So is Match Point really Woody Allen's triumphant return to form? Well, pretty much. It's a good movie by any standard -- cannily constructed, well-performed, impeccably crafted -- basically, the most enjoyment I've gotten out of a nihilistic experience in as long as I can remember. I mean, if you're going to watch a movie that says there is absolutely no moral justice to be had in a perversely meaningless universe, it might as well be Woody's latest -- which is more or less Crimes and Misdemeanors with a lot less laughs.
Of course you have to take my opinion with more than a grain of salt, since I've been a card-carrying member of the ADL (Allen Defense League) for years. No, I am not going to claim that Allen's last four features were good (although even a tanker like Hollywood Ending had one or two memorable laughs in it). But let me just note something about his career, unique in modern Hollywood. The man has made 38 features in 40 years, at least half a dozen of them masterpieces (from the romantic comedy Rosetta Stone Annie Hall to the aforementioned dark Crimes and the brilliantly sardonic Bullets Over Broadway) and another half dozen that are merely great, so I believe that it's actually his prolificity that's damaged his rep (let's leave his personal life out of this just now, shall we? We're talking about the work).
What I mean is, the obsessively prolific Woody Allen has made three features to just about any other contemporary director's one. So when he's been in a slump, it's seemed awfully big, because we've seen more of it. And due to his unique working method (Allen's generally midway through his next film by the time the one before it gets released), he's cocooned from criticism and truth be told, a bit out of touch with, um, the rest of us; the double-edged sword of this methodology has been painfully apparent in his last decade of filmmaking.
No matter. London seems to have cleared the old guy's head, Match Point is a fine piece of work, and I'll leave it to other people to argue the merits of Allen the Auteur, as in this cool 70th birthday tribute from the S.F. Chronicle, and this great visit with Woody today, from the New York Observer. No, I'm not really here to discuss Allen's status in the historic cinematic scheme of things, I'm here to talk about something far, far more earth-shakingly important: the some 10 to 15 minutes I once spent with the Woodman, oh so many moons ago.
Come with me, back to the days when the man was at his peak, long before young Soon Yi and such follies as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion were to cast their damning shadows...
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
In the late'70s I was for a time Diane Keaton's vocal coach, helping her prepare for a record album which (typical of my career as Periphery Man) never came to be. At one point during this stint, I made a living room rehearsal tape of a few of our songs -- a work-in-progress recording to see what we sounded like. Later I made a copy for Diane, who was anxious to hear it, so when it turned out that she was going to be working not far from my apartment the following afternoon, I offered to walk over and hand-deliver it.
What she was working on was her next (then unnamed) movie with Woody Allen. They were shooting inside a gallery on the second floor of a loft building in Soho, and when I got there, the ubiquitous equipment vans were lined up along West Broadway, cables snaking over the sidewalk, bored union guys drinking coffee and serious-looking production assistants with headphones round their necks in attendance. I had a brief wait at the foot of the stairs until the all-clear signal indicated a shot-in-progress had been finished, and then went on up.
Inside the gallery, its white walls lit brightly on this gray afternoon, the atmosphere felt busy but relaxed. A curly-haired guy in a dark shirt whom I recognized, with a former film student's jolt of awe, as the great American cinematographer Gordon Willis, conferred with a small group of technicians by the Panavision camera. They were between set-ups, and figuring out their next move. From around the wall that bisected the gallery strolled Diane, with her co-star Michael Murphy, and trailing behind them, Woody Allen with Mariel Hemingway. Diane caught sight of me, smiled a greeting and came over.
We chatted for all of a minute or two. I learned that everything was going well, handed her the tape, and... Good as I'd come to be at keeping my cool in the presence of cultural icons, in this instance I couldn't help myself: my eyes kept wandering across the room to where the director was now talking with his cinematographer and one of the other actors. Diane picked up on it -- or that extra moment of lingering I was doing, with our business already concluded. "You want to meet Woody," she said, in the tone of someone who was more than used to this.
Diane walked me over there and introduced me to this man I'd been reading, listening to and laughing at for as long as I could remember, and I couldn't get over how much like Woody Allen he looked: the familiar red-checked shirt over a t-shirt and khaki pants, the slightly unkempt hair, the thick-framed glasses. And in my good-to-meet-you moment with one of the wittiest comedic talents of our generation, I had the hysterical, insane impulse to be funny.
If you are the kind of person who likes to be liked, an encounter with a celebrity you've long admired is the ultimate ego test. You have essentially fallen in love with this larger-than-you-are figure, and you've unconsciously projected so much of your own identity onto them (since they've appeared to know you and understand you, by somehow articulating your most intimate thoughts and feelings) that in a sense, you're meeting yourself. If they don't seem to like you, then how can you like you? So often, your neurotic instinct in such meetings is to forget who you actually are, and attempt to be them -- the assumption being that they, at least, must like themselves.
For a dangerous moment there it was almost Zelig Meets Zelig, but I was saved from falling into the maws of this idiotic conundrum by Woody himself, who was gracious and cordial, and so casually at ease in the midst of what was, after all, his element, that I didn't have time to be more than natural, albeit nervous. Seated on a high school, Woody pulled Keaton towards him, kneading her shoulders in an avuncular way as we talked about our little musical project.
"She's excited, she's having a good time with it," Woody told me. "And I hear you're doing, what, some songs-- "
"Oh, you know," Diane demurred. "The same old stuff."
"Not just that," I said. "We're actually trying out different things. Like, I've got her doing a Smokey Robinson tune."
"Really." Woody sounded skeptical. Diane was laughing.
"Well, hey," I said, "Bob Dylan said Smokey Robinson was America's greatest living poet."
Woody raised an eyebrow, and I saw, in an instant, that I had forgotten who I was talking to. Why had I assumed that this jazz clarinetist, this lover of Dixieland whose soundtracks never seemed to feature anything recorded later than the Kennedy era, would share my reverence for both Motown and Blonde on Blonde? "I guess you'd say," I added, "that's like the pot calling..."
"...the kettle black, yeah," he murmured, with that familiar sideways twist of an almost-smile on his lips. An assistant had appeared beside us with a clipboard, and sensing that my moment on the set had run its course, I soon said my goodbyes.
The incident has a peculiar, idiosyncratic Clouds in My Coffee resonance, as well. If you're familiar with Manhattan, you may remember that scene in the Soho gallery, where Woody Allen's character Isaac first meets Diane Keation as Mary, and instantly dislikes her. She disagrees with his views on art, and continues to outrage and embarrass him in front of his teenaged girlfriend Tracy (Hemingway) and his best friend Yale (Murphy) as they walk down West Broadway together. In the scene that directly follows, as Isaac and Tracy shop in what looks like Dean and Delucca's, the fuming Isaac tells Tracy that if Mary has made another disparaging remark about his idol Ingmar Bergman, "I would've knocked her other contact lens out." The line may strike the alert viewer as odd, since its meaning is obscure. That's because it refers to an incident that had taken place in the gallery, in which Mary lost one of her contact lenses -- a scene that was subsequently cut from the finished film.
This was the scene that was being shot the afternoon I visited the set.
Is it possible? Do I, Periphery Man, possess a kind of negative energy power, that secretly zaps any creative endeavor I'm privy to and subtly skews it towards the marginal? Does my presence guarantee that this track will be left off the album, that this shot will find its way to the cutting room floor?
I shudder to think.
Of course Woody, judging by Match Point, would scoff at such an anti-nihilistic notion. To him, the idea that the universe would pay me such attention would seem as credible as the idea of Diane singing Like a Rolling Stone, with say, the 4 Tops as back-up.
But as for the rest of you? Be afraid...