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Where’s Woody?

What does an artist the caliber of Woody Allen do when he’s reached the pinnacle of his artistic accomplishment -- while only in his early 40s?

If you once loved Woody Allen movies the way love was described in Annie Hall (“Love is too weak a word for what I feel -- I lurve you, you know, I loave you, I loff you”), then you, too, may wonder where the “real” Woody Allen’s been hiding the past 25 or so years.

That’s not to deny that Allen’s an amazingly prolific filmmaker. And yet, it’s telling that promotion for Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, barely makes mention of it being a Woody Allen film. He’s simply listed as writer and director, but that’s it. The type size on the movie poster appears to be the same as it is for, say, Rachel McAdams. There’s no voiceover saying anything about this being the latest from Allen or even saying it’s from one of the world’s leading filmmakers. And while I might be in the minority here, I don’t agree with critics who feel this movie was a return to form for Allen.

A new Woody Allen movie used to be an event. You couldn’t wait to go see it. And when the lights in the movie theater dimmed and the previews were finally over and the instantly recognizable title sequence appeared onscreen—that distinctive white font on a black background—you knew you were guaranteed an unparalleled comedic experience. Like the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Allen was a genius at making Jewish-New York-high brow-low brow humor click with an audience that spanned ethnic and geographic and generational differences. That’s an amazing artistic feat.

I remember my introduction to Woody Allen's films. It was when my father took me to a double feature of Bananas and Sleeper. The most memorable scene in Bananas was when Allen’s character (a New Yorker who’s somehow joined the revolutionary forces in a fictional Central American Country) brings a bakery box of pastries, tied with one of those thin, striped strings, to the home of the country’s dictator, just as Allen’s parents must have done when they visited relatives in Brooklyn. The incongruity made it hilarious.

I also remember when my son was young, watching Love and Death with him on our VCR. When Allen’s character, a 19th century reluctant Russian soldier, was shot out of a cannon, it set off a giggling fit and pleas to play it over and over again.

With Annie Hall, however, Allen outdid himself. He toned down the broad physical comedy (without abandoning it), retained the verbal cleverness, and made it part of the relationship between Alvy (Woody) and Annie (Diane Keaton) that is among the most real, heartfelt—and ultimately heartbreaking—of any relationship ever portrayed on film.

After Annie Hall, the film auteur arrived at a crossroads. What does an artist do when he’s reached the pinnacle of his artistic accomplishment while only in his early 40s? When he still has decades of work ahead of him? How does he go on, artistically, when his muse (in this case, Diane Keaton) is no longer available to him? Can he find a way to escape the constrictions of his phenomenal success without leaving his devoted audience feeling abandoned?

Allen’s initial impulse soon became clear: in the first few films after Annie Hall, he seemed bent on broadcasting that he was not going to be placed in an artistic straitjacket. First, he made the Ingmar Bergman-inspired Interiors. At the showing I went to, audience members kept laughing nervously in places, unsure how to respond to a heavy, dramatic Woody Allen film.

It’s true that his next movie, Manhattan, contained some of the same romanticism as Annie Hall, replete with a Gershwin soundtrack and gorgeous views of Manhattan. But this time the love interest of the middle-aged protagonist was a high school girl, making the relationship hard for the audience to root for. (I won’t make any art imitating life imitating art comments here—that's just too easy.)

Along came Stardust Memories, which turned some fans against him! That movie, which drew heavily from Fellini’s 8 ½, poked fun at people for wanting the lead character, a famous director played by Allen, to refrain from doing somber movies (like Interiors) and stick exclusively with what they’d come to expect from him, namely comedy.

It seems self-defeating and more than a little pompous to bite the hand that feeds you. But the struggle between an evolving artist and a devoted fan base that’s stuck in the past is a common one, and it’s not unusual for the artist to feel at least a wee bit defensive. This tug-of-war was captured nicely on the live Joni Mitchell album, Miles of Aisles, when she laughingly responded to the clashing suggestions from the audience for what song to play next (past hits only of course): “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man.’ He painted it; that was it.”

The author Elizabeth Gilbert also addressed the burden placed on the most heralded of artists in a TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity. She acknowledged the pressure she felt to write a an equally well-received follow-up to what she referred to as the “freakish success” of the mega bestseller Eat Pray Love. While making clear that she did not consider herself a genius, she spoke insightfully about the problem with labeling an artist a genius, and how perhaps this label and all the baggage that comes with it has contributed to the self-destructive and even suicidal actions of so many artists over the years. She made a strong case for reverting back to pre-Renaissance days when an artist was thought to have a genius (a mythical character who helped guide him), not be a genius.

Perhaps Woody Allen would agree. After his initial 180-degree turn from his most beloved works, he made Hannah and Her Sisters which, if not equal to his prior successes, certainly followed in their path. And then he just kept working. Sometimes his genius buddy showed up, sometimes it didn’t.

In an interview from Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman (Grove / Atlantic, 2005) he said:

“I make so many films, that I don’t care about individual successes and failures. I’ve tried very hard to make my films into a non-event. I just want to work, that’s all. Just put the film out for people to see, just keep grinding them out. I hope I’ll have a long and healthy life, that I can keep working all the time, and that I can look back in old age and say, ‘I made fifty movies and some of them were excellent and some of them were not so good and some were funny…’ I just don’t want to get into that situation that so many of my contemporaries are in, where they make one film every few years and it’s a Big Event.”

I’m not sure this is a philosophy that feels satisfying to audiences, but I suppose it’s not a bad credo for artists.

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