The Paths to September
A fraught 2017 has arrived at September. Removing oneself to a cozy country place for some soulful solitude might prove refreshing or reenergizing. If the house has enough character, it might become a character in one’s own story. For writer-director Woody Allen’s contemplative and emotionally probative drama September (1987), Julian Fox wrote in his 1996 study Woody: Movies from Manhattan, “direct inspiration came from Mia [Farrow], who suggested to Woody that her 65-acre estate in Bridgewater, Connecticut, might be ‘a great setting for a little Russian play, like Chekhov or Turgenev.’ In fact, Woody originally intended to shoot the film in and around Mia’s house at Frog Hollow Farm or, even Vermont, but the scheduling meant that it would have to be done in winter, in the cold and with bare trees. It was with some relief to Woody that the weather broke and he was able to instruct [production designer] Santo Loquasto to recreate the setting entirely at the Kaufman Astoria [Studios in Long Island City, New York].” However, in Allen’s story, which he told interviewer Stig Bjorkman was about “a group of middle-aged people in a country hose with unfulfilled dreams and unfulfilled passions and sad futures,” there will be more recrimination and regret than refurbishment and regeneration. Threaded throughout is Allen’s searching empathy for people who make mistakes or stumble through life indecisively, and the ways they deal with the consequences. Indeed, this project is particularly noted in the Allen canon as one that was completely reshot after the filmmaker was dissatisfied with his first version, triggering the recasting of certain roles with originally engaged actors (Maureen O’Sullivan, recently of Hannah and Her Sisters, plus Charles Durning, Christopher Walken and Sam Shepard) replaced for the version of record. Fox recounts: “The revised version of the picture was put together in less than a month (‘Same performance, more money!’ quipped Denholm Elliott, philosophically, [who bridges both shoots, albeit switching roles]), the result being a film which many critics found overly bleak and too heavily influenced by its sources. Finally, though, just like Interiors [a Twilight Time title], it was to garner almost as many approving comments as dismissals. September’s central drama is propelled by the psychological problems of a lonely, recently sick girl, Lane (Mia Farrow), whose unreturned passion for a neighboring tenant (Sam Waterston) and her love-hate relationship with a semi-monstrous mother (Diane, played by Elaine Stritch) spark off an exploration of Woody’s usual concerns – linked here to a not-too-hazy recollection of a real-life Hollywood scandal. Woody, in the film, would appear to be getting deep into the roots of his own identity crisis and (apparent) self-hatred. But the pivotal figure is not the traditional Jewish ‘monster’ mother of the later Oedipus Wrecks [in 1989’s New York Stories], but a gravel-voiced WASP whose idea of committed motherhood is to have let her fatherless, teenaged daughter take the rap for the long-ago murder of her one-time gangster lover. This element of the story has been taken to refer to the slaying of Johnny Stompanato Jr. in April 1957 by 13-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of film star Lana Turner. Woody has said that, although ‘aware’ of the Turner-Crane affair, this was not his primary inspiration, even if there are enough pointers in September for one to note the obvious parallels. In the process of unraveling the truths (or half-truths) of Lane and Diane’s story, Woody again plays games around one of his persistent themes – the way people are against the way they would like to be considered, and the sometimes inane lengths to which they will go to avoid the actual truth about themselves to be revealed.” In this house, at this summer’s end where sun-dappled days alternate with sudden rainstorms, and a nighttime power outage intensely compels the need for confessions, deeper feelings get revealed in this “play on film,” featuring some of Allen’s most devastatingly acute dialogue and which, Fox asserts, “was designed as a deliberate antidote to the large-scale and stressful experience on Radio Days [another TT release], being a project which could be ‘shot indoors, with no bad weather, fewer actors and fewer sets’ but which would still be essentially cinematic.” Photographed by Carlo di Palma (who would later cite is as the best work of his 12-movie association with Allen), September also stars Dianne Wiest as Lane’s unhappily married, visiting best friend and Jack Warden as Diane’s happily married, latest husband, rounding out a sextet of actors that would do Chekhov as proudly as they do Allen. Michael Wilmington’s Los Angeles Times evaluation of the film mirrors of expectations vs. execution: “September isn't a full success on its own terms – which is certainly why Allen shot it twice, and why he says he'd like to try a third time. But it's a mistake to deem it a failure. There are wonderful things here: Elaine Stritch's blowzy, brassy, bravura performance as an aging movie star, the delicately balanced ensemble interplay, the elegantly unobtrusive long camera takes, a panicky seduction scene between Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest. As with all great filmmakers, Woody Allen's work is continuous. Parts may dazzle, but it's the whole that's most important: the growth from film to film. The obsessive perfectionism which makes him rework his movies somehow echoes the wistful dreaminess and sad romanticism of his characters. Trapped in September, they yearn for the freshness of spring, the fire of summer. Yet it's autumn's chill and the threat of winter that keeps them alive.” September arrives on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray September 19. Preorders open September 6.