If you count yourself as a New Yorker and a movie lover, it's tough to not have a special affinity for films by Woody Allen. Practically the filmmaker laureate of the city, Allen's prolific 40 plus year career is getting a three week long screening series at Film Forum starting this Friday. Gothamist loves Allen's movies (both the highs and the lows) so much that we thought we'd chat with an Allen expert, Queens College professor Bob Kapsis, about how to plan our screening calendar during "Essentially Woody."

In this series, the programmers have done a great job of cramming a lot of movies into just a few weeks, mostly by scheduling tons of double features. However two of Allen's movies have been given single billing -- Annie Hall [on Dec. 22/23], and Manhattan [on Jan. 5/6]. Of Allen's filmography, do you think these are the two that really deserve special treatment?
2006_12_arts_annie.jpgAnnie Hall [pictured at left] really deserves special treatment. Released in 1977, it was a bold departure for Allen—his most serious comedy to date, it was popular with audiences and critics alike, and the Academy Awards honored it as the best picture of 1977 (and honoring Allen also as Best Director). Annie Hall is also a milestone in the history of film comedy, especially in how it adapts comedy to the contemporary world where, according to Allen, conflicts are less physical and more psychological. I’m less sure about Manhattan’s importance—even though it has remained one of my favorite Allen films. It is certainly important as a film about New York and about the difficulties in representing such a colossus of a city in film. Allen comments on having encountered many European travelers (or tourists) in the city whose only sense of New York comes from Manhattan or Annie Hall and they come away disappointed.

Of the rest of the pairings, some go together timeline-wise and others thematically. If you had to pick a particularly thought-provoking pairing of the schedule, which two go best together?
The pairing of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Husbands and Wives (1992) [on Wed. Jan. 3] is truly inspiring. While both films walk the fine line between comedy and tragedy, they do so in strikingly different ways. Hannah and Her Sisters represents one of Allen’s most commercially and critically successful films, an ultimately feel good romantic comedy---a form he returns to here after several years of exploring and experimenting with other types of comedy in such startlingly original films as Stardust Memories (1980), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). By contrast, Husbands and Wives represents one of Allen’s most cynical and boldly original works and, in contrast to Hannah and Her Sisters, also one of his personal favorites. The passive-aggressive character that Mia Farrow plays in Husbands and Wives can be seen as a darker version of Hannah, the self sufficient character she plays in Hannah and Her Sisters.

With the match up of Sweet and Lowdown and Wild Man Blues, the documentary about Allen's tour with his jazz group, [on Tues. Jan. 2] we can see Allen's life long love of jazz. I know this is something you noticed in the interviews with him that you edited, any thoughts about how jazz plays an importance in Allen's career?
It’s not only jazz. Music has played an important part in Allen’s career. He has said that the putting in of the music is what he enjoys the most about making a film. Rather than hire somebody to write a score, he has typically mined his own record collection, which ranges from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to Cole Porter, Gershwin, Monk, Bud Powell, Ornette Coleman, and, of course, Dixieland jazz. One of Allen’s best films from the nineties is Sweet and Lowdown (1999), a mockumentary about a legendary but fictitious jazz guitarist (played by Sean Penn) whose tragic flaw is that he can only express his true feelings through his music---ironically, the very reason why he is not better than he is.

I'm surprised to see Everyone Says I Love You on the bill [on Thurs. Dec. 28 with Bullets Over Broadway] because I remember when that one came out and it was so viciously panned by the critics. Do you think it's gotten better with age or was misunderstood upon initial release?
I think that it is one of his most underappreciated comic masterpieces. It is also one of the finest movie musicals of the last twenty years. John Lahr of the New Yorker also thinks so and that is one of the reasons why I decided to include his 1996 profile in my book of interviews with Allen, where he characterizes Everyone Says I Love You as “one of [Allen’s] most radiant works” and through its powerfully executed suggestion that something magical is possible in this world, “belongs in the canon of Allen’s best comic work.”

When people talk about Allen, they like to mention the autobiographical elements of his movies, particularly in regards to the scandal when he left Mia Farrow for Soon-Yi Previn and the mirroring of that break up in Husbands and Wives. Any thoughts about either the scandal or Allen seeming to work out his personal problems on screen?
I am impressed with how during the period of the scandal (1992-94), Allen was able to remain enormously productive even though his personal life was in disarray. During this tumultuous period, he directed Husbands and Wives (1992), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) [playing on Tues. Dec. 26], and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). “The only value of a film,” Allen told an interviewer during this period, “is the diversion of doing it…I’m so involved figuring out the second act, I don’t have time to think about life’s terrible anxieties.”

If Gothamist readers are thinking about seeing only one or two movies in the series, which ones would you say they HAVE to see?
2006_12_arts_sleeper.jpgIf we are appealing to Gothamist readers who are truly hooked on New York but are unfamiliar with Allen’s films, then I would suggest that they see either Annie Hall or Manhattan. Both films expose Allen’s love affair with New York City, provide invaluable insights, both autobiographical and sociological, into the importance of New York settings in the vast majority of Allen’s films, and how his vision of New York has shaped our perception of the city possibly more than any other modern filmmaker. If we are appealing to Gothamist readers who are only familiar with Allen’s most popular and up-beat films, then I would suggest that they take in one of his darker and least compromising works, for example, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) [on Dec. 24/25], Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) [on Thurs. Jan. 11] , Husbands and Wives (1992) or Deconstructing Harry (1997) [on Thurs. Jan. 11].

Allen wants people to take him seriously. That’s fine and good but we mustn’t neglect those early wonderful and zany comedies, such as Take the Money and Run (1969) [on Sun. and Mon. Jan. 7 & 8], Bananas (1971), and Sleeper (1973) [paired together on Sun. Dec. 31 and Mon. Jan. 1, and pictured at right] that Allen made strictly for the laughs. It is good to remember that Allen had worked exclusively in comedy for over twenty years as a gag writer, a stand-up comic, and a short story writer before moving into film. All his pre-Annie Hall comedies are included in the Woody Allen series at the Film Forum and are guaranteed to entertain unless you lack a sense of humor.

Robert Kapsis's book, edited with Kathie Coblentz, Woody Allen Interviews, a collection of conversations Allen had with various writers over the course of his career, will be available for sale at Film Forum.