Woody Allen has had an incredibly prolific output of films – an average of one per year over the past 45 years – and I, as a big fan of his work, have seen them all. With that volume of material, there are bound to be misses among the hits, but a mediocre Allen movie is still better than 95% of what Hollywood puts out. Now a 100% persona non grata in Hollywood circles, Allen was unable to get a single U.S. distributor for Rifkin’s Festival, a movie which was filmed in (and is set in) the beautiful Spanish coastal city of San Sebastian.
Throughout his entire career, Allen has obsessed over existential questions about mortality and the fundamental meaningless and pure contingency (moral luck) of existence. Now 85, Allen surely realizes his own existence is reaching its conclusion. As such, the themes and concerns depicted in Rifkin’s Festival (one of Allen’s worst films) serve as a distillation, of sorts, of Allen’s own psyche and its ever-narrowing and repetitive concerns: the certainty of death; the meaninglessness of existence; disintegrating marriages; art and passion and sex (invariably involving the ‘excitement’ of infidelity) as primary pursuits, ways to feel young again, and a means to distract us from nihilism and the repetitive boredom of domesticity, which is itself a distraction of sorts. But whereas his early films in the late 70s through the mid-80s explored these themes brilliantly, vis-à-vis hilarious characters & plots or characters mired in relatable pathos, Allen’s films of the past 10 years feel like uninspired copies of a copy of a copy.
His last truly great film was Midnight in Paris (2011), but since then his movies have lost any sense of originality and, worse, reflect the rarified insularity in which Allen himself has been living in for more than half his life. For instance, the first dialogue of Rifkin’s Festival is the following voiceover by Wallace Shawn (the surrogate for Woody Allen’s typical nebbish on-screen persona, even down to the Allen’s signature, green military field jacket):
I actually don’t know where to begin. I had to stop work on the novel I was writing and accompany my wife to the San Sebastian Film Festival. Well, Sue had to go. For her it was work. She represented several clients who were there, and did the press for them. Now the ironic part was that, you know years ago when I taught my film class, the thought of going to any film festival would’ve been very exciting to me.
But film festivals are no longer what they were. I mean it was no longer what I was teaching. I taught cinema as art — the great European masters. I only went because I couldn’t shake the suspicion that she had a little crush on this bullshit movie director she did publicity for.
The layers and surfeit of elite lifestyle and concerns alluded to here are almost bottomless. In Woody Allen movies, nearly everyone is either a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, or some other extension of the culture industry, all living in magnificent apartments in exciting cities. They are rarely ever middle-class characters, or low-level white collar workers working tedious jobs, or blue collar people. This is a reflection and function of Allen’s own closed-circle lifestyle and cadre of friends.
Movies often require us to suspend disbelief, but Rifkin’s Festival stretches this concept to its breaking point in that we are expected to find plausible the idea that someone with the looks of Gina Gershon would be the wife of Wallace Shawn, or that (even more implausibly) a strikingly beautiful, middle-aged, Spanish female doctor would almost fall in love with Shawn’s character: a whiny, chinless, balding, pot-bellied, hypochondriac, septuagenarian Jew from NYC, all because Shawn’s character mentions he taught film on the ‘European masters’ (e.g., Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Truffaut).
While the mutual attraction between Shawn’s character and the doctor is not consummated (it does not get to the stage of even a kiss), there are revealing depictions of how Allen sees the ‘artist’ as having license for infidelity and, presumably, other discretions. “He has affairs,” the doctor says to Shawn’s character, regarding her tempestuous artist husband, “and I accept it. After all he’s an artist. And you can’t judge an artist by bourgeois standards.” (This theme has been in several Allen films, most fully in Vicky Cristina Barcelona).
Rifkin’s Festival inserts several dream sequences that are direct homages to several of Allen’s favorite films: Fellini’s 8 & ½, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and several films by Ingmar Bergman (Allen’s favorite director) such as The Seventh Seal and Persona, but the gimmick falls flat in most instances.
As has been increasingly true with Allen’s career as it has progressed, Rifkin’s Festival contains several explicit references to Jewishness and, ipso facto, characters separating the outside world of Gentiles and their culture from that of Jews and their cosmopolitan culture. And, to me, that has been the allure of Allen’s films: one gets the universality of existential and moral philosophical concerns and also the particularism of the quintessential NYC Jewish worldview.
At one point in the movie Shawn’s character voices a sentiment that Allen has made in numerous films: “There’s no doubt the American [Hollywood] masters were wonderful, but generations of Americans were mislead into thinking that Hollywood endings were real and not make believe. And then the Europeans came along and movies grew up.”
Rifkin’s Festival ends as an antithesis to the happy ‘Hollywood ending’, not with any intense or sudden or violent apogee, but by conveying the contingency and randomness of existence, and how even the rich cannot escape the despised routinization of the bourgeois, the plodding, almost uneventful, meandering of life itself.