Woody Allen loves Israel. This despite the fact that he’s never been there. He also loves Paris, a place to which he goes all the time. In fact, he goes to Paris so often and loves it so much that his 2011 movie Midnight in Paris was widely praised as one of the most sublime homages to the city in late contemporary culture, and as perhaps the filmmaker’s finest work since 1977’s Annie Hall.
Of course, there were a few naysayers when it came to Midnight in Paris. Over at the New Yorker, Paul Goldberger accused the world’s most famous nebbish of portraying a Paris that isn’t real. Allen’s Paris, wrote the critic, is a city of the imagination, a locale that hasn’t changed since the 1920s, a charming yet naïve vision of a destination that is authentic only in the artist’s head.
“Paris as it exists, warts and all, is much more interesting than the Paris of Woody Allen’s mind,” Goldberger fulminated. “It isn’t as consistently beautiful, but heaven knows it’s beautiful enough, and it’s a place in which, as Lewis Mumford once said of the city, time becomes visible.”
And yet Allen, as Goldberger is well aware, doesn’t do warts and all. He does idiosyncratic parody, self-involved angst and neurosis, offbeat romantic comedy. Arguably the most true to life of his films was 1979’s Manhattan, where the protagonists are upper-middle class academics and the love story involves a 42-year-old, twice-divorced screenwriter and a 17-year-old schoolgirl.
What’s true about Manhattan, apart from its inherent Freudian prophecy (in 1991, the 56-year-old Allen would begin a relationship with his 21-year-old stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn), is the way it perfectly captures the nuances and behaviour patterns of its chosen New York set. What’s not true about it is how it fails to capture any other New York set.
Which may be why Israeli officials are attempting to persuade the legendary director to shoot one of his next films in the land of milk and honey. If there’s any great Jewish filmmaker in the world right now who can be counted on to hone in on the subtleties and minor peccadilloes of the Israeli urban class, it’s Allen. Anyone else—David Cronenberg, Roman Polanksi, Darren Aronofsky—might venture too far into the Israeli underclass, or (God forbid) the territories.
(Disclaimer: Stanley Kubrick and Sydney Pollack are dead, Joel Schumacher and Barry Levinson aren’t “great,” and Steven Spielberg, given the obvious representational problems with 2005’s Munich, has already angered the Israeli military machine too much to remain in the running).
So Allen it is. Recently, Shimon Peres, Israel’s president himself, proposed the idea when he met with the director in New York. Following that, municipal officers from both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv began vying with each other to become the city of choice.
Then, in early July, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles launched an online campaign to raise money for the mooted project, an initiative born soon after Allen told the Wall Street Journal that he’d shot his latest movies in Barcelona, London, Paris and Rome for the chief reason that he was offered funding by those cities to do so.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of why Jerusalem or Tel Aviv don’t, if they’re so interested, just pony up themselves—apparently an Allen film costs only $18 million—let’s deal with the far more fascinating prospect of what Woody in Israel would look like.
Jerusalem Murder Mystery? Two decades after the Manhattan debacle, say, Larry and Carol Lipton come on vacation to the Holy City and discover that their neighbour in the hotel, Rose Schneider from Long Island, has been kidnapped by Hamas, and may have fallen in love with one of her captors. Manhattan Murder Mystery meets Irvin Kershner’s Raid on Entebbe meets Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
Probably not. So then what about Bullets Over Tel Aviv? Even if you got over the problem with the title, you’d still have the problem of a thriving and world-renowned theatre district akin to Broadway, which neither Tel Aviv nor any other Israeli city actually has. Besides which, were Allen to pretend that Israeli theatre mattered outside Israel, he’d still have this conundrum—Israeli theatre very often does its job, which is to focus on the relationship between Palestinians and Jews.
Similar challenges would face Midnight in Haifa, seeing as Midnight in Paris is essentially about the great writers and artists who thrived in that city during the 1920s, and that most writers and artists who have thrived in Haifa—or Jerusalem or Tel Aviv—have been overtly political.
A reconstruction of David Grossman having a conversation over a bottle of wine in a Tel Aviv café with Amos Oz would not, as the industry insiders say, be “on message”. When Peres approached Allen to bring his talents to Israel, what he had in mind was a sweet movie that would paint the country in a favourable light. What Peres didn’t acknowledge, to himself or anyone else, is that even Allen can’t suck the politics out of Israel.
Oddly enough, though, this is not to imply that he hasn’t tried. In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Paris correspondent in early July, the following paragraph appeared (translated from the Hebrew): “About Israel, on the other hand, (Allen) has only good things to say. In practice, when Allen starts talking about Israel it’s hard to stop him. So hard that even his assertive, energetic publicist merited only a dismissive wave of the hand, indicating that she should wait until he was finished gushing about his love.”
Why then, asked the journalist, had Allen never visited Israel?
“I’m not a tourist,” he said. “I travel regularly to three cities that I know and love—Paris, London and Rome—and that’s it. I don’t like to leave home because I’m a bit neurotic, and when I do leave home, it’s mostly for work. I don’t like flying and I don’t consider myself a curious person who wants to see new places.”
Still, Allen went on to state at the end of the interview that he probably would be visiting Israel soon. His daughters are apparently curious about their father’s Jewish culture, meaning, in his words, that “there’s no way around it.”
Here’s hoping that if and when the great director does visit Israel, it’s not to make a film. He clearly doesn’t know enough about the country to make a good one, and a bad one would be too difficult for him to live down.
More than that, a bad Woody Allen film set in Israel would be a slap in the face to the growing crop of Israeli directors who are currently making brave and important movies about their homeland. Samuel Moaz’s Lebanon, released in 2009, shows poignantly what the IDF does to the psyches of its young combatants. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami, nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a seminal Arab/Jewish collaboration drama.
Woody Allen, masterful as he is, doesn’t have what it takes to come close. DM
Photo: Director of the movie and cast member Woody Allen speaks on stage at the premiere of “To Rome with Love” during the opening night of the Los Angeles Film Festival at the Regal Cinemas in Los Angeles, California June 14, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
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