Sheep and Christmas Day: A filmmaker’s first encounter with Woody Allen

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Editor’s Note: You’ll no doubt recall Maryann Koopman Kelly’s wonderful article in our Woody Allen issue about growing up without seeing Allen’s films. Her husband, filmmaker and friend of Paste Frank Kelly, decided to share his early Woody memories as well. Enjoy!

My first encounter with Woody Allen was not with one of his films, not directly, but a still from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask. If you know the movie you can probably guess the image I’m talking about, that’s right – Gene Wilder in bed with a sheep. It was Christmas Day 1989, I was 11 years old and I had just received the gift I had most wanted that year – Eddie Dorman Kay’s pictorial compilation of the top ten grossing films from 1939 to 1989: Box Office Greats – The Most Popular Movies of the Last Fifty Years.

As a young movie buff I wanted this book above and beyond anything else a normal 11 year-old kid would want, a bike, a Light saber, Indiana Jones action figures. I was little Ralphie Parker and his Red Ryder BB gun, except no one could tell me I was going to shoot my eye out. In fact, they were probably quite relieved that on that lean Christmas all I wanted was a book.

I can’t tell how excited and thrilled I was when I found it waiting that Christmas morning. I poured over it all Christmas day, and for weeks, months and years after. This was before the Internet kids! Before IMDb. Computers still had wood paneling for crying out loud.

I memorized this book. Who was in what. Who worked on what. Who worked together a lot. Who was popular when and in what. It was my first education in film. It was my bible. It’s sitting on my lap as I write this, just to make sure I didn’t imagine the picture… nope, there it is, page 72, 1972, and according to this, the number ten movie of that year, grossing $10.5 million.

1972 was an important year in film. The Godfather was at number one. Clint unleashed Dirty Harry. Kubrick unleashed Clockwork Orange. And Cabaret unleashed Liza Minelli. And as it happens, in the also-ran box, Allen’s Play it Again, Sam sits nonchalantly at number 24. Two top grossing movies in a stellar year cinematic year, not bad.

But we were talking about sheep.

I had seen Gene Wilder in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, Haunted Honeymoon, See No Evil Hear No Evil, Stir Crazy and Blazing Saddles, so I was a fan. But I had never seen this movie. I had never heard of this movie. Intrigued, I asked my parents, “Mam, Dad, why is Gene Wilder in bed with a sheep?” they awkwardly avoided the question with – “I’m busy with dinner…” and “I’m watching Ben Hur…” I asked if we could rent it, they asked what the title was, I told them… “Brussel sprouts…” “Chariot chase bit…” was the answer to that.

It left me wondering, puzzled, perplexed, dissatisfied, curious – all of the things that have described how I have felt about Woody Allen’s films ever since. After a Woody film, I’m often left scratching my head, wanting answers, looking for understanding, reaching, feeling like I’ve missed something. I laugh out loud along with everyone else, but as they leave, snorting one-liners, I glance over my shoulder, playing the final scene in Manhattan over and over in my head.

You know what it is? It’s that itch in the middle of your head, the one you can’t reach by digging in your ear, or pushing your tongue against the roof of your mouth, or hacking your throat till it hurts. You come at it form every angle, but you just can’t reach it. That’s what Woody does – he tickles your brain, in just the right place, the place you can’t ignore and the place you can’t scratch. That image was an itch in my 11 year-old brain. One I have yet to scratch. I’ve seen most of Woody’s film, and love them, but for some reason, I haven’t watched that one yet. Maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to scratch the itch – and replace it with a new one.

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