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Things I Have Learned

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes On Woody Allen & His Films
Matt Kaufman. , July 7th, 2009 08:36

"Even though he hasn't made an essential movie in over 10 years, he definitely has the capacity to shock people." of Montreal's Kevin Barnes talks Woody Allen at Matt Kaufman.

I didn’t start with the earlier, funnier films

I went back and rented all those. The first Woody Allen film I ever saw was Annie Hall. I think I was in high school, I was about 15 or 17. I don't think I saw Annie Hall (1977) in the theatre – I didn't see Woody Allen movies in theatres until later on, with Deconstructing Harry (1997) or something like that. I've seen all of his films and read all of his comedy books. Well, if I haven't seen every single one I've at least seen eighty per cent. The most recent film of his I've seen is Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Woody Allen will always get someone to play 'Woody Allen'

I'm reminded of Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda (2004). I do like Will Ferrell when he does his own thing – which is to shout, mostly – but I think it's impossible to pass the weight of the film onto ... say, Kenneth Brannagh (in Celebrity, 1998), which was just embarrassing. Celebrity was slated in the press, as most of his recent output has been, but I thought it was a really well-made movie. But Kenneth Brannagh as 'Woody Allen' was just so off-putting; his Woody Allen impersonation kind of ruined it for me.

Woody should take more time off

He's so prolific in his output, I think he has released almost one film every year since 1969. He might put out a couple of stinkers – I'm thinking, Small Time Crooks (2000) – but he's an amazing character that way, in that he actually cares, still, about producing something captivating, and interesting. It's arguable that his last great movie, perhaps one of his best, was Sweet and Lowdown (1999), which tells the story of the world's 'second-greatest' jazz guitarist (played by Sean Penn) after Django Reinhardt. It's a really touching work because you can tell he's dealing with a subject that's very close to his heart, the music. In the last few years, New York wouldn't give him any more money to make his unfunny comedies (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001; Hollywood Ending, 2002) so instead of taking a break he went straight to London, which did give him funding, and carried right on with films like Match Point (2005) and Cassandra's Dream (2006).

Woody Allen must have some kind of compulsion to keep making films

He puts out so much that I didn't even know that Larry David is in his latest. I thought Match Point was good, though. In a way I respected it because it was so un-Woody Allen. But that might be because Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' performing style is so wooden that he can't 'do' the generic 'Woody Allen' character. I like the fact that Woody is still excited about his craft. Even though some of his films will be considered better than others, he's still really excited about making films, and at his age, I think that's really inspiring. A lot of people just stop doing things – they get to a certain age and just have no real interest in life and become boring. Yes we are talking about a guy who's been worrying and whinging about death for forty, fifty years now. I guess it's kind of strange to still be 'excited' about worrying and whinging about death after so long... But the ideas – I'm sure he has a notebook in which he's always plotting, you know, 'Who can I get to play that part, or that part...' He's still actively involved in producing art. Whatever you want to say about it – you might say, it's not good, or it's shit compared to his other stuff – but just the very fact that he's still actively producing films, is inspiring.

Woody never watches his films once they're done

Which makes sense to me, in a way. I rarely listen to my own records. Once the record is done, I want to put it to bed and work on something new. Maybe it is some kind of weird, artistic compulsion that certain people have. On occasion, yeah perhaps I may have a nostalgia moment, but I don't get much pleasure from listening to things of mine that are 'over'.

Nostalgia, however, is a prominent theme in Woody's movies, especially from the '80s

The Purple Rose of Ciaro (1985) and Radio Days (1987) immediately spring to mind – both of these films show New York in such a gold-tinted glow. I've not lived in New York for any extended period of time, but I have spent a lot of time up there. Definitely I've been bitten by that Woody Allen bug – of romanticising New York out of all proportion. I don't know if he's entirely responsible for that or not, but the first time I went to New York, I really was knocked out. It really did live up to expectations. I didn't get Gershwin and fireworks, but there was such an ... energy there, I don't know what it is, such a great history... Especially an artistic history, a cinematic history. It's like the artistic capital. The city really lends itself well to films, just because it's so tall and so long, it's a really graceful city. Just walking down the road in New York makes you want to sing...

Woody clearly trusts his actors

Because he gives them plenty of leeway with the dialogue and their own direction. When Gene Wilder was working on Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask (1972), he says that the only thing Woody ever said to him was, 'Did they give you tea or coffee, or anything? You know where to go for lunch? By the way, if you don't like any of these lines, change them.'

It's a common misconception that, prior to Match Point, Woody Allen never made a movie outside of New York

For a period of time I was working at a video store, so I could get all the videos for free. That's when I started getting into Woody Allen films. This was like, 12 years ago, or something. I watched pretty much everything, all his films. Obviously I was too young to see Love and Death [1975, Woody's historical epic set during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, and filmed in Budapest and Paris] in the theatres, but it didn't seem to be one of his films that I'd heard much about, not like the super-popular Manhattan (1979) or Annie Hall. Love and Death was like, 'I wonder what this one is, I haven't heard people talking about this one.' I thought it was amazing, so funny – when I came to read his comedy books, Without Feathers (Random House, 1975) in particular, that movie struck me that it could be one of his little stories, right out of one of his books, with an hilarious cast of characters, just having fun, you know... His mind, from that period, was just so sharp. His comedy is hilarious and his character development is amazing. Play It Again, Sam (1972) – which, again, could have been one of his films, and he did write the play, but that was set in San Francisco.

I've never seen him play clarinet live

I did watched Wild Man Blues, the 1997 documentary about Woody's New Orleans jazz band touring Europe. He's not like John Coltrane or anything, but he's definitely confident in his clarinet playing. I was impressed; he can hold his own, he can be that thing.

Despite being made in the UK, Scoop (2006) was so bad that it didn't get even get released there

It's a bit like if Paul McCartney wanted to put out a record and no label would put it out, because they thought it sucked. Although – veering off topic here – didn't he (McCartney) have an exclusive album out with Starbucks a few years ago? It's weird, the way the music industry is changing. At some point, maybe artists will just sign exclusive deals with corporations, like if McDonald's is the only one who's going to put out the new Coldplay record, or whatever... It could happen! It's not that far-fetched. Stardust Memories (1980), which again is not widely available in the UK, is one of his greatest movies. It's supposed to be his homage to Fellini's 8 ½. Watching the two films back-to-back, obviously you can catch the references – it really displays Woody's versatility and mastery as a director. It's just amazing. His attention to tiny details in that film – I mean, this is the year after Manhattan was nominated for the Oscar, he's a megastar, he's one of the most popular filmmakers in the world, and he makes a movie like that, which basically deals with a public reacting poorly to a well-known comedy filmmaker's attempt to make a 'serious' film ... and in his apartment, the wallpaper keeps changing, at one point it's the iconic image of the soldier in Vietnam shooting a guy in the head. You should watch it, if you can find it.

Even though he hasn't made an essential movie in over 10 years, he definitely has the capacity to shock people

He probably has one or two gems left in him. He's made a bunch of crappy films, Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending... Match Point was O.K. and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was O.K. I'm now looking forward to Whatever Works (2009) – I'm a huge Larry David fan, so here's hoping. Larry David actually turned up in Woody's contribution to New York Stories (1989) – three short films, one by him, one by Scorsese and one by Francis Ford Coppola. I think Woody's short was called Oedipus Wrex. Larry David plays a theatre manager for all of two seconds, but he's there. This was before Seinfeld, but I guess Larry David was a comedian before that. It's odd how Woody casts his movies – according to Radha Mitchell (lead actress in Melinda and Melinda), Woody Allen cast her over the phone while she was in the back of a taxi cab – he'd got ahold of her number from somewhere, and at first she didn't believe it was him calling.

I'm not Jewish, but I can identify in some respects with Woody's nebbish, nerdy Jewish outlook and persona that he portrays in his movies

It's funny, I think it's in Deconstructing Harry that his on-screen brother-in-law accuses him of being a self-loathing Jew. Woody says, 'Sure, I hate myself, but it's not because I'm Jewish.' I think the Jewish thing plays a key role in some of his earlier works – his depiction of rabbis as these little emperors, or something ('You've never seen a Jew? Here, I have some sketches. Not all of them have these horns; the Russian ones have stripes,' – Love and Death). I think he's probably pretty dubious of the whole thing. There are plenty of really famous Jewish comedians, but you usually don't think of Catholics, say, as being that funny. The Church generally doesn't have a sense of humour – look at what happened to Sinéad O'Connor. Although I think she had the last laugh, didn't she become a priest? There's a lot of examples of, you know, the over-bearing, overwrought Jewish mother – the incredible guilt complexes and strange dynamic between the son and the mother in the household. I don't particularly regret missing out on the wonderful opportunity of having had a Jewish childhood; my mom is pretty adept at laying on the guilt, so I don't feel like I've missed anything.

Things I have learned during the course of this conversation

Jeff Goldblum, who has a small but memorable part in Annie Hall ('I forgot my mantra'), plays a struggling actor in a film called The Tall Guy (Richard Curtis's not-so-awful début), which features a scene wherein he calls on his agent who happens to be getting work for another actor in the 'latest Woody Allen film'.

of Montreal release their latest single 'For Our Elegant Castle' on the 6th of July. They headline the Shepherd's Bush Empire on the 14th. The band are working on a new record, tentatively titled False Priest – although our interviewer suggests, in light of this interview, perhaps altering that to False Rabbi.