“It’s not all a drag.” Mickey Sachs. Hannah and her Sisters
“As I’ve said many, many times, rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I want to live on in my apartment.”
So as I clicked onto Twitter today, my feed told me that Woody Allen is turning 80 today. 80, you guys!
Hoo boy. “What does he have to say on the topic of Woody Allen?” I can hear you saying out loud to yourselves as you read these words.
Just like the most interesting people on Facebook’s relationship statuses indicate, “It’s complicated.”
I suppose I could try to write a concise, thoughtful piece on the ability to separate artistic merit from an artist’s personal life but the Onion did this really great “editorial” as if written by Woody Allen himself on the occasion of his lifetime achievement Golden Globe award in 2014. It really sums up the struggle I feel as a life-long Woody Allen fan so let me just link to it here.
There’s no question that the allegations against Woody Allen have cast him in an ugly light for the majority of people who claim to be “Woody Allen” fans, myself included.
If it’s true, then it really is inexcusable. And even if the molestation charges aren’t true (but they probably are), he married his step-daughter you guys. I mean, that in itself is at the very least frowned upon, if not completely illegal, to paraphrase Royal Tenenbaum. Speaking of Wes Anderson, I guess I feel the same way about Woody Allen as I do about Wes Anderson. Both are filmmakers with a very distinct look and style who generally work with the same group of people again and again (until you marry one of their step-daughters at least) and who seem to exert a large amount of creative control over their projects. For both artists, I enjoy their work to varying degrees. For every “Moonrise Kingdom” there must be a “Royal Tenenbaums”. For every “Hannah and her Sisters” we have to put up with a “Whatever Works”, I guess.
And in Woody Allen’s case, the misses are much more frequent than the hits. He can afford this ratio because he’s been averaging a movie a year for the past 50 years. Some of them have been quite successful commercially (Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris), some of them have been critically acclaimed but never found their audience (Interiors) and some are just plain terrible (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, to name just one of many). I know this, because I used to have a standing “date” with my friend K, who is also a “film enthusiast”. That sounds snobby, doesn’t it? Why does referring to them as “films” sound pretentious but calling them “movies” doesn’t? Okay, let’s just say we are two dudes who love movies. We bonded in high school over our shared love of movies (and films, you guys), and after that we sort of had this “pact” where we would always wait and see the next Woody Allen movie together. We always tried to go see them in the theatre if we could, but with a movie a year that got increasingly difficult. It was also tricky because there has been great variability in theatrical availability. I remember seeing “Mighty Aphrodite” in a regular first run theatre, but then the next one we saw, “Deconstructing Harry”, only played for two nights at Cinematheque, this local art house theatre. I’m know we’ve missed a few along the way, and keen filmography buffs will noticed I skipped over “Everybody says I love you” because we missed that one, but even to this day when I hear about a new Woody Allen movie coming out, I first think, “Hmmm, I wonder if K is free next weekend…”. I think the last one we saw together was “Blue Jasmine” which we both HATED, despite its good reviews. In fact, going to see a Woody Allen movie and complaining about it afterwards has almost become more fun than going to see a good one. We are like the old guys in the Muppets’ balcony, what were they called? Waldorf and Stattler or something like that? We now go in with pretty low expectations, and if we actually sort of enjoy it then it is a bonus. Maybe not the greatest way to enjoy a piece of art, but Goddammit it’s dependable.
But now this artistic (genius? is it too much to call him a genius?) is turning 80, and rather than celebrate a life well lived, as we did a couple of years ago when Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote his wonderful piece for the NYT about turning this magic number, we are faced with an inarguably impressive body of work (coupled with a seedy questionable lifestyle with potential serious perverted criminal activity).
Can we pick and choose what we want to remember? Even though it seems like he hasn’t aged in the past 30 years, there’s no denying that at age 80, our annual tradition of going to a Woody Allen movie is soon to come to an end. Looking back over an entire body of work is daunting, and I thought about doing a “top ten” or “top five” movies to celebrate (celebrate? is that the right word for a potential pederast? Probably not. Jeez this is difficult.) the milestone, but we’re pushing 1000 words already (a thousand more than this sick sonofabitch deserves, I hear you muttering, fanbase!). So instead, let me just focus in on one movie.
Hannah and her Sisters.
Let me just say a couple of things. “Hannah and her Sisters” was the first “adult” movie I ever saw. Not THAT kind of “adult”, perv. (those came later), but I mean “grown up” movie. It came out in 1986, so I was probably in grade 7 when I saw it on video. I fell in love with the structure and the story and the writing and the characters, and if anything, the movie resonates more with me now, 30 years later, than it did when I was a pre-teen. How many pieces of art have had that affect on me? Not many, I would reckon. (I was a weird pre-teen, though, granted.) In fact, in grade 8, when I adapted the novel “Cue for Treason” as a school play (yes, yes, I could relate to Wes Anderson’s Max Fisher character as well), I borrowed heavily on “Hannah and Her Sisters” structure to create short “chapters” or “episodes”. I cast my friend Ed as “Shakespeare” in a weird little meta-scene where he gave up writing serious dramas to write nursery rhymes instead. The scene didn’t appear in the novel anywhere, it was just a bit of absurdist humour that Ed and I thought was SUPER FUNNY but left our English teacher scratching her head.
“Hannah and her Sisters” was also the first movie to really make me take notice of “New York City” as a living, vibrant place. It’s a cliché nowadays to say that the city acts like “another character” in his stories, but when something is new to you, the cliché label doesn’t really apply. It was a place of dreams, where I could imagine walking the streets at night, popping into little cafés, bookstores, parks, and where new love could flourish in an autumnal Central Park. “When Harry Met Sally” had a very similar effect on me a couple of years later, but “Hannah and her Sisters” got to me first. Oh, and it was the movie that introduced me to the poet e.e. cummings, so I am forever grateful to Woody Allen for that too.
And the music too. It’s well known now that a hallmark of a Woody Allen movies is that the soundtrack almost always consists of pre 1950 jazz standards. This too was all new to me, and I fell in love with the soundtrack. I even owned it on cassette and it would play regularly in my Walkman.
It was also the movie that introduced me to Michael Caine. Enough said.
It really set the template for all the other Woody Allen movies I would eventually see, from the back catalogue to every subsequent release.
It strikes the perfect balance of humour, poignancy, writing, story-telling and cinematography. Have a look at this one small scene to get a taste. This scene isn’t even from the main storyline, so no real spoilers here if you haven’t seen it before.
Another great thing about Woody Allen movies is their length. Rarely will a movie run longer than 90 minutes, so if you’re enjoying it you’re always left wanting more, and if it’s terrible you know it will be over soon.
That last paragraph sounds like that joke that opens Annie Hall. (I’m paraphrasing). Life is like that joke about those two ladies that go to that restaurant and one of them says ‘The food here is terrible.’ and the other one says ‘and such small portions!’
Life can be full of misery and disappointment, but it will be over far too soon. Over these past 80 years, Woody Allen has created and will be remembered for a number of wonderfully funny and poignant films about human relationships. He’ll also be remembered as the guy who married his ex-wife’s daughter and probably molested his seven year old daughter.
So, yeah. It’s complicated.