Crossing the East River

If Woody Allen has negative recollections of Brooklyn, what was this Manhattan that the adult remembers from his childhood years? This much can be said with some confidence: It certainly stood several paces from reality. Lax calls Allan Konigsberg's imaginary re-creation of New York simply "the wonderland across the river." Allen recalls his first trip to Times Square with his father when he was six. He was captivated by the astounding concentration of movie houses showing first-run films, although in recounting the story as an adult, he attributes a highly unlikely level of precocity and movie sophistication to a first-grader. At any rate, this is how the adult filmmaker reconstructs his childhood, and for an artist, imagination and memory are far more significant that actuality. What's more, he recalls, he could see in real life the famous restaurants and buildings he had seen in the movies. He imagined them as teeming with gangsters and beautiful women from the stage. Even if the years have distorted his recollections, what he describes is the classic case of Baudrillard's tourist who becomes enchanted at the realization that real New York looked just like the movies. For the next fifty years, Allen has tried to re-create the Manhattan of his childhood imagination, which in turn was shaped by the movies. The mutual dependence continues to this day, much like the facing mirrors in the climactic scene of Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) that reflect the image of Charles Foster Kane back upon itself in infinite regression so that the reality becomes lost in the succession of images. For the mature Woody Allen, the enchantment with the dream has never faded. In a lengthy interview with Richard Schickel, he recalls, "And the minute I saw [Times Square], you know, all that I ever wanted to do was live in Manhattan and work in Manhattan. I couldn't get enough of it."11 He continues: "And to this day I feel the same way about it."

The sad fact is that the New York of Woody Allen's memories, as well as the New York of his movies, never existed, then or now. Very soon after leaving Brooklyn and after a short stay as a television writer in Los Angeles, he established himself in Manhattan as a very successful young man with the financial resources to live where and how he chose. He could afford the comfortable enclaves of the city while avoiding the rest. In effect, by this time he had the means to make his childhood dream city a reality. As a result, his New York has no crime in the streets, no poverty, no slums or crack houses, no racial tension or gang wars; people never go hungry, never have noisy children, barking dogs, or loud radios; they never use heroin, sleep on ventilation grates, or even ride crowded subways to boring jobs they hate. His New York is populated by affluent, refined, well-educated Jews and WASPs but has little room for other identifiable ethnic groups, for working people, or for the severely impoverished. Chinatown, Hell's Kitchen, Little Italy, and Spanish Harlem don't exist. If he deals with people who are not up to his standards, he locates them in New Jersey (Broadway Danny Rose, Small Time Crooks, Purple Rose of Cairo) or in Brooklyn (Radio Days or Annie Hall in his two nostalgic trips back to his childhood). The exceptions to this sanitized version of the City are rare. The Italian gangsters in Bullets over Broadway, the Chinese cameraman in Hollywood Ending, the Chinese herbalist in Alice, or even the prostitute and porn queen (Mira Sorvino) in Mighty Aphrodite are stock comic characters from other movies, not from New York life. They function as props and foils for the central figures, who are Allen-style Manhattanites.

For Woody Allen, a George Gershwin score plays in the background continually, as it does in the opening sequence of Manhattan. Witty people from publishing or academia or the arts spend more time in tastefully furnished apartments and chic restaurants than at their jobs, and they rarely worry about paying their bills at the end of the month. In Manhattan, no one grows old or gets sick or has to share a flat with impossible in-laws or failing grandparents, as they did in the Brooklyn of Radio Days. People may lose jobs for a while, but the effects on their lifestyle are minimal, nothing like the Depression. No one goes to a social club or a blue-collar tavern for a beer after work, or to church or temple, except for an occasional wedding or funeral. No one rides the subway; for Allen, living in Manhattan involves urban combat no more serious than competition for taxicabs, which in fact most native New Yorkers cannot afford. Most important, no one has a neighborhood. To live in Woody Allen's version of Manhattan is to be freed from the ordinary cares of human existence, like shopping for groceries or doing laundry. An Uptown address makes one cosmopolitan, self-sufficient, unrooted, and uncommitted to any cause or community. Relationships, even within marriage, tend to be transitory, and they end once they serve their purpose. In these impersonal apartment houses, one rarely has neighbors, either as friends or adversaries. (In Manhattan Murder Mystery, the friendly neighbors soon provide grist for the sleuthing couple next door.) In short, Manhattan is everything Brooklyn is not. Most important for Woody Allen, being in Manhattan means not being in Brooklyn. This is not New York; this is a fantasy fashioned by someone on a tourist visa from Flatbush.

Unfortunately, as Dorothy discovered after her visit to Oz, once the dream ends, there's still Kansas. Likewise, the six-year-old Allan Konigsberg learned that after he gaped at the bright lights of Times Square, he had to take the IRT back to Flatbush, where he belonged. As an adult, he has been able to reconstruct and inhabit the Oz of elegant restaurants, beautiful women, and courtside seats at Knicks games in the Garden, but even after his legendary success at turning himself into a New Yorker, if his films are any indication, he continues to live in this world as a resident alien. As the kid from Brooklyn, he feels as though he really doesn't belong by birthright. He projects that dislocation on his central characters. As artists and lovers they are strivers, constantly looking over their shoulders lest someone identify them as impostors, pretenders, or arrivistes. As a result, like Dorothy, his characters put up a brave front and wear the ruby slippers to create the illusion that they really fit in to this magical realm, but at heart they remain uncomfortable around the witches, Munchkins, and Emerald Palaces of Manhattan.

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