Aug. 18-25, 2008 issue
At 72, a superstitious Woody Allen is still working hard, but is terrified of the void, the 'meaningless flicker' of life.
Despite the odd superstition (he also avoids haircuts while shooting a movie), Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres— comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical—only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen's eyes, they're all tragedies, since, as he says, "to live is to suffer." If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.
On the surface, his latest film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a breezy romance strewn with picnics in the country and Gaudí architecture and flamenco guitar, would suggest a softening of his world view…But go to meet the director in hopes of a "Tuesdays With Woody"-style affirmation of late-life contentment, and you will be quickly disabused of that illusion. At 72, he says he still lies awake at night, terrified of the void. He cannot reconcile his strident atheism with his superstition about the banana, but he knows why he makes movies: not because he has any grand statement to offer, but simply to take his mind off the existential horror of being alive. Movies are a great diversion, he says, "because it's much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine."
Allen says the indifference of the universe has obsessed him since he was a child. "My mother always said I was a very cheerful kid until I was 5 years old, and then I turned gloomy." He can only attribute that shift to an awareness of death, which he claims to remember from the crib. "Now, maybe I stayed in the crib longer than other kids," he adds, with the well-timed cough of a former stand-up comedian. And there it is, that little spark of wryness, suggesting that the nihilism is just shtik. But it soon becomes apparent that when he says he agrees with Sophocles' suggestion that to never have been born may be the greatest boon, he means it. He is, however, cautious not to infect his loved ones with his pessimism. "I don't prattle on about this at all to my daughters," he says. "I bend over backwards to be very positive and not in any way express this to them."
So why go on? "I can't really come up with a good argument to choose life over death," he says. "Except that I'm too scared." Making films offers no reward beyond distracting him from his plight…When it is suggested that others may get a great deal out of his films—that there are fans for whom an afternoon watching "Love and Death" or "Manhattan" provides solace in the way a Marx Brothers film soothes a depressed character in "Hannah and Her Sisters"—he resists the compliment. "This can happen, and this is a nice thing, but when you leave the theater, you're still going back out into a very cruel world."
As a filmmaker, he knows that audiences need a respite from the darkness of his vision—he wanted to end "Hannah and Her Sisters" with his character alone, having been dumped by Hannah's sister, but thought viewers wouldn't go for such a bleak conclusion. In real life, however, he believes there are no happy endings. "It's like the beginning of 'Stardust Memories.' The trains all go to the same place," he says. (And no, that place is not "jazz heaven," as a character in that film hopes.) "They all go to the dump."
Death may be especially on Allen's mind at the moment—his idol, Ingmar Bergman, died while he was shooting "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," as did director Michelangelo Antonioni. His longtime producer, Charles Joffe, passed away recently as well. "Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is," he says. "You see how meaningless … I don't want to depress you, but it's a meaningless little flicker."
It's not that Allen is unable to enjoy himself (though he did want to title "Annie Hall" "Anhedonia," which means the inability to experience pleasure); it's that he's convinced the moments don't add up to redemption. "You have a meal, or you listen to a piece of music, and it's a pleasurable thing," he says. "But it doesn't accrue to anything."