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Woody Allen’s Quirky Take on Life Lost on Generation X

I took in Woody Allen’s new movie “Mighty Aphrodite” last weekend. I loved it, and so did the audience, applauding at the end. You know you’re among friends at a new Woody film, but in eyeballing the crowd, I couldn’t help but notice that no one appeared to be under 40.

Not a scientific survey, I realize, and it might not have stuck in my mind except that, by sheer coincidence, a co-worker who teaches a college class mentioned a couple days later that fewer than half of his 20 students even knew who Woody Allen was. When he asked how many had seen one of his films, no one raised a hand.

This has led me to a state of Angst that the Woodman himself might appreciate. No, it doesn’t rival one of his movie characters’ fear that he had a spot on his lung (it turned out to be a spot on his shirt), but I am worried, nonetheless.

Simply put, is there another generation of Woody Allen fans waiting in the wings?

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To be sure, Allen has never had across-the-board cinema appeal. As with all art, tastes vary. The neuroses, biting sacrilege and New York bent that dominate his films aren’t for everyone, and that’s fine. But the next generation must at least sample the Allen observations (“How do I know why there were Nazis?” one character groused. “I don’t even know how the can opener works.”).

For us Allen fans, the memories go far beyond laughs (although, has there ever been a better film name than Fielding Mellish, the Allen character in “Bananas”?).

No, we go to Allen movies to watch life get decoded. Woody never simplified the tangled relationships that life brings; he just made them bearable through humor and the message that, sure, we’re suffering, but at least we’re all suffering together.

So when I walk out of most Allen movies, including “Mighty Aphrodite,” I’ve laughed but also been enriched by his poignancy and insights.

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That’s why I want the Allen legend passed down to today’s young moviegoers. They can’t be allowed to grow old thinking film comedy means Adam Sandler and Pauly Shore. Somehow, they need to get acquainted with the man described by Chapman University film professor Ron Thronson as a “significant voice in cinema.”

My own unofficial survey Thursday at Orange Coast College produced disquieting results. Only three of about 15 students had seen any of his movies. “Can you name me some Woody Allen films?” 18-year-old Faith Friedman said, looking for a hint.

“I can’t think of any, and I can’t think of any of my friends who are into him. I just don’t think we relate to him, and if we wanted to go see someone tell jokes, we’d go see someone in our generation.”

When I asked Brian Johnson, 19, if he’d seen anything with Woody Allen in it, he immediately recognized the name. “Cheers,” he said.

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“Uh, ‘Cheers’?” I asked quizzically.

“Maybe I’m not thinking of the same guy,” Johnson said. Turned out he meant Woody Harrelson, who played the naive young bartender on the TV series. As for Woody Allen, Johnson drew a blank.

Vianne Neblett, 25, said she’s basically boycotted Allen films because of his romantic involvement with his adopted stepdaughter. Besides, she said, “he doesn’t market himself to our generation. It’s all about midlife crises: ‘I’m a hypochondriac, I’m having a heart attack, I have a tumor.’ ”

Thronson, the Chapman professor, said that several things militate against Allen reaching today’s young audiences--although he believes there’s hope. “I love Woody Allen,” Thronson, 55, said. “I have all his films. If you expose 20-year-olds to ‘Annie Hall,’ ‘Bananas,’ ‘Sleeper’ or any of his early great films, they love them. But he doesn’t mean anything to them today.”

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For one thing, Thronson said, Allen films never get wide release: “He can still relate to them, but you have to consider moviegoing habits. You have to seek out a Woody Allen film and make an effort to see it. You can’t go to a ‘cinemapolis’ or ‘cinedome’ and see it, which means you have to want to see it ahead of time, and there are so many other movies competing that are easy to blunder into. Consequently, college-age kids don’t know enough about Woody Allen--they don’t have the background--and they’re not seeking him out.”

Geoff Holliday, 18, said he knows who Allen is but that he “hasn’t influenced this generation. I think this generation is geared more toward a Jim Carrey-type character. Everyone is talking about Jim Carrey, saying he’s the best. I never hear anyone saying anything about Woody Allen--oh, probably my dad or the older generation.”

I can’t make twentysomething people like Woody Allen, nor would I want to.

All I know for sure is that Woody Allen can’t be passe. When he becomes passe, so will the human experience.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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