Odds are that most cinephiles of my generation, and most Reverse Shot writers, were watching Woody Allen movies before they ever saw anything by Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini; before they ever read anything by Dostoevsky or Ibsen; before they were aware of the sizable disparity in aesthetics between American and European cinema; before they were brushing up on their Nietzsche or read Rilke; before they knew the radical cultural differences his films evinced, and that cinema and, furthermore, pop culture itself had completely consumed and regurgitated his philosophical style and outlook. Often either regaled or demeaned as being merely a conduit to the “higher arts” mentioned above, Woody Allen is actually one of the most essential American artists of the past century, subsuming and reappropriating the textures of the modern European arts for the American cosmopolitan sensibility, funneling those tropes into a New York tenor, and thus single-handedly creating a new form of Jewish humor, which tightened the Borscht belt around the ever-inflating girth of the gentile elitism he (and we) both despises and covets. Each Woody Allen film is tricky to navigate; while he seems to put himself out there, in firing range, bearing his neuroses for all to heckle, he also always is shielding himself from some greater truth, whether by hiding behind Upper East Side extravagance or Euro art-house nostalgia.
But that’s the great paradox: what he hates he loves and vice versa, and that dichotomy has yielded not three or four, but at least fifteen or sixteen, of the most indelible, awkward, rich, hilarious, and consistently personal American films of the past thirty years. On the average, he’s made at least a film a year since he won his first Oscar, for Annie Hall, and even when he’s been down (Shadows and Fog, a few of the late, “funny” ones), you get the sense that he’s just warming up for the next one while spitting out a few more demons. With Film Forum starting their three-week long Essentially Woody series today, as a (hopefully) savvy bit of Christmas counterprogramming for the director’s target NY Jewish audience, it’s as good a time as any to begin a look back on his greatest, most overlooked, and of course, most endlessly quotable films.
First up, as if there was any question, is Annie Hall, that 1977 Best Picture–winning (which seems reeeeeally odd nowadays) masterpiece that both redefined the parameters of romantic comedy (ushering the death knell for Neil Simon; look at The Goodbye Girl now, released the same year—it looks like a fossil) and completely reimagined Woody Allen’s artistic potential. Nearly every single scene in its swift 94 minutes is hilarious, save Diane Keaton’s unbearably beautiful renditions of “Seems Like Old Times” and “It Had to Be You.” Yet there’s a central melancholy to the film that never quite abates—announced in the opening, black on white title cards, with absolutely no accompanying music whatsoever. These credits were as grand a statement as Allen was ever to make; yes, this was to be an American film, a romance, a screwball comedy, about dating, filled with uproarious one-liners and direct-address tomfoolery, but there was no question as to Woody’s appreciation for the finer things, the silence and spaces of foreign cinema, and no amount of stand-up comedy or years of bonkers, narrative-nose-thumbers like Love and Death and Bananas were going to get in his way.
It’s still a glorious thing, skittering across the surface of a doomed relationship without recourse to linearity; of course, as far as achronological romances go, Two for the Road, in a sense, got there first, in 1967, yet Allen’s moroseness never gets in the way of his cutting observations, and unlike Donen’s film, Annie Hall avoids all of the frothy frolicking that had become the mainstay of American romantic comedy. Consistently hilarious and never, even for a moment, frivolous, Annie Hall also provided Diane Keaton with the proper springboard (after years of misuse in lugubrious, solemn wife roles) for her patented brand of drippy, self-evasive hangdoggedness—she’s attractively masculine, yet with a feminine rosy glow, the perfect object of affection and fear for Woody’s hyper-emasculated small fry. Simply put, there is nothing, nothing, nothing that brings me more joy in cinema than the first meeting between Annie and Alvy, the post-tennis “la-dee-dah” awkwardness, the nauseating car ride back to her place (‘Let me ask you something? Is this a sandwich?”), Keaton’s completely incomprehensible Thanksgiving-narcolepsy anecdote, the rambling bit of subtitled interplay on the roof deck, and then finally, after all that, Annie’s obliviously insulting conversation ender: “You’re what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew.”
To which Woody Allen can only respond, with a quizzical, “Oh … thank you.”
Of course, he still falls in love with her. (As do we.) The things we hate and love are often all wrapped up in the same package. The perfect beginning to a career that still can’t reconcile those impulses.