Sandy Bates is a successful movie director who, against his better judgement, goes to a retrospective of his films in a slightly seedy seaside resort. He used to make funny films, but now he is making more serious ones, and the studio wants to re-cut his most recent bleak endeavor and add a new, happy, ending. We see scenes of odd people on a train, and wandering around a garbage dump. Not a film I would be real interested in, I think.
Woody has always strongly denied that this film is autobiographical. I will take him at his word, though it is impossible to deny that a lot of it was inspired by his life story. I will accept his word, because I know that, in real life, he is not the hapless, awkward, totally insecure schmuck he so often plays. He says he was, in fact, good at sports, and had a lot of friends. He was, however, in analysis for decades … but so was almost everybody else in New York of his social class.
I have a great affection for this movie, which a lot of people don’t like much. It is because, from the first to the last, Sandy is besieged by fans. The fans are both the best (I love everything you ever made!), and the worst (Can you take a look at my screenplay? I have a bullshit theory about your psyche and what you have been trying to say.), to the middling (Can I please have your autograph?) to the very, very, very Mark David Chapman worst, as when a fan comes up to him and tells him he loves him, and then shoots him.
In my life I have had a small taste of fame, in just this sort of situation. I feel awkward when extravagantly complimented, irritated when people ask me to explain my stories, put-upon and ambivalent when someone comes up and asks for my autograph. And what an arrogant prick you must be, John Varley! How dare you? I understand what you’re saying completely. How dare I feel weird when someone compliments me or wants a small token from me? And I don’t resent it. I really don’t. It’s just that I feel overwhelmed, even at the small portion of fame I have, which I think is really all I could stand. I have also been around people far, far more famous than me, to the point they can’t go out in public, anywhere, without being hounded by people who love them.
A group of us from the Millennium movie production company were once waiting around outside a theater in Toronto for Paul Newman to arrive. (We were guests of Paul and Joanne, who was in the Tennessee Williams play that night!) When he got out of the car he already had his hands up, pushing the fans back. Twenty or thirty older women were waiting in ambush. He explained, politely, that he never signed autographs, never, as once you start down that road there is no end to it. I was happy to see that the women seemed satisfied with just having a glimpse of those famous baby blues, but I also felt it could have gotten ugly. And that’s what happens everywhere he goes. It struck me as hellish.
Back to the movie. It is perhaps Allen’s most stylish. It is crystal clear that it was inspired by Fellini’s 8½. (Woody himself joked that it could have been called 4½, as he felt he was about half the filmmaker that Fellini was. And coincidentally, it was his 8½th film, counting What’s Up, Tiger Lily as one half of a movie for him.) The B&W photography by Gordon Willis is fantastic. Every bit part was chosen because of an unusual face. Not exactly bizarre, but each was slightly off-center, at least. It’s all more than a little hallucinogenic. We never really know what’s real and what’s a part of one of Sandy’s movies. (Like he didn’t really get shot.) The critics savaged it, which seemed very unfair to me. He still maintains it is one of the films he is most proud of, and I agree with him.