CRISIS IN SIX SCENES is an appropriate moniker for Woody Allen’s latest project, since the present iteration of his brand is crisis. To be an Allen apologist in 2016 (which I, for better or worse, but mostly worse, am) is to join a club any rational human being would refuse to be a member of.
My beleaguered brethren and I congregate in alleyways and dark corners of bars and speak reverently of the man’s work in hushed tones, afraid the governing body of what is and is not okay will discover our indiscretions and sic Twitter mobs on us. It’s one thing for Scarlett Johansson and Diane Keaton to defend the man, but they’re not people—they’re celebrities. For private citizens, the act is unilaterally perceived as an unforgivable transgression.
I saw Café Society, his last film, on opening day—the same day the all-female Ghostbusters reboot debuted. Some ally. I only laughed once at Café Society: during the opening credits, at the juxtaposition of clichéd Allen jazz with the comparatively gauche Amazon Studios logo. But I watched it. I watch them all, for much the same reason he apparently makes them—because you, specifically, do not want me to. A sick sense of nostalgic duty leads me, time and time again, to ill-attended matinees where the average age of my fellow patrons hovers around three to four times my own.
I didn’t have to leave my house in a raincoat, however, to catch Crisis; all six episodes of the Woodman’s (I call Woody Allen “the Woodman,” incidentally) first foray into episodic narrative television—which follows the trials and tribulations of a (suspend your disbelief) paranoid nebbish type confronted with the social upheaval of the tumultuous '60s—are currently streaming on Amazon.
I brought the show up in conversation with a fellow Allen apologist a couple days before its premiere. Leaning in conspiratorially, I whispered, “I think it looks pretty good.” His eyes widened; he leaned in, as well. “Me, too,” he whispered back. The reviews, however, are not good: “tone-deaf,” “limp,” and “takes the money and bombs,” the headlines read. I ignored them, as to be a Woodman fan in the modern age requires the wearing of blinders.
I’m glad I did. While Café Society and Irrational Man, the projects that preceded it, were unwatchable exercises in clock-watching, self-indulgent tedium, Crisis, it turns out, is quite the opposite. It is, rather, a romp, reminiscent of Allen’s thoroughly charming '90s-era sleeper Manhattan Murder Mystery, which has always ranked among my favorites.
Crisis deviates from the majority of his earlier works in that it begins not with jazz, but with the refrain of “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane—their imploration to “start a revolution” plays over documentary footage of protests and civil unrest. We cut from the stark realities of the era to the quaint comfort of a barbershop, where Sidney Munsinger, Allen’s out-of-time protagonist, is bumbling his way through a trim. We learn he is a novelist—an artist, if you will—by trade, but is currently working on developing a television series (how delightfully meta!). The revolution, though right outside his door, has not yet penetrated his cushy suburban existence. “I’m very blessed,” he tells the barber, reflecting on his wonderful home life. “Yeah, so was Job,” the barber replies. “Then one, two, three, God fucked him over.” As the series progresses, Allen—who, as he is wont to do, cast himself as the Job surrogate—proceeds to get fucked over, too. Just like Job: nutted by reality.
At home, his wife Kay (Elaine May) mutters, blusters, and slurs in a way suggesting the ever-present glass of white wine in her hand isn’t a prop. Her book club is, naturally, reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. While Crisis may signify a departure for its creator, Allen is nothing if not consistent reference-wise.
The news is a source of endless existential dread, a reminder of the toothless fraud that is their liberal existence. Sidney and Kay sit, horrified and helpless, listening to the radio speak of the terrors that surround them in their well-appointed living room with dinner guests. “Did you ever think you’d see America like this?” one asks. “So polarized? Black versus white, male versus female, young versus old?”
is a period piece, yes, but nevertheless oddly relevant, far more so than anything Allen has made in the recent past, possibly ever. America is currently as polarized as it was in the 1960s: Racial and social inequity continue to run rampant, a warmongering xenophobe is the Republican nominee for president, etc. etc. The fact that Crisis addresses these truths, seemingly cognizant of the fact that history is in the process of repeating itself, could either be: (a) a complete coincidence or (b) proof that Allen, while otherwise isolated from the modern world, at least reads the paper (the New York Times print edition, natch).
The revolution, in a literal sense, soon comes to their door: Lennie Dale (played by Miley Cyrus) breaks into their home, on the lam and desperate for harboring. A member of the Constitutional Liberation Army, she bombed a draft agency, tired of Vietnamese children and American men dying needlessly. Cyrus proves to be more than adept at tackling Allen’s rapid-fire screwball dialogue. What can’t this girl do, I wonder, other than maintain a semblance of public sobriety? (Cyrus’s entire public persona seems to exist as proof of the crushing failure of the DARE program, but I digress.) Diametrically opposed to Sidney’s complacency, she reads him his rights tout de suite. “While kids are starving, you stand here and dick around with waffles and hot fudge. And it’s not that you’re stupid, which you are, it’s just that you’re like millions of other passive Americans. You’re a mindless, cowardly follower, a stooge with herd mentality.”
Everyone who circles Lennie’s orbit becomes enchanted, drawn in by her dogged insistence on actively starting a revolution and living her message, because she has something they envy: a cure for cowardice. Everyone, of course, with the exception of Sidney, the most spineless of them all, a walking raw nerve, a representative of the old guard, a “stooge of the oligarchy.” He is not presented in a positive light—he is, rather, the show’s unreliable narrator: a well intentioned yet still terrified and, therefore, ineffectual ally who only talks the talk, and never walks the walk.
Perhaps I am reading too much into the show’s political sophistication. The argument can and will be made that I’m wrong for even defending something made by Allen in the first place as, to some, the man’s continued existence is an act of violence. But I always give the Woodman the benefit of the doubt. Oft to my detriment.
The show’s young Woody surrogate (there must always be at least one), Alan (played by John Magaro), agrees with Lennie that America requires a radical change to evolve beyond the constructs of its flawed creators. “And how do you think those goals are going to be achieved?” Lennie asks. “By writing irate letters to the New York Times?”
“Well, there is such a thing as passive resistance,” Alan replies.
“You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” she informs him. “Real change comes at the barrel of a gun. You talk, talk, talk while people die.” Though such sentiments will sound familiar to students and survivors of '60s America, they also have a very contemporary ring. They distill the argument for the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement—the necessity of active protest in a world that believes tweeting somehow solves problems.
In the final episode, Alan, now thoroughly under Lennie’s spell, injures himself creating a bomb designed to symbolically blow up a statue of Andrew Jackson in protest of the fact Jackson was a slave owner. But there are no slaves anymore, his parents tell him. “I think what Alan is implying is that there are wage slaves,” a now similarly woke Kay cuts in. Alan’s father’s firm pays his workers a minimum wage, “just enough to get by and remain a permanent underclass,” Alan says. “Are you accusing me of exploitation?” his dad asks. He is.
The series ends with Sidney still a maladroit, albeit one slightly changed by his dalliance with radicalism. His takeaway from the whole madcap song and dance is that he now wants to write a book as good as The Catcher in the Rye. “Why not?” Kay asks. “You’re amusing. And I always thought you could be another Salinger.” The lens irises in on him, perpetually flustered, in bed, having either missed or made an important point about the relationship between art and activism as generic jazz plays overhead. It’s an anticlimatic end to an otherwise climatic series, but could you forgive the man for being tired? He should, after all, have retired long ago. I’m pleased he didn’t, but of course, I’m in the minority.