Among American film directors, Woody Allen is one of the very few who have been lucky enough to make names for themselves as artists while working primarily within a comedic vein. It's not that there aren't others out there—Allen alone has spawned a generation of acolytes—but that in our sometimes over-serious America, things that make us laugh are often given short shrift, as though the sublime could never be accompanied by a smile.
Ridiculous, I say. If anything has best charted our society's ebbs and flows, its political shifts and U-turns, it is comedy, and has been since the days of the court jester. Drama can too easily fill with self-importance that comes with a short shelf life: compare the best of Keaton or Chaplin with some of the era's more earnest "message" movies, and tell me what has better stood the test of time. (Not that they were perfect—one has a hard time today digesting the racial stereotypes of those days, no matter what "context" critics might suggest.) Still and all, men like Allen have been some of our most piercing truth-tellers; this summer, Amherst Cinema gives him his due.
Kicking off this week, The Woody Allen Summer Series will feature 10 of the director's best works (a prolific filmmaker, he has directed over 40 films since the 1960s). First down the pike is what for me has always been one of his most enduring works: Sleeper. The 1973 farce is a spoof of the Logan's Run story: a lone man in a not-so-distant future, on the run from the Big Brother overlords now in charge of society. The difference in Allen's version of the sci-fi staple is that his Miles Monroe is no Han Solo—he's a health-food nut from the 1970s who is thrown into a deep freeze without his consent.
When he wakes up, Monroe is greeted by an American police state ruled by a shadowy dictator (whose hilarious fate is one of the film's best twists). Pressed into service by a group of underground radicals, Monroe throws himself into the espionage game, mostly to impress Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), a socialite turned rebel. The cloak-and-dagger game makes for some great set pieces, including one memorable scene involving a genetically enlarged banana (or more specifically, its peel). And as in all of Allen's best work, the existential underpinnings are never far below the surface—scratch that banana peel and you'll find philosophy.
The series will feature two screenings of each film: a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. and a Wednesday evening show at 7:30 p.m. (Sleeper plays on Thursday due to the July 4 holiday.) For a full list of the coming films, visit amherstcinema.org.
Also this week: Few choreographers have produced such visually inventive work as Pina Bausch. Her notions of dance moved beyond the usual ideas of the form to incorporate more overtly theatrical and even cinematic, effects, while at the same time introducing a throbbing passion that makes even seated viewers feel as if they're moving. Apparently, that passion is too big for one theater; this week, Wim Wenders' film Pina screens at both the Academy of Music in Northampton (Saturday, June 30, 8 p.m.) and later at Amherst Cinema (Monday, July 2, 7 p.m.). Wenders (Wings of Desire) is an ideal director to capture Pina's ideals, with a striking sense of composition and an eye for imagery and a rhythmic, musical bent; he also directed The Buena Vista Social Club. Begun before Bausch's untimely death in 2009, Wenders' film became a tribute to her and her Tanztheater Wuppertal performing ensemble, ensuring that her work would live on.
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.