Monday 5 December 2005

Our Night of Nameless, Seething Passion with Woody Allen

Oh, it's no use - I can't concentrate (on The Graduate) this afternoon, so I may as well regale thee with a vintage travel narrative about the evening we spent watching the most miserable fellow in the world playing dixieland jazz badly in an overpriced and twee tourist trap bar on the upper east side of Manhattan. We like Woody's movies and writings - especially the early funny ones - and D. is a musician and jazz fan - but the motive of the activity for us was really just voyeurism. Or maybe, as a character in a Whit Stillman movie says, we went along for the "sociological interest."

This post belongs I suppose to the famously lame (and somewhat dangerous) "celebrities I've crossed paths with" genre - except I don't think you're really meant to include people you paid money to see doing their thing, and as I'll explain, the degree of interactivity on this particular occasion was disturbingly low. Nonetheless, Woody Allen is a seeded Famous Person and this is one of my favourite experiences from that trip (which included also that conference I blogged about a while back.)

Indeed, so far was our brush with Woody from being a spontaneous "strangers in the night" type affair that we actually booked ourselves in some months before leaving Australia. We agreed that it would be quite pointless, not to mention wasteful, to visit NYC and not get a look at Woody Allen, after all he puts himself on display (as in, plays jazz on his clarinet every Monday night in a bar) for this very purpose, so why not?

The tickets were US$100 each. On the appointed evening we dressed up and got a taxi from our hotel to The Carlyle. First bit of weirdness: inside the revolving door, a dinner jacketed maitre d' checked our reservations and ushered us toward a door which proved to be just like your normal bevelled-glass-panelled door into a bar from a hotel lobby, except it was carefully swathed in an obviously temporary thick green woolen curtain which fastened to the wall with velcro dots, I assume so that non-through-the-nose-paying scum and loiterers weren't able to get a free look at Mr Allen as they wandered in and out of the building. Just to be doubly secure, on the inside of the door they'd set up a folding screen, presumably to take care of those moments when the door unavoidably had to be opened for a second or two.

Duly admitted, Madame and Sir were descended upon by a fleet of obsequious middle-aged gentlemen in tuxedos, the chief one with a glaringly obvious Grecian 500 dye job and inadequate combover, which he presented to our gazes by frenzied bowing and scraping and "this way, please" hand gesturings. He led us to a table wedged between the wall and a large rectangular pillar, which completely blocked our sightline to the little stage, and scurried off for the wine list.

The room - bar, stage, about twenty white-linened tables, squishy carpet, soft light - was quite nicely decorated but the atmosphere was lethal. The elaborate fiction of the setup was that everyone there had paid a stupid, barbarous amount of money not to gawp at a star like he was some kind of circus freak, but instead to drink cocktails in a "sophisticated", "cosmopolitan" bar, which only coincidentally happened to have a celebrity playing in the band providing background music. Within the logic of this fiction the table we were given was unobjectionable; however the flipside of the logic of spending a massive amount of money to be waited on hand & foot in a semi-public place is that one may regress to screaming infantile selfishness and loudly complain if one doesn't get one's way.

I am not at all used to having people bow at me and I was rather stunned by what we'd walked into. I actually felt a bit dirty. Dorian too, I think; though fortunately he recovered enough to object vociferously at the crapness of our table when the waiter returned. I'm glad he did. With many fawning, grovelling apologies we were taken to a smaller table where one of us could face the stage and the other (me) could turn around in her chair and watch the action as well.

We ordered two glasses of wine (cheapest drink on the menu at US$17 each) and looked round at the other patrons. To my eye they all seemed to be tourists, but we were the only foreigners. Huddled round the very edge of the stage were five or so tables pressed up together, with about ten people attached. They were all sitting side by side facing the stage, expectantly: I felt angry with them for not trying harder to look blase as we were all supposed to be doing. They seemed to me to be touring America in their RVs and I thought they were approaching this in the same spirit as one might stare at the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.

Well, we sat for a bit and then the musicians appeared, sat down, and began to play. There was a young woman playing a baby grand piano which, according to D., had the stick which props the lid open in the wrong place & so might come crashing down any second; a fattish, fiftyish gentleman banjo player with an "evil smiling clown" grin which never changed nor wavered, no matter how dire the vibe became; a completely unmemorable bass player; and Woody.

Woody Allen sat slumped in a chair a little way apart from the rest of the players, right on the very edge of the stage (so, practically on top of the RV gang). I was pleased to see that he had on a pair of baggy olive-green corduroy pants and a dark blue checked shirt. He looked really, really unhappy. He didn't speak, either to us punters or to his band; between songs he either fiddled with his clarinet or looked bleakly at his lap or his hands; he didn't look round, as if the only way the ordeal could be made bearable was by pretending he was alone.

The music was dreadful. Woody Allen cannot play the clarinet for shit. After a few numbers I was bored, but I couldn't stop staring. One of the RV'ers down front raised his camera and let off the flash in Woody's face, though presumably he'd been told upon arrival, like everyone else, that photography was strictly forbidden. Guess he felt he was entitled, paying all that dough; guess I kinda sort sympathised with him. I wish now I had had a camera.

Anyway, like I said, I was pretty bored and after a bit I started stealing longer glances at the crowd. And I noticed a young girl alone up the back leaning on the bar: late twenties, bouncing chest, lots of brassy blonde curly hair, bright blue eyes. It was winter and everyone else was wearing normal clothes, but she had on a red backless halterneck dress (like Marilyn's in The Seven Year Itch, only red), a tan corduroy cloth cap, and big silver hoop earrings. And she had her eyes fixed on the stage with a rapt, ecstatic expression that was as ostentatious as it must have been bogus (given the boringness of the entertainment.) She kept flicking her hair and giving flirty little sips to her cocktail. When she got to the bottom of her drink she fished out the olive and licked it lavishly before putting it in her mouth and sucking it so her cheek bulged, all the time gazing adoringly at the little old fellow depressedly playing jaunty music. What on earth was she up to? One hates to think.

This post is already getting too long, so I'll skip to the end of the performance, when a waiter drew back a curtain behind the bar and revealed a door obviously leading to a kitchen or other service area. Still without speaking, Woody stepped off the stage and broke into a kind of shuffling sprint towards it, when (thrill of thrills!) a man at the next table raised his hand and caught the fugitive by the sleeve. The man turned out to be a filmmaking acquaintance and he tried to introduce his wife, son, and daughter, but Mr Allen cut him short and ran out the door.

Here endeth the Woody Allen story, except we postmortemed, and continued to drink, in the much less expensive (but still expensive) bar across the hall (I remember it was decorated with paintings by the person who illustrated the Madeleine books) and half an hour or so later in the women's toilets, I saw the Lady in Red again: she shut herself into a cubicle and said "shit! shit! shit! oh shit!" until I washed my hands and went away.


Phantom Scribbler said...

Benny Goodman he ain't, huh? Though I think many Jewish men of his generation would be willing to entertain the public fiction that they were Benny Goodman, if they had the cultural capital to do so.

But this vignette is just perfect. Well worth the price of admission.

If only I'd known you then! I'd have certainly made the trip down and had very cheap coffee with you in some child-infested place the next morning.

Ampersand Duck said...

Starlet hoping to catch the eye? Hopeful wife candidate? One of the adopted children who missed out on the nookie?

That was great. I felt like I was there. What a perfect souvenir of New York. Great people-watching.

lucy tartan said...

Ducks: the first, I thought. Bloody hope not the last.

Phantom, I so wish I'd known you then as well. It's quite likely we'll be back in the USA in the next couple of years though - and I'll be reminding you of this comment.

Tony said...

Dunno about his jazz, but I'd pay to see him do stand-up. Have you heard his gear from pre-movie days? Bloody funny.

lucy tartan said...

Comments working now? oh good.

Tony that's it, exactly! It was just mean of him not to crack a joke or two. C'mon Woody, throw us a frickin bone here.

BwcaBrownie said...

I have read that he kept up his clarinet Mondays right through the hideous and hideously public and drawn out trial for incest (or whatever it was). Of course he is strange. Brilliant people always are.
Now let's speak of the red dress chick in february frosts: we aussies are just not used to venues providing a Coat Check facility; and maybe she was trying to get the Standard 'really young girl' role in his next or any other film. His clarinet is probably some kind of upside periscope for perving on the audience and that's why he don't look up.
I loved his 'What's New Pussycat?' movie. The clothes in it are by 'Mia & Vicki' and they created the best dress ever in the whole history of fashion, for the Paula Prentiss character. I wish I could be watching that film right now. Capucine! Peter O'Toole! vikings, gokarts and strippers. oh and Peter Sellers.
More posts on NYC moments please. Director Ron Howard has a daughter named Carlyle because she was conceived there.

lucy tartan said...

You're making me wish I was watching it too.

And you must be the first person ever in the history of the Universe to ask for more travel stories.

Of course I will be most happy to oblige. Nobody will be forced to read what I write, hee hee!