Do you remember the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen argues with Diane Keaton in a movie line, and a pedantic man behind them rattles on about Marshall McLuhan? Pissed off, Allen disagrees with the professor and pulls out McLuhan who tells off the professor. (Click here to see the one-minute moment.) I had a strangely similar synergistic moment on Sunday—and oddly around Woody Allen himself.
It began with my return from Minneapolis, where I had launched my new novel, Love At Absolute Zero, with a book signing in Wayzata. I had used frequent flyer miles to pay for flights, and when United didn’t have any frequent flyer coach seats (those two seats were given away last March), I went first class.
Usually when I travel, I end up in the fourth seating at the back of the plane. By the time they call the fourth seating, there are only about eight of us left and we’re all blinking, wondering how we ended up in this strange-looking group. The airline workers have yanked out the red carpet used by first-class passengers and replaced the walkway with a bed of hot coals. I always feel as if I’m part of Woody Allen’s opening scene to Stardust Memories where he’s on the wrong train. (Click here to see that.)
Well, this time, I got to board with the initial group, the one where they call first seating for celebrities, people who make over a million dollars a year, and those deemed worthy on Twitter. I sat in one of two rows of leather thrones, and a hostess held out a silver tray and asked would I like to have a glass of water or orange juice? I drank juice as the hostess adjusted my headrest and the rest of the plane boarded.
My plan was to spend the whole four hours correcting papers, but after my piping hot Thai chicken breast meal came with my choice of wine (I chose the pinot noir, resisting the chardonnay), a movie screen flipped down in front of me, and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris came on.
Of the many films I’ve seen this year, it’s been my favorite. Seeing it in a theatre, Ann and I had been amazed at every turn, swept away not only by the quirky and amazing story of a writer at a crossroads in his life, but also by the visuals of Paris in this century and last. (See the trailer here.) Feeling great, I shoved aside the papers, and I fell into the movie anew.
Laughing all over again, I realized I had to write down some of the great lines. After all, I had my white-tableclothed table in front of me (a white tablecloth!), and I loved the comfortable headphones. First class had great headphones where I could actually hear what people said, and the sounds of the jet disappeared.
Owen Wilson as Gil Pender from Pasadena becomes wide-eyed when he realizes he’s somehow slipped into the 1920s, Paris in the Jazz Age, and he’s meeting Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway says of Zelda, “She’s jealous of his gift. It’s a fine gift,” and adds, “No subject is terrible if the story is true.” Actor Corey Stoll as Hemingway could have stolen the film if not for the rest of the cast, which is just as superb. When Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein happily reads Gil’s novel, loves it, and offers advice, I think back to what Allen said with Marshall McLuhan: “If only life were this way.” (A rose is a rose is a rose is Kathy Bates as Stein.)
I switched planes in San Francisco, and as I stowed my luggage above, I saw my seatmate was already there, a gray-haired guy in jeans and a smile who held out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Eric—Eric Lax.” I introduced myself, and I said his name sounded familiar.
“I’m a writer,” he said. “Nonfiction.” I told him I’m a writer, too, and that I write fiction. Then it struck me: I knew of him. He’s Woody Allen’s biographer. Eric Lax wrote a 1991 bio, which sits on my shelf. It was as if Woody Allen put him in the airplane for me.
Once we took off, we of course chatted about Woody Allen and Midnight in Paris. I pulled out my notes on the film. Lax said he’d seen the movie six times already and particularly loved the part where Gil Pender tries to tell Man Ray, Salvadore Dali, and Luis Bunuel, all surrealists, that he’s from 2010. Man Ray tells him, “Of course you are. We’re all from different times.”
I asked Lax what his favorite Allen film was. “I can’t say. I love too many of them.” Bananas and Allen’s “early, funny ones” are all great, he said and added, “There are many I like that may not be as well-known as others, such as Husbands and Wives and Match Point. Match Point is one of the most perfect films around, period.”
He told me Woody Allen is soon to turn 75 and is very happy with the shooting of his recently finished film, The Bop Decameron, shot in Rome and starring Ellen Page and Alec Baldwin. I also learned Lax, returning from a PEN conference in Belgrade (and he once had been PEN’s president) wrote a biography on Humphrey Bogart. According to my cousin Stanley, the genealogist in our family, I’m distantly related to Bogart.
In short, if flying first class is always falling into an Allen film, then I’m saving up for the higher-priced tickets.
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