There was a time when, offered the chance to interview Woody Allen, I'd have accepted with a mixture of excitement, awe and not a little love. Yes: once upon a time, Woody was one of my heroes.
I loved Annie Hall, adored Manhattan. Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters - these were films I would watch again and again at the drop of a hat, rapt in the loopy romance of them all. I loved it when he got a little serious - Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors - and even the cod-Bergman offerings were just about interesting enough. Yes, I was a Woody groupie.
It's years now since I watched one of those early Allen films. Not even Hannah and Her Sisters, a movie I would put on sometimes just to revel in the anticipation of Michael Caine delivering to Barbara Hershey the ee cummings quote: "Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." Sigh.
But I just can't do it. I can no longer wallow in the glory of the rainy-day planetarium scene in Manhattan, or laugh at the lobsters running amok in Annie Hall. When I'm after a sure-thing comedy these days, it'll be Albert Brooks or Preston Sturges every time.
Why? Well, I guess you've guessed. News of his relationship with Soon-Yi, the adopted teenager over whom he'd been in loco parentis (however semi-detached) for eight very impressionable years instantly made Manhattan (where Allen's character dates Tracy, a high-school kid) unwatchable.
Then I read Mia Farrow's autobiography What Falls Away and that, I'm afraid, was that. Woody and I were history.
Fast-forward a decade, and a chance to interview Woody Allen comes my way. A detached curiosity compels me to accept and, anyway, one never passes up the chance to talk to a movie icon, even if they are past their prime.
And Allen certainly is that. His last decent offering was Everyone Says I Love You (1996), which was followed by a raft of increasingly desperate affairs - Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown, Small Time Crooks - reaching (hopefully) some kind of nadir with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending (yet to be released in the UK).
Lame, risible and just plain unfunny, Allen's latter-day work has lost its currency. The best that can be said of his newest piece, Anything Else, is that it's not as bad as the last two - which, frankly, isn't saying much.
Back in the day when he was God, Allen didn't give interviews. He didn't need to: everybody loved him, and he had a unique production deal that guaranteed him the freedom to make any movie he liked.
Things change. Now Allen's on a picture-by-picture deal, forced out of his preferred seclusion to sing for his supper by talking to the press. So, now his movies are at worst derisory and at best irrelevant, he's very available.
"I'm a little hard of hearing," Woody proffers apologetically as I introduce myself. "You'll have to speak up."
"I'll try," I holler.
"Oh..." he recoils before recovering his composure and volunteering a half-hearted laugh: "You got it."
Though the roles he writes for himself hardly reflect it, Allen will be 70 in December and, though he's cultivated the fogey in himself for years, he is a little frail in the flesh.
David Dobel, Allen's character in Anything Else, couldn't be more different: a paranoid hothead with a passion for firearms and a firm belief in his right to defend himself. If Dobel sounds a bit of a departure for Woody's alter ego, that's because the Woody role - the deeply neurotic, unlucky-in-love jazz aficionado - has been made young again in the form of Dobel's protégé Jerry (Jason Biggs). If nothing else, we can all heave a huge sigh of relief that this Woody-by-proxy business means that Allen is absent from the sex scenes with Christina Ricci (as Amanda, Jerry's girlfriend).
Unfortunately, while Dobel is clearly down with "the kids", Allen's depiction of current-day New York twentysomethings - quoting Dostoevsky and raving about Cole Porter - is laced with a little too much nostalgia really to ring true. One US critic commented that, although in Hollywood Ending Allen played a blind film-director, it was indeed his hearing that had gone astray: New York just doesn't talk this way any more.
Allen allows himself a sniff of contempt at the very idea that he should care. "I always think it is a mistake to try and be young, because I feel the young people in the United States have not distinguished themselves," he proffers, somewhat loftily.
"The young audience in the United States have not proven to me that they like good movies or good theatre," he continues, settling in for a rant. It's softly-spoken, but it's a rant nonetheless. "The films that are made for young people are not wonderful films, they are not thoughtful. They are these blockbusters with special effects... The comedies are dumb, full of toilet jokes, not sophisticated at all. And these are the things the young people embrace. I do not idolise the young."
It's not hard to sympathise with this view, but the question then arises: why did he cast Biggs, the star of the American Pie series? "I had never heard of Jason when I hired him," Allen shrugs dismissively. "I never saw American Pie; I'm sure it's too stupid for words. When I was younger, my generation had no patience or interest in stupid films.
"The films we used to get excited about were a new Truffaut film, or a Bergman, or an Antonioni, or De Sica. But kids now - even intelligent kids - they don't know Renoir, they don't know Kurosawa: they're illiterate." He pauses before adding crossly: "It's like being young itself is the only thing they have going for them."
This is clearly a subject close to Allen's heart: he continues to opine against the youth of today and their role in the demise of culture until, finally, I resort to shock tactics to force him to change the record. His despair of young people, I suggest, has rarely prevented him from casting nubile young women as his love interest; Debra Messing, Tiffani Thiessen, Julia Roberts, Mira Sorvino, to name a small handful. There must be something about the young that attracts him.
"There is no attraction," Allen snaps, a little too quickly. "I make movies with whatever the story says." Hmm.
But he writes the stories, doesn't he? What of the fact that his next film - Melinda and Melinda - will star Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet? I decide to tease him: isn't this just a cunning ploy to lure the under-thirties into the cinema to see his movies?
Allen looks at me as if I'm mad. "I never make movies for young people," he assures me. "I have no young audience for my films."
Nevertheless, the US marketing of Anything Else led on Biggs and Ricci, downplaying any mention of Allen on the trailer and posters. "I know," he says, clearly dumbfounded by such a move. "I told Dreamworks that they should put this out as an adult picture, but they said, 'Oh no, we've got Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci.' So they put out an ad with a copy line about somebody doing the pulling or something..."
He shakes his head. "So maybe the audience will come in the first week, but they'll be appalled. But it's me they'll be angry with, me they'll hate for tricking them." He may be right, though it's just as likely that their fury will be directed at an overlong, badly structured, underdeveloped script.
Much of the problem with Anything Else - and a good deal of the rest of Allen's recent work - is its misanthropy. Take the female characters in the latest film, Amanda and her mother Paula (Stockard Channing): they are entirely manipulative, dislikeable creatures. Allen's characters have always been beset by neuroses, but they were still recognisable as people and we used to care about them. These two have no redeeming features whatsoever.
"Yes," Allen nods belligerently. "And that's fine - if they haven't, they haven't. I'm not obliged to make all the characters likeable. Over the years, most of the women I've written have been the best parts and they have generally won the Academy Awards. In this movie, Christina's promiscuous, Jason is very neurotic and I'm psychotic. Nobody survives, but that's the story."
He may be considered an auteur, but Allen resists completely the notion that there is any thematic progression to his films, insisting that they are nothing more than a succession of funny tales. "Many things are read into my films because I make so many of them," he suggests. "But when I finish a film, I go on to make whatever idea I have at that time.
"So, when I finished Deconstructing Harry, I had accumulated in my drawer ideas for some comic films - Small Time Crooks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending - that I thought I'd like to make because they were funny ideas. So I took them out and made them, then I went on to this. But it's just coincidence. It's just at random - there's no rhyme or reason."
There's something more than a little tactical about Allen's argument: not least as it conveniently removes the prospect of discussing his films as autobiography - surely not an unreasonable expectation for a writer/director who also generally plays the leading role.
In the early days, there was safer ground. Allen wrote films for the women in his life and was happily identified with his heroes' neuroses. If one were to consider his work alongside his life these days, what could one infer? That requiring individual production deals leaves him feeling out of control (Hollywood Ending)? Or, in the case of Anything Else, that his dismay at the world around him makes him want to pick up a gun and shoot someone?
Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the name Dobel is so close to "double"? Allen smiles: "I didn't think of that," he says. "It just seemed clear to me that his name would have to be Dobel when I wrote the script."
I arch my eyebrow and wait, and finally he relents: "Well, that's the whole basis of psychoanalysis, that things slip out." It may be fleeting, but it's a glimpse of the Woody Allen behind the rehearsed shtick, and I rush to try to capture a little more. Was there a Dobel in his own life?
Allen takes a moment to breathe. "Yes," he acknowledges carefully. "When I was in my early twenties, I knew a man who has since died, who was older than me and also very crazy. He'd been in a straitjacket and institutionalised, and I found him very brilliant. When I would speak to him about writing, about life, art, women, he was very, very cogent - but he couldn't lead his own life, he just couldn't manage."
I lean forward to take this further, but Allen looks away, fiddles with his glasses and starts talking about his next project. Perhaps he feels uncomfortable at having revealed this detail of his life, though it's just as likely that he's merely bored.
Whatever. There's no doubt about it - my interview with Woody Allen is definitely history.
'Anything Else' opens next monthReuse content