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December 20, 2006

Le Woody, C'est Moi

An Upper East Sider recalls growing up under the director's influence

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

To many, Woody Allen might seem an odd choice as subject for hero worship -- and an even worse example as a role model. Yet for a Jewish (well, truth be told, half-Jewish) kid growing up on Manhattan's Upper East Side who spent a significant portion of his youth in celluloid palaces, that skinny redhead with glasses represented everything I hoped and imagined adult life would be like. And though he lacked Redford’s looks, Newman’s charm or Reynolds’ machismo, he always got the girl. That is, until he blew it in the final reel.

I first learned of the Woodman at a young age thanks to a 16mm print of Casino Royale that I must have watched a hundred times before the age of 11. An anarchic mess of a film (with five credited directors), Woody manages to shine as the sinister Jimmy Bond, James's nephew who reveals his diabolical scheme to kill all men over 4 feet 6 inches tall to a nude but unimpressed Dailiah Lavi. Like a raunchier Groucho Marx, his blend of physical comedy and snappy one-liners was comic gold to my prepubescent self. Regular televised airings of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Take the Money and Run had me convinced Woody was the funniest man alive. I would painstakingly record the films on my Realistic cassette player, listening to them in bed at night until I knew all the jokes by heart.

Cut to an uncharacteristically cold Sunday in April 1977. Annie Hall had opened to tremendous buzz, and I stood on line with my father and the rest of the sold-out crowd in front of the now-defunct 68th St. Playhouse, unaware that I was about to have a seminal cinematic experience. The first of Woody’s great mash notes to the city, there was much about the film that went over my 12-year-old head (who’s Marshall McLuhan?), but the people and places were familiar, and I found myself oddly identifying with some of Alvy Singer’s neuroses. I harangued my father for weeks until he took me to see it a second time. Instead of Alvy and Annie’s doomed relationship, I found myself concentrating on the city, and while watching Gordon Willis’s lovingly lensed shots of the Upper East Side, Coney Island and a pre-commercialized South Street Seaport, I experienced my first real awareness of how much I loved this filthy, aggressive metropolis.

1979’s Manhattan (left), Woody’s Gershwin-infused panoramic black-and-white ode to the island, finds the director introducing a hint of cynicism to his work, featuring weightier characters who struggle with private insecurities as they outwardly attempt to fulfill their egocentric desires. Everybody is having affairs, while Woody one-ups them all by dating a 17-year-old. Yet all of this ethically questionable behavior was lost on me at the time; what I witnessed was a handful of successful writers in corduroy blazers hanging out at Elaine’s or attending parties at MoMA, discussing over cocktails and cigarettes the essence of art, Kierkegaard, orgasms and Nazis. Growing up as I did in the shadow of Elaine’s, that exclusive Second Avenue eatery that catered to both Manhattan’s intelligentsia and celebrity sets, Manhattan offered a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into that forbidden world. It was an idealized adult life that I somewhat foolishly carried with me for many years.

I retained a strong identity with Woody’s films through my college years, due mostly to my involuntary status as an outsider at a Southern California university cum country club. As a pale, skinny New Yorker who cared little for sea, sun or sand, I digested each new Woody Allen film like a bit of comfort food, and for 90 minutes or so I was home again. Only once did I bring a girlfriend -- a punk rocker from Oxnard -- to the opening day of Broadway Danny Rose. The audience of about 30 people shrank to 29 as she stormed out after 15 minutes. I was surprised to learn how unimportant his films were on the left coast. Like the festival attendees in Stardust Memories, they love the “early, funny ones," but his New York-centric titles barely registered on the cultural radar.

I was happy to be back in New York for the premiere of Hannah and Her Sisters (still one of my favorites), though that was the last time I can recall a genuine sense of anticipation among fellow Manhattanites about an annual Woody release. 1987’s nostalgic and lightweight Radio Days was followed by a pair of Bergman-influenced dramas (September, Another Woman) and his contribution to the ill-fated New York Stories. Even his decade-closing masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors, failed to generate the type of buzz that was once unavoidable on the Upper East Side (where I was once again living) -- although by this time the neighborhood had been overrun by the new breed of young Wall Street executives.

I finally made it to Elaine’s in the early '90s with a high-school friend for whom the legendary establishment held the same mystique. Needless to say, our dinner was nothing like a scene out of Manhattan; as I scanned the half-empty room, I finally had to accept that my impending adulthood would in no way resemble my Allen-esque ideal. Even with the requisite neuroses, I would not live in a luxury apartment with a balcony, spend weekends in the Hamptons or marry Meryl Streep (let alone date Diane Keaton). Woody’s New York, while stemming from genuine adoration, is little more than a romanticized notion of the city, gazed upon from a vantage point reserved for only a select few.

Yet the epiphanies I experienced at Elaine's were strictly superficial. Fast forward a dozen years, to when I finally reached the age of many of Woody’s characters. What once seemed incredibly mature now borders on the pathetic: The midlife crises and resulting actions ring true, but only now do I grasp the level of egocentricity and quasi-sense of entitlement those characters possess. Nearly everybody suffers from some level of arrested development. I also realized that Woody’s disdain for (and distrust of) intellectuals is dubious – hiding behind his humble working class roots no longer flies, especially considering the educational and professional pedigree of his films' principals. As life began to imitate art, it became increasingly difficult to separate the real Woody from the reel. His narcissism, once fodder for self-effacing jokes, had now become an integral part of his films. This doesn’t lessen the work, or alter my reaction to it, but my former idolatry has certainly dissipated. I no longer wish to be Elliot from Hannah and Her Sisters or envy Jack from Husbands and Wives.

While it is a bit creepy how his ingénues get increasingly younger as he grows older, my commitment to Woody Allen as a filmmaker just won’t quit. Woody in his 70s will never be the filmmaker he was in the '70s, but even this late in the game, a film like Scoop can still yield a few surprises. His films may not have the operatic grandeur or Scorsese, the epic scope of Coppola or even the social relevance of Lumet, but they are unrivaled in their ability to create a singular angle on the human condition that is distinctly his own. I owe a good portion of my identity as a both a Jew (albeit purely social) and a New Yorker to the former Mr. Konigsberg, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

Andrew Grant, known in the blogosphere as Filmbrain, is the editor of Like Anna Karina's Sweater.

ALSO IN THIS EDITION:

--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

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


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