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Husbands and Wives, Singles explore relationships

Husbands and Wives
Written and Directed by
Woody Allen.
Starring Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, and Sydney Pollack.
Loews Paris.

Written and Directed by
Cameron Crowe.
Starring Cambell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda, and Matt Dillon.
Loews Cheri.
By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

T<\d><\d><\d> wo films opening today, Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and Cameron Crowe's Singles, deal with the state of relationships in modern society. Both stories feature members of several couples falling into and out of favor with each other as each partner tries to find someone who can make them truly happy. Both movies use a documentary-style approach in presenting their characters, with actors speaking directly to the camera or to an off-screen interviewer. But Allen and Crowe appear to have drastically different feelings about what love-seekers have in store for themselves, because underneath these superficial similarities, the tones of the two films couldn't possibly be more different. Both Husbands and Wives and Singles are good movies, but one is coated with optimism and hopefulness while the other is drenched in depression and dread.

Husbands and Wives, undeniably the bleaker of the two, begins as Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) announce to their friends, Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow), that they have decided to separate after years of seemingly happy marriage. Gabe and Judy, shocked by the surprising news, start to question their own relationship and whether many of their initial feelings for each other still exist. Jack begins dating his aerobics instructor, Sam (Lysette Anthony). Gabe's interest in one of his undergraduate writing students, Rain (Juliette Lewis), begins to grow. And Judy and Sally each become attracted to one of Judy's coworkers, Michael (Liam Neeson).

All of this is photographed in an interesting style with hand-held camerawork, random zooms, and jarring jump cuts. Some scenes are narrated by an off-screen documentarian (Jeffrey Kurland), and others involve the characters answering questions about themselves, their spouses, and their friends. This is a clever touch, but it is a bit overdone. The franticly bobbing photography is a trick that threatens to become tiresome early, and the characters wear immense microphones when they are being interviewed to stress the idea that this is a documentary. Allen could have made his point with much more subtlety.

Another case of overemphasis occurred in the writing of the film. Judy is shown to have numerous significant similarities with Michael -- they both love music, they enjoy poetry, they are romantics at heart -- and Sally disagrees with nearly all of his ideas. When Michael and Sally begin to date each other, there is nothing about his choices and tastes that she leaves uncriticized. Yet inexplicably Michael desperately wants Sally and entirely disregards Judy. Allen may have anticipated this criticism, because he provides an excuse late in the film: After Gabe lends Rain a manuscript of the novel which he is working on, she tells him that all of his characters are hyperbolic stereotypes, and Gabe counters that he merely exaggerated for comic effect. But the exaggerations in Husbands and Wives do more harm than good by undercutting the realism of the movie.

Indeed, Husbands and Wives is much better at projecting drama than comedy. Few films are as successful as this one at showing relationships enter an unavoidable phase of disintegration. The basic theme of Allen's latest is simply "Love fades." In the world which he has filmed, if you find someone who deeply interests you, you will not end up with them, and if you somehow manage to be with them, your interest in them will wane. Adding to the believability of these conclusions is the phenomenal acting by the entire cast, particularly by Davis and Pollack. Davis is in nearly all of the scenes which manage to be funny in spite of the oppressive tone, and Pollack, more famous for directing than acting, gives an amazing performance that creates a man full of frustration but still deserving pity.

Supposedly, Husbands and Wives was originally intended to be funnier than it is now. The scariest scene of the film, involving a drunken Jack violently dragging Sam out of a party where she embarrassed him, was written chiefly for laughs. Later, when actually filming the scene, Allen decided to darken its tone. (Incidentally, if you saw the LSC screening of the movie, you missed this scene and others when a reel was omitted.) How much of this bleak outlook is caused by Allen's recent experiences is unsure, but whatever the cause, Husbands and Wives, although not one of Allen's best films, gives an effectively depressing image of crumbling relationships.

Cameron Crowe's Singles is a film that sharply contrasts Husbands and Wives' attitudes. In Singles, the focus is on twentysomethings instead of fortysomethings, and the tone is much lighter and funnier. The characters of the film live in a horseshoe-shaped apartment building for singles where everyone knows each other either as a friend or as an occasional date. The primary, more serious, relationship in the film involves Steve Dunne (Cambell Scott) and Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick). Janet Livermore (Bridget Fonda) and Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon) also get a good deal of screen time, and many others wander in and out of this movie that has more than 80 speaking roles.

Like many of the characters in the film, Steve temporarily swears off of love, claiming that he can't understand it the way he understands his job. But he soon meets Linda at an alternative rock club that he and his friend David Bailey (Jim True) frequent. Steve becomes interested in her, but she too is unsure about getting into a relationship at that stage of her life. In contrast, Janet is sure that she is in love with Cliff (who is the lead singer of Citizen Dick, a rock band played by members of Pearl Jam), but she is unsure that any of her feelings are echoed by the self-absorbed "artist."

Cameron Crowe is probably best known for writing and directing Say Anything, a film which featured convincing characters in one of the more believable teen relationships filmed recently. But the style of Singles has more in common with another Crowe sceenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. None of the characters in his new film are anywhere near as realistic as those he created in Say Anything, but the situations that they encounter and the reactions that they have often ring true. It's easy to identify with someone obsessing about the meaning behind a woman opening a car door for him, going crazy wondering how long to wait before calling someone back, or joking about such 1990s stereotypes as "Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man."

Crowe also adds some interesting layers to the film, not the least of which is the Seattle music scene. Some characters' rooms are decorated with posters for such groups as Mother Love Bone, and others walk around with Mudhoney T-shirts. The soundtrack features excellent music by, among others, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, and Paul Westerberg, formerly of The Replacements. Westerberg also wrote the score for the film, with light and memorable themes based on the two songs which he wrote for the soundtrack.

For many of the characters in Singles, jobs are stressed as being the most important aspect of their lives other than their searches for love. Cliff believes strongly in his band, and defends it against its lack of success in Seattle by pointing to their enormous popularity in Belgium. Linda works at an environmental agency and Steve enjoys his job at a city planning department. With these two jobs, Crowe tries to portray the age group that he is filming as wanting to have an active influence on their world, but having less success changing their own personal world. He also uses Steve's job to make an interesting comment on the way people sometimes just enjoy being alone: Steve is designing a "supertrain" capable of transporting large numbers of people cleanly and efficiently, but his idea is constantly rejected because too many people simply enjoy the privacy and individuality of their own car.

The title of Singles refers not only to the social status of all of the main characters and the types of apartments that they live in, but to a unique method Crowe used to segment the film. Every ten minutes or so a title card appears on the screen reading such things as "Seattle Blue" and "What Took You So Long," effectively dividing the movie into sections analogous to the tracks, or singles, of an album. As with any record, not every "song" in Singles is equally strong, but there is enough humor and truth in this light and enjoyable movie to make it worth listening to.