“I not only was totally in love with Manhattan from the earliest memory, I loved every single movie that was set in New York, every movie that began high above the New York skyline and moved in. Every detective story, every romantic comedy, every movie about night clubs in New York or penthouses. To this day, 90% of movies that are not about the city, that take place in rural atmosphere, I rarely latch on to. They really have to be extraordinary. But I love any old film that ever begins or takes place in New York City.”
Woody in Woody Allen: a biography. by Eric Lax
Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.
Alvy Singer in Annie Hall 1977
In the opening voice-over for RADIO DAYS (1987), Woody apologies about being excessively romantic about the Brooklyn that he grew up in. It is a disclaimer that could easily be attached to many of his films as the New York that he recreates is one that only exists within his imagination.
His visual style brings the background to the foreground by having long shots and long takes so that the city becomes an important character, with all its tension and nervous energy. As a director, the walking and talking through the streets with the dialogue overlapping each other has become his recognisable style. As a writer, the patterns of speech are comfortable to him as he knows the patter of the patois. When the New York patois is taken out of the city, it seems so clumsy.
New York in a Woody Allen is also representing a modernist sensibility. The absence of God, the horror and anxiety of people living in close-proximity to each other and the vitality that it brings is grist to the mill. Alvy Singer in ANNIE HALL is compared the city that he loves:
Alvy, you’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean you’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like this island unto yourself.”
It is a line that is so good that it is used twice.
The preoccupation with New York as a sensibility creates parochialism that limits the frame of reference for Woody Allen films: life is terrible, so you need to find whatever works …
This is the film that established his reputation for smart films featuring walking and talking New Yorkers trying to grapple with their petty relationships and worries about the world. Woody plays Isaac, a writer who is in the midst of an existential cross-road with his relationships with women: should he choose a complex, intelligent woman who is beautiful but set in her ways, or should he go for a school-girl who he can nurture?
Yes, I know, but it doesn’t seem as creepy as it sounds when played against the magnificently rendered cinematography by Gordon Willis and the souring horns of Gershwin.
The city looks magical especially when Keaton and Woody dash into the planetarium to escape from the rain. Their anxieties seem dwarfed by the scale of the Universe:
Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be.
You need to find your distractions, whatever works.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
If MANHATTAN was a side-swipe at the earnestness of the New York bourgeois, then HANNAH … takes a mallet to it. The characters here are in a closed, rarefied world (they have a black maid, for goodness sake!) in the thrall of the matriarch Maureen O’Hara and her Thanksgiving dinner. The family is a complex web of relationships between three sisters. Many have written about the women characters and how they are interesting parts well played by Mia Farrow, as Hannah ‘the perfect one’, Diane Wiest as Holly ‘the day-dreamer’ and Barbara Hersey as Lee ‘the former alcoholic’ and partner of a cantankerous artist, however I think this film is more about the two men at the centre of the film.
Woody Allen plays a TV producer who is neurotic and believes he is suffering from a brain tumour. He skips down the street when he is given the all-clear, only to stop in his tracks as he realises that he has put off death for now, but it is never going away. Michael Caine gives an Oscar winning performance as Elliot who is infatuated by Lee and is creating chance meetings across the city, so he can get closer to her. Both of these characters can be conflated into one as they fit the Woody archetype (not only because of their interchangeable glasses) of a middle-aged man getting to grips with the absurdity of life and its desire, only to conclude you have to find your own distractions (Marx brothers included): whatever works.
Radio Days (1987)
This is Woody at his most autobiographical. It is the one film that he is prepared to admit to being heavily drawn from living in a house in Brooklyn that he shared with his extended family. While the adults were worrying about the consequences of the war and everything that it brought, he and his friends were having fun living within their imaginations that was fueled by the radio and the adventures that it created.
In this film, Manhattan is a mythical place where a cigarette girl may find fame and fortune, or where a child can travel to Radio City Music Hall for a special treat.
In a world that is terrible, the radio provided a means of escape: whatever works.
Oedipus Wrecks in New York Stories (1989)
An anthology film featuring a couple of shorts from Scorsese and Coppola, but Woody keeps closer to the brief by having a version of his own mother hovering over the city. Woody plays Sheldon, a successful lawyer who is hounded and embarrassed by the constant interventions by his mother. He takes her to a magic show where she apparently disappears, then reappears over New York.
He is blighted by celebrity and the omnipresent nagging from his mother. Julie Kavner plays a psychic who tries to break the spell. There are some hilarious scenes with the two of them attempting various occult techniques to reach his mother. During this close contact he becomes close to Kavner because she has many of the same qualities as his mother …
He begins to realise that his relationship with the attractive Mia Farrow character cannot work because of his mother and her influence, but following the experiences Kavner he realises that it may be a release from the misery of his mother. Hey, whatever works!
Whatever Works (2009)
Following a European Vacation, this is a return home to familiar territory within New York where Larry David is willing to break the forth wall to tell a true story that happened to him. A sexy, young, country bumpkin, filled with youth and ambition, came into his life and he educated her Pygmalion-like into the city ways.
Its all a bit too whimsical with Larry David at the helm. I was expecting an outburst after a torturous social faux pa that never arrives.
Whatever works, and all that.
- Our Favorite Woody Allen Movies (splitsider.com)
- Woody Allen’s 30 best one-liners (3quarksdaily.com)
- Film Review: Annie Hall (tweedling.com)
- Five Favorite Woody Allen Films (blackiswhiteblog.wordpress.com)
- Film: Watch This: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton reunite for the warmly funny whodunit Manhattan Murder Mystery (avclub.com)
- Ten Most Shocking and Disturbing Celebrity Couples (celebs.answers.com)
- 4. “Annie Hall” – dir. Woody Allen, 1975 (jcplikesfilms.wordpress.com)