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Next stop, Barcelona

Woody Allen tries Spain on for size. For comedy, it's a good fit.

August 10, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

The ONLY place Woody Allen ever really wants to be is in his bed. "My spot on the bed is my spot in the world," he explains. It's where he watches baseball games, and reads, and where he writes, usually in the morning, because if he starts at night, he sometimes gets so excited he can't go to sleep. It's where the act of imagination is actually "pleasurable and I might go cast the people and see my characters come to life. And I put the music in and I see the characters playing their scenes to the beautiful music behind them. You know, I get a kick out of that. And if nobody else does, that's too bad."

He sounds less defiant than resigned. Of all the major American artists, Allen has experienced one of the cruelest and most violent whipsaws of fortune, of tumbling from audience adulation to mass approbation. His solution to the vagaries of public estimation is to hold fast to the belief that none of it means anything. "When you're a kid you think to yourself, 'Fame and fortune and it's going to be so exciting and . . .' -- but then you quickly find after three or four films, you find, 'Wait a minute, the upside is nothing and the downside is nothing.' The adulation of the multitudes or of the critics is an impersonal experience, and the negative feelings [from] people is an impersonal experience. The contract that the audience has with the person is you entertain us and we'll show up. And that is as the contract should be."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Woody Allen film: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about filmmaker Woody Allen misspelled the name Cristina in the title of his new movie, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," as Christina.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 14, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Woody Allen: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about filmmaker Woody Allen misspelled the last name of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard as Goddard in an Allen quote.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 17, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Woody Allen film: An article last Sunday about filmmaker Woody Allen misspelled the middle word in his new movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" as Christina. Also, the last name of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was misspelled as Goddard in an Allen quote.

From the way Allen is talking, one would assume it's the eve of the release of one of his misfires, the platoon of piffles including "Celebrity" and "Anything Else" that followed the public scandal of his 1992 breakup with Mia Farrow, the ugly accusations (denied and never proven) of child abuse and his later marriage (now 10 years running) to Farrow's adopted daughter, then-22-year-old Soon-Yi Previn. In fact, he's just made one of his most charming and funny movies in over a decade, "Vicky Christina Barcelona," the tale of two American young women (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) who, while summering in Spain, tumble into a relationship with an attractive, woman-loving artist (Javier Bardem) and his addled but delicious ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). The film, opening Friday, is a distillation on the vagaries of love with each woman struggling to find a stable foothold: the sexual adventuress who's chronically dissatisfied (Johansson), the risk-averse would-be academic who's in danger of squelching life's passion (Hall) and the intoxicating, anarchic spirit (Cruz), who makes art great and life hell.

On a recent weekend, he was holed up in a hotel room, giving interviews -- a rare burden for Allen, who used to be able to escape such routine experiences. The filmmaker, now 72, is living in Los Angeles for the next month, staying in a hotel with his wife and two young daughters while he makes his opera debut directing Puccini's comic opera, "Gianni Schicchi."

He is frailer than expected, in a pristine blue-checked shirt and chinos. He has totally gray hair, thick black glasses and skin that is curiously unwrinkled. One gets the sense that he would be happiest if everyone just left him alone to do his work. His manner is sweet but cagey.

A piece of the big picture

Allen admits that going to Barcelona to make a movie fulfilled his fantasy to one day be a European filmmaker. "I always wanted to make the kinds of films that I saw in the 1950s. The Truffaut films and the Goddard films and the Bergmans and Fellinis, and those are the films that always influenced my work. And I've always copied them and been influenced by them. 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' looks to me, when I see it, like one of those films. It's got all the earmarks: the music, the people bicycling through Europe, the interaction of the characters and the out-of-focus scenes that you see in those pictures."

The film, full of lovely images of the Gaudi buildings and old churches, is one of the happy accidents that have come from falling out of favor in America. Allen has directed more than 40 films and made more gems than almost any other living filmmaker -- "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Husbands and Wives" -- but America hasn't always treated its iconoclasts particularly kindly. Allen is not like Orson Welles, reduced to hawking Gallo wine, or Charlie Chaplin fleeing to Switzerland, but since the '90s, his box-office grosses have fallen off and the quality of his films has become more uneven. His last, "Cassandra's Dream," made less than $1 million here, although it garnered $20 million abroad. He has had to go with his hat in hand looking for financial backers, largely European.

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