Monday, June 1, 2009

"Sleeper": Allen pays homage to greats of silent film

One of my favorite Woody Allen films is “Sleeper”(1973). Allen is more or less known for his talkier films, which are characterized by intellecual, witty dialogue and satire on modern American culture. However, in “Sleeper,” one of his earlier films, Allen displays a strength for slapstick and physical comedy and pays homage to the silent films of Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. The writing is brilliant, the pacing is fantastic, and the physical comedy is whimsical and spot-on. Allen proves that he has just as much of a gift for physical comedy as he does for verbal comedy (especially in his portrayal of a robot), and he makes very good use of props and sight gags.

Allen has always displayed a love for the Golden Age of Cinema throughout his long career. The opening titles and scores for most of his films serve as homages to silent film. Many of the hilarious, wacky chase sequences in “Sleeper” are underlined by ragtime music. Here's a snippet of an article from Film West, Ireland's Film Quarterly, about the music of Woody Allen's films.

Allen puts a twist on his tribute to silent films like Chaplin's "Modern Times" by setting "Sleeper" 300 years in the future. Although his vision of the future is slightly over-the-top for the sake of comedy, this vision also serves as commentary on the direction he thinks American society is headed. The film was originally about how people in the future are forbidden to talk, which would have provided a perfect premise for a modern silent film. However, Allen has such a talent for witty dialogue that he found writing it hard to resist. Thus, the story turned into that of a man who was cryogenically frozen in 1973 and is awoken two hundred years later. (Sound familiar? "Austin Powers" ripped off of this movie completely.)

In 2173, America is under the control of a fascist regime, people get high by rubbing a metal orb, and sex doesn’t exist anymore but couples have a machine called the “orgazmatron.” Allen even had a meeting with Isaac Asimov to confirm scienfitic feasibility of some of his screenplay ideas, and the influence of the original concept is still present in the physical comedy of the film. "Sleeper" falls into the sci-fi comedy subgenre, of which other examples include "Spaceballs" and "Men In Black" (Here's a list of the highest grossing sci-fi comedies).

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