After ‘Midnight,’ Woody Allen keeps clocking in
For an artist who’s played out his neuroses on screen for more than four decades, Woody Allen is remarkably unreflective about his creative process. Or perhaps it’s just that he’s wary of delving too deeply inside the black box of inspiration, lest all the parts not fit back inside.
“It’s possible that there is an underlying psychological thing that influences these choices that I’m not conscious of, that I’m responding to something going on in my life or other films, and I don’t think I’m responding to them,” he says in the dimly lighted screening room of his Manhattan offices. “Maybe a psychiatrist would say, ‘Funny that you made this choice then.’ But I think that I’m just making films.”
Given the unrelenting pace of Allen’s career — virtually a movie a year for three decades running — it’s not surprising he doesn’t have time to glance in the rearview mirror. With “Midnight in Paris,” the biggest box-office success of his career, still playing in theaters, he’s already putting the final touches on next year’s “Nero Fiddled” and weighing possibilities for next summer’s shoot. During Allen’s fallow periods, even his most ardent defenders have suggested he might benefit from a brief respite, but the filmmaker, 75, shows no signs of slowing down. A new “American Masters” profile by “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Robert Weide shows Allen digging through a nightstand drawer overflowing with motley paper scraps, each scribbled with an idea for a future project.
Although the film academy and many critics would beg to differ, Allen maintains that he’s never made a great film — certainly nothing at the level of such cinematic idols as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. He plainly enjoys the solitude of writing as well as the conviviality of a film set, especially now that reliance on European financiers has enabled him to trade Manhattan’s familiar contours for London, Rome and Barcelona, Spain. Even the initial edit, he says, motioning to an adjoining suite, is “very pleasurable.”
“You’re no longer in hot weather or up early in the morning or fighting the clock,” he says. “I’m in my room next door, and I’ve got everything I shot at my disposal, and you make your collage. That doesn’t take very long. But the first time you take it in here and show it, that’s like taking a cold shower. That’s when you realize that all those things that were delightful in themselves, when strung out for two hours they’re not so charming, and they’re tedious and not so funny. When you see it in context, all your aspirations to make ‘Citizen Kane’ go out the window, and you’re saying, ‘God, let me see if I can take it back in the other room and fix it and cut it and arrange it so as to avoid a crushing humiliation.’ All your dreams of making a masterpiece become, ‘How can I just survive?’”
With “Midnight in Paris,” Allen has done more than merely survive: He’s connected with a mass audience to the greatest extent since 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.” “People do come up to me more on the street,” Allen says. “I noticed it before I went away for the summer.” “Hannah” also won supporting actor Oscars for Michael Caine and Dianne Weist and the original screenplay prize for Allen. It also notched a further four nominations, which augurs well for Allen come award season.
Allen is stumped by “Midnight’s” breakout success, but at least part of it can be chalked up to his palpable love for its setting. In a pronounced departure from Allen’s dialogue-driven style, the movie opens with a three-minute montage of exterior shots of Paris, a city symphony in miniature that serves as a preemptive rebuttal to its protagonist’s pervasive nostalgia.
A financially successful but creatively unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter, Owen Wilson’s Gil longs for the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and he gets it, courtesy of a mysterious car that appears each night at the stroke of 12 and spirits him off to the past. At first, Wilson is thunderstruck at the opportunity to swig cocktails with the Fitzgeralds while Cole Porter tickles the ivories and Josephine Baker shakes her tail feather. But through an artist’s model (Marion Cotillard) who herself yearns for the bygone era of the cancan and Toulouse-Lautrec, he realizes that a rosy view of the past is a chronic condition, one not even time travel can cure.
“People don’t want to be where they are at the moment,” Allen reflects. “All of us at the moment are in a bad time, because reality is a tough place to be in. Gaugin thinks if he lived in Tahiti, or I think if I moved to Martha’s Vineyard or Paris, would I be happier? That is the constant fantasy, but you’re the person with problems, and they get transferred to the new locale. You can’t shake it.”
Like Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” in which a Depression-era movie character becomes as transfixed by the real world as his audience is by the pasteboard glamour of a movie set, “Midnight in Paris” is skeptical of the desire to escape, although its skepticism is served up as merely a comic digestif.
What appeals to Allen about Paris is not so much its literary past as its hectic present. “To me, it’s a city that is like New York, a fast-paced, nervous, traffic-ridden, noise-ridden metropolis where you know you’re alive in the street. It’s full of everything you want: art, culture, music, restaurants, theaters, movie houses by the millions. If I couldn’t live in New York, I would not move to Boston or Chicago or San Francisco. I would move to Paris.”
That’s not to say Allen’s planning on relocating or on trying to duplicate “Midnight’s” appeal. “I just do them and put them out,” he says, “and some [audiences] come to, some they don’t. Since the phenomenon of globalization, I have films that will be fabulous in Italy and Spain but not in England; it’s the strangest thing. I made a film, ‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,’ which nobody came to here, but in Spain, it was the biggest film I’ve ever had. Why? I don’t know. So you can’t think about it, because you’d go crazy, and you’d never come to any rational conclusions.”
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