Monday, February 27, 2012

In defense of Woody Allen

The first Woody Allen movie I ever saw was Small Time Crooks. I went to the theater with my mom and dad, a rare occurrence for our disjointed family, and sat through the entire movie at only seven years old.

To this day I don't remember a thing about the movie. But what I do remember is that it was my first insight into an inherited obsession, one I'll carry with me until I'm on my death bed: a love of Woody Allen.

Woody Allen with the Midnight in Paris cast. Photo from The Atlantic.
My dad has a Woody Allen and Marx Brothers marathon every New Year's Eve. He watches at least one movie from these filmmakers, creating a night of alternating mustachioed and awkward dorky Jewish comedy to entertain a five o'clock-shadowed, awkward and dorky Jewish man (a not-so-perfect description of my dad). One New Year's Eve, I decided to crash my dad's one-man party to ring in 2005 (I think it was 2005, the year is a bit fuzzy).

Together we watched Everyone Says I Love You and A Night at the Opera. I loved both. I wanted to know more about these movies, these stars, these filmmakers. But most of all, I wanted to know more about Woody Allen.

I had heard about Woody from an early age. Between my mom and myself there were a few shared obvious facts about my dad: 1. He was a vegetarian. 2. He watched The Daily Show every night ("Haha, what's The Daily Show?" my young self wondered - what did I know?). 3. He loves Woody Allen.

With this information, I had it ingrained in my head that an interest in Woody was a part of life's progress, just something that happened. But it took me a few years to embrace the inevitability.

Once I got to college I became all the more obsessed with the availability of Woody's films. All that I wanted to see was at my fingertips. Netflix and the library multimedia center offered me most (other than Bullets Over Broadway which I had to request) everything I wanted to see with Woody Allen in the credits.

I saw Play it Again, Sam, Love and Death, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway, Celebrity and Match Point. At home, my dad was giving me other Woody movies to watch like Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Mighty Aphrodite, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris.

I became an avid fan, embracing my own stumbling stutter and unsophisticated nerdy awkwardness. Woody gave me the power to enjoy being an underdog.

So even though Woody Allen was not present at the 84th Annual Academy Awards tonight, I was unbelievably excited when he won Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris. This man I have long admired, with a unique writing style and a love of classic cinema, classic music, classic themes and periods, was finally receiving recognition he has long waited for since his last Academy Award in 1987 (Best Original Screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters).

Since Hannah in 1987, Woody has directed and written 28 theater-released films, with one in the works. Of his 23 Oscar nominations, he has only won four. For Annie Hall he was recognized as Best Director as well as for Best Original Screenplay and for Hannah and Her Sisters for Best Original Screenplay again. Finally, in 2012, he has been lauded again by the Academy for a great writing achievement.

Critiques by a snooty public who claim in their best wealthy Wall Street executive voice that "Midnight in Paris was just not Allen's best work. It just does not typify his legacy. It is a sad failure in his overall repertoire" are difficult to avoid. But in the moment that Midnight in Paris won for Best Original Screenplay, I could not feel anything less than pride that one of my favorite directors and screenwriters of all time was getting recognition for his work.

And also, despite the criticism, I believe Midnight in Paris is a wonderful testament not only to the power of film location and truly inspired acting and directing, but also to the effect that a script can have on gathering your whole heart and all of your senses into the story.

I've always been a nostalgic person. I love old movies, old music, old books, old people. I long for a time when things were simpler, for La Belle Epoque of my own imagination. In Midnight in Paris, Woody tells the story of a character, Gil, who is like himself in many ways. He is a writer, he is a long-term romantic who falls victim to whimsy and visions of true love, he is obsessed with the past (Gil writes a book about a man who owns a nostalgia shop). But, like in many of Woody's other films, he also creates a cautionary tale of how dreaming can loosen your happiness within reality. If you look for satisfaction elsewhere, you may never notice it was standing right in front of you.

Adriana (Marion Cotillard) & Gil (Owen Wilson) walking the streets of Paris.
When Gil finally comes to this realization, he tries to inform his companion and confidante, a French woman (who is not his intended) named Adriana, who risks also getting sucked into a false notion of nostalgia. "Adriana," he says, "if you stay here though [in the past], and this becomes your present then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your, you know, was really the golden time. Yeah, that's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying."

Many say Woody's writing was just not up to snuff in this particular film. He allegedly got so wrapped up in the sentimentalism of it all that he lost his ability to write pointedly and cleverly.

But I believe, like some of my other favorite Woody works, Midnight in Paris was the perfect example of how Woody does right by his audience. He creates a script that is not only gifted in storytelling, but does not rely on film tricks to create a powerful narrative. His writing plays out like a stage performance, gathering us into the characters and the story as if we've been sucked into our own vortex where time and space lose all meaning and all that matters is the screen and the contents of those 24 frames per second.

In my favorite Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody teaches us through his main character that being consumed by a movie is no way to spend a life. We watch our protagonist fall in love with a fictional leading man who jumps out of the movie screen and into her life like a flash of burning, romantic, incomprehensibly beautiful lightning.

The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris both possess storylines about the perils of getting lost in fantasy. For those of us that bask in the glory of art - and film specifically - this is something we hate hearing, but we also love to have repeated back to us. Because as much as it is a moral to the story not to become infatuated with what isn't real, these movies are also Woody's own homage to the eras, the films, the music that he loves. And in this, many of us find a piece of ourselves in Woody.

So I would endeavor to say that, even though Midnight in Paris may have come off as sappy - a far cry from Woody Allen's farcical comedies of his earlier years and a deviation from his less emotional thrillers like Match Point or Cassandra's Dream - it was one of his best scripts to date. Because besides creating the ultimate nostalgia film, it also gave us a window through which to peer at ourselves, at our hearts and at our own perceptions of life.

I am so thankful for my dad's obsession with Woody Allen. I am thankful that from an early age I always knew the name, as if it were so common as Elvis Presley or Walt Disney. Woody was a cultural symbol for me that would at first only garner moderate interest, but then turn into an enormous obsession.

In watching his movies, I learned to value the sense of voice in a script. I found further reason to embrace my own Jewish cultural heritage. I realized that my nostalgia was not unmet, even by one of the most genius auteurs of our time. And I also discovered that movies are not just our doors to other worlds, but our entryways back to ourselves, to understand our own psychologies and combat them head on.

It's been 12 years since I saw Small Time Crooks in theaters with my mom and dad. At the time I thought little of the movie. I did not value it, I did not remember it.

But now, forgetting a Woody Allen film just doesn't happen. And I realize, finally, that he truly is one of the most wonderful filmmakers in the world. And he deserves all the awards. All of them.

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