I Heart New York: Woody Allen’s world

Why is life worth living?

There are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. For me, I would say, Charlie Chaplin, to name one thing … Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Steve McQueen’s eyes, Chopin’s ‘Nocturnes’, ‘The Day Lady Died’ by Frank O’Hara, E E Cummings, and … John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, naturally, and … the incredibly luminous skin painted by Caravaggio, Rothko’s red period, The Smiths album The Queen is Dead, Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, Puccini’s Tosca, and … Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Tolstoy, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Maria Callas, Billie Holiday, cheeseburgers, gin martinis, and … Woody Allen films.

One of the things that makes life worth living for me

Many years ago, I started to see the world made up of those who get Woody Allen’s films and those who don’t.

I also started to see the world made up of people who make lists like this and those that don’t – people who rarely pause and consider the things, like music, poetry and art, that deepen their experience of living.

In the penultimate scene of his 1979 masterpiece, Manhattan, Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, makes a list just like this – of some of the things he (i.e. Woody Allen) thinks make life worth living. We agree on Brando and Sinatra. He also includes: Groucho Marx, Swedish films (naturally), the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potato Head Blues’ and Sentimental Education by Flaubert. Overall, I think he’s got impeccable taste.

Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) records his list of things that make life worth living

When I discovered Woody Allen I fell in love with New York.

The titles for Woody Allen’s Manhattan, fully integrated into the film’s opening sequence

I blame Manhattan’s opening sequence. Famously, the film, shot in gorgeous widescreen, black and white, opens with a montage of city scenes edited to the rising tune of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s the epitome of Allen’s affection for the city, a love the film’s opening monologue does its best to explain as Isaac struggles for the right tone to open his new novel. He starts with something gushy but true:

‘Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ No, make that: ‘He romanticized it all out of proportion. Now … 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.’ Ahhh, now let me start this over. ‘Chapter One. He was too romantic about Manhattan as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle and bustle of the crowds and the traffic …’

Isaac strikes that and tries to be less corny and more profound:

‘Chapter One. He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture …’

He finally decides on the following:

‘Chapter One. He was as … tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.’ I love this. ‘New York was his town. And it always would be.’

In my mind, New York will always be Woody Allen’s town. He is as synonymous with the city as yellow cabs, hot dog stands and the Brooklyn Bridge.

I also fell in love with a particular kind of New Yorker.

Composing a list of things that make life worth living for me is a nice way to summarise what initially attracted me to Allen’s New York and what keeps me going back. From Annie Hall (1977) to Manhattan (1979) to Broadway Danny Rose (1984) to Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Radio Days (1987), Woody Allen’s New York is a city of clever, curious people who walk around the Upper West Side discussing the virtues of Bergman and Fellini, debating philosophy and history; people who read Russian literature and visit galleries and museums. You might call them pretentious but I allied myself with Allen’s characters and their ‘lists’ because these things matter to me too; like many of them I also believe in the transformative power of art.

After it’s opening sequence, Manhattan shifts to an interior scene at Elaine’s – one of Allen’s favourite New York haunts until its recent closure – where Isaac and his teenage girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) are having dinner with his old friends, Yale (Michael Murphy) and his wife, Emily (Anne Byrne). The question arises: what is art? Allen knows there’s no definitive answer (he’s been trying to answer it for over 30 years), and the argument continues later in the film when Isaac and Tracy run into Yale and his mistress, Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) at a gallery.

As the quartet walk down the street, Yale and Mary reveal that they’ve invented an ‘Academy of the Overrated’ to which they’ve nominated Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Norman Mailer. Isaac thinks all these people are terrific and becomes increasingly irritated by Mary’s inclusions, especially when she goes so far as to include Ingmar Bergman (Allen’s favourite film director) on the list. As Yale warns, ‘You’ll get in trouble!’

Walking and talking about ‘overrated’ stuff in Manhattan

This scene always reminds me of Allen’s most successful – intellectually and comedically – exploration of cultural conflict in Annie Hall. As Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) stand in line to see the four-hour Nazi documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, they overhear a conversation that drives Alvy mad. A Columbia University professor espouses to his bored date:

‘We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday. It was not one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure. You get the feeling that he’s not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say. Of course, I’ve always felt that he was essentially a technical filmmaker …’

And on he goes.

Alvy tells Annie that he’s going to have a stroke if he has to listen to this man ‘screaming his opinions in my ear’ any longer. When the man starts in on the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Allen addresses the camera directly, asking, ‘What do you do when you get stuck on a movie line, with a guy like this behind you?’ (I’ve often been in a situation to ask myself the same question.) The man attempts to defend himself and then Alvy/Allen pulls the real McLuhan out from behind a poster to step in and set the record straight. The sequence ends with Alvy/Allen saying, ‘Boy, if life were only like this.’ Indeed.

Marshall McLuhan (right) to the rescue in Annie Hall

While it’s true that everyone is entitled to express their opinions, in Allen’s world, any opinion that denigrates the things that make his life worth living are not worth hearing. I can understand that. What makes this scene so funny is the extent that Allen as Alvy is willing to go to defend the things he is passionate about.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, the exchange of cultural objects becomes a medium for courtship. Elliot (the excellent Michael Caine) is in love with his wife’s sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey). He recommends books (Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade) and music (Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor) as a way to get close to her, to connect with her emotionally but also to have something to talk to her about the next time they meet. I think Hannah and Her Sisters is Allen’s warmest film and there is something genuine and recognisable in this desire to connect with others through meaningful things. Who hasn’t passionately recommended a book or a film in an attempt to woo?

Elliot (Michael Caine) ‘runs into’ Lee (Barbara Hershey)

In one of the film’s best moments, Elliot stalks Lee around Soho to contrive a ‘chance’ meeting with her. They collide as she comes around a corner – she’s on her way to an AA meeting, he claims he is early to see a client in the area and is looking for a bookstore. Lee agrees to show him a store a couple of blocks away she thinks he’ll like. They talk about the recent Caravaggio exhibition at the Met. In the store, Elliot buys her a collected works of E E Cummings and repeats that she should read the poem on page 112, ‘it reminded me of you.’ He’s sending her a message through this poem of feelings he isn’t able to express yet. We later see Lee reading the poem – one of Cummings’ most beautiful, ‘somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond’ – and crying. The poem has achieved its goal.

It’s wrong, though, to think that in Allen’s world intellectualism is valued indiscriminately. Allen admires the intellect but he clearly values feeling and the heart over the brain. He’s not interested in what he calls ‘mental masturbation’ in Annie Hall in response to Annie’s enrolling in a course called ‘Existential Motifs in Russian Literature.’ Being literate and being academic are too very different things in Allen’s world. If you don’t have a physical or emotional response to art but only a cerebral one, you haven’t really experienced it. As Isaac tells Mary in Manhattan,

‘Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind … Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening … if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery.’

Woody Allen’s world is smart but sentimental (in the best meaning of the word) too.

Of course I can also see that Woody Allen’s New York is a fantasy – an illusory playground for the white (WASPs and Jews), privileged and neurotic. Allen’s clever people are also capable of being quite shallow and narcissistic. They live in a city with little or no crime; a sheltered space, a sort of benign unreality. It’s a New York of the mind.

But it’s this unreality I’m attracted to because I’m drawn to a certain idea of New York – and New York is an idea because all great cities are ideas as much as they are physical spaces. The idea I have of New York is wrapped up in a longing for a city that may not exist (and maybe never did) anywhere except in the movies.

All of Woody Allen’s great New York films have this nostalgic idea about the city in common.

Nostalgia is a longing for an idealized place we ache to go to again. I think we can ache to go there again even if we have never been.

While Woody Allen’s New York is recognisably the 70s and 80s – in the way his characters dress and look – the feelings and sentiments that shape his films stretch much further back, to the first half of the twentieth century.

Allen knows he presents a romanticized version of the city. He explained in an interview:

‘I’ve never cared about representing it naturalistically. I always tried to show it the way I felt about it … I’m always attracted to the unreal New York. Guys like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee depict New York very often very realistically. Very, very beautifully and very correctly. I don’t. The New York I’ve shown over the years is the New York I got from Hollywood movies.’

The unreal romance of one corner of Woody Allen’s New York

He makes no secret of it in his films either. In the opening scenes of Annie Hall, when Alvy recalls his childhood growing up under the roller coaster at Coney Island, he recognises that he exaggerates his memories:

‘You know, I have a hyperactive imagination, my mind tends to jump around a little, and I have some trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality.’

This is carried through the entire film until the conclusion, where Alvy writes a play based on his relationship with Annie where they end up together rather than apart. Turning to the camera, Alvy explains:

‘What do you want? It was my first play. You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.’

You can’t disagree with that rationale. And Allen has made an entire career trying to bridge the divide between art and life. Similarly, in Radio Days, we see his ability to create a better version of the past:

‘The scene is Rockaway. The time is my childhood. It’s my old neighbourhood, and forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past. I mean, it wasn’t always as rainy and windswept as this. But I remember it that way because that was it at its most beautiful.’

Under Allen’s skilful direction, New York has taken on an almost mythic quality in my mind. As one of the most filmed cities in the world we have all had countless opportunities to ride its subways and party on its rooftops, to run through Times Square and amble through Greenwich Village bookstores. But Allen has always added something else to that experience. He’s made it romantic. Elaine’s, Empire Diner, the Russian Tea Room, the Guggenheim, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, Coney Island and even Bloomingdales, are all places you want to be when Allen’s camera is trained on them – they’re also places you want to fall in love in.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Holly (Dianne Wiest) and her friend April (Carrie Fisher), take a drive around the city with David (Sam Waterston), the architect they are both dating. He wants to show them some of his favourite Manhattan buildings and we are on tour with them. Focusing on classic architecture and not gentrified areas, the city is majestic and resilient.

But a car isn’t a necessary vehicle for old-fashioned romance in Woody Allen’s New York. Intimacy develops in Manhattan, Annie Hall and in Hannah and Her Sisters when characters are just walking around the city together.

Alvy and Annie’s nervous romance unfolds against the backdrop of a series of urban landmarks, including their declaration of love on Pier 11 with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

In Manhattan, Isaac and Mary take her dog Waffles for a night walk that comes to an end in one of the most memorable of all film scenes, shot at the foot of 58th St overlooking the East River and the Queensboro Bridge. It’s one of those moments of cinematic magic.

A magic moment in Manhattan

I also fell in love with the sound of New York.

Allen’s nostalgia for the city has always been most exquisitely expressed by the use of music in his films. I love jazz so I’ve always loved listening to a Woody Allen film as much as I love watching it. Allen’s finest frames move to the sound of jazz and to the beautiful, romantic standards of the great American songbook – tunes by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Irving Berlin. Songs such as ‘Seems Like Old Times’, ‘It Had to Be You’ (Annie Hall), ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You,’ ‘Embraceable You’, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ (Manhattan), ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’, ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Stardust’ (Stardust Memories), ‘You Made Me Love You’, ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ (Hannah and Her Sisters) evoke a place and mood that is timeless in a way that the use of contemporary music would fail to do.

Like the song says, Allen’s ‘old-fashioned’ and he isn’t bothered about remaining charmingly retrograde in his musical tastes. There is a lovely exploration of this in Hannah and Her Sisters, when Mickey (Allen) recounts his first date with Holly at an underground CBGB style rock club. His preference is for an older New York – so when he has his chance to escape he takes her to the Carlyle Room to hear Bobby Short sing Cole Porter. She thinks the audience is full of ‘stiffs’ and as she gets into a cab yells, ‘At least I’m open to new concepts!’

I think only When Harry Met Sally … (1989) has come close to evoking this sense of old New York in a modern setting. There is lots of walking and talking through the city and the soundtrack (performed mostly by Harry Connick Jr) follows Allen’s lead and returns to another time to create romance.

But it’s not only Allen’s city. After all, New York is one of the most filmed cities in the world. Other great directors – great New York directors – like Sidney Lumet (1924-2011), Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and more recently, Wes Anderson, have also made it their own. They all have the city in common, but each reinvents it for us with their own distinct lens, uncovering its hidden corners with every film.

Lumet’s New York features characters under pressure, pushed to breaking point. From 12 Angry Men (1957) to Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981) and his final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), characters are caught up in events that spiral out of control and which they don’t understand. In Lumet’s hands, the city is in conflict with its citizens.

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) mad as hell and under pressure in Lumet’s Network

Scorsese’s New York is grimy and seedy with a stench that almost leaks from the screen. You smell it in Mean Streets (1973) and After Hours (1985) but mostly in the phenomenal Taxi Driver (1976), in the porn theatres and fleabag hotels, where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) hopes that ‘Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.’

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) prepares to clean up the dirty streets of New York in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver

Lee’s New York may be the closest to reality and therefore the most complex. Films like She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Clockers (1995), Summer of Sam (1999) and 25th Hour (2002), present a city simmering with race and class tensions, always on the verge of conflict. It doesn’t shy away from posing some difficult questions about what it’s like living in a city made up of so many different people.

Cooling down tensions in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Allen continues to find inspiration in the city he calls home, although the cost of filming on his limited budgets has seen him turning to London (Match Point, Scoop), Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Paris (Midnight in Paris), in recent years.

While there are many New Yorks, it’s Woody Allen’s New York I want to live in. I want to walk his streets, eat in his restaurants, queue at his cinemas, argue with his neighbours. I love Scorsese but I don’t necessarily want to have a Scorsese kind of New York moment. That could be messy, maybe even a little bloody. I want to live in Woody Allen’s New York even if it’s just a fantasy. Even if it’s a city that only exists on screen and lives in my mind in black-and-white and forever pulsates to the rhapsodic sounds of George Gershwin. That’s my kind of town.

More scenes from the city:

The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)

On the Town (1949, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick)

An Affair to Remember (1957, Leo McCarey)

Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)

West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins)

Barefoot in the Park (1967, Gene Saks)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)

Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)

The Panic in Needle Park (1971, Jerry Schatzberg)

The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)

Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman)

The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984, Stuart Rosenberg)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, Susan Seidelman)

Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)

Requiem for a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)

Igby Goes Down (2002, Burr Steers)

The Squid and the Whale (2005, Noah Baumbach)

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4 thoughts on “I Heart New York: Woody Allen’s world

  1. Really fantastic article, and I too connect very emotionally and artistically with Allen’s vision of New York. (Debussy would be in my list)

  2. I love your article. Reading it was like breathing. To use your words, “the exchange of cultural objects (Woody’s films) becomes a medium for connecting” with people. It gives me great joy to connect in this modern way about such a lovely collection of films. They are close to my heart and I have always connected with Allen’s vision of New York and the other aspects of his work you describe so eloquently. Thank you! I am thrilled I found your site.

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