Woody Allen is a phenomenon but a foul dust floats in his wakeby Sam Tanenhaus / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Woody Allen by Tom Shone, Thames and Hudson, £29.95
The “American Century”—if you recall the phrase—began in December 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but ended well ahead of schedule, on 11th September 2001. Sixty years felt about right for a nation powered by the fumes of youth. But that was yesterday. America has since become a country of, if not precisely for, old men (and women). The two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are 68 (Hillary Clinton) and 74 (Bernie Sanders). Vice President Joe Biden, limbering up on the sidelines, turns 73 in November.
But they are sprigs compared to our great geriatric artists, who refuse to yield the stage, instead embarrassing us, and sometimes themselves, with their unbudging presence. Philip Roth’s vow to stop writing fiction, in November 2012 (four months before he turned 80), was instantly transformed into a marathon farewell tour. Meanwhile Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May) continues to exhaust his fans with his “Never Ending Tour.” In October, he was booked for 24 gigs, nine in the UK alone.
And then there is Woody Allen, on the verge of his 80th birthday and as busy as ever. His most recent film, Irrational Man, is struggling in cinemas—win some, lose some—another is in production, and a TV series is due for streaming on Amazon (this from a dinosaur who still pounds the keys on the manual typewriter he’s had since he was 16).
But Allen is a phenomenon, who even at this advanced stage is able to surprise. Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) are more alive than work by directors half his age. And not so long ago, he had his biggest box-office smash (Midnight in Paris). How does he do it? Perhaps because he doesn’t know quite where he’s going next. “No American dramatist has done more to document the pleasures, pitfalls, and withdrawal pains of imagining the world other than it is,” Tom Shone writes in the text accompanying Woody Allen: A Retrospective, a luxuriant photo history of Allen’s work. “Dramatist,” as Shone knows—and amply demonstrates—could be replaced by “fabulist,” “comedian” or “auteur.” The singularity of Allen’s persona—the mussy hair and owlish spectacles, the mournful oblong face, the weirdly energised droopiness—obscures his protean nature, and the many stages he has restlessly passed through.
He began in the 1950s as an underage gag-writing prodigy for Sid Caesar, then TV’s best comedian, and then attained stardom with his own standup. Allen could have made a fine career on Broadway after Play It Again, Sam, rivalling Neil Simon. But he was more serious. His New Yorker pieces include the classics “The Whore of Mensa” and “The Kugelmass Episode,” written when Jewish-style neurosis had become—amazingly, in retrospect—a dominant American mode.
But what matters most are the films, almost 50 of them. Classics in assorted sizes, shapes and genres: the early madcap hilarities (Bananas, Sleeper), the wistful romantic comedies (Annie Hall, Manhattan), the post-modern experiments (Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo), the stately Bergmanesque moral dramas (Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors), the tender nostalgia pieces (Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days). Together they form the most complete and varied oeuvre this side of Stanley Kubrick’s.
The thread that connects Allen’s work is the vision of American city life as secret paradise, the site of conquest and ego-enriching romance rather of corrupting sin. It is a familiar theme for the American Jewish artist. Saul Bellow was a prince of the city. So was Norman Mailer. Woody Allen is a third.
A child of the Great Depression, born and raised in Brooklyn, Allen didn’t just make it across the river in Manhattan. He subdued the city through lethal comedy. His New York revels in opulence even as it peels away the myth of America—the dream of “freedom” that condemns the dreamer to loneliness, violence and despair. We deceive ourselves if we overlook how brutal Allen’s films often are, beneath the one-liners and the sweet jazz soundtracks. Irrational Man, like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, involves the “perfect murder.”
Allen’s first significant film, the mock-documentary Take the Money and Run (1969), is a grisly twist on the career of a real criminal, the teenage “spree-killer” Charles Starkweather, whose rampage in the company of his 13-year-old girlfriend left 11 people dead in Nebraska in 1957-58—12, if you add Starkweather, sent to the electric chair. Allen plays the nebbish Brooklyn twin, Virgil Starkweather, whose bungling sociopathy includes playing the cello in a marching band. He hands an indecipherable hold-up note to a bank teller, who slowly puzzles out the words and summons a colleague for help. It’s great fun, and draws on the long-forgotten history of Jewish gangsterism even as it tosses a mocking sidelong glance at the New Wave chic of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Allen’s humour is inseparable from cultural critique. This is true even of his refashioning of the Lothario as nerd-seducer. The joke of Allen as sex symbol—bumbling, hesitant, a scrawny bundle of tics—began in the fact that women really did adore him. They sensed he was “a closet case of potency,” as the film critic Pauline Kael wrote. Audiences rooted for Allen. “We want you to get the girl at the end,” Kael once advised him. “We don’t want you to fail.”
Shone rightly praises Zelig (1983), also done in the style of a documentary. Its hero is a chameleon-cipher who randomly moves through history, slipped into actual newsreel footage of the great (Babe Ruth, F Scott Fitzgerald) and the malignant (a Nazi rally). This was done, painstakingly, before the advent of digital production wizardry. Again, Allen parodied a fashionable film, in this instance Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s biopic about John Reed and Louise Bryant, bohemian radicals and celebrants of the Russian Revolution. Beatty presented this as soft-focus Hollywood romance, given dignity or pomp by the addition of interviews with surviving witnesses. In Zelig, Allen duplicated the formula, intercutting the archive footage with commentary from prominent intellectuals, who earnestly sift through the meanings underlying Zelig’s journey. “Sickness was at the root of his salvation,” Saul Bellow theorises, with sublime pretentiousness. The satire is delicious but also serious—a tiny cosmic nightmare about conformism, the grateful escape into the “lonely crowd.”
Shone observes shrewdly that Zelig is heir to the great comedians of the silent era, “as voiceless as he is faceless… a silent ghost, unable to voice complaint or ‘kvetch’, only to mimic and please.” Ten years ago, I was in the audience when Allen was interviewed on stage by Janet Maslin, formerly the chief film reviewer for The New York Times, who at one point asked him to comment on comedies from Hollywood’s golden age. He was dismissive of many classics: Bringing up Baby and the collected gems of Preston Sturges were all stale rube jokes; Some Like It Hot was laboured female-drag. Whom did he like? Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Judy Holliday. The only humour that mattered, he said, was city humour. All his favourites come in city flavours: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
The same is true of Allen’s recent European films. They are set theoretically in England, France, Italy, and Spain, but are really about London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona. Some of the films are good, some weak. But the surfaces always enthrall: the buildings and sidewalks, the rush and flow of traffic, the splash of light on water and stone. Allen’s attraction to old-world urbanity reflects what seems to be a growing estrangement from modern New York, now a jungle of scaffolding and torn up sidewalks.
Cities are places of friction, where people rub up against each other, often illicitly. The assertion of self comes, almost always, at the expense of someone else. The scandal that engulfed Allen in the 1990s, when he betrayed Mia Farrow with her adopted 21-year-old daughter (Soon-Yi Previn, now his wife of 18 years), exacted a toll not only on the family Allen and Farrow had formed, but on all of New York.
First its conqueror, Allen had become its rescuer in the mid-1970s, the lowest phase in New York history. President Ford withheld a federal bailout despite warnings of fiscal collapse. The tabloid headline: “Ford To City: Drop Dead” is imprinted on the retinas of New Yorkers. For the country at large, the city was reduced to the Times Square hellscape of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Allen was a one-man gentrifier and painter of exquisite cityscapes—the warm colours of Annie Hall and the elegant black-and-white of Manhattan.
But 15 years later, the prince of the city was now its betrayer, himself a tabloid fixture. (“Mia Has Nude Pix,” “Tell It to the Judge.”) In truth, glimpses of Allen’s other self had been visible all along. Kael had asked: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” The reference was to Manhattan, with its coltish 17-year-old co-star, Mariel Hemingway. The movie was a Pygmalion story. So was Annie Hall, and to some extent Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen was not just the director of that last film. He also “picked the wardrobe and hairdo for each actress, checking the makeup and rechecking, even reshooting a scene if he felt a minor detail of their appearance was wrong,” Shone notes. Such fussing isn’t uncommon among filmmakers. DW Griffith did it with the white-goddess Gish sisters. Hitchcock made it the premise of Vertigo. But few harboured delusions about those cold auteurs. Allen was different. He had all but invented the movie mensch who seemed “to get” women. His relationship with Farrow was itself a Manhattan fairy tale—exposed now as dreams always were in his films, only in this instance Allen stood before us, the malign sorcerer disrobed.
This is the foul dust that floats in the wake of Allen’s comedy. He has said, time and again, that the “Woody” onscreen is nothing like himself. But that is only partly true. Each of the many Woodys, surrogates for their creator, enact their different rituals of Zelig-like flight. It is the same impulse that drives him now, not just to make film after film, but to speed through each, as if he wants to be rid of it. Woody Allen’s art springs as much from rage as from hope. It offers not freedom, but escape—fleeting, delicious, the violent release of laughter in the dark.