When asked about Woody Allen's New York, critics often cite the glorious black-and-white Gershwin cinepoem that opens “Manhattan” (1979). I’ve always been partial, though, to the rough magic of Diane Keaton’s terrible driving in “Annie Hall” (1977). (See clips below.)
Two minutes of Allen and Keaton at hilarious cross purposes, he wincing and ducking, she drifting and riffing, it's emblematic of the (almost unconscious) courage required to live in the Big Apple. Or any metropolis, really: let up for one moment and it'll smack you down. As it happens, in the world of Woody Allen, the city isn’t just a love story — it’s also a mystery, a joy, a travesty, a brave new world.
Look at Robert Weide’s warm, strenuously uncontroversial “Woody Allen: A Documentary” (available for free on PBS streaming) alongside “Midnight in Paris,” which is out Tuesday on DVD and iTunes. I wish Weide’s film held Allen’s feet to the fire: not only about his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of Allen paramour and longtime muse Mia Farrow, but I wanted more of Allen’s response to his detractors, too. Those, like Joan Didion, who call his characters “faux adults,” and those, including pretty much everyone who follows movies, who thought his career was on life support before he shifted to Europe with “Match Point” (2005). But even if it's more exhumation than examination, “Woody Allen” is a poignant reminder that he’s one of the best we have. Damn, in the two decades after “Annie Hall” he covered everything from Bergman-esque drama (“Interiors”) to screwball comedy (“Bullets Over Broadway”) with nary a misfire. That’s saying something.
For Allen, the place is the thing, even if the place is no longer New York. Often, as in “Manhattan” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the city’s a lead character, as though that particular story couldn’t happen anywhere else. Timing is key, too — it’s the nostalgic dreamworld Paris of the 1920s, or the Barcelona of a youngster’s summer abroad, that we’re talking about here. Even when the location isn’t advertised in the title, Allen’s sense of place conveys as much about the inner life of his characters as any zinger in the script.
The indiscretion at the heart of “Hannah and Her Sisters” takes shape in a hushed bookshop, furtive and out of the way; a cinema’s expanse of feeling helps free a woman and a movie character from their unhappy confines in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” My favorite sequence in any Allen film, the frenetic, head-spinning, claustrophobic opening minutes of “Husbands and Wives,” says more about the failure of a relationship, about the feeling of having the rug being pulled out from under you, than other directors’ entire oeuvre (clip below).
“Midnight in Paris” may be a trifle, more devoted to historical cameos than developing its main players, but such criticism misses the ways in which Paris comes to represent everything Gil’s life lacks. Nostalgia is longing, and the film’s graceful depiction of a man dreaming up the life he lost, or never had, turns that nostalgia into something smart, deep, and ineffably sad. To go back to “Annie Hall,” I don’t long for that old New York, alive and kicking well before I was born, as much as I long for the feeling it gave me — the quickening pulse of seeing something, having been raised on the offerings of a suburban multiplex, that I didn’t know was possible.
Watching it again now, the place really is the thing, the place it has in my moviegoer’s constellation of sense-memories. It’s only a shimmer now, but it always reminds me of the kid I used to be, a film student who studied the movies because nothing ever quite compared to that moment when the lights came down.