Director Woody Allen, standing left, talking with the cast during the filming of To Rome With Love. Photo: Philippe Antonello/Sony Pictures
NEW YORK: Ozymandias melancholia.
It's a psychological state that is mentioned by two characters in Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome With Love: Alec Baldwin's wistful architect and Ellen Page's self-absorbed actress, both of whom claim to be afflicted.
It is also a rare clue about what makes one of American cinema's greatest and most prolific artists tick.
Woody Allen, left, and Italian actor Roberto Benigni during the filming of To Rome With Love. Photo: Philippe Antonello/Sony Pictures
Borrowing from the title of Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1818 poem about a broken statue of a once-mighty king that is found in a desert, the phrase refers to a depression over the realisation that nothing is permanent.
Don't look for the malady in any medical textbook, though. Instead, watch Allen's Stardust Memories from 1980, a caustic portrait of a filmmaker looking back over his life and creative output that stylistically echoes Italian master Federico Fellini's similarly autobiographical 8 1/2 from 1963.
"It is a phrase I coined and felt entitled to use again," Allen says while seated in the dark velvet-lined womb of his office and screening room in Manhattan. "It is a contemporary syndrome."
Does he worry that his films won't be remembered? "I don't care about my work lasting. I would like to last. They can turn my movies into guitar picks. Nothing lasts. Nothing at all. Not even the sun."
Given such disturbing insights, it is hard to know whether all those years Allen spent in therapy paid off - or just made his existential despair into fodder for future features.
Turns out the locale of his new comedy is the perfect place to experience this condition amid all the crumbling ancient ruins. "You get that feeling in Rome all the time," he says. "You are surrounded by what would have been a grand palace or building or statue. Now, like Ozymandias in the poem, it's nothing but a headless trunk."
He did find some refuge in the city's reliably delicious cuisine. "That is one of the great treats of being there," Allen says of his first filmmaking foray in the Eternal City.
Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Page's admirer, observed firsthand as the director enjoyed a pizza. "He eats it like everyone else," reports the star of The Social Network. "One leg at a time."
At least Woody fans now know the reason why, after more than 40 films in nearly half a century, the 76-year-old director refuses to take a break from his pace of averaging a movie a year.
Basically, he doesn't want to think about being a headless trunk someday.
It also explains why he is not overly impressed by the fact that he just achieved the biggest box-office hit of his career with last year's dreamily romantic Midnight in Paris.
The most enthusiasm he can summon for the $60-million-grossing film that led to his record third Oscar for an original screenplay is to describe it as "a happy accident".
"I try my best on all of them," says Allen, who has had his fair share of misses - most recently, 2010's You Will Meet aTall Dark Stranger landed with a tall dark thud - mingled among successes. "Some work out nicely. Some work out not as nicely. Some work out better than that. For some reason, people had a great affection for Midnight in Paris. Who knows why?"
Baldwin, who appeared in Allen's Alice in 1990 and already has signed up for his third Woody vehicle - a yet-to-be-titled project that starts shooting in August in New York and San Francisco - is grateful that the movies keep on coming. "A lesser effort by Woody is better than most of what is out there. If only every third movie grabs you by the lapels, it's worth sitting by with the other two and waiting. Like rings on a tree, there are so many levels to his work."
The setting sets the tone
Allen rarely affords himself the luxury of pondering the public's reception of his efforts, especially as he continues to explore shooting in places far beyond his Manhattan comfort zone. To Rome With Love, which reflects the major influence of Italian cinema on his work, serves up a quartet of humorous vignettes, peppered with unfaithful lovers and reflections on the nature of celebrity, with a soundtrack that is heavy on Volare and Arrivederci Roma.
Ever since he switched to European settings, starting with London in 2005's Match Point, Allen has allowed the mood of each city to dictate the tone of the movie. And his version of comedy Italian-style is very much a farce, albeit with an undercurrent of dark satire.
"There are such strong personalities to these cities," he says. "Rome is chaotic, hilarious, joyfully alive and full of farce. Paris has a romantic lovers' feel, a nostalgic feeling. In Italy, you don't think back to the earlier eras so much. It really came into its own post-World War II, and that is when Italian filmmakers began to define their country for Americans. It is very energetic and lusty."
As usual, the cast features Allen veterans such as Baldwin and Penelope Cruz (who in 2009 won an Oscar for Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona), along with newcomers such as Eisenberg, Page and indie darling Greta Gerwig. Homegrown performers include Roberto Benigni, an Oscar winner for 1998's Life Is Beautiful, as an average man who is suddenly hounded by paparazzi.
But the most noteworthy participant on-screen might be Allen himself, showing up in one of his own films for the first time since 2006's Scoop. The conversation turns bittersweet as he regrets that he can no longer pull off the wisecracking swain role that he perfected in 1977's Annie Hall.
"I would have liked to have played Jesse Eisenberg's part, but I am too old," he says. "I was always the guy sitting opposite the girl in the cafe, pitching her and making jokes and trying to make her fall in love with me."
Not that he minds Queens native Eisenberg, 28, as his substitute. In fact, he agrees that they seem to have been fated to collaborate. "He gets it right off," Allen says. "He speaks at double my speed. He is in that scrapbook of characters that I could be."
Instead, Allen plays an unhappily retired and somewhat neurotic opera director who pins a comeback attempt on his discovery of an Italian mortician who can sing like Pavarotti - but only in the shower.
Though he says the retirement angle is parenthetical to the humour of the segment, it once again underlines his need to maintain his continuing existence in the world.
"I don't see myself not working," Allen says. "Not because of any great contribution I have to make, but because I would be sitting at home, brooding and being depressed. When I work, it keeps my mind on stupid, solvable problems. I'm thinking of the third act and how I can make it work."
Being cast in your first Woody Allen film has long been a rite of passage, and Eisenberg is no different from the rest of his generation in coveting such a chance. He was fascinated to watch one of his idols on the job.
"There is such efficiency on his set," he says. "He is so adept at handling all the myriad things that can come up. He does it with such ease. It is intimidating to work with someone who is a million times more interesting as a performer than you are."
No spotlight for him
As is his routine, Allen was a no-show at this year's Oscar ceremony despite four nominations for Midnight in Paris, including best picture. He can't even vote, because he isn't a member of the academy.
"I'm not a joiner," Allen explains while missing an opportunity to reference his hero Groucho Marx's infamous quip: "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
Nor does the onetime stand-up comic who specialised in self-belittlement display his trophies - his directing win for Annie Hall brings his Oscar tally to four - in a place where others may admire them. "I hate to tell you where," he says of the potential mini-Ozymandiases. "They're in my closet on the top shelf. I'm not a person who has photographs around the house of movies that I've been in or people I've worked with or things I've won. It's always embarrassed me."
Besides, "I see them whenever I take my underwear out - which is every morning."
To Rome With Love opens in Australian in October.