Allen’s films have been everywhere from Coney Island to the Russian Tea Room to Wall Street and beyond (Becky Kirsch).
I’ve been working on a short story, or maybe it will become a movie, about a man who can never live in the present. He can only live in the past or the future (Woody Allen  in an interview with Roger Ebert).
Woody, Invader, Eroticity
“He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion.”
Uh, no. Make that “He romanticised it all out of proportion.”
“To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
Uh… no. Let me start this over.
“He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else.”
“He thrived on the hustle, bustle of the crowds and the traffic. “
“To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles.” (Manhattan , Woody Allen)
There can be no doubt; he is a womanizer…of cities. When his New York affair began, in Allen’s own words (as Alvy) he was the: “I think I’m gonna be the balding virile type, you know, as opposed to say the, uh, distinguished gray.” And, by god, we loved him for that. Or, perhaps we all mistook his landscapes for him. Termed as Muses and Cliches — and in an endless litany of articulate and inarticulate audience-responses — Woody Allen’s cities keep inspiring, mesmerising, irritating, eluding and deluding just as the characters inhabiting them. Reflect on his mafioso parody: Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Also, prior to that, in The Front (Martin Ritt dir., 1976) Allen (Howard Prince) is seen haggling over credit with a New York (in 1950s of communist blacklisting) fruit seller, who in another film, set in just the previous decade, would have gladly offered Don Corleone his tangerines without charging a shilling.
The Front (1976)
There’s a clear anxiety of being the outsider, an anxiety of ethnicity — that quintessential determinant in the Sicilian saga by Francis Ford Coppola. More than being Jewish, however, ethnically Allen belongs to eroticity. In over two hundred years of standard modern English no single work or culture has been able to define or use eroticity to its most meaningful literary effects. “Why, homo-eroticity!” you protest, “and…” (oh there’s more?) “and that book edited by Terry Eagleton, I was reading the other…” (Enough of your fake cultural literacy, can’t you still see the red underline spell-check shows every time I type “eroticity”? Well, you obviously can’t see it here, anymore, because…now, read on). The prescription, therefore, is of a strong dose of Allen’s city cinema if one intend to absorb the very enigmatic senses of this portmanteau word. To state succinctly, let Allen’s screenplay represent any city, the space that transpires is the meaning of our neologism. Having said so, it is not far from the truth to suggest the most historic memories of urban spaces, howsoever solid and impenetrable, stand modified under Allen’s lens, and sometimes they even change their unchangeable physiognomy — despite being burned into public imagination — much like Allen’s own chameleonesque character, Leonard Zelig, from the eponymous film.
In other words, I said, your penthouse view of Central Park is about as sylvan as you like to get?
“I like the view just from the window, through glass. I like it best in the winter. I’m not crazy about the green of leaves. At the beginning of our film, when we shot the montage of the leaves and the ponds and the little deer running past, I was hiding behind the camera.” (“The View From Woody Allen’s Window,” Interview with Roger Ebert)
Taken out of context we wonder if he’s talking about Manhattan. The reference instead is to A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982). But, we can infer, nevertheless, we see more of Allen in his cities, than the latter on their own terms.
Well, you know, we’ll always have Paris.
I’m kidding. (Manhattan , Woody Allen)
And, he certainly was, quite obviously so. For, the woes of Paris and Casablanca are staged two continents away in San Francisco, and Allen makes it absolutely credible in Play it Again Sam (1972). He simply used the New York skyline, from outside of his Central Park penthouse, for the opening sequence of Manhattan with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” playing in the background, smuggling in transcendence for the seer:
It is at the same time a breathtaking hymn to the idea of being in love in Manhattan, a place Allen loves… The locations are like an anthology of Manhattan shrines: The characters visit the Guggenheim, Elaine’s, Zabar’s deli. They sit on a park bench at dawn beneath a towering bridge, and ride a carriage through Central Park, and row boats in the lagoon. They go to art movies and concerts and eat Chinese food in bed and play racquetball. Allen knows that songs are the soundtracks of our lives, and gives us not only ”But Not for Me” but ”Sweet and Lowdown,” ”I Got a Crush on You,” ”Do Do Do,” ”Lady Be Good,” ”Embraceable You,” ”Someone to Watch Over Me” and, when Isaac runs and runs to the girl he finally realizes he loves, ”Strike Up the Band.” (Roger Ebert)
Beginning as the monochrome beauty, with the silhouettes of Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, Manhattan remains, in the end, as Allen himself, not the complete man in possession of a beautiful woman, but like a virgin whore, a fond memory for Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway), who must leave for London — a city that will wait for Allen for more than two more decades, from here.
Annie Hall (1977)
His finesse in filming walking in the city begins with Annie Hall (1977), a film that miraculously beat the Star Wars in winning the Oscar for the best motion picture. As one very gratifying observation highlights: “they’re (Alvy and Annie) attracted to each other not by pheromones but by pacing” (Roger Ebert). Allen lets the vagaries of Diane Keaton (Annie) percolate into the contours of New York, making of himself the Keatsian fair youth — the painter of his own unrequited love for a feminized haven. In other words, New York allows for the existence of an Allen for who to exist in a relationship, where he is one of the partners, is an existential impossibility: “I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”
Match Point (2005) came to London because Allen could not arrange for the financial backing to shoot it in New York. The vast array of its filming locations range from The Queen’s Club (Palliser Road), Royal Opera House (Bow Street, Covent Garden), the South Kensington branch of Ralph Lauren (Fulham Road), Royal Court Theatre (Sloane Square, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea [It was here that Jimmy Porter first featured in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger]), Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, Holland Park, the restaurant Julie’s, at 135 Portland Road, Asprey, at New Bond Street, Clarence Gate Gardens (Glentworth Street, between Marylebone and Baker Street [yes, the one housing 221B]), Queen’s Walk (beneath Blackfriar’s bridge), Ealing Studios, and so on.
Match Point (2005)
Despite this the city appears small, with characters stumbling into one another, leading some of the critics to remark that Allen did not know how to capture London, as he had New York. And, although it is unanimously held that there is something of Woody lacking from this Allen picture, The Guardian reported:
American directors, annoyingly, often see filming in London as a kind of tourism. Mainstream films still tend to reference the standard landmarks of the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square to establish a London setting, while those on a smaller budget try to get to the “real” London by showing the small back streets of the east end. Neither has given much time to depicting the increasingly landmark-strewn South Bank, which is why Match Point is seen as essential to promoting London as a modern, international city.
Perhaps owing to the ambivalence of these reactions, coupled of course with his unfamiliarity with the city, Allen chose to leave out London from the cast of characters in the second film he shot in that city: Scoop (2006). But, even here Peter Lyman’s family estate embellished with artworks and musical instruments project to the viewers’ fancy for idylls of English Edwardian aristocracy.
On his next city-film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Allen noted: “I wasn’t thinking of anything other than creating a story that had Barcelona as a character. I wanted to honour Barcelona, because I love the city very much, and I love Spain in general. It’s a city full of visual beauty and the sensibility of the city is quite romantic.” The Mediterranean city comes alive as a motion-postcard in The Basilica of La Sagrada Familia, Güell Park and the rooftop of “La Pedrera” House. Allen’s Barcelona itinerary continues into the Joan Miró Foundation, the Catalonia National Art Museum, Barcelona Airport with Miró’s mural paintings, Tibidabo Amusement Park, the Olympic Port and Las Ramblas, among Barcelona’s other boulevards.
…the city possesses a grave and quiet beauty. In a park, at night, everyone listens as a serious fellow plays Albéniz on the guitar. The mood is awed, as if no American had ever noticed Spanish classicism before (David Denby).
The other city from the film is Oviedo where he was awarded the Príncipe de Asturias Prize for the Arts. At the heart of Oviedo (opposite San Francisco Park)stands Allen’s own statue with a plaque bearing his words: “Oviedo is a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city. It is as if it did not belong to this world, as if it did not exist … Oviedo is like a fairy-tale.” Among the three characters from the title, Oviedo certainly is a part of Barcelona, which to all intent and purpose is just another name for María Elena.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Woody Allen is one of those rare American film directors who is widely appreciated by French audiences and critics. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Allen would choose to craft a cinematic love letter to Paris…The central themes of nostalgia and myth-making about the past can lead to some of the most fruitful discussion for students since fantasies about Paris are still part of the experience of many Americans who go or dream of going there. Viewing this film alongside Hemingway’s books, Fitzgerald’s stories, or the work of other 1920s-era authors such as Janet Flanner or Malcolm Cowley, would be thought-provoking as would a reading of parts of Mark Twain’s much earlier satire of American travelers, Innocents Abroad (Jeffrey H. Jackson).
The Manhattan walks filmed by Allen reach assume their supreme aplomb in the walk that Marion Cottilard (Adriana) and Owen Wilson (Gil) take towards the end the film Midnight in Paris (2011). While they kiss during the stroll, by the Seine, and Gil vouches to have felt immortality in those moments, Adriana tells him how sad he appears. The film takes us back to the melancholia of Manhattan, and Annie Hall which Allen could never completely exorcise. Gil has reached the 1920s of La Ville–Lumière and has almost found the love of his life in Adriana, who ironically dreams of going back in time, just like Gil has, in his nostalgia-Rolls-Royce. In addition to Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemmingway, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel and others, Adriana herself displays complete nonchalance to the inexpressible fact of the nocturnal journey Gil commits to, everyday, and treat him as a member of their time. The cobblestone streets of Paris, Claude Monet’s Garden in Giverny, Hotel Le Bristol, Le Grand Vefour restaurant, The Latin Quarter near Saint Etienne-du-Mont (from where Gil takes the nostalgia-car each night), Deyrolle, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Saint Etienne-du-Mont (the nighttime trysts of Gil from Boulevard Saint-Germain to St-Germain-des-Prés with Adriana, and later with Gabrielle (Léa Hélène Seydoux) returns brushman Allen, to the helm of his eroticity.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen’s most recent films have turned audiences into armchair tourists of London (Scoop and Match Point), Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and Paris (last year’s Midnight in Paris). Now he’s added another stop on his cinematic itinerary with To Rome with Love (Cathy Whitlock).
Allen works on the trick that just about any part of the Eternal City can be made to look like a film set. The postcard flutters on the bastions of Rome like Alfred Tennyson’s Union Jack in the Defence of Lucknow, both aesthetically forgetful of reality. Italy’s financial crisis, and even the basic necessity of a protagonist or a central theme are artistically eliminated, as Allen expands the touristic horizons in taking his sets to unconventional sites such as Sant’Angelo, Garbatella and Rione Monti, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and Villa Borghese. Rowing on the strains of “Arrivederci Roma” the films spans towards Trastevere, once a neighbourhood of artist-workshops, having now become a bohemian cafe colony, where much of the film pans out.
To Rome With Love (2012)
Allen’s heterotopias continue as Rome helps blur the boundaries between a theatrical set up and its extant architecture. In the scene where Milly meets Lucy Salta in Piazza Mattei, she does not recognize the place as a film-set, just the same way she cannot recognize Salta for who he is in real life, but for his romantic onscreen persona. In Darius Khondji’s cinematography, the screen bows with the opulence of warm yellow tenor of the Roman afternoons, and the shadowy foliage of Trastevere’s verdant tapering lanes, then meandering past Piazza del Popolo, and the churches, arresting on a woman who appears to be lost, but is, on the contrary, promenading into liberty. “Devoted to dreamers and seekers,” and amorous to the core “To Rome with Love is an old man’s rejection of mortality” (David Denby).
Allen is the definitive confectioner of eroticities, and when the New Yorker auteur arrived in the continent — accidentally for Match Point — little did Europe know it would stage the most memorable chalice to receive Manhattan’s Woody in Barcelona, Paris and Rome. Seen by the cynic Allen is a postcard manufacturer, by the hopeless romantic the architect of dreamscapes, and by the screen itself…well, the screen would rather it could peel its own skin, and detach for a while from itself to see Allen paint the bravura of souls lost and yet too far from being summoned, between the merging bricks of the city crowds, and their alternating colours as the days wear out.