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What explains Woody Allen’s movie-making longevity? Perhaps because we are him and he is us, for he is Mr Everyman with his phobias, terrors, and insecurities. When we hear him talk of his silly fears, we realize we, too, have them, but, unlike the willingly vulnerable Woody, we, fearing ridicule, keep our guilty fears as tightly hidden as did Bob Woodward the identity of Deep Throat.
We, all of us, will at some time have identified ourselves with one or another of the gods of the silver screen, like with taciturn Clint Eastwood; or with swaggering John Wayne; or with suave Sean Connery; or with indomitable Bruce Willis; or with inscrutable Charles Bronson; or with invincible Jean-Paul Belmondo. But to have identified - at least openly - with babbling Woody Allen? No way.
When I emerge from a movie house and into the street having just seen Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars” or Sean Connery in “Goldfinger”, I transform my normal guilt-ridden shuffle into a self-confident swagger. I thrust out my chest and raise my chin. Instead of averting my gaze from passers-by I look them boldly in the eye. There seems nothing I can’t do, no-one I can’t beat to a pulp. But, all too soon, my shoulders begin again to sag, and my head to droop, the better to accommodate my eyes which have resumed staring unfocusedly on the sidewalk. I'm once again Woody Allen.
Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Bruce Willis and their ilk portray characters larger than life who bob and weave through fusillades of bullets, leap off buildings and beat up roomfuls of thugs to rescue the damsel in distress or save our world from commies or terrorists or whoever. Woody Allen, on the other hand, battles not with malevolent others to save the world, but with his inner fears to save himself. By doing so he helps us save ourselves by giving us permission to accept who we really are through letting us see our inner fears mirrored in himself.
So we can secretly identify with an anxious Woody riding in a car whose driver tells him of his urge to drive it into an oncoming vehicle; with a humiliated Woody at a party slinking back across the dance floor, having been told to “get lost creep” by a young woman whom he’d requested a dance; with an ecstatic Woody waltzing out of a hospital having just learned he doesn’t have the brain tumour he thought he had, then stopping in mid-flight and creeping away silently when another fear invades his mind. Who of us hasn’t seen ourselves in such predicaments?
Woody Allen insists his screen characters are not him. He is being disingenuous for, in his films, he seldom strays from his native upper east-side New York; and he has perpetually the same phobias and anxieties; and is surrounded invariably by the same kinds of friends with the same existential angsts, who are usually playwrights, editors, artists, or therapists.
In “Play It Again Sam” Woody is a movie nut who, having seen “Casablanca” in darkened movie houses umpteen times, has so internalized Humphrey Bogart that he can conjure up Bogart’s ghost any time he chooses. How different is this Woody from the one who has revealed that when growing up in Brooklyn and wishing to escape its oppressive noise and muggy heat, he would retreat to the cool and quiet of a movie theatre and become lost in the characters on the screen? We can see this reflected in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” where Woody’s character gets out of his seat in a movie theatre and walks directly into the scene showing on the screen. In “Manhattan” Woody plays a forty-two year old man involved with a seventeen year-old girl still in high-school. How different is this Woody from the one currently married to someone forty years his junior?
Woody Allen has said that as an artist he has failed because he has produced nothing great, that he would like to have been another Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. He does himself a disservice for he is an original Woody Allen, not just another imitation O’Neill or Williams. Over the last forty years he has produced over forty films, a body of work still unfinished. As a writer and director he will take his place, if he hasn’t already done so, in the pantheon of cinematic giants.
Where does Woody Allen go from here? A pertinent question, for his films appear now to be imitating his earlier ones. His golden period was between 1977 and 1983 when he produced his masterpieces – “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, and “Hannah and Her Sisters”.
Could Woody’s comparative decline be due to his having for several years been in psychoanalysis? Should he not have kept his demons coiled tightly inside him, the better to fertilize his genius? If, say, Mozart or Beethoven had undergone psychoanalysis, would the Requiem or Ninth Symphony have seen the light of day? Woody believes he used his therapy to his benefit in ways not intended by his psychoanalysts, and that, anyhow, it didn’t impede his creativity at all.
Whatever the truth, Woody, judging by his recent films like “Radio Days”, “Small Town Crooks”, and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” seems to be living more and more in the past, particularly the nineteen-forties when he largely grew up. Perhaps his retreat into nostalgia is because he finds the present troubling and the future terrifying, for he has talked often of his fear of death, and that life is ultimately meaningless. To keep these existential fears at bay he continues frenetically to write and produce.
Whether he will produce another masterpiece is doubtful. Even so, the current relatively diminished Woody Allen is still way up there among today’s cinematic luminaries.
Paradoxically, Woody Allen, USA born and raised, can’t be seen as a quintessentially American artist since his influences were almost totally European. In its subtlety, literateness, wryness, irony, and sense of tragedy, his artistry is distinctly un-American. We can see why when he tells of the films he considers the greatest and which influenced him most. They are those of Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, and Akira Kurasawa. There is nary a James Cameron among them.
As long as Woody Allen is still with us, let us be grateful for those crumbs under his table he still has to offer.