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"Nostalgia is a trap, there's no question about that," Allen says matter-of-factly. "It's based on the idea that now is always terrible. So there's always a sense that if you could have lived in a different time, things would have been more pleasant. One thinks back, for instance, to Gigi, and you think, well, this is Belle Époque Paris, they have horses and carriages and gas lamps and everything is beautiful. Then you start to realize that if you went to the dentist, there was no Novocain, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Women died in childbirth — there were all kinds of terrible problems.
"Naturally, if I'm sitting here now, and they're dying in Libya and the economy is going under and we have a terrible split in the country and they're patting us down in airports, I think to myself, 'God, wouldn't I be better off sitting at Maxim's in the 1890s?' But it doesn't really work that way, and that's how nostalgia trips you up. For movies it's great! In movies, you can create the past as you want to see it. But I do think that's the sad note in my movie, that everybody doesn't want to be where they are."
I ask Allen if he agrees with the lines he wrote for Gertrude Stein in the film, in which she states that the job of the artist is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence. "I don't know if I believe that myself," he replies. "That's all easy enough to attribute to a character in a movie, and one could make a case for that — that the job of the artist is to show why life, despite all its horror and brutality, is worth living and is a valuable thing. But one could also take the position that it's not the job of the artist to do anything at all — just to make the best art that he can, because art gives pleasure and pleasure gives distraction, and distraction is the only thing that gets us by, really."
At age 75, with a career as a comic, writer and filmmaker that spans a half-century, Allen himself has become an iconic part of American cultural lore — something that gives him more than a bit of pause.
"I was thinking with great horror the other day that, since I'm a known person, 100 years from now someone will make a movie about New York in my time, and I would be, let's say, not an important character in it but a peripheral character," he says. "Someone will go into Elaine's, and there I'll be, played by some schlemiel, because I'm conceived of as a schlemiel, and he'll have glasses on, and he'll be a gloom-ridden recluse who shivers at the thought of going out into the country — some execrable exaggeration of what people think I am. And that will be my hell. If I'm ever in a work of fiction as part of the atmosphere, they'll be doing to me the same unjust things as when I show Ernest Hemingway sitting at a bar talking the way he talks."
In the nearer term — this fall, to be precise — Allen will find himself the subject of a two-part, three-hour American Masters documentary directed by Oscar nominee Robert Weide (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth), to whom Allen granted unprecedented access to his personal and professional life during the making of last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. "Now, I say this with no false modesty: I cannot imagine why anyone would want to see it," Allen deadpans.
"It's funny, I'm always interested in those things about people that I like, so I guess there will be people who will be interested. But to me, I feel there's not enough. With the exception of my one encounter with scandal with Mia [Farrow], my life's been very, very dull. I mean, I work, I've always worked, and even that thing with Mia was really blown way out of proportion by the press; the actual facts are not very fascinating. But there's been nothing to even approach that in terms of excitement in my life."
Allen pauses for a moment, as if contemplating some bigger picture. "It's not the kind of life, let's say, that Hemingway led, where he'd be deep-sea fishing off Cuba and then hunting lions or kudu in Africa, and then his plane crashes but he survives after going missing for two weeks in the jungle. Mine's been very middle-class."
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