Every self-respecting movie fan knows that Woody Allen’s biggest muse wasn’t Diane Keaton, or Mia Farrow, or Scarlett Johansson. You could say it’s New York, but even then you wouldn’t be quite right. If we’ve learned anything about Woody (favourite directors are allowed to be addressed by their first name) it is that the city, any city, is at the heart of almost all of his most celebrated stories. This year marks an odd kind of anniversary for the director: 35 years of uninterrupted movie-making. That’s right, since 1977 (the year he wrote and directed Annie Hall), Woody has been making one feature per year, without exception. Add his first directorial efforts to the count, and you’re looking at exactly 46 years since he directed his first ever film, What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? In 1966. But it was in 1977 that his love affair with the city, most notably New York, became evident in his work.
The incessant noise, the pollution, and the traffic lights of New York made his characters neurotic, hypochondriac, and relentlessly unsatisfied. In the words of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer “Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” New York was not just a backdrop, it was a character. It might be dirty, smelly, and crime-driven, but seen at night from a bench near Brooklyn Bridge it could look more beautiful than any other place in the world. And it certainly made Alvy Singer fall in love with Annie Hall. New York made Woody’s characters, whether in Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, or Hannah and Her Sisters, try their best at being happy while simultaneously believing happiness is an abstract notion. You could say that Whatever Works (2009) represents the end of the New Yorker’s neurosis, a settlement that our aspirations should be reduced to, ultimately, whatever works.
In recent years, Woody has moved on to writing and directing stories set in Europe, and his work has become fresher
than ever. If the ‘90s were a bad time for the director, the 2000’s definitely renewed him. Ever since the sexy caper Match Point (2005), set in London, Woody’s work has seen a creative spike, and I guess you could thank Europe for that. With four movies set in London (also Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) the British capital appeared as the backdrop for sex scandals, magic tricks, murder, and mid-life crisis. In some way London was like New York, but darker. Then, in 2008, Woody made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his sexiest and best comedy ever, in my own humble opinion. The sun-kissed skin of the Spanish people, the wine, and the music – the movie was oozing with sensuality and charisma. Barcelona was the city of vacation, where you go to forget your problems and get away, and fall for a handsome stranger, just as Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) did. Last year, Woody realized his life-long dream of shooting in France, with the nostalgic love-note to Paris, Midnight in Paris. When you pass by the places where Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald drank wine, how could you not get nostalgic and dream that you lived in that time? It’s just inevitable. The Academy thought so too.
At 76, Woody Allen is still the most original writer/director of our time. Not because he is innovative (because he isn’t, at least not in the technical sense of the word), but because he is deeply sentimental, and his stories are romantic and dreamy, and they reflect our most basic desires and needs: to love and be loved and to live in a city that inspires us to do so. There is something about a city that defines its people. It isn’t about stereotyping, it’s about observing. And Woody Allen is one of the keenest people observers. Just look at his characters.
This year, he is taking us to Rome with the much anticipated To Rome With Love (which opens in Canada on July 6th), starring an arsenal of great actors, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Penelope Cruz, and Woody himself, among others. Will it make us fall in love with Rome? I really hope so.
Happy 35th anniversary of city-centric, inspired, and unique storytelling, Woody.