Like many Americans reared on eighties pop culture, I first discovered the potential of cinema by way of Steven Spielberg. The escapism of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," derivative as it may have been to viewers more readily familiar with the matinee serials that inspired it, brought an exotic world of possibilities to life for these relatively sheltered eyes. But I don't want to give Spielberg all the credit for revving up my movie engine; while Spielberg's refined spectacles introduced me to a new world, I was equally excited by the discovery of a familiar one by way of Woody Allen.
I've had Allen on the mind a lot this week, having just watched Robert Weide's terrific two-part PBS documentary about the 75-year-old director for the network's "American Masters" series. Weide's refined survey touches on everything you wanted to know about Woody but never had the opportunity to ask, from his lovably arcane insistence on tapping everything out on the same typewriter he's had for 30 or so years to the slight but usually effective approach he brings to coaching performances. While Allen has moved through various "periods," his technique and outlook have remained fairly stable. Even though I haven't been entirely thrilled by his last few movies, the Allen drug--the neuroses that felt like home--retains its vibrancy in his comedies, and takes on a deliciously grim finality in his thrillers. Even when he strikes out, he's still true to himself.
I enjoyed "Midnight in Paris" when I saw it at Cannes earlier this year, although compared to the "earlier, funnier" Allen comedies it brings to mind (as Allen memorably calls them in "Stardust Memories"), the movie's status as Allen's highest grossing film to date is mainly a triumph for Sony Pictures Classics. It means nothing to Allen. And for the sake of consistency alone, it shouldn't. As he says in the final seconds of Weide's documentary: "Despite all these lucky breaks, why do I still feel like I got screwed?"
Allen delivers that statement with a dry, honest laugh, but he's not joking. His movies live and breath a precisely Jewish form of self-flagellation that, for this viewer at a certain age of adolescent transition, provided a welcome state of relief. Growing up in a household beholden to illogical traditions and old world convictions can make you feel pretty nutty sometimes. It was nice to know I wasn't alone.
Allen's reverence for Bergman, Keaton and other seminal directors certainly exists in various stylistic and tonal indulgences over the years, but on another level what he's known for has less to do with any specific filmmaking practice and relates more to a state of cinematic being. His characters in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" are only marginally distinct from one another; they're ostensibly two heads of the same whiny beast.
What I love most about Allen, however, is that no matter how bitchy he gets--whether playing himself or expressing himself through one of his more recent onscreen incarnations--there's still an underlying positivism to his work, a willingness to celebrate the finer things in life no matter how crappy the bigger picture. The best example that comes to mind is that seminal shot from "Manhattan" where Allen and Diane Keaton fall in love against the sweeping backdrop of the Queensboro Bridge. Despite the form of New York romanticism that makes "Manhattan," both then and now, a marvelously sophisticated fantasy, there's a fundamental truth to this beautiful moment. The life of any urban dweller has many interminably frustrating qualities, but most are worth the endurance test for the fleeting moments of transcendence that the city can provide.
I did not fall in love next to the Queensboro Bridge. It was actually a little to the south, in the basement of a poorly-lit club in the Lower East Side. But life doesn't have to look like a Woody Allen movie in order to feel like one, as Allen would surely admit.
Both parts of the PBS documentary on Woody Allen are embedded below: