Interiors (1978)

Two of my favorite directors are Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. When I was a bit younger, I was always plagued by those corny philosophical and spiritual questions like "What is life?" and "Who is God?" and Bergman put the desperateness of my anguish into dramas that articulated what I had wanted to say for so long, and Allen put the hilarity and silliness of that anguish into his comedies of alienation and clumsiness. Interiors, one of Woody's "serious" movies, is a homage to his hero Bergman and it's the kind of movie that I would have adored if I had seen it two or three years ago, when I was more angst-ridden.

I discovered a few months into my seriously becoming a movie writer that you get many opportunities to use the words "banal," "trite," and "cliched" in this field, and few things make me feel like gagging at a movie more than overt banalities. Made after Allen's masterpiece Annie Hall, Interiors is a garden of dead flowers, with dramatic foreign film clichés that are funnier than most of Allen's intentional comedy Take the Money and Run.

Even during the opening shots, you can predict how the movie will end. Someone will die, and many crocodile tears will be shed before the climax Gordon Willis borrows (or should I say 'steals') from Sven Nykvist repeatedly when photographing the Mel Bourne sets. The film has an earthy tone, and everything in the production design is perfectly arranged (the only truly noteworthy things in the film are the cinematography and the production design.) The first shots are taken straight from Cries and Whispers, as is much of the film. We get coldly, expertly lit rooms and Woody's motto seems to be, "When in doubt, just stare at one of the vases."

Once Woody Allen's tributes to Ingmar Bergman (and other, mostly foreign, directors) were fun, humorous, like his spoof of The Seventh Seal in Love and Death. Here, he intellectualizes his spoofing and he no longer glorifies the sensitivity and intelligence of Bergman's films, but forces us to watch a collection of the things that created the stench in some of Bergman's most pretentious work. Interiors begins to feel like a parody, but Allen takes everything so seriously, the film lacks the sting of criticism. In one of the first scenes, we see one of the three sisters in the film pressing her hand longingly on the glass of a shiny window, tears almost- but not quite- filling her eyes, and it's one of the first of many moments in the film that play very badly (the characters spend much of their time staring off into space in desolate houses, and looking out and sitting next to windows).

The foundation- the story- is your average dysfunctional family tale, starring the family that can't communicate, with the artsy-fartsy mother and the three artsy-fartsy daughters. Geraldine Page is mommy, obsessed with interior decorating. Diane Keaton is the established poet daughter with the moaning-and-groaning husband (Richard Jordan) who can't stand that he is seen as inferior to his wife in the literary community. Mary Beth Hurt is the bookish-looking, restless daughter who wants to vent her yucky feelings, but doesn't have much talent. Kristin Griffith is the sexy, junkie TV movie actress daughter who innocently flirts with everyone. Daddy E.G. Marshall tells Page that he wants a trial separation ("it's not irrevocable," he says, leading her on and giving her false hope), then goes off and finds the lively Maureen Stapleton (the only watchable performance in the movie, maybe because she doesn't have all those bad lines), who is full of fire and music. When Marshall introduces her to the dreary family, the glasses-wearing Hurt labels her a "vulgarian." Molecules in the dead atmosphere have been disturbed.

We know right off that the mother is an empty soul when we find her obsessing over the decoration at Hurt's place, and ornamental vases and lamps, and we know she'll be the one to commit suicide in the end. She's a fragile creature, quite self-absorbed, pining for her husband when he has no intention whatsoever to get back together with her. Bits and pieces of the characters are revealed in such silly ways. Diane Keaton confides to an off-screen character about her mother and weeps, "...after she got back...from the hospital (sob)," and then throws in a bunch of little details about her electric shock therapy and her own absorption with mortality. It's rather giggle-inducing.

Woody Allen seems to think that a great drama is one in which every scene is dramatic. Despite the fact that hardly anything happens here (if nothing in the film moves, it cannot possibly move us, to paraphrase Stanley Kauffman), all the scenes are built like classic clips for the Oscars; the bickering is high, but the substance is low. Most of the performances are so annoying, mainly because the actors are stuck with limp lines and phony affectations. Mary Beth Hurt gets the worst of it; before her mother goes out into the beach to kill herself (she has attempted and failed previously in the film in the comfort of her own home), she gives her a long lecture with why-don't-you-love-me indictments and at-the-center-of-a-sick-psyche-is-a-sick-spirit philosophies, similar to the mother-daughter analyzations and accusations America would hear in Bergman's Autumn Sonata, which coincidentally premiered in the States one month later. There was more authentic and moving drama in Annie Hall and Manhattan; at least in those films we didn't have to see poor Diane Keaton slumped on couches, cigarette in hand, suffering so unconvincingly.

What Interiors does capture, though, is the arrogance of artists and people who love art. The family is made up of tormented-creative types, and Geraldine Page rambles on and on about the elegant curvatures of decorative figures, and the daughters, with their arty-political lovers, chat about the social/emotional meanings of a play. Maureen Stapleton scratches her head and is left in the dust; how dare she not dig deeper into works of art, and how dare she actually enjoy the play. One thing Interiors made me do was pray that my discussions of movies and the other arts aren't similarly tired, self-important pontificating.

Film drama usually falls under the categories of rugged and truthful or mellow and measured. Interiors wants it both ways. The subject matter, so overwhelmingly hackneyed, is supposed to be a gritty look at American families (I once heard a person go so far as to say it was one of the few films that would be eternally remembered for its brutal examination of the hypocritical American lifestyle), but the plot is so disciplined and the symbolism is so lame. Unhappy Page is dressed in weary, pale colors, while the spirited Stapleton wears nothing but red. Page loves vases, so Stapleton breaks a vase while dancing at her wedding with E.G. Marshall. The characters aren't characterized by anything more than their problems.

The editing is derived from Bergman, mostly from, yet again, Cries and Whispers, and close attention is paid to delicate sounds like breathing, pages turning, and other such simple details that were so present in the Bergman film. In the end, we see Mary Beth Hurt jotting down words in her diary, just as Harriet Andersson did in Cries and Whispers. Hurt mumbles something to the effect of, "I felt compelled to write these thoughts down. They seemed very powerful to me." We can't quite bring ourselves to believe the man who wrote and directed such witty movies could stoop so low. He's not Woody Allen, he's Ingmar Allen. The film reeks with stupid profundity given a cheap, waxy finish, and some acclaim it as a masterpiece because it looks like one with all its dumb ponderings and sandy cinematography. We find this new Ingmar Allen insulting his great idol and, even worse, insulting his eager audience.

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