Bananas (1971)


Bananas (directed by Woody Allen) opens with a Monday Night Football type coverage of an anticipated assassination, starting minutes before it occurs..  The reporters, including Howard Cosell, address the camera directly, implying that we are the ones watching the coverage.

Then we meet Fielding (Allen), a college dropout who works at a large corporation testing machines.  Louise Lasser (Allen’s ex-wife) plays Nancy.  She comes by his apartment looking for people to sign a petition to overthrow the government in San Marcos, a fictional South American country.

Enraptured by her, Fielding agrees to sign and gets her number in the process.  They begin dating and he is head over heels for her.  When she breaks up with him he decides to go forward with a plan to visit San Marcos that he had planned with her.

While there, the existing government tries to seduce him and then kill him while dressed as the rebels, thus forcing the U.S. Government to get involved and to help put down the rebels.  Their plan fails, however, and Fielding is picked up by the rebels.  They quickly develop an unusual respect and admiration for him.  When their rebellion succeeds, Fielding is all set to return to New York, however the new power immediately goes to the rebel leader’s head (declaring everyone must change their underwear every half hour and wear their underwear on the outside of their pants so they can know for sure), so the rebels make Fielding the new President of San Marcos.

He returns to the U.S. and when they find out he’s an American citizen, they are convinced he’s trying to overthrow the U.S. government.  He goes on trial (acting as his own lawyer) and is found guilty, though his punishment is only to not live in the same neighborhood as the judge.

Fielding gets back together with Nancy, and the film ends with another Monday Night Football-like coverage of the consummation of their marriage, with sports terms analogous to a boxing match.

Like his first two films, Woody Allen breaks the fourth wall, though he is more restrained this time.  The amount of slapstick, physical humor comes at Fielding’s expense.  The only ones paying attention or who even notice his failures are us, the audience.  Other times there is another character who notices his mishaps, but much of the time no one seems to care.  In this way he’s performing more in relation to the camera and audience than he is to other characters.

The MNF-type broadcasts at the beginning and end address the audience, and they make light of the predictability of political instability.  The fact that an assassination is anticipated suggests that this type of insurrection will always exist in some form.

Allen further undercuts the events in the fictional San Marcos because the conflict is resolved relatively quickly only for the new President to be much worse than the President they just fought to overthrow.

Along the way there are familiar Woody Allen comic scenes, such as when they order thousands of meals from a small restaurant for the entire rebel army and when Fielding acts as his own lawyer and must question himself on the witness stand, leading to a small breakdown.

Many of these scenes, at first, are unrelated to the overarching story.  This is similar to Take the Money and Run when the gags seemed to have no greater connection to the plot.  Then, however, there are more sketches and scenes pertinent to the story.  This is because the film is more structured, building to a conclusion that pays off the original premise: Fielding joins the rebellion.  In other words, he joins the rebellion and then something must happen and we must reach a conclusion.  In Take the Money and Run, there is not much of a buildup, and things just happen.

You could say this movie is over-plotted, except that the plot is only the framework for the jokes to exist.

One of the other noticeable differences between this and Allen’s previous film is that there is a deeper emotional impact.  Fielding is truly sad when Nancy breaks up with him, and though this doesn’t seem to last long, we do feel for him.  When she breaks up with him he desperately seeks a reason as to why.  In this scene they walk through Central Park, and the camera cuts to an extreme variety of angles, often the point-of-view you’d expect of a voyeur, watching them through the trees.  Then as they continue to walk, the camera cuts to above so we are looking down upon them.  In some contexts this could be seen as the God view, but within this film it probably doesn’t mean that much.  If anything it’s just something Allen does probably because he can.

The end of the film, before the Monday Night Football sequence, involved Fielding telling Nancy how much he loves her as they walk along the water with the New York facade visible in the background.  This scene has more in common with Annie Hall than Take the Money and Run and you can see the slight progression in what Allen, a filmmaker who has almost limitless control, chooses to focus on.

Some other notes:

Louie is clearly influenced by Woody Allen.  Allen’s character often suffers for the comedy, and the same can be said for Louie.  The heart of their characters are very similar, but the manner in which they express themselves differ: Allen is a fast-talker whereas Louie seems to mumble out words which will immediately second guess.

Louie also draws visual inspiration from Woody Allen.  Oftentimes Allen shoots without cross-cutting to show close ups.  Instead he gives the characters room to breathe which is necessary with the amount of physical comedy involved.  In Louie, the camera follows the action like the viewer, trying to keep up as opposed to cutting from shot to shot so the camera is already and always where it needs to be.

Take, for example, the subway scene in Bananas (featuring a silent Sylvester Stallone) and a similar subway scene from an episode of Louie.

The camera follows the action so that the character dictates the scene.  We are observing like Woody and Louie are observing.  Oftentimes it’s something not so great that we’re looking at so there’s a certain distance we put between the exhibit and ourselves.  Woody tries to avoid getting involved with the scuffle happening nearby, and Louie stares at the seat puddle like everyone else does.  Then, however, both get involved.

In Louie it’s made clear that he was only daydreaming whereas in Bananas the whole incident is implied to be real.  At the same time, Fielding suffers no ill-effects as a result of the altercation we could guess would follow at the hands of Rambo and his bud.  None of the scenes matter too much beyond getting to the next joke.  We don’t need the subway scene in Bananas to get to the bigger story, in fact, the story hasn’t even really begun yet at this point because Fielding had yet to meet Nancy or get involved with San Marcos.

The type of scene exists to get into each character’s head and figure out who they are.  We don’t need to listen as much as look, and that’s what’s so valuable about film – the image.

Many scenes in Bananas are silent, physical comedy scored with music, often the same track in the subway scene.  Each scene is like it’s own short film, stitched together to loosely form a whole that mocks and plays with current events of the time.

Up Next: The Black Dahlia (2006), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Too Afraid to Ask (1972)

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