasionally tells, streams of supporting characters which serve little purpose other than to espouse Allen’s thoughts on love and sex and an ending.  It would have benefited to no end if it had had a genuine ending.

Allen plays a character whose name is unimportant because he’s Woody Allen.  I don’t care to take the time to look up what it actually is.  He’s a lowly citizen in a dank, unnamed city shrouded in the inky black of a never ending night with an impenetrable mist hanging over everything.  He’s woken from sleep by a group of vigilantes to help scour the city for a serial killer who strangles his victims.  This group keeps telling Woody he has a part in the plan to catch the killer, but what that plan is and what his part in it are never known.  No one will tell him.  Many in the various vigilante factions seem to hate Allen’s character for no reason we can discern.  Besides of course his patented cowardice.  He eventually meets up with a character whose name is also unimportant because she’s played by Mia Farrow.  As much as Woody Allen is always Woody Allen Mia Farrow can only ever be Mia Farrow.  She is a circus performer who has abandoned her big top home after catching her lover (John Malkovich) with a gypsy girl (Madonna).  The two have a few scrapes and adventures, bump into teach other, then wonder the city trying to avoid the increasingly malicious vigilantes, the cops, the serial killer and his rope, Allen’s belittling boss and anything else that may lurk in the dark.

Fog is an odd and disjointed work and much of that feeling comes from Allen choosing to miscast himself in the lead.  He brings his well known brand of neurotic shtick into this black, humorless world in which it has no place.  This melding of Kafka flavored paranoia, grim atmosphere and Allen’s trademarked neurotic nature makes for a strange marriage that doesn’t work.  Does Allen mean to mock the genre with his glib ribbing?  Is this meant as parody?  If so, why is no one else in on the joke?  With the exception of a group of jovial prostitutes, much of the cast is grim and serious through and through, but in the center is Allen, cracking his vaudevillian jokes among the oppressive visions of nightmares and death.

The film still has it’s moments and it’s not completely without merit.  The huge supporting cast, everyone from John Cusack to Jodie Foster to Kenneth Mars, turn in interesting performances that feel accomplished but in service of what we know not.  Sharp eyes will spot then unknowns William H. Macy and John C. Reilly lurking in all those shadows.  That lack of a solid conclusion or a strong story lead to film which feels like vignettes of varying quality all hanging around one another but not always in service of the same thing.  Also, a film drenched in this much black and white photography should at least be something to superficially admire for its looks.  In that regard Allen has poured on the soup of atmosphere too thick.  At the time this was Allen’s most expensive movie ever and it may still be.  The set he built was purported to be vast and enormous but one wonders why he went to such lengths.  You can rarely see any of it through the smog and haze which smother each and every frame.

Shadows and Fog is another vehicle for Allen enthusiast and not many others.  It is weird and expressive in a fashion that doesn’t lead to dramatic involvement in ways most people appreciate.  Once again Allen’s hurried work pace lead to him subverting a more potentially interesting project.  There are ideas and scenes peppered through the whole that hint at a better movie, but as a cumulative effort it feels unfulfilled and unnecessary.


Next up – Interiors


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