Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The White Man's Burden: The Woody Allen Papers

The opening scene is simple: A middle-aged man sits against a brown backdrop. A plaid button-down and tweed blazer cover his noticeably small build. His furrowed brow sits atop a pair of black thick-rimmed glasses and his hands move repeatedly as he tells the joke, in a pronounced New York accent:

“Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that's essentially how I feel about life: full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.”

This is Woody Allen. Writer and director, comedian and actor. This is Woody Allen’s way of starting “Annie Hall,” as he talks to the camera and outlines his character for the first minute and 40 seconds of the film.

The script for Academy Award-winning “Annie Hall” is only one of the thousands of admirable things in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The center, home to the first photograph and the Gutenberg Bible, also holds archives from iconic figures like Arthur Miller and Robert De Niro. Visitors come to the center to leaf through early editions of Shakespeare or gawk at Tim Burton’s notes on Act I of “Batman.” But for the Allen-obsessed, the center offers screenplays, signed photos, articles and other memorabilia to research and maybe even begin to understand the complicated and fascinating filmmaker. Or maybe just to worship his work up close.

Many might not understand why Woody Allen’s work deserves to be at the Ransom Center. His shares the same space and air as James Joyce’s and other figures’ that are, we could say, more easily understood. Through time Allen’s work has been deemed overrated by viewers and film critics have complained Allen simply writes himself, not a character.

But Allen himself is truly a character, and through his work he revolutionized not only the way films were made and the way stories were told, but the way characters were built. He took subjects that had long been ignored or feared and brought them to light, such as human sexuality and gender and the seeming impossibility of love and happiness. His characters buy pornography out in the open, claiming to be doing a “sociological study of perversion up to advanced child molesting” (“Bananas”) and take love advice from Humphrey Bogart’s ghost (“Play It Again, Sam”).

The collection, acquired from Andreas Brown of the Gotham Book Mart & Gallery in New York, showcases Allen’s personality through bits and snippets of pop culture iconography.

There are also articles written by and about Allen, his distinctive voice resonant in each. In the 1966 March issue of Esquire Magazine, Allen and actress Ann-Margret grace the cover above a headline that reads, “What’s New In Europe, Pussycat? A ‘With-It’ Grand Tour by Woody Allen and Ann-Margret.” Flipping the pages, next to an ad for a 1966 Buick Riviera (“the tuned car”) the reader can immerse himself in a photo-tour of European cities: Rome, Paris, Munich, London. All photos with classic Woody Allen commentary about the cities’ food, fashion and traditions. The collection includes other articles written by Allen, such as Life Magazine’s 1969 “My Secret Life with Bogart,” in which the New Yorker writes about his life-long imaginary friendship with actor Humphrey Bogart. In typical Woody Allen fashion, the article drips of satire and self-deprecation and jokes about his mother asking for psychiatric help after he was suspended from school.

Allen’s sense of humor became distinctive, but never boring or redundant. Allen used sexual humor to deal with his under-masculinization and inadequacy, which his characters constantly blame on their mother and Jewishness. Allen is a product of the 1960’s, after all. He represents the sociocultural changes and shifts in political thought his generation went through. From the clothes worn by his heroines, most memorably Diane Keaton as Annie Hall, who iconicized the androgynous look, to the pessimist attitude Allen depicts in “Husbands and Wives,” his creative style came to be associated with modern U.S. practices worldwide.

When going through the collection, one can get a sense of whom Allen was. That Allen-esque, Brooklynite personality that shines through in his writing and his films. Even in still photos, that Woody Allen charm comes through. The Research Center has boxes of black and white photos of Allen in Bill Ray’s “Life Picture Collection”: Allen at Ceasar’s Palace. Allen making coffee. Allen in his hotel room, playing the clarinet, a record player resting on a stack of papers, a typewriter humming silence while he plays. The pictures give the viewer a look into the 1960s filmmaker who made himself the audience’s most popular character.

Amongst “Annie Hall” publicity stills (whose tagline was “A Nervous Romance”) and screenplay drafts of “Manhattan,” the collection also carries short stories by Allen from The New Yorker and letters from actress and former partner Mia Farrow. But buried in one of the many boxes of the Woody Allen collection, under rave reviews from Frank Rich and movie posters for “Casino Royale” is a short cartoon strip. Drawn on the faded yellow paper is Woody Allen, his head balding, plaid shirt and those black, thick-rimmed glasses under the heavy brow, framing his eyes, upon his stereotypical Jewish nose. “I have the standard liberal guilt,” reads the strip, “agonizing about the fact that the white man’s burden turned out to be the white man.”

In the hollow Reading Room of the Harry Ransom Research Center, that strip is sure to make your chuckle echo.

Texas Quidditch

“Snitch, you’re such a dick!”

“Yeah, well, he’s allowed to be.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to yell at him!”

This exchange takes place between two black-and-green-clad Slytherins, after realizing the Snitch had pulled out one of the three hoops that loom behind the Slytherin Keeper from the grass. The Snitch, wearing a banana-yellow bandana, laughs manically as he sprints, fast—faster than anyone else on any of the four teams.

This isn’t a dream. This is just a Saturday morning on Whitaker Fields at the University of Texas at Austin. Author J.K. Rowling probably never imagined her books about a teenage wizard would become an award-winning, billion-dollar enterprise. Rowling probably never imagined the sport she invented for her wizarding world—which is played flying on broomsticks—would be played in reality, by Muggles (non-magic folk) running around with broomsticks between their legs, all over the world. But today quidditch is played in over 200 universities, all linked by the International Quidditch Association based in New York. All of these universities have weekly practice matches, regional tournaments and even, yes, a World Cup.

In that list of over 200 is UT, a university known for its subculture of pride and passion for football. But while its football team is famous, sometimes controversial and historic, the Texas Quidditch team is sweeping (pun intended) the modern world of college sports with the intensity only Longhorn Potterheads can bring.

It was Middlebury College in Vermont that founded intercollegiate quidditch, and the IQA was formed in 2007. UT was one of the last universities to register in 2009. But in the short while Texas Quidditch has been active, it’s already got enough to brag about: the team scored second place in the IQA Southwest Cup in Lubbock in 2011 and second place at a tournament in Texas A&M in 2010.

But more important than winning, many UT students love quidditch because it brings together two things they love: contact sports and “Harry Potter.”

“I love football,” says English major Alison Nitsche. “I go to all the Longhorn games and go to the OU game, but I also think quidditch is really awesome because it’s much more physical than you would think.”

The third-year UT student has been coming to watch the games since last year, when she first found out about it after a few of her friends tried out and made it into Slytherin. She sits on the bleachers, a hand over her eyes to block out the morning sun, and says people make fun of the players every once in a while.

“A bunch of my roommates and friends came out here with me and they made fun of it and laughed,” she says. “Because it is kind of ridiculous, people running around on broomsticks.”

She stops to clap and cheer as a Slytherin Chaser puts a Quaffle through one of the hoops.

Which brings up another subject of the sport: the terminology.

Rowling taught her readers about quidditch and its rules in the pages of her seven books. Matches are played between two teams of seven players riding broomsticks, using four balls and six hoops. The player positions include three Chasers, one Keeper, two Beaters and a Seeker for each team. The balls have their own names, as well: Quaffles, which the Chasers put through the hoops to gain points, Bludgers, which Beaters try to distract opposing teammembers with, and the Golden Snitch, a tiny ball with wings that is incredibly fast and difficult to catch. Once the Seeker—whose sole purpose in the match is to catch the Snitch—catches it, the match is over.

In real-life quidditch, these terms are used as well. Since the players are all “Potter” fans, the language and terms come to them like second nature. The main differences between wizarding world quidditch and real-life quidditch are, 1. players run instead of fly, and 2. the Snitch is not a ball, but a very fast—and sometimes mischievous—person.

But despite its origins, quidditch is like any other sport. Coming back to those people who may show up to matches time and again to point and laugh, every sport has its haters. In some cultures, American football has a negative connotation, associated with drunk fans and ignorant viewers. To some people, baseball is long and dull. Many deem golf a non-sport, and although soccer is known as the most popular sport in the world, its popularity has been slow to catch on in the U.S.

So being laughed at is a non-issue for quidditch players and everyone involved, who are too busy having fun and acting like people would at any sport event. The bleachers are filled with family members and fans with T-shirts that read “Weasley Is My King” (in reference to “Potter” character, Ron Weasley) and “Proud to be a Hufflepuff” (one of the four Houses, or teams). The crowd roars with shouts of “Way to go, Ravenclaw!” and “Watch out for that Bludger!” They wear their team colors, too: blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, black or green for Slytherin and orange for Gryffindor or the varsity team, which is the official team that gets to compete and go to the World Cup in November.

Others fight to get involved in any way possible, such as anthropology major Ashley Richardson.

“I love Harry Potter,” she says. “When I found out UT had a quidditch team, I was so excited. But I can’t really play because I have asthma, so referee is the next best thing.”

Richardson is a referee-in-training and stands on the sidelines to try to maintain order when the game gets a little too physical. She’s a die-hard Potterhead and was even a part of Pottermore, the “Harry Potter” fansite that will open for the general public in October, on the second day it opened for a select few. After all, if something sets Longhorns apart, it’s intensity. Even though there are over 200 universities practicing the sport, Texas Quidditch knows this isn’t only about loyalty to the world Rowling created, but bringing that fanaticism to a university that’s always on the leading edge and eager to try new things, eventually turning them into tradition.

“I know quidditch comes from England, but here at UT we always take things to the next level,” says Mariana Sada, a senior computer science major. “It’s all about showing other schools that UT dominates every sport, even make-believe ones.”

Sada speaks with the fervor of a Potterhead with burnt orange blood running through her veins. Sure, UT won’t be building a quidditch stadium with a jumbotron to capture the Golden Snitch’s every move any time soon. But the eagerness of the players and dedication of the fans, who wake up at 9 AM on a Saturday to cheer for their prefered team, makes one feel like history’s in the making at UT.

A heavy murmur from the crowd takes over and a girl wearing a “Don’t Mess With Texas” T-shirt stands up and points, yelling out, “Here comes the Snitch!”

Suddenly the yellow bandana flashes into view, the Seeker rushing after him, fast and somehow looking graceful, even with the broomstick between his legs. People from the surrounding fields stop what they’re doing—playing catch, soccer practice—and turn to look at the two quidditch players who run so fast they could trick the eye, it almost looks like the boys could fly.