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Ballad of Narayama

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Woody Allen's interiors

NEW YORK -- So there I was, sitting in Woody Allen’s living room, up in the penthouse overlooking Central Park, waiting for Woody and meditating on the dimensions of his talent. There must not be, I decided, many people who can simultaneously star in their own comic strip and make a movie the critics call Bergmanesque… and then of course there’s Woody the jazz clarinetist, and Woody’s Academy Award for “Annie Hall,” and the first prize in the O. Henry Awards that one of his New Yorker short stories won this year. How can a guy this successful still be seeing an analyst? How could I get the name of his shrink?

The room was big and airy, flooded with light, filled with plants. Overstuffed furniture surrounded a heavy wooden coffee table laden with bowls of nuts and candy and recent copies of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. One wall was covered with books. Hallways led to distant vistas filled with more books. There was, I noticed, no television set… and he watered the geraniums on his balcony with one of those handy Haws cans from England that are advertised in the back pages of the New Yorker.

The elevator door opened and Woody burst in, breathless, wearing his more-or-less standard uniform of jeans and a plaid sport shirt. He’d been up since the break of day directing his next movie, “Manhattan,” but he didn’t seem tired; he seemed to be humming along on some dependable inner source of energy.

What’s the new movie about? I asked him. “Oh, my same old themes,” he said, counting them off on his fingers. “Difficulties with relationships. Trouble sustaining a marriage. The decline of American culture. The terrible influence of television. The bane of drugs and fast food. The inability of people to take control of their lives.” A pause. “It’s a comedy,” he explained.

He was, he said, still amazed by the success of his current movie, “Interiors,” which had been running for three weeks in New York.

“I just came past the theater, on Third Avenue,” he said, settling into the corner of a large sofa. “The lines were still there. ‘Annie Hall’ set the house record at the theater, but ‘Interiors’ has broken Annie’s record all three weeks. Amazing. I was willing to accept the fact that even if the film turned out well nobody would come to see it, because it was serious and people expected comedies from me. So we opened it very simply, simple ads, one small theater, and now it’s doing all this business.”

“Interiors” considers a time of crisis in the life of a family with three grown daughters. The father (E. G. Marshall), a wealthy lawyer, leaves home for a trial separation. The mother (Geraldine Page), a neurotic interior decorator and designer, deludes herself that he will return, and drifts in the direction of suicide. Two of the daughters (Diane Keaton and Mary Beth Hurt) fight and make up, competitively, and try to make sense out of their relationships with men. The third daughter (Kristin Griffith) is a movie star who visits occasionally but doesn’t seem to quite understand the dynamics of her family. The movie’s shot in austere grays and blues and is not, to put it lightly, a comedy. Allen also believes it isn’t Bergmanesque.

“Half the reviews have compared it to Bergman,” he said. “That’s because it has a situation sort of similar to aspects of ‘Cries and Whispers’ and some of his other films. But I wouldn’t call it Bergmanesque… I wish it were more like Bergman. But it doesn’t have that Swedish sort of cold, cerebral guilt. It has more vitality; it comes more out of the tradition of American family dramas. I’d say it was more like Eugene O’Neill than Bergman.”

The themes in “Interiors” had interested him for a long time, he said. “I started with an idea for the mother, a New York woman with incredibly good taste, style, breeding, who doesn’t like the way things are turning out for her. Then I happened to meet these two families, one Jewish family in New York, one gentile family in California, both with three daughters who were tremendously competitive. I kind of put everything together and wrote ‘Interiors.’”

Then he took the project to United Artists, the company that has released most of his films. He was almost hoping they’d refuse to back it: “A movie takes a year of your life, and I was scared of this one. After the success of ‘Annie Hall,’ I knew I could make another comedy or two along the same lines and they’d be successful. ‘Interiors’ was a completely unknown quantity.

“But United Artists was almost avuncular with me. They said, sure, go ahead. Maybe your comedies will be better after you do a serious film. So I was stuck. There’s this temptation to play things safe, but you can get trapped that way. The Marx Brothers, for example, were geniuses, but they made the same movie over and over. Charlie Chaplin kept trying new things.”

The success of “Interiors” is all the more pleasant, he said, because it’s a very serious movie that comes after a summer when the successful movies all seemed to be superficial entertainments.

“Whadaya think, maybe people are hungry for a serious movie again?” he said. “There was that article in the New York Times about how Paramount was getting rich off of ‘Grease’ and ‘Heaven Can Wait’ by giving people a good time. The executive said the day of the depressing movie was over. How idiotic. It’s our inheritance from television. People have been altered, their standards are different… but there still seem to be people willing to go to a movie that’s made for intelligent adults.”

Allen said he’d be satisfied if “Interiors” made $7 million or $8 million, which is a pretty modest box office by current standards: “That’d mean United Artists didn’t have to take a bath on the movie. My movies have a tendency to make money, but not very much money. I mean, let’s face it, I have a limited audience.

“I used to say I could count on one of my movies making around $10 million, so if I could make it for less than $3 million, after everybody took their share we’d have a profit and I could make another movie. Very nice. ‘Annie Hall’ was my first movie to break through and make a lot more than that, but even so… if you look at the records, ‘Annie’ grossed less than any other modern Academy Award winner. Look at how much more ‘Rocky’ or ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ made by comparison.”

Woody said he doesn’t make much money himself on his movies: “On ‘Interiors,’ nobody made any money. The actors worked for $40,000, and believe me, Diane Keaton can get a lot more than that now. She’s intelligent, though; a lot of actresses who are, say, 35, refuse to play mothers, for example. They want to be glamorous. Diane goes for the good roles. In the long run, that’s what pays off.”

Instead of dreaming about making millions on a giant hit movie, Allen said, he cherishes a fantasy in which he goes off into the woods and writes.

“I’m going to continue writing or co-writing all of my movies,” he said. “That makes me a writer-director. I can’t see myself as the director of someone else’s material, but I can see myself as a writer who doesn’t direct. If all I did was write, I could do three things a year. Like a play, a movie, and then some short pieces. In my fantasy, I’m like J.D. Salinger, living in the woods and writing stuff to only be published after my death. I’d adjust my life-style downward so I could afford to stay in the woods forever, and then…”

He shrugged a particularly Woody Allen kind of shrug, as if to say that the fantasy was nice in its way, but…

Wouldn’t you miss the feedback? I asked.

“Maybe so. It’s a funny thing. When I’ve collected my stuff in books, things I’ve written for the New Yorker or the New Republic, I’ve gotten a hundred times the response I got in the first place. It’s like no one reads the New Yorker, which I know can’t be true… but people don’t seem to read anymore. Used to be everyone read. Now they’re jogging. I get up at 5:30, they’re jogging around the park. I get in at 2 a.m., they’re jogging.

“And on the campus, they don’t read. When I was a standup comedian, there used to be this mythology about what great audiences college students were. Actually, it wasn’t that they were sophisticated… it was that they were receptive, they were generous. They were pleased that you were performing for them. Let’s face it. Most college kids today don’t read; they were raised on TV, they’re suckers for movies with very broad themes…

“And maybe we’ve all lost the idea of what’s really funny. There’s a theory that television destroyed a whole generation of comedy writers, because with the laugh track they never had to test their material to see if it was really funny. The last comedy writers who worked for real audiences were the guys on the Caesar show, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, me a little later on. Now the laugh track makes the material.

“What finally makes a movie funny is when the script is funny. That’s it. They have theories like a comedy has to be bright… but ‘Annie Hall’ was practically shot in shadow. Or you have to play the gags to the camera… but I played jokes away from the camera, with my back to the camera, or even off-screen. The only key is whether the writing is funny. A few high stylists, Fellini or Altman, might sometimes be able to make a bad script work. Nobody else can.”

The dusk was growing outside over Central Park, and the scents of Woody’s dinner drifted into the room from the kitchen down the hall, where his housekeeper was at work. He got up to turn on a light and look out over the park.

“I love overcast days,” he said. “I know what Bergman meant when he went to California and then left because it was too sunny. I could never work permanently in Los Angeles with all that sun. When it’s bright out, I want to hide. If I get up and it’s gray and drizzling, that makes me happy… crazy, I guess. Pauline Kael was over here telling me what she liked and didn’t like about ‘Interiors.’ She didn’t like my preoccupation with death, she said. She goes for robust movies, that strain of American sensibility that’s energy and wisecracking and vitality.

“I’m more of two minds. Maybe one of the reasons I wanted to make ‘Interiors’ was that I could deal with serious things. It’s tough to deal with serious issues in comedy; all you can do is slap at them. Except for Chaplin’s ‘City Lights,’ of course, which said about all you can say about a certain kind of serious love…”

It seemed to be about time to go; Woody was going to eat his dinner and then his psychiatrist was scheduled to show up for their daily analysis. And then he was going to get up at the crack of dawn again, hope for an overcast sky, and shoot another day of “Manhattan.”

“What’s driving me crazy,” he said, “is the newspaper strike. I never eat breakfast without a newspaper, and I never skip breakfast, so I’ve got a problem on my hands.” He sounded now like the Woody Allen of “Annie Hall,” who boldly told Diane Keaton not to worry, he’d been killing spiders since he was… 30.

“You can see what I’m up against,” he said.

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