By Colin Woodward
I recently finished watching Woody Allen’s most recent flick, Irrational Man. The movie illustrates how far Allen has come from his earliest, Marx Brothers-inspired work. Irrational Man, which is a serious and heady film, is neither funny nor set in New York. Maybe it’s time for Woody to return to the Big Apple. It’s been good to him. And even more, he’s been good to it. Look back at Allen’s 1970s movies and it’s easy to get nostalgic for “Old New York.”
Some people say that Rudy Giuliani–by implementing the so-called “Broken Window Theory” of police enforcement, cleaning up Times Square, and staying calm in the wake of the 9-11 catastrophe–saved New York City.
Actually, it was Woody Allen who saved New York. And he rescued the place long before anyone knew who Giuliani was.
In the 1970s, movies explored (and exploited) the darker aspects of New York. Films like Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, and Death Wish, depicted NYC as a gritty, tense, and violent place, where desperate men could do little to escape the urban horrors around them. Even as late as the early 1990s, Saturday Night Live did a sketch with Kevin Nealon and Joe Mantegna that featured them as two radio hosts struggling to convince listeners that New York was not a crime-ridden, rat infested hellhole. One caller to their show told them that he had been doused with gasoline, set on fire, and thrown off a roof. The hosts helpfully told him he shouldn’t have been taking the subway home so late that night.
Movies from the 1970s were great, but they were pretty grim. Not Woody’s movies. In contrast to the existential terrors of Taxi Driver, Woody’s semi-autobiographic films were light, funny, and they had a deep, undying love for all things New York. Really, who would you rather spend dinner with: Woody Allen or Travis Bickle? Woody set the template for much of the best comedy of the late 20th century. Woody was Seinfeld before there was Seinfeld.
Allen set a new standard for combining comedy and drama in Annie Hall and Manhattan. These films are light on plot, but you shouldn’t expect a lot of plot in earlier Allen movies. Very often, too, Woody’s mid and late 70s movies aren’t always going for laughs either.
As New York struggled, Woody was maturing. He created great art from the city’s pains and pleasures. And for a while, he seemed to get stronger with each picture. Annie Hall and Manhattan involved the Wood Man navigating through a series of doomed, but quirky relationships, where he provides a running commentary on developments in his love life. In the end, Woody doesn’t get Annie or Tracy, but like the Jewish people, he will endure. And these films have also endured. I’ve seen Annie Hall and Manhattan a few times each. But each time, I feel like it’s the first.
In a period when New York was scary, crime-ridden, and broke, Allen had an irreverent, but life affirming take on NYC. Yes, Son of Sam terrified the city in the late-70s, and a flick like Escape from New York (1981) might have looked more like a documentary at times than a dystopian sci-fi movie. Meanwhile, in his films, Allen offered the pleasures of good pizza and bookstores as well as the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York Philharmonic.
What were you gonna do otherwise, Allen seemed to taunt us: move to the sprawling, sun-baked wastes of Los Angeles? New York, Woody assured us, was where it was at. The director was not just a champion for his city, but an intellectual well-versed in art, film, music, and literature. Even so, he wasn’t a snob. His nebbishness undercut his pretentiousness. Woody knew he was as badly off as the rest of the schlubs on the street.
Oddly, the darker NYC seemed to get, the brighter Woody made it. By the 1980s, a decade of Wall Street greed, cocaine, Reagan, and Gordon Gecko, Allen’s work suffered at times. Unlike the 1970s, in the 80s, everybody seemed to be making money, and for the rich, the parties went all night long. Allen, however, was making darker films, like Crimes and Misdemeanors and September, September.
In the past decade or so, Allen has been more focused on making films in Europe rather than New York. Match Point, set in London, was terrific. Vicky Christina Barcelona was slight compared to Match Point. But it was an entertaining travelogue through Spain.
Woody has continued to make New York movies, including his collaboration with Larry David, Whatever Works. But Woody has moved on from his urban muse to set films in places as diverse as Rome, San Francisco, and New England.
For a while, Woody, like Scorsese, seemed to be the kind of director who could never leave New York. But even more than Scorsese, Woody has become a citizen of the world, an expat. He has not only removed himself from New York, more than ever, he has removed himself from his own movies. It makes sense, as New York doesn’t seem to need his kind of boostering anymore.
In the 1970s, Allen wrote love letter after love letter to New York. His films were as much about New York as they were about him. But by the 1990s, people were watching Seinfeld and Friends, which had their own take on the biggest city in America. Yet, what is Seinfeld but a nine year long Woody Allen movie? George is the nebbish Allen character run amok.
True, George Costanza is based on Larry David, but we wouldn’t likely have George or Seinfeld were it not for Allen’s sensibility. On Seinfeld, we get the same Allenesque themes: creaky relationships, consequence-free sex, people that range from the eccentric to the neurotic to the downright insane; tons of observational humor, and unconscious Jewish references.
In the Giuliani era, New York rebounded. Giuliani cleaned up the streets (or as some think, sanitized them). The economy boomed (with some collateral damage to neighborhood character and the Bohemian life). The crime rate plunged (though not without quasi-fascist side effects), and New York became safer than either Chicago or Los Angeles.
As New York continues strong, rather than thank Republican mayors, New York should thank Woody Allen. In the darkest days of the Big Apple, Woody was the one guy who still seemed to love the place. Since Match Point, Allen has said he has entered a “nihilistic phase.” But that wasn’t true in the 1970s. It was New York that seemed nihilistic.
And yet, there was Woody, doing his schtick. Making us laugh and think, proving that humor helps turn things around. His films did a lot more good than Death Wish ever did. Unlike anyone else, regardless of the city’s problems, despite crime and blight and human failure, Woody still thought New York was a pretty cool place.
Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is writing a second book, on Johnny Cash.