WOODY ALLEN PLAYS IT AGAIN AND AGAIN . . .
It is Monday night in Michael’s Pub in the East 50s and the red velvet rope is up. As he has for 15 years on every Monday night when he can possibly make it, the unsalaried clarinet player is sitting in with the semi-pro combo that includes an ad executive and a New York City detective.
The clarinetist plays the old Dixieland anthems with such joyous and rapt intensity that it is as if there were no audience, and as if he had no other life as the premiere American auteur film maker of his generation, whose “Hannah and Her Sisters” will surely earn him another batch of Academy Award nominations.
Woody Allen owns several clarinets, including a French-made Buffet, which is generally agreed to be the Rolls-Royce in its field, and a valuable Selmer made in the 1920s. But at the club, he most often plays an Italian clarinet he says he picked up for $12.
It has a strident, street-parade tone that is perfectly mated to the style of the music. It employs the Prince Albert system of holes and keys, as opposed to the later (and, by most accounts, slightly easier to play) Boehm system. This is, Allen admits, an idiosyncrasy.
In another idiosyncrasy, Allen uses the No. 5 reed. This is the clarinet’s equivalent of the hair shirt: an item suitable for penitents, stiff as a board, difficult to tame and resistant to the musician’s best efforts. Reeds come in an ascending scale of stiffness, 5 being the ultimate, and Allen acknowledges that the masters, including his great idol, Sidney Bechet, were happy with No. 3 reeds. But there is a strain of the self-punishing ascetic in Allen, a perfectionist zeal that is uneasy with halfway measures and, reedwise, the No. 3 is a halfway item.
Tieless and sweatered, wearing the clay-shade wide-wale corduroys he favors, Allen in full cry crosses right leg over left and pumps time vigorously. His eyebrows lift like semaphores with every breath and his long sensitive fingers move with impressive agility.
He took up the soprano sax at 15, aiming to emulate Bechet, but switched to the clarinet, which Bechet also played. It is evident that Allen has spent hours listening to the records of the great Dixieland players like Bechet and the New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis. His vigorous vibrato sounds much like theirs, and his choruses feature fast and furious runs, arpeggios and wailing slurs that are in the true fundamentalist New Orleans style.
This evening he does a growling, low-register chorus on “Sister Kate,” and there is a nice patter of applause, which Allen, eyes closed, appears not to hear. He is modest about his music.
“I’m self-taught,” he said during an interview a couple of mornings earlier. “I can only play, you know, that kind of real primitive New Orleans style. . . . I can’t play complex songs, but the entire New Orleans idiom is not very complex. On the other hand, there are some songs, for instance Jelly Roll Morton tunes, that are quite complex and I can’t play them. They’re just too tough for me. ‘Shreveport Stomp,’ for example.”
Allen’s music is in many ways like his later movies; it is entertaining but it is not casual or careless. It arises from a fierce dedication and it is never as good as he wants it to be, so that the making of it is an amalgam of pain and pleasure. On balance, however, the image of the clarinetist at Michael’s Pub is of a happy man, transported as he chases those up-tempo runs.
Both “Hannah and Her Sisters” and Allen’s new film, “Radio Days,” have appeared to many of us as suffused with warmth and reflecting a new kind of contentment in the film maker’s life.
Each film centers on an extended family, quite different in time and geography (the midtown Manhattan of “Hannah” being a symbolic continent away from the waterside Brooklyn of 1941). Yet both families are ultimately regarded as valuable, embracing and supportive.
It began to seem possible that the defensive neurotic loner Woody had portrayed, with great humor and growing poignancy, in the earlier films had stumbled onto an unexpected plateau of happiness, a kind of tranquil acceptance of his life as he was living it.
It is always foolhardy, of course, to confuse inspiration and event in any film maker’s work, even those whose work is unmistakably personal and deeply felt. The families may have been like this, sort of, but the “sort of” is crucial.
And the congruence of two warm and family-centered films is, Allen insists, a complete coincidence. “They just happened to be ideas that had a certain amount of built-in warmth to them. . . . I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me if I did five films in a row that were bleak in outlook.”
Does his outlook continue to be bleak? (Gazing from the penthouse windows across the snowy width of Central Park, aglitter in the bright morning light, to the lovely skyline beyond, you are tempted to think that things could be worse.)
“Fundamentally, it’s pessimistic, without any question,” Allen says. “This doesn’t reflect itself in every idea automatically. Although if you step back for a moment and look at ‘Hannah’ and also ‘Radio Days,’ the fact that they’re told with warmth is one thing. But you can make the case for pessimism:
“First, a guy like myself is breaking his neck at a job and gets a sudden scare that he might have a terminal illness and realizes how meaningless his job is and wants to quit and find some kind of meaning in life. And in the end he doesn’t really find it. You just have to get yourself through the dark nights any way you can. . . .
“In ‘Radio Days,’ all these characters who were so meaningful in the lives of people at the time, they’re on the roof at the end of the film, thinking to themselves, ‘I wonder if someday anybody will really remember us? We’re big deals now, but I doubt. . . .’ And it’s true.
“People who were absolutely giants at the time and in every household in America are just sort of faded. As the years go by, and not many years, fewer and fewer people will have an idea about ‘The Green Hornet’ or ‘Captain Midnight’ or any of that stuff. And so there is a pessimistic viewpoint in both of those pictures, really. But the framework within which they’re told is entertaining to people. But my outlook has not changed in terms of the general pessimism that I have.”
He paused for a long moment. “The trick is to do the best you can within the reality of that pessimism.”
Even his films let him down, Allen says with a wry grin.
“I’m always so disappointed with my films when they come out. It probably comes from the erroneous grandiose fantasies I have while I’m making them. I think, ‘Oh, God, this is just going to be so great’ and ‘This idea is so great’ and ‘Boy, this is just a wonderful thing.’ And then I put it together and it’s not so great.” He laughed.
Allen has just finished what he calls his first round of shooting on a new film. “You know me. I’m an endless reshooter and rewriter. I think I’ve directed 15 films now and I’ve never made one that I didn’t dawdle on endlessly and reshoot and rework. So I’m just beginning now to decide what to redo. Here’s where I buckle down and do the hard work.
“When people see my films, they’re always seeing the fifth draft. And this is true of ‘Hannah’ as well, which is a very successful film commercially. What audiences don’t realize--nor should they; I mean, you don’t when you read a book either--is that if they’d seen the first version of ‘Hannah,’ they’d have been completely disappointed. And the second may have been a little better, and so on.”
Allen builds in what he calls “reshoot time.” If, in round figures, he had a $10-million budget, he would plan to make an $8-million film and keep $2 million in reserve to reshoot, which often takes significantly more than two weeks beyond the planned production schedule.
“And I reshoot so much stuff as I’m going along. I shoot on Monday and look at the stuff. If I don’t like it, I shoot the same stuff again on Tuesday, so that by the time you get the first draft of the picture, 50% of it has been shot twice. And then you really see the faults.
“From day to day you can see the small faults--like an actor’s bad performance or your bad staging or a shot that doesn’t work. Then you put it together and you suddenly see, like, you know, ‘Oh, my God, everybody hates the person I intended to be the hero, and everybody loves the ugly character in it. I’d completely unbalanced the thing, but I couldn’t tell until I stepped back.”
“Hannah and Her Sisters,” Allen says, came out of his reading “Anna Karenina” one summer. “I was thinking to myself, what an interesting way to tell a story: to deal with a few people and leave them for a while, and then deal with another few people and leave them and go on to another few people and then go back to the first people. Since there’s an affinity between film and a novel, I thought I’d try that.”
The novel also offers a quantity of peripheral information, and one of the celebrated sequences in “Hannah,” his loving architectural tour of Manhattan facades, is a kind of editorial sidebar.
“One thing I’m always up in arms about is the ruining of this city--of any city, but I live here--with these terrible modern structures that go into these beautiful old blocks. I’m not against modern architecture at all--and I think something like the Guggenheim on 5th Avenue is wonderful. It’s totally out of context and totally shocking and beautiful. But more often than not what happens in New York is that there’ll be a beautiful old block and they’ll just knock down a house on it and build something that’s truly disgusting and totally out of context. I mean completely. So I wanted to talk about that a little bit.”
“Hannah” could well end up with two or more Oscar nominations, but Allen will not be coming West. It is not that he feels anything but grateful to the motion-picture academy. He notes that “Annie Hall” had done only modestly well before it won its Oscars, but did very handsomely thereafter. It is just that he has a lot of trouble with the concept of “best,” and with the idea of competition between works of art.
“How could you say that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was a better picture than ‘Grand Illusion’ or a better picture than ‘The Bicycle Thief’? ‘Best’ is too subjective, too difficult to assess--to really be meaningful. . . . At the end of the year, it would be nice if the academy said, ‘We’ve all voted and we all seem to agree that they’re a half-dozen films we really felt were fun and we enjoyed them all, and there were several performances, or 10 performances, that we thought were just terrific this year. . . .’
“I don’t think ‘Platoon’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ are comparable in any way. They’re both unique and individual and go for different values and different things. And they’re both terrific.”
Allen is first and last the toughest judge of his work. “Popular acceptance to me is never necessarily a mark of quality in a film. Sometimes it can be. But just as often it bears no resemblance to the quality of the film.
“You can be completely dissatisfied with a film you make, but it’s very meaningful to people and very enjoyable. And you can be totally thrilled and fulfilled with something you’ve done and, you know, it’s good for you but it’s just got no meaning for anybody else. The only thing you can do is try to have a philosophy about what films should be and stick to that philosophy and when you achieve it, feel good, and when you don’t. . . .
“It’s like playing poker. You want to play well, and even if you lose you can go home that night thinking, ‘Gee, I played very good and luck was against me,’ and it’s the same with film.”
Allen has what may be the most enviable situation in American film making: complete creative freedom and control, with assured financing for what he wants to do at the cost-level at which he likes to work. It is a position he has earned by making films at modest cost that make modest profits or, at worst, lose modestly. He is popular in Europe and, if he is generally an elitist taste in the United States, he plays by now to a quite commercially viable elite.
He is modest about his situation as about his clarinetting. “It’s really about one film a year, which is not all that big a deal. You write for a couple of months, and you shoot for a couple of months, and it’s a simple operation. I mean, I don’t spend a lot of time nurturing a project and trying to find a writer for it and sitting and making deals with guys in restaurants and meeting with studios. I have an ongoing situation. As soon as I’m through with a film, two days later I’m writing another film. And it doesn’t take me that long to write. I’ve got my editing room and I’ve got all my people that I work with all the time, and we’re in constant motion almost.”
Like the directors he has most admired--Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel--he has built a kind of stock company of both crew and players and writes the major parts, at least, for specific performers. Mia Farrow, the lady in his life, has been revealed as a comedienne of considerable gifts.
“You’d never know it meeting her. You wouldn’t realize that this mother of eight children and someone who’s cooking and making her pancakes and wiping her kids’ noses and doing stuff like that can get into those comic roles and do them. I find that stuff is hard. It isn’t one-line comedy. This is character stuff. She’s getting laughs on her performance, not on jokes.”
He writes parts for Diane Wiest, who plays the unlucky-in-love Aunt Bea in “Radio Days,” and for Julie Kavner, who plays another of the boy Woody’s aunts in the film.
Allen is now concentrating entirely on the films. He says he’s had enough of writing short, funny pieces for print. But the notion of doing a novel grows in appeal for him. And he has the treasonable thought that he could one day have had enough of film making.
“It’s strenuous work. And so far I’ve been--thank God--in good health and energetic. But I’m 51 now and, who knows, when I’m 65, or maybe way before, I’ll just run out of energy and not want to wake up in the morning and have the driver in front of the house waiting to take me to the location.”
The congruence of two warm and family-centered films is, Woody Allen insists, a complete coincidence. “They just happened to be ideas that had a certain amount of built-in warmth to them. . . . I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me if I did five films in a row that were bleak in outlook.”