In 1980s conservative America, a certain generation of youths were raised under a canopy of media temperence, one that excluded all references to sex, drugs and adult language in an attempt to bring up a nation of nice boys and girls.
To many of these concerned folks, Woody Allen was not “nice.”
A child of one such small-town American family, I only knew that the name “Woody Allen” conjured up adverse reactions from my parents. Most of the time, they simply ignored his existence, or, when provoked, might groan at the mention of his name and change the TV channel when he was interviewed. Over time, I realized that their disgust probably came from his personal life as much as the adult themes in his films, and I took the safe route of avoidance along with them.
It was when I saw Annie Hall in a college film course that my eyes were opened. While still shocked at the edgy content of the PG-rated film, I was secretly spellbound by Allen’s style of storytelling. Though I didn’t “get” the film much at the time because it was still too revolutionary for my taste, I could not deny the deep impression it made on my early view of life.
Now, over a decade later, Woody Allen continues to shock, surprise and delight me with his broad range of work, staking a claim as one of the most enduring filmmakers of the last 50 years. From the magical realism of Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo to the dark humor of Manhattan and Play It Again, Sam, the irreverance and occasional bleakness of these tales no longer scare me, but rather offer a different view.
A word of warning to those who may be living sans-Woody lives: once hooked, there’s no going back. Prepare to be sucked into a world where majestic cities are characters unto themselves and viewers aren’t sorry for the insecure protagonist, but instead nod at his quips and laugh along side him. Audiences can go almost anywhere with Woody Allen and feel at home—past or present, dancing with the stars, perusing art galleries, officiating a tennis match, murmuring in a bedroom, walking by the Brooklyn Bridge, running around a newsroom, hanging out in cafés, queueing at a movie theater or even writing a story.
While Allen received rave reviews for his 2011 flick,Midnight in Paris, and surely attracted an entirely new audience, it stands to reason that his older films, the groundbreaking stuff of the 1970s and ’80s, are still what viewers hunger for most. His recent films are entertaining, but it is the Woody Allen classics that meet us in a funny, dark place we didn’t even know existed within ourselves.
So what would life be like if we hadn’t ventured past the filmography of a restrictive upbringing? What would life be like without Woody? There would certainly be lessons left unlearned and lonely hearts broken without the salve of Allen’s humorous comfort. Woody Allen has demonstrated to the world how messy relationships can be, and how the impractical are often the most irresistible. He has shown audiences what is hardest to accept—that life doesn’t always offer happy endings and that, more importantly, we survive and live and laugh in spite of that truth.
Woody Allen has also given the average U.S. moviegoer an invaluable education in European cinema, like a bespectacled mother sneaking vegetables into delicous cakes. How many people who “don’t do” foreign films yet enjoy Allen’s work might be surprised to learn just how much his pen is influenced by European film greats like Fellini and Bergman?
Perhaps what makes Woody Allen stand out the most in both film and persona is his ability to continuously march to the beat of his own drum—or more appropriately, sway to the croon of his own clarinet. It is his steadfast true-to-self nature that has truly made his nearly 60-year body of work so enduring. Born in a time when the pioneers of filmmaking were at their best, Allen certainly could have used their influence to create mediocre copies of classic films, yet he has never indulged such a temptation. Instead, he pays homage to his heroes while still crafting his films into wholly independent works in and of themselves. From beginning to end, each film is 100 percent Woody Allen.
In his personal life, Allen has obviously fueled a scandal or two, resulting in the opinion of some that he is an unfit celebrity role model. He stands by his personal choices but their warranted controversy cannot be ignored. As Jo-Ann Armao says in her 2009 rant for the Washington Post, “I don’t care how entertaining his movies might be (I’ve long since boycotted them); why would anyone get to their feet to applaud a man who became involved with the adopted daughter of his longtime girlfriend? Is this the man Hollywood really wants to hold out as someone to be admired and applauded?”
Despite the truth in these words, there should be room left for genuine appreciation and an openness to accept what Woody Allen offers as an artist. He should not be excluded from having a positive effect on the culture around him, perhaps in spite of himself. After all, who really wants to follow a filmmaker who lives a life without reproach and cranks out only cinematic pieces of perfection? Foibles are what make us most vulnerable, most human, most precious.
Maybe back at the end of the last century, people still wanted to ignore the uncomfortable parts of life—the sex, drugs and dirty bits best left behind closed curtains. Perhaps the seperation between those who lived on the East Coast and those who didn’t was still too great. But, thank goodness, through the magic of cinema we can still go back, and thank goodness Woody Allen has given us something amazing to go back to.
So what is left to be said? The minutest details of Woody Allen’s films, plays, stories and life have been peeled back, stripped to the bone and examined, again and again and again. “Unique” is a word that is thrown around a lot. And odd. Hilarious. Deviant. Controversial. Legendary. Awkward. Neurotic. Enigmatic. Genius. And an exceedingly clever man who is endlessly quoted, even as he remains essentially a mystery.