The James Clayton column: Woody Allen’s world travels

James isn't much of a Woody Allen fan. But he's intrigued by his latest, and wonders if more directors should flee their homelands to make their movies...?

Mr Woody Allen

Considering that I’ve only seen two of his films (his two most well-known works at that) and that he rarely enters my imagination, it’d be an outright lie to say that I’m a fan of Woody Allen. When I first saw Manhattan and Annie Hall way back when, my response was generally one of appreciation for a strong filmmaker, but I wasn’t impressed to the point of ecstasy. I can see why Woody is respected and why people praise and enjoy his films but I’m not possessed and entranced by the man.

It’s a shame that I’m so ambivalent about the films of someone who I’d probably find a lot of common ground with seeing as he’s such a geeky, neurotic guy. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived the New York middle-class Jewish experience; although I haven’t had the deeply Catholic Italian-American urban upbringing of Martin Scorsese either, but that doesn’t stop me from getting a huge kick out of his movies.

It’s probably ultimately just due to the fact that my cinematic interests are less likely to peak when presented with sex lives of bourgeoisie bohos and instead are roused by stuff like samurai swords, supernatural monsters and bloody vengeance missions. Maybe that’s why I consider Allen’s career highlight to be his vocal work as the character Z in the computer-animated movie Antz.

Nevertheless, despite not being an Allen-ista (imagine if you will an army of bespectacled scrawny film buffs all murmuring away in a New York accent about their apocalyptic anxiety), I’m intrigued by his new film, Vicky Christina Barcelona.

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Though I’m making no promises, I may even go and see Woody Allen’s new film at the cinema seeing as it’s got so many good reviews and, going off the available info and promotional material, actually looks interesting. Penelope Cruz has picked up a BAFTA and it looks like it could be an erotic odyssey that isn’t characteristically awkward. Allen always made for an odd romantic lead and so it may be that in opting to stay behind the camera and shoot steamy Latin sexploits instead of his own cack-handed attempts to steam a lobster, he may have captured my interest.

To be fair, Allen hasn’t been appearing in his own films for a while and, as I said earlier, he’s not really an unlikeable guy. I get the feeling that it’s the Mediterranean flavour of Vicky Christina Barcelona that excites my mind more so than the director’s other material. Having well and truly worn out his hometown, Allen absconded to England for three films and from here he’s relocated to Spain. And what better way to get out of a rut than go for a change of scenery?

The way in which Allen has upped sticks from a place he’s thoroughly ploughed and which doesn’t seem to care for him anymore may make for a more fruitful future, both for his audiences and himself. Just like Orson Welles, the director disrespected and no longer deified by the American film industry jets off to do better work with fewer resources but more creative control elsewhere in the world. Free from the constraints of the USA, the result may be better movies and a happier auteur. Welles’s whimsy and erratic personality just didn’t fit in the Hollywood machine and you just know he was having more fun playing around with his little passion projects abroad where no one re-edited his entire work after he’d warapped it all up.

Woody joins not only Welles on his Euro-excursion, but a list of glorious directors throughout motion picture past who have departed their native lands to find their fortunes elsewhere and subsequently forged some of their most fantastic work in a foreign land. Just imagine if Alfred Hitchcock had never made the move to America. It could be the case that had Hitch not crossed the Atlantic, we would’ve never seen such classics as Vertigo, Psycho and Rear Window.

Looking at another great auteur going the other way, in my very humble opinion Manhattan-born Stanley Kubrick has made some of the best British movies of all time. Even though Full Metal Jacket and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name two examples, are set in Vietnam and outer space respectively, the fact is Stan the Man created them entirely in the UK. To prove that he could also make magic in the British streets beyond the studio sets, see the sublime outdoor ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange. I get the feeling that stuck in the US under the pressuring watch of the men in suits, the creative vision of Kubrick would’ve been significantly stifled.

If you examine cinema history, you can see time and time again how foreigners have fled their homeland – either because they’re tired of it, too talented for it or facing terrifying trauma in it – to arrive in the motion picture promised land and push it forward to greater things. Storming in and totally ripping through Hollywood came a crowd of European directors in the 1930s – Fritz Lang, James Whale and Jacques Tourneur to identify a select few – whose innovative presence sparked American filmmaking. Come the late 1970s and early ‘80s and Hollywood found itself galvanised again by an influx of visitors from across the Atlantic, as a wave of British directors – including Alan Parker and Ridley and Tony Scott – with a background in adverts brought their keen eyes and slick style to the American film industry.

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Going with the notion that directors can achieve great things by globetrotting, I look forward to Woody Allen continuing his passage around the planet. If the infamously anxious hypochondriac is on a permanent holiday, perhaps his films will become less frustratingly neurotic. He also stands to gain more friends and more funding by operating as a tourism promoter in each new destination, all the while increasing the international membership of his Allen-ista army.

I’m hoping that he takes a prolonged shooting break in Japan instead of making the rumoured return to London for his next project. Maybe then, with the promise of some samurai sword action, he’ll finally make a movie that I won’t want to miss out on: The Katana-Wielding Allen-ista Army Versus the Giant Lovesick Lobster of Tokyo Bay. To quote Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: “It’s mental masturbation!

James’ previous column can be found here.