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FILM : Different Time, Place but Same Woody Allen

March 12, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

The best place for Woody Allen to set his movies is really the contemporary scene. Is there anyone better at exposing the jangled psyche of America's urbanites trying to make it through the 20th Century?

Allen found his milieu with "Annie Hall" in 1977 and has rarely looked back since. Oh, he's strayed a generation or two ("Zelig" and "Radio Days" come to mind), but he usually returns to a more modern time to express his unique mix of neurotic humor and insight.

During the early- to mid-'70s, though, in a more experimental mood, Allen was really into time-traveling. He zipped into the future in "Sleeper" in 1973, then put it in reverse in 1975 for "Love and Death."

Set in Europe, especially Russia, during the Napoleonic wars, "Love and Death" (which ends UC Irvine's "Double Vision" series Friday night) is the product of Allen's customary philosophizing (when he does his comic thinking, it's really always about love, death and being Jewish, and worrying about love, death and being Jewish).

But there's something inspired about the period. Without the complications of New York as a backdrop--there aren't any machines or crowded boroughs or harried, overworked friends to get in the way--Allen turns his kvetching over the human condition into what is almost a comic dissertation.

Sure, he's mainly goofing on whatever comes to mind--"Love and Death" is not without its silly, overextended Woody reveries--but there are times when this becomes one of his more tantalizingly probing films. You can see how it set the stage for the sophisticated "Annie Hall."

Like most of his earlier movies, there's not much to the plot. Basically, you've got Boris (Allen), a cowardly romantic, who's in love with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) but has to fight for "Mother Russia" against the advancing Napoleon.

Boris would rather stay home and dwell on life's big questions but can't escape his battlefield destiny. At the insistence of his family and friends, he trudges to the front carrying his butterfly collection under one arm. He gets into some sticky situations, including a dangerous affair with a beautiful countess (Olga Georges-Picot) and the bungled assassination attempt of Napoleon.

Along this winding, Candide-like way, Allen picks some more conventional joke targets (philanderers, pompous leaders, silly macho men and the almost as silly women who dig them). But his brainy humor rises up often--he gigs on T.S. Eliot, famed directors (and Allen influences) Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein (look for the scenes that mock both "Persona" and "Potemkin") and even the more chaotic, less sophisticated style of his own earliest movies.

And when his writing is good, it's vintage Allen; such as this advice about those fretting over death: "Don't think of death as an end," Boris tells the camera, "but as an effective way to cut down on your expenses."

What: Woody Allen's "Love and Death."

When: Friday, March 13, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 and $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.

SPECIAL SCREENINGS, Page 19

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