From Manhattan to Rome: Journeys with Woody Allen

This article appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 19 October 2012 (Sydney edition, pp. 28-29), in a slightly different format.  The Australian Jewish News version of this article can be seen here.

He is Jewish, 76 years old, has written and directed almost a film every year since 1966, and is an icon of American film and comedy.  That description only fits one person: Woody Allen, whose longevity now outlasts almost every other American film director with the possible exception of Clint Eastwood, still going strong at 82.

While Eastwood is tough (remember “Dirty Harry”?), Western (he was once the mayor of Carmel, California) and conservative (appearing at last month’s Republican convention), Allen personifies the liberal, intellectual, comic, small in stature and Jewish New Yorker.

At least that’s what many of us think, particularly if your film-going came of age in the 1970s and the 1980s.  Your favourite Woody Allen films are likely to include “Annie Hall”, the 1977 multi-Academy Award winner that is still Allen’s most popular film; “Manhattan” (1979), still his second-most popular film, one that has forever identified George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with New York romance; “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986); and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), a deft mixture of comedy and tragedy as an extended metaphor on good and evil.

Or you may prefer the “early, funnier” films:  “Bananas” (1971), about a Latin American dictator; the comic sci-fi “Sleeper” (1973); “Love and Death” (1975), a hilarious parody of Russian literature; or “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972), which is more like a series of “Saturday Night Live” television sketches, but pushed the envelope of comic sex jokes when first released.  You might also choose “Play It Again, Sam” (also 1972) – about a movie critic who is haunted by visions of Humphrey Bogart trying to get him to toughen up (yeah, Clint Eastwood style).

If your adult movie watching seriously commenced in the 1990s, you must have wondered what the Woody Allen fuss was all about.  This was the decade of his worst films, when most seemed rushed to the screen.  Almost no-one watched these movies (well, I did, out of loyalty and curiosity).  Ironically his most popular screen role during that decade was in the animated children’s film “Antz” (1998, not directed or written by Allen), in which he voiced … an ant.

Films since the turn of the new century have been varying in quality, but something happened in 2005:  Allen embraced European locations – not just a New York sound stage that stood in for early twentieth century Germany in the 1991 film “Shadows and Fog” or a few Venice and Paris locations of “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996).  He directed four films shot in London – “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, “Match Point”, “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream”, although only appeared in one of them.  He then moved to Spain for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and then last year to Paris for the popular (including an Oscar for Best Screenplay) “Midnight in Paris”, in which Owen Wilson took on the role of the romantically confused writer so long associated with Allen.  And next to the well-received “To Rome with Love”, which opened in Australia this past week (18October 2012).

In a recent interview, Woody Allen acknowledged that he has never been to Israel, as much as he strongly identifies as Jewish and has expressed admiration and support for that country.  He admitted that he does not like to travel, and has successfully resisted the efforts of his Korean-born wife (Soon Yi Previn, the once adopted daughter of former partner Mia Farrow) to get him to Korea.

Until the six recent western European films, the only city that featured significantly in Allen’s films was New York.  The only other city in the United States that appears more than once is San Francisco:  “Take the Money and Run” was shot there, as well as “Play it Again, Sam”, which Allen also wrote but did not direct – and his original stage play took place in New York City.  Reportedly, Allen’s next film (as yet untitled) has also been shot in San Francisco (planned release 2013).

This sense of place became so important that New York City almost became a character in many films.  How many people can listen to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and not picture the opening montage of “Manhattan”? Just the film’s name – Manhattan – tells us that this guy is serious:  this is a film about New York City, and not just New York, but one certain section of New York.  Not convinced?  This guy also made a film called “Bullets Over Broadway”, another called “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and contributed to a trilogy called “New York Stories”, along with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Allen’s fascination with New York was so strong that he began to be criticised for rarely leaving the Manhattan’s Upper East Side, unless it was for the Upper West Side.  Yes, the characters in his films were mostly white, mostly Jewish, mostly upper middle class writers and artists.  He did not apologise.  This was the world that he knew, the world that he loved, and many of us loved him for bringing this world so brilliantly to the screen.

Almost one-half of the scenes in “To Rome with Love” take place in Italian.  So at an age when most of us are comfortably retired (if we live that long), Allen has marked out new territory and is exploring new countries, new languages and new contexts.  He has outlasted scandal (the relationship with Soon-Yi) and is now reaching a third generation, after working consistently for almost fifty years.

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