December 20, 2006

Film Forum's Allen Retrospective Gets City Talking

Weinstein, Kopple, LaBute, Dargis and other New York culture all-stars reflect on best of Woody's work

By Karen Kramer and S.T. VanAirsdale

Far more than they should, superlatives reign as our culture's primary means of defining legends -- a sports figure is "the greatest" this, a rock band is "the biggest" that, so on, so forth, etc. But that only gets you so far in New York, where little speaks louder and more influentially than results. And how do we gauge results? As far as New York film goes, you'd be hard-pressed to beat a 71-year-old Brooklynite named Allen Konigsberg. Never heard of him? You can call him Woody.

At least that's how a few million fans worldwide know him, having acquainted themselves with 38 Woody Allen films in 40 years -- 28 of which will screen from Dec. 22 to Jan. 11 as part of Film Forum's Essentially Woody retrospective. From neurotic binges (Sleeper, Broadway Danny Rose) to corrosive drama (Interiors, Husbands and Wives) to quasi-musicals (Sweet and Lowdown, Everybody Says I Love You) to his black-and-white beloved (Manhattan, Stardust Memories), the program represents a range of creative (nine Oscar victories) and economic (over $1 billion in global box office) accomplishments dwarfed only by generations' worth of affection for the man and his films themselves.

And as we recently discovered at The Reeler in a week-long survey of New York film and culture figures, the "best," the "most" and the "greatest" aren't nearly as big a deal as our favorites -- especially when it comes to Woody:

"Like many New Yorkers, I've seen just about everything he's directed, but I especially like two of his films from the '80s -- Broadway Danny Rose and Stardust Memories -- shot in gleaming black-and-white. They stand out from others of that 'Woody era' because he doesn't censor himself. In Broadway Danny Rose he approaches a big cliché without fear: a Jew's-eye view of Italians and their families. In Stardust Memories he shows no-holds-barred cynicism in a huge skewering of his fan base. Neither of them are restrained and both are very funny."

-- Nancy Gerstman, co-president, Zeitgeist Films

"I would say my favorite moment of any Woody Allen film is my performance in Alice. And the second thing I would say is that Woody is one of the few people in any country -- let alone America, where it's hardly ever done -- who has maintained his dedication to writing and directing his own work in his own way and never veering off-course. That would be it."

-- James Toback, filmmaker (Fingers, When Will I Be Loved)

"Woody Allen movies have always made me proud to be a New Yorker. He makes everyone here seem so smart and funny. We were proud to be in on the jokes, and proud the hicks were too stupid too appreciate his genius. But now he's making the Londoners seem more clever and witty than us. Come home, Woody, all is forgiven.

-- Richard Johnson, editor, Page Six (The New York Post)

"Modern moral thought begins and ends (at least in terms of its treatment in American films) with Woody Allen's Manhattan. His writing isn't just persuasive; it cuts like a laser through the gorgeous black-and-white valentine he constructs to the city. His one-take scenes and ingenious tracking shots etch an indelible portrait of a community in slow decay and are no less breathtaking than Renoir's Rules of the Game.

"The final close-up of the man/child Allen, as he hears the sobering news that 'You have to have a little faith in people' from his 17-year-old girlfriend, ranks with the most iconic and heartbreaking endings in cinema history--second only to perhaps that last shot of Chaplin in City Lights. This is not just a movie for New Yorkers or posers or film critics-- it is both a time capsule and an instruction manual for modern man. (Women are free to thumb through it as well, but they always want to tear out the pictures!)

"Manhattan isn't just great, it's the kind of movie that makes you wish you'd made it. No, I'll go further still: Manhattan makes you wish you were a better person."

-- Neil LaBute, filmmaker (In the Company of Men, The Wicker Man)

"As a born and bred New Yorker, I always felt particularly close to Woody's films. I think that the way he takes his inspiration from the city is something only a New Yorker could achieve. I've been lucky enough to work on four films with him and have always been amazed with the range of his talents. I think that when people see this tribute they will be reminded of the incredible influence that he's had on movies and the art of filmmaking. He's also a helluva great guy."

-- Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman, The Weinstein Company

"Perhaps the best example of where Allen's slapstick and cerebral humor meet is in Annie Hall: He gets pulled over after smashing up cars in an L.A. parking lot (intercut with bumper car scenes from his youth), then tears up his license in front of the cop, saying "I have a terrific problem with authority ... It's not your fault. Don't take it personal," followed by quick jump to him in jail ("So long, fellas. Keep in touch").

"One of his best dramatic moments is in Hannah and Her Sisters -- most of the dialogue feels stagy and artificial (e.g. when Michael Caine exclaims something like "I'm floating on air!"), but when a revolving camera captures the three sisters talking around a dinner table, Allen captures their complex relationships in a way that rings very true.

-- Gregg Goldstein, New York correspondent, The Hollywood Reporter

"When the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting produced Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York, (a new Rizzoli book edited by James Sanders), we chose the scene of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting under the Queensborough Bridge in Allen's Manhattan as the cover image. His early work helped to cement the city's status as one of the world's great cities for filmmaking -- and, to me, his films present some of the most romantic views of the city ever captured on film."

-- Katherine Oliver, Commissioner, New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting

"Bananas. Definitely Bananas. There's that great scene where the Woody Allen character is wearing the disguise of a beard. And you can see the strap of the mask but no one cares. It's like real life where we're all wearing disguises and people can see our straps but it's really OK."

-- Bob Kerrey, president, The New School

"I used to pitch my sex comedy Who's the Top? as, 'Woody Allen's younger dyke sister goes to the S/M dungeon ... with musical numbers.' The very invocation of his name conjured a particular type: sensual, passionate, but also something of a geek. The irony and difficulty of my creating a "female Woody Allen" character is that a female character who's sensual as well as profoundly intellectual (i.e. verbal!) is as unimaginable today as an expressively Jewish character was in 1950s mainstream cinema. (Of course, return to the 1930s and to Katharine Hepburn, and voila! But that was quite some time ago. Now, there are girl characters who happen to be nuclear physicists or philosophy majors, but scripts rarely give them any actual ideas!!!) Meanwhile, Woody Allen created (and frequently played) a reflective geek who gets the girl, but the reflective girl-geek is a genre I'm still trying to re-invent, with, of course, much inspiration from the films, and from the humor of Mr. Allen. In my musical short Who's the Top? the fumbling-yet-sincere philosopher/sensualist was played by Marin Hinkle opposite Shelley Mars, Brigitte Bako, Steve Buscemi and 24 dancers choreographed by two-time Tony nominee John Carrafa."

-Jennie Livingston, filmmaker (Paris is Burning, Through the Ice)

"Woody Allen is a special kind of New Yorker. He and his spirit are everywhere. He has over his head a cloud of anxiety that spurs his genius into making wonderfully poignant films. Three cheers for Woody, my all time favorite actor and director."

-- Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City

"I guess I'm like one of those fans in Stardust Memories who prefers his early, funny films (like Sleeper). That said, I am very grateful that he is no longer sticking his tongue down the throats of his dewy young female co-stars."

-- Manohla Dargis, film critic, The New York Times

"What makes a Woody Allen film work is first truly realized brilliantly in Manhattan. ... The opening sequence of that film, with the combined voiceover of Woody working out this book that he's writing, with the Gershwin and culminating with the fireworks over Yankee Stadium -- although I'm a Mets fan -- I thought, 'Here's going to be both an examination and a celebration of New York: the people who live in it and populate Woody Allen's world, as well as the city itself.' I think it just came pulsing out so strongly that it just took my breath away. Plus the physical look of it -- in Scope and black-and-white? I just thought, 'You know, it doesn't really get any better than that.' "

-- Bingham Ray, independent film consultant (formerly of October Films and United Artists)

"One of the funniest things about Woody Allen is that the year he was born was the worst year for Bordeaux. You know he's crazy about Bordeaux."

-- Elaine Kaufman, restaurateur, Elaine's

"I recently had the opportunity and pleasure of working with Woody Allen, scoring his new film, Cassandra's Dream. Though I have been living in New York for 50 years, we had not met until now. I found him to be an excellent and sympathetic collaborator. He is clearly a master filmmaker, and though he knows what he wants in his film work, he was open to my suggestions and urged me to make my own contribution. This is a man who is completely sure of his art and sure of himself."

-- Philip Glass, composer

"Woody Allen had a big impact on me when I was a kid. He taught me that sex was an obsession of sophisticated people, which was comforting. This definitely helped me decide I wanted to move to New York. I'm also sure that I didn't know what cocaine was till Annie Hall. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, I'm pretty sure, introduced me to the pleasure of liking a movie without being able to explain why to people who don't like it. Those people were my stepsisters; it was always great to have something on them. So he did a lot for me in my adolescence. In college, I started to notice how well his movies like Zelig and Hannah and Her Sisters were constructed, but that wasn't nearly as big a deal as the sex and cocaine and feeling superior to my stepsisters."

--Phil Morrison, filmmaker (Junebug)

"There's probably no more powerful scene (to my mind) in Woody Allen's work than the scene in Husbands and Wives in which Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis announce they're separating. One brilliantly acted, brilliantly shot, emotionally excruciating long take in which you literally feel an enormous chasm open up beneath Woody Allen and Mia Farrow's life together."

-- Richard Peña, director of programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center

"I suppose my ideal version of New York has always been what I like to think of as Upper West Side circa good Woody Allen movies. Crime is still high, license plates are still orange and the place is lousy with Jews, neuroses and elbow patches. A few years ago, I'd been to a matinee at Lincoln Center with a friend, and I stopped as I walked across the plaza. I was, it occurred to me, wearing a brown corduroy blazer with a New Yorker tucked in the pocket; I was leaving a Stephen Sondheim musical and walking out toward Broadway. It was the dream, I realized, and, frankly, it wasn't that exciting. Maybe if I had one of those sprawling apartments..."

-- Jesse Oxfeld, editor, The Daily Intelligencer (New York Magazine)

"Having toured Europe with Woody and his Jazz band for the film Wild Man Blues, I know first-hand that the Woody Allen we all fell in love with on the screen is the same charming, slightly crazy and hilariously insightful man in real life. Woody is a true genius of American film, a wild man on the clarinet and the ultimate New Yorker on screen and off."

-- Barbara Kopple, filmmaker (American Dream, Harlan County, USA)

"I've been a big fan for a long time and I love all the usual suspects, but I hadn't seen Interiors until very recently and it blew me away. I thought he did Bergman better than Bergman. The tension during the dance scene before Mary Beth Hurt blows up at Maureen Stapleton is off the charts. It's just one of those great underappreciated movie moments from one of the greatest filmmakers ... ever!"

--Ryan Fleck, filmmaker (Half Nelson)

"I will always be grateful to Woody Allen, the quintessential New Yorker, for his wonderful films. One of my favorites is Annie Hall. Not only is it still funny, but that movie really anticipated the current Brooklyn real estate crunch -- remember Alvy Singer's family living in the railroad tenement under the Cyclone? Of course, as a kid I certainly would have put up with roller coaster noise to live right there in Astroland!"

-- Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn borough president


--Woody Allen, Thespian?
Reeler critics Matt Singer and Vadim Rizov on the filmmaker's time in front of the camera -- for better or worse

--Prose By Any Other Name
Finding comic salvation by accident in Woody's collected writings - By Michelle Orange

--Le Woody, C'est Moi
An Upper East Sider recalls growing up under the director's influence - By Andrew Grant

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Comments (11)

I recommend using anti-bacterial soap when you clean off your lips...

I love Woody, I love NYC and I love this blog, but either you or Katherine Oliver misspelled the name of a bridge. It's "Queensboro."
Annie Hall, tomorrow afternoon!

Hi, Mark--

"Queensborough" is consistent with the spelling dictated by the Associated Press Stylebook, which is generally my guide for usage on the site (though I wouldn't have likely used that spelling myself). :-(

Thanks for reading,


Response to "I got a Woody":

THE REELER took a moment to celebrate Woody Allen's work, and it included comments by 'high-profile' folks.

What's wrong with that? Are you implying there's not a lot worth celebrating in Allen's work? That would be ridiculous. Or are you implying that THE REELER is prostituting itself before Allen for kudos? That would be ridiculous, too - Allen is hardly safe to celebrate, and certainly in part because of his own behavior. It took guts for THE REELER to do this. And the pieces do not deny Allen's complicated persona, either. Witness the remarks by Manohla Dargis and Richard Peña above.

And it's not like THE REELER did a placid Gwynneth Paltrow or Michael Douglas appreciation, or an indieWIRE / ReverseShot-style foray that pretends it has something to do with broadening and deepening film culture but instead layers everything in the vomit of a TriBeCa drink-till-you-puke buddy buddy party.

This is a deep and informed portrait of a talented, significant, and flawed filmmaker

Bravo to THE REELER. This section continues your quickly earned position as the best perspective on New York City film culture today. Period. Better than THE VOICE, better than TIME OUT, better than Daily Variety GOTHAM, better than FILM COMMENT. And certainly better than indieWIRE and REVERSE SHOT - those slumming fratboy, Mark Cuban and IFC whoresites.

You cannot be pigeonholed; you are open to everything. May you live long and prosper.

This is a wonderful tribute to a gift of an American Artist. I have only one comment on the comments listed herein...

The extaordinarily gifted young filmmaker Ryan Fleck says that with "Interiors" Woody does Bergman better than Bergman.

While I feel that "Interiors" is severely underappreciated in the Woody Allen ouvre, no one, and I mean no one can ever outdo Bergman. While Woody is clearly one of the greatest American filmmakers of all, Bergman is in a class all by himself. Without Bergman's influence there is simply no way Woody would have ever reached the heights that he did.

Even Woody would agree with me about this.

RADIO DAYS evokes not just the era, but also the mindset of days long past. It's a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling; like later Fellini, a first person narrative, thematically organized. Am also quite fond of SEPTEMBER, which, when it came out, was totally savaged by the critics. Allen's stage-bound story zeros in on its characters, and, by evoking a caged, restlessness, we see how in an instant the world can shatter. ****** Manohla Dargis' political correctness renders her criticism null and void.

Woody's New York is insular and limited, just like the man himself. Interiors is dehydrated Bergman. Woody's idea of seriousness is glum. Rather like comedians who take on serious roles:don't smile and you're a dramatic actor,right? Hooray for the funny Woody:Take the Money and Run, Bananas,Sleeper,The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose.

Mayor Bloomberg must love Woody's films. New Yorkers are white, intellectual and upper-middle class.

from: Modernism for the Millions—
The Films of Woody Allen


...the first tell-tale sign of something potentially awry in Allen's cinematic universe is the extraordinarily privileged condition of almost all of his characters. There is nothing inherently wrong with living on the Upper East Side, of course, but it is evidence of what might be called the imaginative embourgeoisement of experience in Allen's work. (And I would emphasize that it is the imaginative, and not the economic condition of his characters with which I am concerned.) There is a nougaty softness at the center of the so-called realities in Allen's films; even as they seem to want to be given credit for being in touch with the nitty-gritty of life in the eighties, Allen's "realities" seem strangely de-realized–subtly tamed and made safe for the imagination.

Perhaps the easiest way to see this is in terms of the Manhattan setting of many of his movies. Allen is often praised for filming on location in the recognizably real world of contemporary New York yet his Manhattan is as much a fantasy island as any studio back lot ever was. It is hardly surprising that the Mayor's Council on the Arts pitches in so enthusiastically to assist Allen's film projects. His films depict a New York of the tourist brochures only. As Ed Koch undoubtedly realizes, one Allen movie is worth a couple tons of picture postcards–for everyone who makes the mistake of confusing postcard shots with reality. His New York is the city of art courses and architectural appreciation tours (both actual tours like the one on which David the architect takes Holly and April in Hannah and Her Sisters, and cinematic tours like those on which most of Allen's movies take a viewer). It is comprised of beautiful bridges, wonderful museums, spectacular fireworks displays, great restaurants, quaint bookstores, romantic cafÈs, penthouse apartments, and grand historical associations....

Did anyone notice that Jennie Livington's comments were nothing more than a rather lengthy ad for her own film? She even adds a credit reel! It's not about you, Jennie, get over yourself.

Ernest Hemingway said to start with one true thing. Maybe that's the New York Allen knows for truth. The Times wouldn't still be in print if Allen were the only one who saw the city through this lens. Show me a director that fairly depicts every socio-economic demographic. Privileged they may be, but Allen's characters are still human, with very human problems. Few directors get the battle between the sexes so dead on. Take the planetarium scene in "Manhattan." Or the subtitled sequence in "Annie Hall." Love is a foreign language. Men and women are from different planets. You can intellectualize and analyze all you want, but sometimes the head has no idea in matters of the heart. Allen knows it, and exposes the failings of our therapy-addicted culture more than anyone. While love may seem a hopeless cause, Allen's famous bridge shots in both "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" gives us hope that we can bridge the gulf that often divides the sexes.

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