A friend of mine once called me a pedantic New York snob. I said that was the nicest compliment I ever received. I think that people who don’t get Woody Allen erroneously view him with this same disdain. His latest film revisits all of the usual themes: New York, jazz, art, love in unexpected places and of course, social class.
In the context of art, it has been theorized that every painting is a self-portrait. I wonder if this could be said for filmmakers as well. Particularly someone as prolific and era-spanning as Woody Allen, there is no question that his films are revealing.
How can a painting of trees be a self portrait, one could ask. Paintings may not be as narrative as film, but paintings do tell a story.
Some art may be as the artist wishes the world could be. When you look at Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Cypresses, it seems like the earth is cradling the swirling clouds above. There are two cypresses off to the right like witnesses to the emotive sky. There is a sense of homeostasis despite the strange composition because of its idyllic yet unorthodox beauty. Starry Night is the same composition in reverse, with the taller tress to the left in the foreground like night watchmen overlooking a cooler, dark blue night. The cerulean swirling sky flirts with the foreground in a sassy, raw swagger reminding the viewer that the night sky can come alive.
Some characters may be as a filmmaker wishes he or she could be i.e. a hustler, albeit a small one, (Small Time Crooks), or a moralist (Broadway Danny Rose). Others are more literal self portraits, such as the neurotic writer in Deconstructing Harry or the famous director in Stardust Memories. And of course, there is the exaggerated humorous anecdote of unresolved mother issues on display in New York Stories.
Allen is know for saying “I’m a low-culture person. I like watching basketball with a beer and a hot dog.” (which incidentally is the version I remember, however, the IMDB site quotes meatballs and baseball, which I’m almost 100% entirely certain is incorrect, especially considering he is a lifetime season ticket holder of the New York Knicks. Maybe IMDB is utilizing some desperate out of work Wikipedia contributors.
The film opens with a shot of the college campus where the two main characters Gadsby and Ashley attend. Gadsby narrates over the introductory shots and throughout the film. Bing Crosby is heard crooning “. . when I got lucky in the rain.” Gadsby and Ashley make a plan to go to Manhattan for an interview that Ashley has booked with a famous director, Roman Pollard. There are phrases and names throughout the film that serve as subtle jabs, poking fun at directors, himself included. Mr. Pollard is famous for films such as “Winter Memories” and “Moonglow.”
Gadsby tells Ashley that they must stay under the radar in Manhattan to avoid his mother’s “apoplectic” need for his attendance at her annual gala. When a carriage ride is mentioned, Ashley suggests it may not be a good idea because of the weather. Gadsby argues that it would be rainy, moody and romantic, setting the tone of the film. Manhattan, as it has been in many past films, is one of the main characters.
Pollard is seen pouring booze into his coffee during Ashley’s interview. He suggests he has a “scoop” for her article. The many tongue and cheek references to Allen’s past films aren’t as literal. (Allen directed Scoop in 2006). Pollard is temperamental and over-sensitive. After screening his film he blurts out “. . you just watched two hours of an existential pile of steaming shit.” The Ashley character is the quintessential ingénue in a fish-out-of-water story, she begins pandering during her interview out of lack of knowing what to say, “. . you’ve never made one single commercial concession.”
Ashley soon finds herself among famous directors, winding up completely out of her league at a cocktail party. She is attractive, slightly nervous and charming like a younger Annie Hall.
Allen utilizes the storytelling arc of the love triangle. While Ashley is on her interview, Gadsby is left to his own devices for the day. He stumbles upon his friend’s film set where he acts in a scene with a former girlfriend’s sister, clad in a raincoat. If you live in Manhattan long enough, you will run into people in your past. Still looking to kill time, Gadsby goes to visit a friend in his malady over his botched city plans. “You’re young, Gadsby, the world if full of tragic little deal breakers,” his friend adds after disclosing he can’t marry his fiancé because of her recalcitrant and intolerable laugh.
There is another director, Ted Davidoff, played by Jude Law, that Ashley finds herself entangled with on her day of adventure. When he asks about her boyfriend, she replies that if Gadsby had his way he would be an intellectual bookie gambler. This statement reveals that Gadsby is Allen.
Woody Allen has a whimsical ability to reveal the hypocrisy and boorish façade of the upper class. It’s as if his basketball watching self is untenably bound to a group that he does not want to belong, but gets his revenge in his films. “Have you ever seen Out of the Past?” Gadsby asks a call girl at a bar. He makes fun of people who have money but don’t know the social moors of the upper class with characters like the nouveau riche Frenchy who wants to fit in to high society in Small Time Crooks.
The scene at the museum cascades with rhythmic guitar music echoing Sweet and Lowdown, the ode to Django Reinhardt, where Gadsby is meandering through the King Tut exhibit. “The Egyptians put all their money in an afterlife,” Gadsby exclaims while dodging his aunt and uncle, a scene that is reminiscent of the characters on the lamb running through a warehouse of Macy’s Parade floats in Broadway Danny Rose.
Then the film cuts to a poker game with “Misty” playing over it. This is what I love about his films. Guys smoking and playing poker with a backdrop of one of the most eloquently written love songs in the American songbook. “Real life is fine for people who can’t do any better,” the kid-sister character played by Selena Gomez adds. Perhaps Allen likes to construct these films from the viewpoint of a character within the play that is playing life itself, like a heightened version of real life complete with jazz, cocktails and pert dialogue. Sunflowers and Starry Night may be devoid of a musical score but they too, are a vision, an impression of a heightened existence beyond what we can perceive with the naked eye.
I am romanced as the viewer, getting misty by the jazz and dialogue and shots of Manhattan. I am lured in by the chaos and comedy and I stay for the conclusion of the characters’ hopeless circumstances. Towards the end there is a mother and son talk that shows that in movies, you can make it right.
It could be argued Allen keeps revisiting the same themes, but he skillfully manages to make every attempt new. His theories point to the same quandaries of living in hyper intellectual New York with all its neurosis, peppered with some of the greatest music ever recorded, reminding us that Manhattan in the rain is, come to think of it, beautiful, nostalgic and romantic, once again.
A Rainy Day in New York was released in 2019 and 2020. Annie Hall is the only comedy to ever win the Oscar for best picture. Allen has an unprecedented 16 nominations for writing.. All of them are in the Written Directly for the Screen category.