Woody Allen: A Documentary

Robert B. Weide’s cinema-release documentary of Woody Allen begins with the rudimentary question: How can we make a documentary about Woody Allen? The problem, we are told, is that there are so many Woody Allens; it would be impossible to edit him. But this cinema version of the longer PBS documentary, condensing over three hours of footage into a more concise 113 minutes, proves such a feat both possible and successful. While the shorter length suits Weide’s documentary, as it does Allen’s films and one might argue the man himself, it takes on other Allenistic features. The credits appear in the same charming Windsor typeface. Jazz music plays like a joke against its characters’ mishaps and misgivings. It is scathingly, ridiculously funny and yet shadowed by an unshakeable scepticism (Allen’s, of course). Weide’s documentary also fronts the same universal question of life addressed at large in Allen’s body of work, engaging with this topic by extension and therefore directly, through the prism of Allen’s career and life.

For the most part, the new Woody Allen documentary is fondly celebratory as it charts his steady rise to fame, from penning jokes for local newspapers in his high school days, to his time as a comedian performing at East Village venues and on prime time TV, boxing with a kangaroo and performing pet gags to win over America. We are guided through his short-lived acting career  – that is, in other people’s movies – and finally, through to his longest sustained career and calling, as a writer and director. Watching Woody Allen behind the scenes is a treat to savour as we see him monitoring a scene behind the camera, headphones clamped over his ears; in the edit suite, cutting Anthony Hopkins short; and on the set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger merely paces away from Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin. Nearly in the scene himself, as he follows Watts and Brolin around, Allen is like an overseeing ghost, an unacknowledged but undeniable presence. Though he watches like a hawk, Allen is more laid back when it comes to the acting, letting the actors find their way – and sometimes even their own words – more naturally. He doesn’t do character exercises and the like. It’s tantalizingly satisfying to see actors like Josh Brolin, phishing for more comprehensive feedback, struggle a little with Allen’s offhand auteurial approach. There are many Woody Allens. But the one Weide chooses to show here, above all others, is an invariably impatient Allen, the auteur who likes things done his way but doesn’t want to do a scene over again if he’s content with it, who’d rather go home and watch the game.

But we aren’t invited back to watch the game. Cordoned off quite tightly from Allen’s personal life, which he is careful to keep at a remove, we are given meagre glimpses of the private man, Woody Allen, the husband and father. Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi, the adopted daughter of his wife at the time, Mia Farrow (who adopted Soon-Yi with former husband, Andre Previn), is handled with caution and treated perfunctorily by Weide who prefers not to probe at this question, instead settling for a medley of tabloid headlines and a curt statement from Allen, neither here nor there on the matter: people can have whatever opinion they like, he says. What people think doesn’t seem to have ever had much of an affect on Allen; he never reads reviews and is a notorious no-show at the Academy Awards. Save requisite promotional events like Cannes – which he puts up with because the wife (Allen is now married to Soon-Yi) and kids like it, he says – Allen shirks the publicity and perks that come with celebrity, a concept he continues to find preposterous, its reality not real at all as he squints at the gauzy, flashing lights produced by a sea of paparazzi cameras. Allen appears somewhat out of sync with his success, but delightfully so. He is probably the only person to hate Manhattan, one of his greatest laudatories, and one of the few to list Stardust Memories, which bombed at the box office, among his favourite Woody Allen films. In spite of his successes, there is the continuing sense that Allen has yet to fully realize the excellence of his art, and not in a show of false modesty – this is the man that says, starring in his own documentary, ‘the only thing that stands between me and greatness is me.’

Though we aren’t let too far into Woody Allen’s present life, we are given the shrink’s proportion of childhood material as we are treated to a walking tour of Flatbush, Brooklyn, led by Allen himself, casually pointing out the haunts of his boyhood from beneath his khaki fishing hat. He shows us the house in which Allen Konigsberg (before he was Woody Allen) grew up – ‘it looks small from the outside, but it was’, he offers as commentary. He takes us to what used to be the Midwood Theater, where he would cut school to feast on movies, that is now a bland-looking eye surgery facility. He stands a little nervously still, outside the playground where bullies once taunted him and where one nearly ran him over with his car. On screen and off, Allen is a colourful raconteur, and it is wonderful to see him return to the scenes of his childhood. In his eloquent anamnesis, Allen throws in a witticism here and there, as his neurotic protagonists would do, like Alvy Singer. Indeed, much of Allen’s childhood is cleverly contextualized amid corresponding scenes from his films, while subtle – and, in the case of Allen’s mother, Nettie Konigsberg, incredibly similar to Alvy Singer’s mother in Annie Hall, not so subtle – likenesses are cultivated between the real and fictional characters of Allen’s life and work. There is fantastically generous and tremendously sad archive footage of Allen’s mother, Nettie, who talks of how Allen became cynical at a young age and how he might have turned out more ‘normal’, as she struggles not to use the word. Followed by a clip from Annie Hall of Alvy’s own nagging mother, it’s hard to determine where Allen’s childhood ends and Alvy’s begins, as his protagonist becomes an inextricable extension of himself, his filmed, autobiographical avatar.

As he grows up, footage of Woody Allen’s personal life dwindles and Weide shifts the onus onto Allen’s professional life, taking us on a diversion route through much of his extensive filmography. Though perhaps it’s best that Weide doesn’t get too personal; often, up close, those we admire disappoint us. Taking my seat to watch the Woody Allen documentary, I feared such disappointment – and yet I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest, especially when Allen, breaking down the fourth wall as he is wont to do in his movies, talks us through his creative process. Here is the magician revealing his tricks, but the magic isn’t lost. On the contrary, I couldn’t help smiling at the screen in wonderment. Allen’s tricks are simple and few — the fountain of his fortune is a $40, part-broken typewriter (pictured above), which he has used to write all his screenplays — and it is precisely this avid insistence on simplicity that makes Allen’s charms all the more magical. When asked how he cuts and pastes, Allen gives a shrug, produces a pair of scissors and various stapling devices from his desk drawer. Allen is most vulnerable in these moments, a regular loveable Gil Pender, the romantic writer clutching onto the past. Showing us his assorted ramblings on legal pads, hotel stationery, and any other found bits of paper, Allen sorts through this splattering of ideas gingerly, carefully selecting just a sheet or two of paper to actually use, like wheedling a needle out of a haystack of words. Allen’s a big believer in what he calls ‘the quantity theory’, he produces things en masse; words all the time and movies every year (averaging a film a year since 1965, Woody Allen is a relentless workaholic), hoping for one great movie every few years, which is pretty much how it’s panned out. But it is agreed across the board that all his movies, duds included, have an unexplainable but absolute charm, what can only be called an inherent Allenness.

When I talk of ‘the board’, I’m talking about the many people brought together by this documentary, Allen’s family and friends, colleagues and critics. Anecdotes come from Letty Aronson (Allen’s sister and a frequent producer of his films), Dick Cavett, Jack Rollins (who, along with Charles H. Joffe, seen talking in archive footage, was Allen’s manager), Diane Keaton, John Cusack, Larry David, Sean Penn, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz, to name but a few. Allen’s muses ­– Keaton and Johansson, in particular – speak affectionately of him. To Johansson, he’s casually ‘my friend, Woody’, while the delightful Keaton gushes over Allen’s cuteness, remembering how much she just loved him and her coquettish plots to gain his attention. Keaton is in fact responsible for the most revealing moment of the entire documentary as she does something rather momentous: she makes Woody Allen laugh. Fooling around in some archive footage, in which she is rehearsing a scene with Allen and some others, she reads as his mother and thus gives Woody Allen the giggles. It’s a sight to see; here’s this comedian who takes jokes seriously, for whom funny is his profession, laughing like he just can’t help it.

But this guffawing Woody Allen is unlike the one we know, the one that wonders, after all his accomplishments, ‘why do I still feel screwed somehow?’ If, as W.B. Yeats once wrote, ‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work’, Woody Allen’s choice – or rather, the choice made on Allen’s behalf by his documenter – is clear; Allen’s work is his life. At least, this is the only capacity in which we will ever really know him. Weide either doesn’t care or dare to delve too deep beneath the enigma. Had he done so, I suspect that Weide might have risked ruining Allen for us. Instead, he gives us a Woody Allen not unlike his old typewriter, an ageing machine that still works, churning out magic every now and then.

2 Responses to “Woody Allen: A Documentary”
  1. Sue Daebritz says:

    This is a lovely review, well-written, but there is a glaring mistake right in the middle. The review refers to “Allen’s affair with his adopted step-daughter, Soon-Yi, whilst married to Mia Farrow.” If you’re looking for responsible, journalistic accuracy, it should be pointed out that Soon-Yi Previn was neither Allen’s adopted daughter, or step daughter. She was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Andre Previn. Woody wasn’t her adopted father, step-father, or even a father figure, according to Previn, since Woody and Mia were never married, nor did they ever live in the same residence. I don’t offer this as any kind of defense of Mr. Allen, simply as a clarification of an error in this particular piece of reporting. I’ve seen the documentary, and pretty much agree with everything else the reviewer has to say.

    • Sue, thanks for spotting that! Responsible, journalistic accuracy is of course what I’m looking for so I have rectified this mistake above. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the review. I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen and his work. Check back here after you’ve watched To Rome, With Love this summer — I’ll be reviewing that, too!

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