There’ll be a point this year when we’ll have to form our opinions on the new Woody Allen film. It’s currently called Untitled Woody Allen Project on Wikipedia, and by the time we’ll see it its title will carry no more meaning than its current placeholder. And it will be one of two things: a ‘minor work’ or a ‘return to form’. That’s it. By 2016, Allen has had as many ‘return to forms’ as U2 (rarefied company…) and each was as meaningless as the last. Allen’s form has been inconsistent throughout his career; there is no form to return to.
I return to these films again and again. They play in the theatre of my mind. My understanding of New York City is entirely formed from his movies (or was until I saw the London films he made and realised his view of his city may be as skewed as his view was of ours). ‘Minor works’ are meaningless; he is still an artist consistently producing works unlike any other artist in his industry – a feat that becomes more and more exceptional as we drown in the fakes and forgeries.
There’s a third category that can be applied to Allen’s work – ‘problematic’. I read a few passages of Mia Farrow’s autobiography after watching this film to sober myself up. Allen is a deeply selfish man whose personal ethics are appalling. The fact that we went a few years without knowing this for sure is irrelevant (though how through watching his films you can come to the conclusion that his view of life is anything other than myopic is absurd to me).
But… I mean, is that it? A horrible man. In an age of outrage, of course it’s a talking point (and I understand the irony of talking about talking). I’m not really interested. Half the problem is that we’ve invented this notion of genius that seeks to elevate talented individuals above the rest of us, when truly, they are just ordinary people. And Chaucer was an Anti-Semite. Are we going to burn his books? Where do we draw the line – the amount of directors who are problematic is endless (Polanski, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Kazan, Landis off the top of my head – that’s an awful lot of movies to ignore if you’re drawing a line). We’re all disgusting human beings. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
If we don’t find art challenging, then it is worthless. It’s not aesthetics. Art is designed to prick and unsettle and provoke. Allen’s nebbishness plays to our own prejudices – how can we be provoked by such a loser – but an artist he is, and we have to confront it.
And so the film plays. And it seeps into the memory of the other two dozen Woody Allen movies I have simultaneously playing in my mind. Does it distinguish itself? This one is deeply offensive to Italian Americans…no wait…they’re all like that. This one is in black and white…hang on. This is one of the ‘Mia Farrow Ones’. Are they better than the ‘Diane Keaton Ones’? This great film gets reduced to mere moments because the bounty of a great career prevents us from distinguishing one from another.
But when those moments break through…it’s divine. Allen’s Danny runs after Farrow’s Tina. We watch them across the street; we can’t hear what they say. They turn and head back home together. And suddenly this man who knows nothing about life has filmed one of the truest moments I ever seen – couples resigning themselves to risk. Only in the movies…
The new film will come out. We’ll list it, and rank it, and use it as an excuse to talk about our favourites again.* It’ll all be meaningless.
But isn’t that what he wanted? To underline the meaningless of it all. No one has made a greater effort to downplay his success than Allen himself. Perhaps the vast body of production intentionally seeks in itself to devalue the worth of each individual piece. The behemoth is unleashed. It will writhe and squirm even its death throes. Perhaps the career will never end, and the films will continue to get made in the same way there seem to be new books by Arthur Conan Doyle and Douglas Adams on the shelves. Perhaps we never got the joke. Perhaps we gave up on looking at the tree because it was easier to look at the forest.
There are moments in that forest. They’re worth seeking out.
*Manhattan, Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Another Woman and Husbands and Wives since you asked.