My love for Woody Allen began in grade school when my father took me to see Radio Days. It was the first film I’d ever seen that didn’t appear to have a protagonist – and it worked. The phrase “take the gas-pipe!” became a fixture in our house that day, though I still don’t know what it means.
As I’ve gotten older – and despite the weirdness of his personal life – my appreciation of his work has only grown. The gorgeous cinematography, the Cole Porter obsession, the reliably brilliant ensemble work, the hilarious insights into male-female dynamics, as well as, of course, his characteristically bleak take on human nature and the existential predicament, Woody has always been the ultimate home-grown alternative to Hollywood. In fact, I think he will go down as one of the two or three great American filmmakers of the 20th century, even considering the downward trajectory of this past decade (it’s never fun to watch neurosis turn into bitterness).
Woody, of course, is a poster boy for nonbelievers everywhere, but until Deconstructing Harry, his atheism was more of the sad, face-in-the-window variety than the angry kind. And even then, it’s hard not to respect someone who so clearly has the courage of their convictions. Any honest depiction of life without God should be as depressing as Woody paints it. A few of his many classic quips/pronouncements:
“You know, if we’re to be saved, it’s got to be something that we don’t know about now, and it’s none of the things that are offered up by the authority figures – the politicians, the scientists, the artists – all the people we rely on to save us from our fate. They have not been able to do it, and they can’t do it.”
“You know, you can never resolve the epistemological conundrum. I once did a joke a long time ago about having to take God’s existence on faith, and then I realized that I had to take my own existence on faith.”
“Once when I was publishing my book of collected New Yorker pieces, they sent me the copy for the back of the jacket – the about-the-author [blurb]… I just penciled in, ‘his one regret in life is that he is not someone else’.” [ed. note: If that doesn't sum up the appeal of substitutionary atonement, I don't know what would.]
“I feel that… luck guides our lives much more than we care to admit. Coming out of an age of psychoanalysis, people tend not to feel that way. They tend to feel, ‘I’m in control.’ … My observations in life have not been that…. I feel that really luck plays a much greater role – a frightening role in our lives – than we care to admit.” [Substitute 'luck' with 'providence' and voila!]
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my own work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
“The only thing standing between me and greatness, is me.”
I could go on and on (and maybe I will at some point), but for the time being, here’s my ten favorite of his movies:
- Annie Hall. The popular choice, yes, but also the best.
- Manhattan. Diane Keaton steals the show! And the Wallace Shawn cameo always cracks me up.
- Stardust Memories. His riskiest film in every respect, cinematically, philosophically and humor-wise (the scene at Sandy’s sister’s house, anyone?) – remarkable for how much it pays off. I challenge you to name a more entertaining self-conscious ‘art film.’
- Husbands And Wives. Judy Davis is the most underrated of Woody’s leading ladies. A tour-de-force performance, esp the date/phone call scene.
- Alice. If only for the out-of-nowhere ending.
- Hannah And Her Sisters. More stellar female performances. Diane Wiest just kills it.
- Crimes and Misdemeanors. The Dostoyevsky elements are pure gold, but it’s Alan Alda that’s responsible for my many, many repeat viewings.
- Radio Days. Seamless mix of nostalgia, pathos and pure gags. “The rain in Spain…”
- Bullets Over Broadway. John Cusack remains the best of the post-80s Woody stand-ins. And again, Diane Wiest couldn’t be funnier.
- Manhattan Murder Mystery. The best of the lighter fare?
Honorable Mentions/Guilty Pleasures: “Oedipus Wrecks” in New York Stories, Deconstructing Harry, Melinda and Melinda
Perhaps his two most classic clips that deal with matters of faith and religion, the first one hilarious, the second one, well, considerably less so: