Yes, But He’s Our Nebbish


Somewhere on the Upper East Side a man sits before an electric typewriter, seemingly impervious to both gossip and new technologies, warily eyeing the cranes poised like vultures over his beloved skyline, but relentlessly pecking out one script per year. The fruits of this labor, 28 films from a career spanning some four decades, are screening at Film Forum over the next three weeks. Why go home when you can spend the holidays with Woody Allen in an orgy of melancholic, angst-ridden self-recrimination?

That someone I had a crush on when I was 12 years old is now 71 is itself cause for consternation. Were my affections misplaced? Over time, like many exes, he has disappointed; the personal foibles of this very public patient must have sent a collective shudder through the ranks of the New York Psychoanalytic. In fact, living in this city, it’s hard to measure his achievements as a filmmaker. This partial retrospective provides a much needed corrective.

He was born Allen Konigsberg in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1935. But how can mere facts compare with the fictional biography his alter ego, Alvy Singer, offers in the brilliant opening moments of
Annie Hall (1977), with our hero a delinquent schoolboy in dark-rimmed glasses? Alvy tells us he was thrown out of NYU for cheating on his metaphysics final. (“I looked into the soul of the guy sitting next to me.”) Allen dropped out after his first year, and began writing for television.

Annie Hall, still astonishingly lyrical and fresh, set the template for what was to follow: the self-involved, terminally witty nebbish (played by the writer-director) and his love interest, an endearingly ditzy and fetching female (Diane Keaton), just blurry enough around the edges to be eternally tantalizing. The near-confusion of fantasy and reality transforms psychological symptom into cinematic technique; it’s the tic of an artist whose deepest love is for his creations.

This was Allen when the fever grip of neurosis hadn’t yet threatened to harden into rigor mortis, when the transformative promise of love could still be regretted once lost. If there was a whiff of misogyny to his hapless couplings, it was subsumed within a broader existential crisis, as if Samuel Beckett had tried Internet dating and written about it.

Time would change that. In Deconstructing Harry (1997), the dazzling humor emerges from a psychological landscape so bleak you have to enter Billy Crystal’s hell to find a bit of forgiveness. Allen plays Harry Block, a writer in the midst of a creative crisis, whose ex-wives and former therapists (overlapping categories) hate him, and with good reason: He had a hand in their suffering, and he mined it for his art. In a series of vignettes, the characters from his stories come back to illuminate, harangue, and ultimately applaud him, but they cannot relieve the narcissist’s desperate suffocation.

If, like Picasso, Allen’s muses have set the tone for his art—the zany Louise Lasser (his second wife) in early madcap comedies like Bananas (1971); Hollywood royalty Mia Farrow for perfectly realized, cinephilic period pieces like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)—it is with Keaton that he has touched the deepest chords of tenderness and empathy. Take Manhattan (1979); when the sun finally came up on their characters, seated on a bench by the East River after a chance encounter at MOMA and a marathon night of conversation, you were happy just to be with them, in a time and place you could call your own.