Saturday, 27 July 2013


I just watched the first, two-hour half of Robert B Weide's magnificent Woody Allen: A Documentary, shown as an episode of BBC's Imagine strand and graced with a mind-numbingly cliched introduction by Alan Yentob, who presumably commissioned himself for the job.

It's a wonderful film, that makes many of its points through judicious intercutting of interviews, not least with Woody himself, and footage of his films, and more importantly of him performing. In fact, one of the most revelatory moments is when his managers, and Fred Weintraub, owner of the Bitter End, talk about Woody making his breakthrough as a stand up, and you then watch him and he is literally a different performer, far more frenetic and energised in his motions while he performs.

This makes perfect sense, because we have seen how driven he was, from the first, when he was selling jokes to newspaper columnists while he was still in high school. He was writing fifty jokes a day. It's not just as a kid either, for example while he worked on his movies, he was also writing short comic pieces for the New Yorker--Allen the performer needed to transfer that energy into his act, and when it does, it works. There's also a brilliant bit from Dick Cavett, talking about Woody's ability to improvise: he's guesting on Cavett's show with Ruth Gordon and Gina Lollabrigida, and he suddenly starts laughing, telling Cavett he's trying to figure out how they will split up the women.

There is just so much of interest: Woody cracking up every take while 'Keaton' (never Diane) reads his mother's lines in Sleeper; Tony Roberts on their playing together on Broadway and Keaton on how she went after Woody, and most importantly Woody's own takes on his own movies.

His mainstream breakthrough seemed to come with Annie Hall and Manhattan, two love stories shot by Gordon Willis in very different styles. They're important because they were the films in which Woody started to tell human stories with himself in the middle; he got away from the Bergmanesque Interiors, and managed to start drawing his comic New York Jewish world and the serious waspy world together (literally, in split screen in Annie Hall).

But the key moment comes when Allen discusses Manhattan as a 'foreign' film, explaining how they can have 'lightness' without being 'joke comedies', and implying American critics and audiences don't quite allow that.
The problem is, neither does Woody. Annie Hall is a great picture which is often held by Allen's innate ability to do jokes, and inability to resist them. It's not just the nebbish slapstick, which by that point in his career was getting boring. It's the way the rhythm of the film changes as he uses the story as his straight-man, often adding extra beats to dialogue that is quite moving in order to give himself the punch line.

Besides being the gorgeous love song to Allen's romantic New York, Manhattan is a wonderful, touching film, but I would hesitate to agree that it has a European 'lightness', except perhaps in a few scenes, such as Woody's lying on the couch thinking of the things that make life worth living. It works best because he gives the final punch line, deadly serious, but bittersweet, to Mariel Hemingway.

There's also a retrospective worry here, because Manhattan was the first of many films in which Woody's playing opposite much younger women who represent idealised visions of shiksa purity began to make that romantic metaphor begin to seem like a fetish. But that is a discussion for after seeing part two.

Part one ends with Stardust Memories, part Fellini, part Allen's frustrations, and here I take him seriously when he says he was dissatisfied with Manhattan—it's as if, in retrospect, he thinks it was and is loved for the wrong reasons. Maybe because he's taken himself out of the centre, just a bit, and the films are more popular for it. Or maybe it's the reaction to going from a cult figure among the cognoscenti to being a mainstream success whom middle America doesn't quite get. (Aside: when I saw Sleeper I Sweden I was the only person in the audience who got the joke about World War III being caused by Albert Schenker --head of the New York City teacher's union--getting hold of a nuclear bomb, I remember thinking the same would be true if I saw the film in Omaha). But the thing I remember writing about Stardust Memories at the time is that it is populated by a city of characters from Diane Arbus' photo album...his casting agent and his sister say they collected photos of what they call 'Woody People', but I always thought the look of the film was far more deliberately Arbus. And Woody seems disingenuous when he says he never thought the movie was about him, because it so obviously is at least based on that, and he knows we know that's what he's feeling. 

You can see Stardust Memories as a reaction to the overwhelming success of  Annie Hall and Manhattan; his reaction perhaps to his old core audience who liked the early comedies more; his reaction to thinking he could make better films audiences should like more. You can see it as a bitterness over celebrity for the wrong reasons. But it's a perfect point at which to split his career—I think he may have bridged that gap with Hannah And Her Sisters; I wonder if he does too, and I am wondering how they will approach his later career.


Ruzz said...

Saw this last year on a flight - which meant that it was very much an unknown quantity: no Yentob Seal of Approval. So I watched it without knowing if it was High Quality or just a clip collection. And to be honest my impression was that it was a little of both: a lot of interesting footage about Allen's family background, and the early nightclub (and pre-nightclub) years, but an awful lot of pointless talking heads saying nothing much, and some analysis that verged on the uncritical. Even watching it again, and now knowing it to be something high value, I can't help but feel that it's a missed opportunity: yes we learn something about Allen himself, but there's little challenge to anything that he says - and not much sense of critical engagement. An easy watch, but not a lot more.

Michael Carlson said...

After watching the second part, I'd agree, because most of the valuable stuff is in the first section, and just what you say. I found FX Feeney interesting, and Leonard Maltin good but perhaps too uncriticial--and no one really addressed the problem of Woody's own voice appearing in other characters even at the most serious moments...but still, re-evaluating him is good because I have been very dismissive of much of his work, including (especially) the later hits

James Chester said...

I think I'll have to look for these. Even if they are just clip fests, this is a body of work that would make for a very entertaining clip fest.

While I agree with most of what you say here, I think what you consider a fault in Annie Hall, I'd consider a strength. It's really his story, which makes his intrusions into it acceptable in my view. I do think he becomes much more generous in giving other people the punch lines in later movies.

I suspect Stardust Memories is the best place to divide his career, too.