Allen seeks magic even as he creates it
THE cafe in Westminster Street, the location for a future Woody Allen movie, looked like an elaborate stage illusion - it was surrounded by large screens that focused light into the eatery, while concealing any action within from onlookers outside.
In time, Allen would raise the curtain on that particular act, starring Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix. But for now, that trickster was keeping it hidden, emerging from his protective barriers only to talk about another motion picture, Magic In The Moonlight.
Written and directed by Allen, this comedy tells the tale of a 1920s stage magician (played by Colin Firth) whose sober belief in the empirical world is sorely tested by an enticing younger woman (Stone) who claims to be a psychic medium.
Issues of artifice and uncertainty are pervasive in Allen's work and life. Magic In The Moonlight is the latest of his films to exhibit his fascination with the early 20th century, and to offer a philosophical arena where the forces of rationality and spirituality can duke it out, though it is no secret which side the director favours.
"I'm like Blanche DuBois," said Allen, 78, sitting on an ice chest in a carpark outside the cafe.
"I hope in life that there's a certain amount of magic. Unfortunately, there's not enough. There are little, sporadic things one could think of as magical. But for the most part, it's grim reality."
As a film-maker, Allen has been a vocal disbeliever in a world beyond what is perceivable.
"If you're the kind of person who finds it hard to deceive yourself - even though it's seductive to believe the other thing - then you're stuck with it," he said. "The overwhelming amount of logic and evidence is that we're all victims of a bad deal."
The trials that Firth's character undergoes in Magic In The Moonlight - he badly wishes Stone's psychic is not a fake, and even resorts to prayer in a desperate moment - might seem to indicate that Allen is more flexible about his beliefs than he is willing to acknowledge.
Allen denied this, though his leading man thought it was plausible.
"Woody must at least understand that certainty is to be questioned," Firth said in a telephone interview. "Sometimes, there are more paradoxes in good writing that are revealed about the person than he might consider."
As further evidence, Firth cited a favourite line from Allen's short story The Condemned, a pastiche of Camus-style existentialism: "Cloquet hated reality but realised it was still the only place to get a good steak."
Firth said: "You can actually read a lot into that. You can escape and escape, but there are things in the world, hard facts and cause and effect, that you cannot deny."
A streak of escapism might also account for Allen's frequent return to pleasant depictions of the pre-World War II decades.
He said this seeming preference was more like pragmatism - the most logical time when these stories would take place - and he said he was not a nostalgic person. "Nostalgia is a trap," he added. "It's a pleasant, sticky substance, like honey, that you fall into."
Letty Aronson, Allen's sister and long-time producer, affirmed that he had no real desire to exist in the past. "Believe me, he could not live in those days with no air-conditioning," she said.
These fanciful renderings of bygone eras are surely more comfortable than the period earlier this year, when Allen was publicly challenged by his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow, who said in The New York Times and in other publications that Allen molested her when she was a child.
In an Op-Ed article in The Times in February, Allen wrote, "Of course, I did not molest Dylan," saying that a police investigation had cleared him at the time and adding that the piece would be his "final word on this entire matter".
Allen dismissed the possibility that lingering outrage could affect the public's interest in Magic In The Moonlight.
"No thoughts like that occur to me," he said to a reporter. "They occur only to you guys."
Asked if the recent scrutiny weighed on Allen, Ms Aronson said: "No, not at all. And I think this year's rehashing of everything made everything so much more obvious."
Whatever people want to believe about him, "there's nothing you can do", she said. "You just move on and go on with your life, which is what he's done."
Thoughts of winding down his career do not occur to Allen, who described his work as if it were a mixture of fantasy and vacation.
"You go in, in the morning, and there are women like Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone whom you spend months with," he said. "They're charming, they're beautiful, they're gifted. The guys, like Colin, like Joaquin, are larger than life. They're delightful."