The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
dir. Woody Allen
Opens Fri Aug 24 at various theaters.

Though the competition is fierce, I've always considered one scene in Stardust Memories to be the perfect statement of Woody Allen's hatred of his admirers. The scene takes place at a film festival in New Jersey, where director Sandy Bates, Allen's most overt self-doppelgänger role (another stiff competition), is to be the subject of a retrospective of his "early, funny" films. As Bates/Allen climbs out of his chauffeured Rolls Royce, he's greeted by a parade of grotesques, including the bespectacled yenta festival organizer, her fat, bald husband, and dozens of sweaty, clammy, garish fans, all crowding the camera as they clamor for an autograph or handshake from the beloved filmmaker. Though he behaves cordially, Bates is in the deepest circle of his own personal hell. Every word out of every mouth is moronic, cloying, embarrassing; every face is a gruesome close-up from Fellini's gallery of unwashed nightmares. The scene is played for knowing laughs (and gets them), but through the surreal hyperbole, what shines through is Allen's deep, paranoid terror at the prospect of rubbing shoulders with the people who love his work for, in his mind, all the wrong reasons. It's a trope that runs through his body of work like a rapier: Disdain for and fear of the public is the neurosis that trumps all others. And strangely enough, that contempt, both inward and outward, has always been a major, if not the central component of Allen's sadomasochistic appeal.

Fast-forward 21 years, to last Wednesday night. The setting is a free promotional screening of Allen's new film, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, held at the multiplex high atop Pacific Place and sponsored by a local radio station. The day before his gig at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, Allen is in town, scheduled to make a rare personal appearance tonight (the invitations read, "hosted by Woody Allen"). As a result, the shifty, will-I-get-a-seat? tension that normally attends promo screenings is heightened by a reverent anticipation hanging in the conditioned air as the phalanx of free-ticket civilians stretches around the mall atrium in the diffuse evening light like a choker.

Supplementing the usual assortment of print-media film critics is a broadcast cadre armed with TV cameras, mini-disc recorders, and microphones, all geared, primed, and 1-2-3-4 tested for Allen's arrival. One couldn't help but be reminded of the scene from Stardust Memories and the only semi-comic anxiety with which Allen the movie character would regard a task such as this--here they come: the stupid questions, the saccharine confessions, the mortifying displays of affection. Do I have to?

Of course, Allen aficionados would like to think, in a similar situation, they'd be far cooler, smarter, and in the know than their celluloid counterparts. Any true fan, granted exposure to the venerable Woody Allen, would rather be the Jessica Harper figure, hanging back and observing while some poncey film scholar holds forth about his definitive filmography of Gummo Marx, "the only Marx Brother who never appeared in a film." Here at the mall, however, where the crowd is a far cry from Stardust's grotesquerie, we're all equally eager to catch a glimpse. On the three floors below, rampant commerce continues unabated, but upstairs, everyone's up on their tiptoes and craning their necks, waiting for the world's foremost nebbish auteur to show. And then, without herald, there he unmistakably is.

I spy his bald spot first as I turn to see the rest of Allen--flanked by a small entourage of publicists, assistants, and guests--alight cautiously from the escalator and begin making his way down the gauntlet of the fourth estate. A cluster of fans gather at a respectful distance, clutching pens and paper, angling for proximity. You can't help but stare; it's Woody Allen, in the flesh: black-framed glasses, tiny shoulders and all. Unlike most movie stars you encounter in real life, Allen's proportions are intact; he looks exactly like he does onscreen, though he appears a good deal less frail than you'd expect--a few white hairs poking up through his undershirt, and a gray scrim of missed mustache on his shaved upper lip are the only signs of age. He could be 50. He could be 80. He is 66. He moves deliberately, though not ungraciously, along the press line, offering self-deprecating answers to questions--about his prodigious career, his jazz band, his first trip to Seattle--in a small, hushed voice (you can't hear him from more than five feet away) and signing autographs without looking up. He doesn't smile once. He doesn't wring his hands and grimace, either. He bears it like a pro, but his furtive gait and affectless expression make it clear that this is not a job he relishes. He's out plugging his new film at a shopping mall multiplex in Seattle, after all; it's not exactly dinner at Elaine's.

Up another escalator and inside the theater, a muscular DJ is exhorting the crowd to check under the seats for six randomly placed promotional magnets that will win the lucky finders a clutch of radio swag. The spotlight glares as local TV personality John Curley grabs the mic and begins an awkward introduction that makes ample reference to Allen's famous distaste for appearances like this. Curley runs down his brother's four favorite scenes from Annie Hall, and even manages to work in a quick Alvy Singer impersonation. Painful. And then, thunderous applause as Allen makes his way to the front of the house and delivers a short, crowd-pleasing spiel. Suddenly alive with nervous tics and big arm gestures, Woody gets a big laugh by confessing to being "the worst person possible for the job of introducing a film of mine," then goes on to worry that not everyone will like the film, and to apologize in advance to those who don't. The classic Woody Allen schtick--self-effacing, neurotic, wry--is in full effect, and the crowd eats it up lovingly. And rightfully so. It's great to be in the same room as Woody Allen. But amid the laughter, the moment is not without pathos.

Above the tiny, spotlit celebrity filmmaker, the movie screen is aglow with the logo of the screening's radio sponsor, KWJZ ("98.9 Smooth Jazz"). Allen is standing next to an all-smiles, rinky-dink local TV personality, about 10 feet away from an all-smiles, rinky-dink local smooth jazz DJ, while a roomful of the workaday public looks on. He's in a shopping mall multiplex in Seattle. His companion, Soon Yi (there she unmistakably is), watches from the wings as the famous recluse and auteur, who has built a career on the artistry of highbrow distance (mixed with lowbrow comedy), engages in an activity he has made a point of hating ever since he quit doing standup in the mid-'60s: working the room. But these are the facts. His last several films have bombed, both critically and commercially. While his legacy as an artist remains intact, his profile as a popular artist--which is to say, the kind of artist who can count on being given money to make his increasingly unprofitable art--is in sharp decline. After nearly 40 years of making idiosyncratic, artful, and indulgent films embraced by an elite, ever-narrowing audience, Allen has enjoyed a career just above the fray of mainstream entertainment.

But now, as his films become more and more uneven--and at times, positively unsettling in their portrayals of the classic Allen theme of romantic agony, given his propensity for casting himself in romantic leads alongside women less than half his age--even his loyal fans have begun to dwindle. A creeping misanthropy (and misogyny) has pervaded his recent works, supplanting the complex melancholy that marked his last truly great work, Husbands and Wives (1992), with the ugly spite of Deconstructing Harry ('97), which was still pretty damn good, and Celebrity ('98), which was unremittingly awful. He's had far better luck with lighter fare like Manhattan Murder Mystery ('93) and Small Time Crooks (2000), pictures which turn on his knack for combining his wry observations about God, love, and death with good old-fashioned caper-movie laughs.

For years, Allen has been able to ignore the demands of the marketplace, gliding from film to film on a vouchsafed (and let's be honest, well-deserved) reputation as an artiste. But after the collapse of a series of beneficial business deals and partnerships, in a film industry that requires even its most reluctant participants to play the promo game, Woody Allen has landed back in the fray of show biz, revving up the schticklech for the sweet old ladies, nerdy young men, and self-styled cinephiles who constitute his audience outside of New York City.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion turns out, after all this buildup, to be only pretty good. It's a poorly cast trifle of a love story that offers a few laughs, and more than a few awkward silences where laughs should be. Beautifully crafted as the picture is, with its glorious '40s-style production design and pools of soft, yellow light, the real story unfolds before the movie even starts. Acceding to studio demands, Allen is now on a promotional tour that will include several more cities, each with its own shopping mall multiplex, its own smooth jazz sponsor, and its own horde of avid reporters and fans clamoring for quotes, autographs, and handshakes. Watching him introduce the film and walk slowly up the aisle and out of the auditorium, on his way to the down escalator, I suddenly remember a scene from another of his films. It's the climactic image from Deconstructing Harry: Woody Allen in hell.

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