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.

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