Film legend Woody Allen picks his favorite books around the theme of memory, from JD Salinger to SJ Perelman. His new movie debuts at Cannes later this month. This interview is published in collaboration with FiveBooks.
Most of the five books you’ve cited will be discoveries to our readers. But one will be familiar to all. When Annie Hall moved out of Alvy’s apartment, they fought over who owned Catcher in the Rye. When did you first read it and what did it mean to you?
Catcher in the Rye has always had special meaning for me because I read it when I was young—eighteen or so. It resonated with my fantasies about Manhattan, the Upper East Side, and New York City in general.
It was such a relief from all the other books I was reading at the time, which all had a quality of homework about them. For me, reading Middlemarch or Sentimental Education is work, whereas Catcher in the Rye was pure pleasure. The burden of entertainment was on the author. Salinger fulfilled that obligation from the first sentence on.
Reading and pleasure didn’t go together for me when I was younger. Reading was something you did for school, something you did for obligation, something you did if you wanted to take out a certain kind of woman. It wasn’t something I did for fun. But Catcher in the Rye was different. It was amusing, it was in my vernacular, and the atmosphere held great emotional resonance for me. I reread it on a few occasions and I always get a kick out of it.
At least until you created your familiar film persona, Holden Caulfield was the icon of American angst. Did you identify with him?
Not in any deep way.
Salinger’s protagonist is driven mad by the ugliness in life. What drives you nuts?
The human predicament: The fact that we’re living in a nightmare that everyone is making excuses for and having to find ways to sugarcoat. And the fact that life, at its best, is a pretty horrible proposition. But people’s behavior makes it much, much worse than it has to be.
Did you ever meet or communicate with Salinger?
No, I never did. I’m not a person who seeks out contemporaries or idols. If it happens, it happens. But it never means anything to me socially.
Who is Mezz Mezzrow and what did his 1946 memoir, Really the Blues, mean to you?
I learned over the years—by meeting legitimate jazz musicians who knew Mezzrow and the people he wrote about in the book—that it was filled with apocryphal stories. But it had a great impact on me because I was learning to be a jazz clarinet player, like Mezzrow, and learning to play the idiom of music that he and Bernard Wolfe wrote about.
The story, while probably just a lot of junk, was compelling for me because it was about many musicians whose work I knew and admired and the ins and outs of jazz joints that I knew about and the legendary songs that were played in the legendary nightclubs. So I had a great time reading it when my own jazz passion was forming. But I know it’s not a very good or even a very honest book.
Over the years, you’ve suggested that making films and playing jazz are both forms of therapy for you. Please explain.
It’s a pleasure to play music. I’m lucky I can play an instrument. It’s one of the great, great bonuses of my life. It’s very, very relaxing. I love to play and I love to listen. Primarily, I like New Orleans jazz, but I love all kinds of music—classical music, modern jazz, the American songbook: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. But New Orleans jazz has always had a particularly warm spot in my heart and it has given me great moments of pleasure over the years.
It’s therapeutic because when I’m playing I’m not really thinking of anything. It’s probably no different, in a certain way, than a guy who plays poker or golf on the weekends.
It’s not my profession, so there is no obligation to be good. It’s the same fun as a guy who comes home from the office, gets out on the tennis court, and hits some balls. He’s never going to Roger Federer, but he has a good time.
The next author I’d like to discuss isn’t widely read today. Please introduce us to The World of S J Perelman.
The funniest human being in my lifetime, in any medium—whether it’s stand-up, television, theater, prose, or movies—is S. J. Perelman. There is nobody funnier than S.J. Perelman.
I prefer his middle to later stuff. The early stuff was a little wild, not nearly as subtle or as good. As he developed over the years, his stuff became relentlessly sensational.
There are many collections of Perelman that are filled with great things. This one, which I wrote the foreword to, has a number of spectacular pieces. Because the editors did it chronologically, my own opinion is that the first four essays are weaker. Once you hit the fifth casual, as The New Yorker called them, he hits his stride and the rest of them are absolute comic genius. As funny as you can get.
You once wrote, ‘his style seeps into you’. How has Perelman infused your work?
Those of us who grew up with Perelman found it impossible to avoid his influence. In music, if you grow up listening to Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk or Louis Armstrong and you listen to their recordings over and over, then you start to play their kind of riffs and rhythms naturally. I’m sure an actor that adores Marlon Brando—worships him and see every movie he’s made—starts to play a scene and a little bit of Brando creeps into it. It’s the same with Perelman: you read him over and over again—as I did and many of my contemporaries did when we were growing up—and then when you write, it’s hard to escape his influence. He had such a strong, inventive style.
What has become of humour in print?
The problem is you don’t get the outlets for it anymore. You know, The New Yorker used to be primarily a literary magazine. Economics have forced it to change over the years. When I was younger, any given issue would have a Perelman piece, maybe something by Salinger, a couple of poems and maybe something by Truman Capote or John Updike. It was a literary magazine. Now a miniscule part of the magazine is devoted to comedy, apart from the cartoons. This Shorts & Murmurs thing they do, you grudgingly get a page, which I think is ridiculous.
They remain the number one outlet for comic writing, but even they’ve diluted the output. So much of that short stuff that you see in The New Yorker is just a comic idea that some writer gets and puts down. But it’s not really comic literature in the tradition of S J Perelman or Robert Benchley or James Thurber or Dorothy Parker. There might be just as many funny writers today, but they don’t have places to put their material.
Let’s turn to a comic novel, Epitaph of a Small Winner written in 1880 by Brazil’s Machado de Assis. Tell us about it and how you came to love this work.
Well, I just got it in the mail one day. Some stranger in Brazil sent it and wrote, “You’ll like this.” Because it’s a thin book, I read it. If it had been a thick book, I would have discarded it.
I was shocked by how charming and amusing it was. I couldn’t believe he lived as long ago as he did. You would’ve thought he wrote it yesterday. It’s so modern and so amusing. It’s a very, very original piece of work.
The book turns mortality and amorous adventures into comedy and is infused with an ironic pessimism that seems familiar from your films. How did it influence you?
It’s not that it influenced me; it resonated with me, in the same way as when I see movies by Ingmar Bergman. They mean something to me because of his preoccupations and his view of life. It rang a bell in me, in the same way that Catcher in the Rye did. It was about subject matter that I liked and it was treated with great wit, great originality and no sentimentality.
The memorable last line of the novel reads: “I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.” You shrug off the notion that your work leaves an artistic legacy. Can you at least acknowledge a cultural one? What I have in mind is that more men today follow the model of romance established by Alvy Singer than those established by Romeo, Darcy, or Casanova.
When it comes to romance, when it comes to love, everyone is in the same boat. The issues that Euripides and Sophocles and Shakespeare and Chekhov and Strindberg struggled with are the same unsolvable problems that each generation deals with and finds its own way of complaining about. I describe them in a certain way and entertained with them in my movies. Other people did it, in their day, using their own icons and idioms.
I may have different cosmetics, but in the end we’re all writing about the same thing. This is the reason why I’ve never done political films. Because the enduring problems of life are not political; they’re existential, they’re psychological, and there are no answers to them—certainly no satisfying answers.
Machado de Assis is credited with inspiring magical realist writers. Judging from the previews, the protagonist of your latest film experiences some magic in Paris, as did characters in Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, and Scoop. Why do you so frequently bend the rules of reality in your films?
As I said before, I do think we live in a nightmare and I feel the same way that Blanche Dubois feels: I want magic; I don’t want reality. I want the paper lanterns hung over the bare light bulbs, like she did. And if there is any way to escape reality, I’m all for it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any real way. You can distract yourself. You can go to baseball games and concerts and plays and have sex and get involved in all kinds of endeavours that obsess you, and you can even create problems for yourself, where they don’t exist, to avoid thinking about the bad problems. But, in the end, you’re caught. And reality inevitably disappoints you.
Finally, let’s flash forward to Richard Schickel’s biography of Elia Kazan. Tell us about it.
It’s the best show business book that I’ve read. It’s brilliantly written and it’s about a brilliant director who was very meaningful to me when I was growing up and becoming a filmmaker. Schickel understands Kazan; he understands Tennessee Williams; he understands Marlon Brando; he understands A Streetcar Named Desire. He writes with great historical knowledge, insight and liveliness. Show business books are usually not worth reading. They’re just silly and shallow. But this is a fabulous book.
The biography is framed by the question of whether Kazan’s work, which included 12 Angry Men and On the Waterfront, would be eclipsed in Hollywood by his decision to name Communist associates before the House Un-American Activities Committee. How do you think the public should judge Kazan?
I’m a great compartmentaliser. I always feel one has nothing to do with the other. You can watch Triumph of the Will—it’s a magnificent work of art—and you can still hate Leni Riefenstahl because she was a Nazi. You can listen to Wagner’s music—it’s magnificent, and he was a terrible person.
The same thing is true here. I’m not saying Kazan was a terrible person. Those issues were extremely complex and the easiest thing to do was just to remove yourself and self-righteously make criticisms. Some of those criticisms might be very justified when you argue them out, I don’t know. That’s a different argument.
But the films that he did, the plays that he did—his creative work was wonderful. Whatever you think of Kazan politically, it has nothing to do with the fact that the guy was a great director.