I’ve been trying to remember, was it The Sorrow And The Pity they were lining up for when, sick to death of the medium-is-the-message windbaggery of the pseudo-intellectual – now there’s a term to blast me back – in front of him, Alvy actually produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a lobby card? The association strikes me as a natural one, since I’m about to gather with the other acolytes in an art house cinema. Will anyone in the queue reference or be moved to imitate the McLuhan moment, I wonder?

And where were they? Was it at the Regency at 68th street? (Was it even called the Regency? It hardly matters, since it’s gone now, like the New Yorker at 88th, the movie house at 72nd and Broadway, the Thalia {{which does show up at the very end of the movie, when he runs into Annie after they’ve stopped dating and introduces her to a young, young Sigourney Weaver, fresh out of Yale}}, the Metro, the Bleecker and, of course, Theater 80. With all the rep houses having ceded their real estate to condos and their authority to Netflix, who is curating the tastes of the city’s undergraduates? How will they even know about The Sorrow And The Pity? Mondo Cane? How can the budding homosexual flower without the occasional force-feeding of a double feature of Now Voyager and All About Eve? To wit – and to extend this parenthetical yet further: in senior year, at the last meeting of our Japanese literature seminar before Spring break, the professor – ageing, erudite, one of the few, perhaps only, Western recipients of countless Japanese cultural laurels – asked us our plans for the coming week. I allowed as how I would be staying in town in order to write my thesis. ‘Well then, of course you’ll be going to the Bette Davis festival every day down at the Embassy.’ He said it as if stating an obvious prescription, like recommending medical attention for a sucking chest wound, or ‘You’ll want to call the fire department about those flames licking up the front of your house.’ Only a self-destructive lunatic would think he could survive the week by missing the Bette Davis festival. I took his advice and went every day. Did it help my thesis any? Hard to say. It was a long time ago.)

The time when a Woody Allen retrospective would have evoked that kind of fierce cinéaste devotion seems long gone, having been tempered out of us not just by the years (such performative loyalty is really the province of the youngsters who nightly go to Irving Plaza right near my apartment, passing the hours sitting on the pavement singing the songs of the artists they are about to see), but by Woody Allen himself. The tsunami of mediocrities like Hollywood Ending and Melinda And Melinda effectively obliterates why Manhattan mattered so much. I can’t help feeling like he’s dismantled the very admirable legacy of his earlier work by his later, overly prolific efforts. It’s a more benign version of Ralph Nader (with the key difference that I hate Ralph Nader, whereas Woody Allen simply makes me a little bit sad).

Then again, no one worth a damn doesn’t make the occasional bit of bad work: there are episodes of The Judy Garland Show that are absolute train wrecks of creaky squareness, made all the more ghoulish by the presence of an aphasic gin-soaked Peter Lawford, and I take a back seat to no one in my love for Judy Garland, the most talented individual who ever lived (ladies and gentlemen, my Kinsey placement); I read a lousy late Edith Wharton novel this summer, The Children, that was a tone-deaf, treacly muddle; I don’t care for Balanchine’s Scherzo à la Russe and I’ve said it before, even though it is considered a cinematically signal moment by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (zzzzzzz), I’m no great fan of the movie Kiss Me Deadly.

Perhaps taken as a whole, the twenty-eight films will start to exert their own internal logic and I will see and delight in how Allen mines his themes over and over again. Or perhaps it will be like the Broadway show Fosse, where a surfeit of the choreographer’s vocabulary made all of it suffer and the entire thing looked like the kind of shitty entertainment that takes place on a raised, round, carpeted platform at a car show. I’ll see, I guess.

As one might expect for the 1:30 p.m. showing on the Friday before Christmas, there are only about a dozen of us waiting. Our ranks swell to about thirty people closer to show time, but at first it’s just me and more than a few men of a certain age (whose ranks I join with ever greater legitimacy each day), about whom it might be reasonably assumed that we spend an inordinate amount of time fixating on when next we might need to pee. Thoughts of age stay at the forefront in the first few minutes of the film, when Woody Allen himself (who, it must be said, in later scenes, stripped down to boxers, kind of had a rocking little body in his day) addresses the camera directly and tells us that he just turned forty. I’m older than that by two years.

How many times have I seen this, I wonder? Unquantifiable. The film is canonical and familiar and memorized, almost to the point of ritual. Perhaps this is the spiritual solace the faithful find in the formulaic rhythms of liturgy. It’s as comforting as stepping into a warm bath. Diane Keaton is enchanting, there is no other word for it. She comes on the screen and you can hear the slightest creaking in the audience as corners of mouths turn up. There is Christopher Walken, a peach-fuzzed stripling. And there, doe-eyed, with drum-tight skin: Carol Kane playing Alvy’s first wife, Allison Portchnik.

Allison Portchnik. Oy. I am generally known as an unfailingly appropriate fellow. I have very good manners. But when I fuck up, I fuck up big time. Suddenly I am reminded of how, three years ago, I was on a story for an adventure magazine, an environmental consciousness-raising whitewater-rafting expedition in Chilean Patagonia (about which the less said the better. It’s really scary. Others may call it exhilarating, and I suppose it is, the way having a bone marrow test finally over and done with is exhilarating. And Patagonia, Chilean Patagonia at least, while pretty, isn’t one tenth as breathtaking as British Columbia). On the trip with me were Bobby Kennedy, Jr., hotelier André Balazs and Glenn Close, among others. Everyone was very nice, I hasten to add.

After lunch one day, my friend Chris, the photographer on the story, came up to me and said, ‘I’d lay off the Kennedy assassination jokes if I were you.’

I laughed, but Chris reiterated, not joking this time. ‘No, I’d really lay off the Kennedy assassination jokes. The lunch line . . .’ he reminded me.

And then I remembered. I had been dreading this trip (see above about how totally justified I was in my trepidation) for weeks beforehand, terrified by the off-the-grid distance of this Chilean river, a full three days of travel away; terrified of the rapids and their aqueous meatgrinder properties; terrified of just being out of New York. All of this terror I took and disguised as an affronted sense of moral outrage, that such trips were frivolous, given the terrible global situation. I explained it to Glenn Close thusly:

‘I was using the war in Iraq to try and avoid coming down here,’ suddenly, unthinkingly invoking the part of Annie Hall where Alvy breaks off from kissing Allison because he’s distracted by niggling doubts: if the motorcade was driving past the Texas Book Depository, how could Oswald, a poor marksman, have made his shot? Surely there was a conspiracy afoot. Then, with Bobby Kennedy, Jr. helping himself to three-bean salad on the lunch line not five feet away, I switched into my Carol Kane as Allison Portchnik voice and said, ‘You’re using the Kennedy Assassination as an excuse to avoid having sex with me.’ Then I followed that up with my Woody Allen imitation and finished out the scene. Nice. No one pointed out my gaffe or was anything other than gracious and delightful.


Despite how well I know the material, the film feels so fresh. All the observations and jokes feel like they’re being made for the first time, or are at least in their infancy. By later films they will feel hackneyed (in the movie Funny Girl, the process of calcification is even more accelerated. You get back from intermission and Barbra Streisand already feels like too big a star, a drag version of herself ), but here it’s all just terrifically entertaining. And current! Alvy tells his friend Max that he feels that the rest of the country turning its back on the city – It’s the mid-70s. Gerald Ford to New York: Drop Dead, and all that jazz – is anti-Semitic in nature. That we are seen as left-wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. And so we remain, at least in the eyes of Washington and elsewhere, a pervy bastion of surrender monkeys. There was an Onion headline that ran after a sufficient interval of time had passed post-9/11, that essentially read, ‘Rest of country’s temporary love affair with New York officially over.’

Rest of the country’s perhaps, but mine was just beginning when I saw the film at age eleven. By the time the voiceover gets to the coda about how we throw ourselves over and over again into love affairs despite their almost inevitable disappointments and heartbreak because, like the joke says, ‘we need the eggs,’ (if you need the set-up to the punchline, what on earth are you doing reading this?) I am weepy with love for the city. Although, truth be told, it doesn’t take much to get my New York waterworks going.

Walking out, my friend Rick, thirtyplus years resident said, ‘I had forgotten how Jewish a film it is.’ I really hadn’t noticed. But I’m the wrong guy to ask. It’s like saying to a fish, ‘Do things around here seem really wet to you?’ I wrote a book that got translated into German a few years back. There was a fascination among the Germans with what they perceived as my Jewish sensibility; a living example of the extirpated culture. I’ve said this before, but I felt like the walking illustration of that old joke about the suburbs being the place where they chop down all the trees and then name the streets after them. At least a dozen of the reviews referred to me as a ‘stadtneurotiker’, an urban neurotic, a designation that pleased me, I won’t lie. Especially when I found out the German title for Annie Hall.

Der Stadtneurotiker.