From comedian to filmmaker


By Steven Snyder

There’s a sense of inevitability — a mix of fatalism and destiny — at the center of Woody Allen’s best films. Somewhere behind all the silliness, all the self-deprecation, all the angst, there’s the sense of a filmmaker trying to grab hold of the sand that is our lives, and draw out the fleeting wisdom to be gained as it slips through our fingers.

Yes, there’s funny Woody, insane Woody and even boring Woody as of late, but my favorite moments in his repertoire are when the bittersweet harmonies of life align. Consider the ending of “Annie Hall,” screening this weekend, where both the pains and joys of love tear at each other as two ex-lovers disappear into the bustling city. Or recall the ending of “Manhattan,” where the stereotypical, euphoric romantic ending is stopped dead by the realization that this couple’s time has passed.

Even Allen’s underappreciated 1999 masterpiece, “Sweet and Lowdown,” repeats the theme, the arrogant jazz player smashing his guitar as he realizes his cold façade has cost him the woman he relentlessly pushed away — the only woman he’s ever loved.

What sets Woody Allen apart is that there’s always a moment just after the moment, a subtle embracing of the fact that yes, things break, sure, they go bad, but life goes on. The city keeps humming.

In recent years, it’s mostly the comfort of Allen’s sentimental side that has sustained his fans. Less funny than he once was, and undoubtedly less ambitious, Allen’s only hit of the 21st century — “Match Point” — was celebrated in large part because it showed the formulaic director breaking form and character.

So perhaps it’s more appropriate now than ever, amid Allen’s recent wave of timid films, for Film Forum to turn our attention back to “Essentially Woody,” a three-week program of double features which revives the fascinating, funny and fragile themes that were once his hallmark.

It all starts this Friday night with “Annie Hall,” Allen’s Oscar-winning fan favorite about a relationship — between the comedian himself and Diane Keaton — told in flashes across the years. It’s followed Sunday and Monday by two surrealistic Allen romances, the pre-“Hall” “Play It Again Sam,” where Allen seeks the help of movie legend Humphrey Bogart, and the post-“Hall” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” in which a miserable Mia Farrow finds solace in the movies until the hero of her dreams jumps off the movie screen and into her life.

Repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein has divided the series into several poignant, unexpected pairings. Next weekend, Allen’s nostalgic “Broadway Danny Rose,” where comics recall the life of a flawed agent, is paired with “Radio Days,” a broadcast comedy set in the 1940’s. On Jan. 2, Allen’s jazz melodrama “Sweet and Lowdown” is paired with a documentary directed by Barbara Kopple which recounts Allen’s own musical tour as a jazz clarinetist. On Jan. 9, an inspired pairing of “Stardust Memories” and “Interiors” connects the theme of isolation to be found in both stories —the first about a star being mobbed by fans and producers, and the second about a dysfunctional family driving each other apart.

And while those films are more serious than silly, Allen is best known for the inventive humor that runs rampant in his earlier works. “Bananas,” showing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, is a futuristic, absurdist comedy; “Everyone Says I Love You,” showing Dec. 28, is one of the most euphoric musicals ever made; “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” showing Dec. 27, offers surely the most hilarious sperm sequence in the history of cinema.

In his early days, Allen was a frighteningly quick comedian, and as he grew as a filmmaker, his work became increasingly sentimental. It’s no surprise that with such serious attempts as 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and 1992’s “Husbands and Wives,” both showing Jan. 3, he had been at the game for decades. Part of the fun of “Essentially Woody” is observing the evolution of a comedian into an efficient filmmaker and serious dramatist.

All that said, Goldstein ends the series on Jan. 11 with “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen’s self-reflective, psychoanalytic 1997 comedy, suggesting that regardless of how close we get to the man or his films, there’s still something wondrous and indescribable about Allen’s essential, distinctive style.