American Masters: Woody Allen

American Masters: Woody Allen

American Masters: Woody Allen will debut tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain, in most markets. You should check local listings.

Woody Allen has been the subject of a few documentaries before—most notably Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s film about Allen’s jazz hobby, and Richard Schickel’s Woody Allen: A Life In Film—but the three-and-a-half-hour, two-part American Masters installment Woody Allen: A Documentary is more exhaustive than any that’s come before. In fact, few books on Allen are as detailed as A Documentary. Director Robert Weide doesn’t just cut together clips from Allen’s movies with a few soundbites from Allen and his collaborators; no, Weide has footage from vintage Allen interviews and stand-up performances, as well as family photos and home movies, and interviews with Allen’s sister/producer Letty Aronson. He even takes Allen back to his boyhood Brooklyn neighborhood, and lets him reminisce, while illustrating Allen’s memories with the pieces of his films that seem to be the most autobiographical. In other words: Weide goes deep.

And bully for Weide, because although Allen has worked aspects of his own life into his films for years, and though Allen’s been more willing lately to give interviews and make public appearances, he’s still fundamentally a private person, disinclined to reveal more than what’s in the public record. Also, as much as any major filmmaker, Allen’s prolific work-habits have dinged his reputation. Allen has more great movies on his resumé than just about any director who’s ever lived—outside of maybe all those guys with Italian last names—but he’s been so productive that the percentage of great Allens goes down nearly every year. As a result, Allen’s overall body of work is due more awe than it tends to receive these days.

My biggest beef with Woody Allen: A Documentary is that it’s weighted—understandably, I’ll grant—to Allen’s ‘70s era, which has never really fallen out of favor. Weide spends most of the first hour on Allen’s pre-filmmaking years: his happy youth, his bickering parents, his start in showbiz writing one-liners for Broadway columnists and TV hosts, and his reluctant rise as a stand-up comic. Then the bulk of part one covers the “early, funny films,” leading up to the towering successes of Annie Hall and Manhattan, which both get a lot of screen-time here. Part two of Woody Allen: A Documentary runs only an hour and twenty minutes, which isn’t nearly enough time to cover Allen’s ‘80s films—to my mind, his strongest and most creative stretch—let alone the underrated ‘90s movies and the up-and-down ‘00s material. I would’ve liked to have seen more of an effort to thread all these eclectic films together, and maybe make more of a case for some overlooked ones.

But that’s mostly a personal gripe. As a longtime fan—who got deep into Allen when I was a teenager, and watched every Allen movie I could find in my local video store, along with reading his books and listening to his old stand-up—I found much more to like in A Documentary than to criticize. Granted, there are limits to how much any interviewer will be able to get out of Allen. He’ll talk about his own experiences with other people, but won’t say much about his feelings except in the most glancing or glib way. And when it comes to the biggest, most personal story of Allen’s life—his messy split with Mia Farrow and his affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter—Weide does his best to cover it, but there’s only so much that his subject is willing to say. (The complete absence of Mia Farrow’s comments from A Documentary doesn’t help either, both when it comes to the scandal and to the discussions of Allen’s ‘80s classics.) But judging by what Allen’s friends and collaborators have to say, this is all true to who Allen is. He weathered the tabloid phase of his life the same way he’s weathered his many box-office flops: by continuing to write, direct and star in movies as though nothing significant had happened.

What I think a lot of Allen fans are going to like about A Documentary is how focused it is on his work habits. We get to see the typewriter he’s used for most of his life, and the drawer full of hand-written story ideas, and his method for editing scripts by literally cutting and pasting (or, more accurately, stapling). Allen describes how he writes rough drafts, gives them a polish, and then doesn’t want to see the script again until the first day of shooting, so that he won’t overwork the material, and Weide hears from Allen’s actors, who explain that he gives very little feedback as a director but that he’s willing to let them change his dialogue as much as they want so long as it sounds more natural. (Weide has some footage of Allen with Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts from the set of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger that backs up those impressions.)

One of the reasons that I appreciated that exploration of craft is that Allen himself so often seems to downplay it. These days, he cultivates his reputation as a punch-clock director, just trying to get his work done by sundown so he can watch the Knicks. He often says that all he’s ever done is steal from the Marx brothers, Bob Hope and Ingmar Bergman, all of whom he feels are way smarter and/or funnier than he is. So it’s nice to be reminded by people like cinematographer Gordon Willis and critic F.X. Feeney that Allen has a keen sense of aesthetics. (I especially liked a moment where Feeney ties Allen’s love of jazz to his sense of rhythm and timing.) It’s also nice to be reminded that Allen busted his ass when he was younger, following the lead of shrewd managers who knew that the only way to sell Allen’s idiosyncratic brand of comedy would be to make him a household name. 

The ploy worked. Allen was a go-to talk-show and panel-show guest in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then his early movies, plays and books were hits—some modest, some substantial. Then he made Annie Hall, which at the time was a radical departure from what he (or anyone, really) had done before, even though now it seems prototypical: not just for Allen but for indie filmmakers everywhere. It was only after Annie Hall that Allen seemed to become more reclusive and more dismissive of any great claims made for his work, just as critics began the seemingly endless cycle of “Woody Allen is washed-up!”/“Woody Allen is back!” stories.

So yes, it would’ve been nice to get more of the warm, human feeling that comes across when Allen waxes nostalgic about his failed first marriage, or when he expresses his deep affection for “Keaton”—as in Diane—and talks about palling around with her and Tony Roberts in the early ‘70s. (It’s hard to picture Woody Allen having “friends,” per se.) But that’s not really Allen’s story. As told—and quite well—in Weide’s documentary, Allen’s story is of a young man who learned to engage with the world through a steady stream of intellectually astute jokes, and then worked his way up to a position where he constantly disappointed his fans and himself for not being funnier or brighter.

Stray observations:

  • If you want to learn more about Allen’s early years in the business, I highly recommend this lengthy Kliph Nesteroff article from last year.
  • The brief audio excerpts of Mort Sahl (a major influence on Allen’s stand-up) had me pining for a three-hour Mort Sahl documentary. Get back to work, Weide!
  • Allen’s voice sounds deeper and more gravelly in these recent interviews than I’m used to. Only when he brightens up occasionally does he sound like “himself.”
  • The inevitable Dick Cavett talks a lot about Allen’s improvisational skills in interviews, but the example offered from his own show is really just free-associative absurdity, not all that clever. Far funnier is a clip of Allen dodging a foreign interviewer’s questions about the first celebrity he ever met, by launching into a long reverie about his years living with Trigger. “What about the smell?” the interviewer gamely asks. And Allen replies: “Oh, he didn’t mind that so much.”
  • Clips of the elaborate visual gags of Bananas and Sleeper are a good reminder that Allen’s movies used to be a lot more than just low-boil chatter in cramped apartments. It’s also interesting to hear about Allen’s original conception of Sleeper as a three-hour movie—more in line with the Tarkovsky movies it’s very loosely parodying—with the first half showing the hero’s life in today’s world before leaping into the future. Similarly, Annie Hall was actually shot as more of a trip through Allen’s mind than a romance, until he got into the editing room and discovered a much different movie. These oft-repeated stories—combined with the stories about Allen recasting movies in the middle of shooting—makes me wonder if we’ll ever get to see the unused performances and footage from Allen’s films, or if they’ve been destroyed. In A Documentary we see production stills of the excised material, but no clips.
  • The celebrity talking heads in A Documentary include other famous New York filmmakers and comedians, including Larry David, Chris Rock and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese though admits that while he loves entering Allen’s version of the city, it’s completely alien to his own experience of New York.
  • As noted in the review, I don’t completely buy Allen’s efforts to re-brand himself as a non-intellectual—especially after he he spent so much of his early career nurturing that rep. That said, it’s always bothered me how limited Allen’s taste appears to be. His favorite kinds of music, books and movies seem to have been locked-in before he turned 30. I don’t get the sense that Allen could speak as knowledgeably about Scorsese’s career as Scorsese can speak about Allen. (I could be wrong about that, though; I have some vague memory of Allen praising Scorsese in an interview years ago.)
  • Things that worry me: I have a Woody Allen “wishlist” on my TiVo, which alerts me whenever one of the movie channels shows one of his films, and yet with all the product available, the wishlist mostly just keeps spitting out the same three or four films, of mostly recent vintage. For example, over the next two weeks I can watch Anything Else, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Bananas. And that’s it. Thank goodness Bananas is on there—and on HBO, no less, not TCM—but even though I understand that most of the movie channels favor newer movies to old, could we at least get a Match Point or a Vicki Cristina Barcelona occasionally? Even a Small Time Crooks? I worry that the channel-flipping young people are going to get the wrong idea about Allen.
  • I don’t remember what my first Woody Allen movie was. It might’ve been Take The Money And Run, watched on broadcast TV with my parents in the ‘70s, or it might’ve been The Purple Rose Of Cairo, which I know my mom rented on VHS after our minister built a Sunday sermon around it. One thing I do know: the first Allen movie I saw in a theater was Crimes And Misdemeanors, which showed at my college’s student union cinema as a sneak preview screening when I was a sophomore. By then I had watched just about every existing Allen movie on video—aside from the dramas—so I was very excited to see a new one, and C&M did not disappoint. That movie hit the spot for me, as an Allen fan and a self-serious 19-year-old. I fully expected to be a sensation, and to sweep the Oscars; instead it did middling business, just like nearly every other Allen film. (A hard lesson learned.)
  • Allen’s summation of what what would’ve happened if he hadn’t gone into showbiz—“The world would be poorer a number of great one-liners”—pretty much typifies the way he can toot his own horn and diminish himself in the space of a single sentence.