October 14, 2011 10:14 pm

Return to form? You’d better not believe it

Our longing for the magic our old heroes used to make can be as charming as it is misguided

OK, enough is enough. If I ever again hear, in the same sentence, the words “Woody Allen” and “return to form”, I intend to shove a clarinet into the centre of a bagel and launch it in the direction of the filmmaker’s beloved Manhattan skyline to the strains of Rhapsody in Blue, with a personal note attached: “Please stop, Woody!”

The latest return to form, in a wretched history of dubious returns to form, is Midnight in Paris, a sentimental piece of tat that features conversations with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, twitchy marital discord and Paris – choke! – in the rain. The said rain, enthusiastically alluded to throughout the film, only actually falls in the final scene, when Allen’s protagonist, played by Owen Wilson (Woody with an even weirder nose), encounters a very young and attractive woman on a glistening bridge and the two of them zip off for coffee to talk about Cole Porter. Cute.

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Peter Aspden

Allen had form, once. But he lost it a long time ago. About 20 years ago, if you want to press me. Since then he has made films prolifically – but badly. Most of them limp around assorted European art-houses for a week or two – the French passion for Allen is matched for questionable judgment only by their obsession with Jerry Lewis – before fading from view. Some of them are so bad – anyone out there seen Scoop? – that the next film cannot help but constitute some kind of return to form. If you constantly lower your bar, occasionally you will drag yourself over it. It is a novel form of creative evolution.

Many people have enjoyed Midnight in Paris, including, it must be said, this paper’s reviewer. That’s why I watched it. I was reeled in, yet again. I have seen every Allen film. And I really, really, want him to return to form. He is, of course, a hero of mine. That is why it all hurts so much. It is part of a desperate ritual for middle-aged romantics, like listening to a new Bob Dylan album. The disparity between hopeful expectation and numbing reality is grotesque. So we fudge it. Hey, it’s not so bad. Better than the last one. A return to form.

Allen’s films today are variations on a tired theme. They involve young, beautiful women, corny jazz, erudite, but not that erudite, jokes. The punchlines can be seen a mile off and the sets lack imagination. Allen’s Paris is guidebook Paris. The next stop on his never-ending European travelogue is Italy. Next year’s Allen film is The Bop Decameron and I feel I have seen it already. It will feature a tempestuous, flashing-eyed beauty, the Trevi fountain, corny jazz. An ingenuous American will be tossed in, along with a homage to Fellini. There will be a light philosophical exchange and a thin slice of farce. Stir well and serve.

. . .

Woody Allen films (like Dylan albums) used to matter. I recall seeing Manhattan on its release in 1979 and leaving the cinema speechless with admiration. It was funny, it was sad, it made perfect sense. In one exchange, between the characters played by Allen and Diane Keaton, she is about to reveal the thoughts of her analyst, Donnie. “Donnie, your analyst?” interrupts Allen. “I call mine Dr Chomsky, you know? Either that or he hits me with a ruler.” In a couple of deft lines, the evolution of psychoanalytic practice is sketched out, from its strict Viennese beginnings to its flaky Californian offshoots.

Manhattan was released in the same year as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism but made the same points with a devastating lightness of touch. Not everyone liked it. Feminists hated it because Allen’s Isaac fell in love with a 17-year-old girl, strangely ignoring that Isaac is made to look like a selfish fool, while Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy is the film’s wisest character. That might have been cheesy but it was hardly incorrect. True, Allen’s personal life subsequently took some strange turns. So what? The heart is a resilient little muscle, as Allen would say in Hannah and her Sisters. And a stubbornly autonomous one, too.

Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway

Prime: Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway on a date in ‘Manhattan’; Bob Dylan in 1965

Woody was, and I’m sure still is, a nice guy. Around the time of Annie Hall, a good friend of mine secured a rare interview with him in New York for our university magazine. He turned up to find his tape recorder malfunctioning. Allen told him to relax and come back the following day. Allen might have lacked many qualities but empathy for anxiety-ridden technophobes was not one of them. Another friend wrote a book on the director, who officially declined to co-operate but wrote kind and thoughtful hand-written notes back to him.

Like the very best works of popular culture, Manhattan accorded precisely with its own time and place. Everything Allen had absorbed on the foibles of New York’s Me Generation was poured into 96 sumptuous, monochrome minutes. But the trouble with such works is that they date quickly. Their evanescence is their power and also their downfall. Manhattan seems full of clichés now, little more than a historical document. The creators of those works, as they grow older, lose their unerring instinct for time and place. They are not up with the latest party chat because they stop going to parties. Their dialogue is littered with anachronisms or embarrassing attempts to capture an argot they do not fully understand.

Most people’s world gets smaller as they age. They stop reflecting on cosmic injustice and existential futility – favourite Allen themes – because they are more concerned that one of their grandchildren has head lice. That shrinking of the personal universe can be fatal for an artist. It is not so bad if you come from the high culture tradition, in which the search for eternal truths is a constant. Nobody would argue that Beethoven’s late string quartets constituted a dilution of the artist’s powers; indeed the reverse can be argued.

But it is different in the high-risk, high-reward world of pop culture. Ambitions might be lower but reputational stakes are higher. To lose touch is to lose form. Whatever it was that helped Allen make Manhattan, or Dylan write “Ballad of a Thin Man”, or Paul McCartney compose “Eleanor Rigby”, is gone, because it depended on that fragile connection between personal instinct and social context.

It is often said that our age is merciless on old age. Yet it isn’t. We root for our old heroes with an enthusiasm that is as charming as it is misguided. They might be irrelevant but we remain reverent. As I write, Midnight in Paris is storming the box offices of Europe and America and that hasn’t happened to Woody for a while. The newly married McCartney announces new dates for a UK tour. We want to see the old magic. We will the form to return. And finally we are hypnotised into believing it.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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