Notes From the Woody Underground
RIP to the weirdest e-mail list I didn't ask to be on
I met Andy five years ago through a friend who introduced us at some party by saying we were both planning on going to see some Whit Stillman film playing at the Metrograph. It was the friend’s attempt at passing us off on each other so the friend could go talk to somebody else. A classic move. We both just stood there for a second hoping the other one would make some small talk. He looked at his phone, I looked around. It was one of those seconds when I tried to remember what it was like for awkward people before they could tune everything out and at least act like they got some interesting e-mail or there was some hot news they had to catch up on. Another friend had invited me to the thing at the bar and that friend was late. The friend who had introduced me to Andy was off talking to other people, so I had no choice and decided to engage my new acquaintance by asking him how long he’d been a fan of Stillman’s films.
“For a few years now. I’ve only ever seen The Last Days of Disco. I really like to see movies I’ve never seen in theaters. It’s just better that way.”
I told him I understood that, although I’m not that particular. I’ll take it where I can get it, I said. I realize now that was an odd response, but Andy didn’t seem to be fazed by it. “Stillman is a lot like Woody Allen,” he said. “Do you like Woody?”
Before I go any further, I should mention that Andy isn’t the guy’s real name. I met him in a bar, and a friend introduced us, but Andy is not his name. I’ll change a few other things about him and his group of friends because I’m not looking for any trouble. Although, I can’t help but wonder if there was somebody around us in that crowded Brooklyn bar that heard “Woody Allen” and decided to listen. Because I heard Andy say it out loud enough that I finally said, “I heard if you say his name three times then you automatically become the most despised person on Twitter.”
It was a joke, but Andy didn’t find it that funny. He shook his head and looked around. For a second, I thought he was going to launch into some Travis Bickle “Thank God for the rain” sort of speech, that was the vibe he was giving off. Like he was going to tell me society is sick, the woke mobs are killing everything, etc. But he didn’t. There was no speech about separating the artist and the art or any mention of the state of modern humor. Instead, Andy looked at me and said without even a hint of sarcasm, “That’s why we’ve had to go underground.”
When I think “underground,” I tend to think of people practicing an outlawed religion or resistance fighters hiding from their enemy. I’ve read stories about how the members of the Czechoslovakian psych band Plastic People of the Universe, and other people living in the Soviet Union, would have to sneak out into the woods to listen to bands like the Velvet Underground or Frank Zappa. That, to me, is underground. What Andy explained to me he and a small group of friends had started doing a year earlier, didn’t really feel like it belonged in that same conversation. “We’re called the Woody Underground,” he told me. “We don’t have a membership. It’s more a word-of-mouth thing.”
The idea was pretty simple. Andy and a few other people would get together and watch a Woody Allen movie a few times a year. This is something they felt they had to do in secret. I asked if he thought that his group was being paranoid, and he scoffed. “I had a girl dump me because I made her watch Annie Hall,” is the evidence he gave me. I waited for a second and expect more, but that was it. A girl dumped him. That’s his origin story.
The friend I was waiting for showed up so I excused myself. Before I walked away, Andy grabbed my arm. It was a tight grab. It made me a little uncomfortable, almost like he was trying to figure out my body mass index. “If you’re interested, we watch Hannah and Her Sisters every year around Thanksgiving. You should come.” I told him I’d consider it, then spent the rest of the night trying to avoid eye contact with Andy.
A day later, I got an e-mail from Andy. I don’t recall giving him my contact details, but he had it, and first came the “Hey, good meeting last night. Let me know if you want to come to watch Hannah and Her Sisters. I can’t tell you the location unless you say you’re coming” e-mail. I respond with a thank you, but I was busy that night. Andy didn’t respond and I figured that was the last I’d hear from him. I didn’t think five minutes of conversation meant I was suddenly on his list of people he e-mailed about the “Woody Underground,” but I was wrong. The following April a message that was composed for a group showed up in my inbox, all the names BCCd so we couldn’t see each other. It was Andy inviting us to watch Stardust Memories on an undisclosed Manhattan rooftop with the promise that if the weather wasn’t suitable, the group had an indoor backup.
I’m the child of Jewish boomers, so Woody Allen and his work were part of my upbringing. It’s something that’s difficult to talk about because I’m generally a fan of separating the artist from the art and willing to engage in conversations about this topic, but Woody, I don’t know. That’s a tough one. People really hate Woody. I get it, but I also know that there’s a certain extra added layer of vitriol people save for him as opposed to other creeps and bad people. So I just try to not say the “W word” that much. It’s not worth it. I’ve got a shrink I can talk to about this stuff and lord knows I have.
But the idea of a secret society of Woody Allen fans getting together was something I couldn’t get out of my head. I stayed a part of Andy’s group e-mails, and would periodically receive e-mails that the group was getting together to watch and discuss something like Manhattan Broadway Danny Rose or Zelig. But more than the film selections was just how long the e-mails were. I don’t mean like A Little Life long, but for sure in the 1,500-2000 word range complete with Andy’s notes and thoughts on the film, as well as where the complimentary dinner and wine were from. That, and there was always a special cocktail to go with the theme of the evening. For Manhattan Murder Mystery, a Manhattan made with Scotch and not rye; for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a sherry-based cocktail; for Match Point, which they screened during the U.S. Open one year, they made a Honey Deuce like you’d drink if you were in Queens watching the American Grand Slam. These events, I started to understand, were a thing. And the centerpiece was the annual viewing of Hannah and Her Sisters. For the last few years, even during 2020 when we weren’t seeing anybody, the Woody Underground seemed to be going strong, hosting their gatherings over Zoom.
I’d become so accustomed to my Woody Underground e-mails that when I realized earlier this week I didn’t receive the annual Hannah invite, I started to worry. Did something happen to Andy? Was it just not happening this year? Did I get kicked off the list for never responding or showing up to any of the viewings? I worried that not wanting to be a club that wanted me as a member finally meant the club no longer wanted me. I wasn’t going to go to any of the viewing parties, I never had any intention of doing that. But I did like getting the e-mails. There was something fun about it, like I could time certain parts of the season to the slightly unhinged, very long e-mails about this club for Woody Allen fans that felt like they had to practice their appreciation in hiding.
So finally, I asked the friend who introduced us at the bar that one night. When I mentioned Andy, my friend said he had fallen out of touch with him, except for the Woody Underground e-mails. I asked him if he ever went to one of the film showings.
“Once,” he said with a laugh. “It was me, Andy and two other dudes in this really big apartment on the Upper West Side like the one in Only Murders in the Building. Nobody was allowed to call each other by their first name. It was this whole thing. They all just called each other “Max.”
“Like what Tony Roberts and Woody Allen call each other in Annie Hall.”
That’s weird, I said. I asked if they called him Max.
“Yeah. They did.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“The whole thing was creepy. I felt like they were indoctrinating me into a cult.”
My friend told me he hadn’t talked to Andy since that night. I asked if anything happened at the viewing that caused the falling out of touch. My friend said no, but he didn’t go out of his way to see the guy after that.
Was he still getting the e-mails? I was curious if I’d been cut off.
“No. Nobody is,” my friend said of the news he heard from a mutual friend of his and Andy’s. “It’s over. Andy got a girlfriend. She made him stop doing it.”