Woody Allen: Still Working, Still Terrified

Woody Allen cuts his banana into seven slices each morning. Six slices, or eight, and something bad might happen. "I know it would be total coincidence if I didn't slice it into seven pieces, and my family were killed in a fire," he says. "I understand that there could be no correlation, but, you know, the guilt would be too much for me to bear, so it's easier for me to cut the stupid banana."

Despite the odd superstition (he also avoids haircuts while shooting a movie), Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres— comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical—only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen's eyes, they're all tragedies, since, as he says, "to live is to suffer." If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.

Still, it's tempting to wonder if there's been a shift in recent years. After the glare of attention in the early 1990s surrounding his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former girlfriend Mia Farrow, the director largely disappeared. Sure, he surfaced to play his clarinet at the Carlyle on the Upper East Side, and maintained his relentless pace of a film a year, but he has not been a topic in the public conversation. It became possible to imagine that old age, combined with a seemingly stable relationship (he stopped going to therapy after he got together with Soon-Yi; the couple has been married 11 years, and they have two adopted daughters) had given him a rosier outlook.

On the surface, his latest film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a breezy romance strewn with picnics in the country and Gaudí architecture and flamenco guitar, would suggest a softening of his world view. Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a self-assured painter, exudes a joie de vivre that seems miles removed from the anxiety-racked neurotics Allen and his stand-ins usually portray. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a vacationing free spirit, and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's intense ex-wife, embrace the pleasure principle as well. The three enter into a blissed-out ménage à trois that is presented, rather appealingly, as just another lifestyle choice.

But go to meet the director in hopes of a "Tuesdays With Woody"-style affirmation of late-life contentment, and you will be quickly disabused of that illusion. At 72, he says he still lies awake at night, terrified of the void. He cannot reconcile his strident atheism with his superstition about the banana, but he knows why he makes movies: not because he has any grand statement to offer, but simply to take his mind off the existential horror of being alive. Movies are a great diversion, he says, "because it's much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine."

Allen is speaking in a screening room in his production offices on Park Avenue on a swampy day in July. The theater is cool and dark, with velvet chairs and a pleasant hush. Dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, he looks like he does in his movies, with a little more white hair and minus the lustful grin he wears in his early comedies. He is polite, sincere, affable—in fact, his demeanor is so at odds with his morbid outlook, it seem like a gag from a Woody Allen film: the Angel of Death disguised as your kindly Uncle Morty.

A similar sense of the terror lurking beneath a veneer of banality nibbles at many of his films: there is the grandfatherly character who butchered and ate his family in "Deconstructing Harry"; the genteel neighbor who may have murdered his wife in "Manhattan Murder Mystery." It's not just the possibility that an upstanding citizen could harbor the heart of a killer that terrifies him; it's that the killer could get away with it, as he does in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." Allen says the indifference of the universe has obsessed him since he was a child. "My mother always said I was a very cheerful kid until I was 5 years old, and then I turned gloomy."

He can only attribute that shift to an awareness of death, which he claims to remember from the crib. "Now, maybe I stayed in the crib longer than other kids," he adds, with the well-timed cough of a former stand-up comedian. And there it is, that little spark of wryness, suggesting that the nihilism is just shtik. But it soon becomes apparent that when he says he agrees with Sophocles' suggestion that to never have been born may be the greatest boon, he means it. He is, however, cautious not to infect his loved ones with his pessimism. "I don't prattle on about this at all to my daughters," he says. "I bend over backwards to be very positive and not in any way express this to them."

So why go on? "I can't really come up with a good argument to choose life over death," he says. "Except that I'm too scared." Making films offers no reward beyond distracting him from his plight. He claims the payoff is in the process—"I need to be focused on something so I don't see the big picture"—and he is indifferent to reviews. "I was never bothered if a film was not well received," he says, admitting that some, such as "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," are not great. "But the converse of that is that I never get a lot of pleasure out of it if it is. So it isn't like you can say, 'He's an uncompromising artist.' That's not true. I'm a compromising person, definitely. It's that I don't get much from either side."

When it is suggested that others may get a great deal out of his films—that there are fans for whom an afternoon watching "Love and Death" or "Manhattan" provides solace in the way a Marx Brothers film soothes a depressed character in "Hannah and Her Sisters"—he resists the compliment. "This can happen, and this is a nice thing, but when you leave the theater, you're still going back out into a very cruel world."

As a filmmaker, he knows that audiences need a respite from the darkness of his vision—he wanted to end "Hannah and Her Sisters" with his character alone, having been dumped by Hannah's sister, but thought viewers wouldn't go for such a bleak conclusion. In real life, however, he believes there are no happy endings. "It's like the beginning of 'Stardust Memories.' The trains all go to the same place," he says. (And no, that place is not "jazz heaven," as a character in that film hopes.) "They all go to the dump."

Death may be especially on Allen's mind at the moment—his idol, Ingmar Bergman, died while he was shooting "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," as did director Michelangelo Antonioni. His longtime producer, Charles Joffe, passed away recently as well. "Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is," he says. "You see how meaningless … I don't want to depress you, but it's a meaningless little flicker."

Oddly, listening to him is not depressing. If anything, there's something refreshing in his resistance to the platitudes about simple things making life worthwhile that so often pass for philosophy. It's not that Allen is unable to enjoy himself (though he did want to title "Annie Hall" "Anhedonia," which means the inability to experience pleasure); it's that he's convinced the moments don't add up to redemption. "You have a meal, or you listen to a piece of music, and it's a pleasurable thing," he says. "But it doesn't accrue to anything."

He feels this ethos is expressed in "Vicky Cristina": "The feeling you come away with is to have had a nice time, to have been in the presence of a pretty city and pretty people, and that's fine. But when you step back and analyze the details, it is pessimistic." While a more optimistic reading might suggest the characters gain some wisdom from their romantic adventures, regardless of the outcome, Allen's take is characteristically bleak: "At the end of the picture it seems to me everyone was unhappy," he says.

His next film, his first shot in New York after four abroad, is a comedy starring Larry David. "I once thought there was a good argument between whether it's worth it to make a film where you confront the human condition, or an escape film," he says. "You could argue that the Fred Astaire film is performing a greater service than the Bergman film, because Bergman is dealing with a problem that you're never going to solve. Whereas Fred Astaire, you walk in off the street, and for an hour and half they're popping champagne corks and making light banter and you get refreshed, like a lemonade." And then, of course, it's back out to the street, where the universe is random and life has no meaning, but you might as well take care with your banana, just in case.