Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? One of the best early Woody Allen comedies.
What did I get? One of the more underrated products of the 1960s counterculture was the rise of media-literate satire, of which the most prominent representatives are Monty Python in the U.K. and Woody Allen in the U.S. As much as I enjoyed Cold Turkey, it still represented the “old” brand of stolid and blockheaded satire that disdained, or simply failed to notice, the juicy target of media tropes as a central, and not a secondary, subject of mirth. Woody Allen was one of the first humor writers to take that ball and run with it, and Bananas is a key early text in the evolution of the modern satirical sensibility.
I should back up a little bit. Satire wasn’t invented in 1968, nor was meta-commentary. So we should define what we’re talking about here. The premise here is that Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Airplane! (1980) are participating in two distinct activities — the former is a political satire, the latter is a “spoof” that lampoons the genre conventions of an early 1970s melodrama (specifically Airport). Dr. Strangelove is a better and greater movie than Airplane!, only in part because Dr. Strangelove‘s point of reference is the world, not merely media refractions of the world, but the journey from the one to the other was still a necessary one. In that sense, I identify Airplane! as part of my family, so to speak, while Dr. Strangelove is the educated and older family down the road.
The abiding premise of a satirical movie used to be that the entire audience had to get it; you couldn’t leave anybody out. This ethic spawned broadly popular artifacts like Vaughn Meader’s First Family album (1962) and, I don’t know, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) and Laugh-In (1968-1973), which from today’s perspective merely seem naive. The self-consciously alienated Beats were among the first to herald the virtue or necessity of standing apart/above/alone, after which appealing to the intelligent or outsider individual in the crowd increasingly became an option. The days of broad-based, bottom-up humor were numbered; the knowing coterie was coalescing. You could flatter your audience by appeal to their knowledge of the tropes of the form, as for example Blazing Saddles (1974) and Late Night with David Letterman (first program: 1982) did.
Which brings us back to Bananas, finally. Bananas is essentially targeted at the intelligent 14-year-old, and, true to form, when I was 14, Bananas was pretty much the best movie in the world. I knew it very well then, but I haven’t seen it since that time. It’s been interesting to encounter it again today, at the age of 41. It’s still pretty wonderful, but what’s striking is how raw and slipshod it really is. The direction, camerawork, editing are OK at best. The plot is merely the slenderest pretext for a long string of gags, and it has no arresting satirical point to make per se (it’s scarcely interested in the revolving door of dictators in Central America, its putative subject). No, the movie lives or dies on the strength of the gags, so it matters that the twentieth century’s greatest gag writer, Woody Allen, was in charge.
Bananas showed definite traces of the “new” satire as outlined above, most evident in the harp gag in the San Marcos hotel room, the use of Howard Cosell and newscasts, the commercial for New Testament cigarettes, and the courtroom scene generally. All of these sections feel unmistakably “new.” There’s a quick shot in the courtroom scene of the otherwise square jury passing a joint around, a frank acknowledgment of what regular movies were not showing audiences.
At the same time there’s a strong traditional strain to Allen’s humor, which after all is rooted in the Marx Brothers and Algonquin Round Table figures like S. J. Perelman. It’s not a coincidence that Allen’s favorite music, best embodied by Louis Armstrong, was recorded in the 1920s. The mystery of Woody Allen is that such a gifted satirist would be so conservative in his tastes, but the liberal or conservative nature of hip comedy is a subject for another time. Either way, that incongruous blend produced the many glories of Allen’s career. In this he’s like R. Crumb, who similarly partook of the counterculture while secretly, or not so secretly, preferring Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin, album cover or no album cover.
One of the keys to Woody Allen’s work is that inherent conservatism, which set him apart from the mass of the counterculture and usefully provided him with an interesting perspective on it. After all, Bananas couldn’t have been made by a typical commune-dweller of the day. That enabled him to represent the frustrated, intelligent observer, which, as it turned out, had enormous resonance and turned Allen into a sex symbol of sorts and, more importantly, the dominant representative of the awkward, media-literate, urban dork.
That conservatism also permitted Fielding Mellish, the spendidly named protagonist of Bananas, to become a poignant figure in his amorous dealings with Nancy, played by Louise Lasser. The movie is ridiculous, but his heartbreak is real, because Allen had the sense to slow down and attend to it, scoring those scenes to a noticeably less “zany” piano strain that tugs at our hearts. This option was never available to the people behind the hipper, less historically minded, and more, shall we say, coke-fueled Kentucky Fried Movie or Stripes. This ability to be both ridiculous and poignant in the same movie “contains,” in embryo, all of the more nuanced works Allen would direct in the years to come.
As a neophyte director, Allen turned to spoof as a way of harnessing his brilliant comedic gifts in a way that wasn’t very demanding from a directorial point of view; in this way he could learn his craft with the minimum amount of strain or scrutiny. His first directorial features were an experiment in sound synchronization (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), a mock-documentary (Take the Money and Run), and a broad satire that feels like Mad Magazine Goes to El Salvador (Bananas), all of which were groundbreaking in a way but whose rock-solid structural conceits dictated many of the directorial choices to be made. No matter how pretentious or esoteric his work became, Allen never abandoned those high-concept roots, as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo and Melinda and Melinda demonstrate.
For Bananas, Allen knew enough to get out of the way as a director and let the gags shine, and those gags are glorious.
What here smacks of 1971? As a social satire, there’s tons here that has dated, including a reference to a “morals charge” and another to a “videotape replay,” not to mention Fielding’s dilapidated VW bug.
IMDB score: 7.1
My score: 8
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen and Mickey Rose
Starring: Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, Carlos Montalban, David Ortiz, Natividad Abascal, Dorothi Fox, Dan Frazer, Howard Cosell
IMDB synopsis: Fielding Mellish (a consumer products tester) becomes infatuated with Nancy (a political activist). He attends demonstrations and tries in other ways to convince her that he is worthy of her love, but Nancy wants someone with greater leadership potential. Fielding runs off to San Marcos where he joins the rebels and eventually becomes President of the country. While on a trip to the states, he meets Nancy again and she falls for him now that he is a political leader.