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Another Woman

I used to go to all of Woody Allen's movies back in the day, but this one slipped past me. Maybe I didn't rush right out to see it cuz it was not a comedy. I don't know. But it was on TCM the other day, so I watched it. It wasn't what I expected, and that's a good thing.

I must say up front, I have not seen enough Ingmar Bergman films to pick up on the supposed "homage" he was paying to one of his favorite auteurs, so I can't judge it by that measuring stick. I was afraid it would be in the typical vein of that era, something like "An Unmarried Woman," where heartbroken women struggle to create a life without a man at the center. It is not.

It's about a woman who has created a life for herself that seems to be working fine. She's had success in her career and seems to find it very rewarding and she's married to a man who seems to be a good companion. They seem to have a busy social life with lots of interesting friends, doing interesting things.

She's taken a sabbatical to write a book, but there's noisy construction near their home, so she rents an apartment where she can work in peace. (Must be nice to be able to afford that, I can't help thinking!) But she discovers her new apartment is next door to a psychiatrist's office and has very thin walls. She can clearly overhear the conversation of "another woman" who is bitterly unhappy, pregnant, and suicidal. Something about this unseen woman's confessions causes her to reflect on her own life. And when she looks deeper, she discovers how fundamentally unsound it is.

Gina Rowlands is so beautiful, it's enough to just look at her face without her saying a word, but as she listens, we watch her face. We watch for a reaction. She never gives it to us. Whatever is going on with her, it is internal. At no point does she frown, grimace, roll her eyes, or smile. She just listens.

There is a quietness in her listening. Unselfconscious, at rest, open. Most of us listen by restlessly anticipating where the other person is going. We silently prepare our response, thinking ahead, distracted by momentary digressions or echoes of parallels in the past. Our minds wander while we check in on our mental to-do list. None of that happens here. There is no one to respond to, there is reason to anticipate, no reaction to prepare. She simply listens. She wants to understand.

When she uses that same restful openness, that willingness to listen in her own life, she realizes her life is not what she thought.

I expected this to be a dusty relic from a time gone by, but it's as relevant and poignant today as it would have been in 1988 when it was made. I don't blame you if you don't like this movie, but I really do, having had some experience with this myself. We humans have this uncanny ability to see only what we want to see, and not see (or hear) what doesn't fit the story we're telling ourselves in our heads.

This movie's accidental on-purpose voyeurism is a foreshadowing of the Internet of the future, where people can eavesdrop on other private conversations, hidden in anonymity. During the 1990s and 2000s, there would be a great unfurling, a momentous uncovering of private thoughts, private confessions, when we all got to see what happens when people feel safe expressing themselves in anonymity, and what happens to the people who listen.

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I found myself waiting for the laughs. In many ways, this is a typical Woody Allen movie without the jokes, with Gena Rowlands as the hapless Alvy Singer-character. The uncomfortable confrontation with her husband when she wants to know why they never have sex is a beautiful reversal of the sex roles we see in his other movies of that time. I love movies where the women get to complain about not getting enough sex. Like Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck: "Now he's going to play that damn Vikki Carr record, and when he comes to bed he won't touch me!"

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