Woody Allen: A Documentary
Details: 113 mins, United States, English
Synopsis: A celebration of the remarkable film career of America's renowned writer, director, comedian and neurotic, Woody Allen. Notoriously elusive, Allen allowed his life and creative process to be documented on-camera for the first time. Spanning over 40 years of filmmaking, his distinct voice has evolved from his early days as a stand up and gag writer for television to an illustrious film career. himself.
Legacy doco sticks to surface elements.
It’s a celebration, not quite a portrait, and that makes it a missed opportunity
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Woody Allen: A Documentary is lightweight fun about a showbiz heavy hitter. It’s full of great stuff; some of the interviews are terrific, it’s funny, even occasionally insightful, and in terms of movie craft, it’s really very good. It moves along, it’s dense and thoughtful and, at times, it’s even moving.
But in the end, it’s shallow and timid. It’s the documentary movie biography equivalent of a jukebox, a greatest hits package of career highs and lows, and personal key points, some sad, some happy. It’s a celebration, not quite a portrait, and that makes it a missed opportunity. Most of all, it lacks a guiding intelligence that seeks to penetrate the all-pervasive myth surrounding its subject.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big Allen fan and his spectacular career is one of the great success yarns of post-World War II American showbiz. It’s a story that name checks the specifically Jewish and American pop culture zeitgeist in the decades since – Borsht Belt comedy, the Golden Age of TV, the mid-‘60s New York night club scene, and the New Hollywood of the ‘70s. Allen’s story is epic and it needed a sympathetic biographer. But director Robert Weide seems frankly awed by Allen and the task.
This film – a shortened version of the three-and-a-half hour PBS two-parter, which frankly suffers the same flaws as this two-hour version – is just too reverent, too tasteful. Allen has spent a lifetime confusing his life and art, his art and life. Weide never gets close to penetrating the mysterious pathology that feeds the Allen muse, let alone identifying it. That’s not to suggest that aspects of Allen’s personality and life don’t emerge; the whining but hugely successful, unsentimental, workaholic Woody Allen, the sceptical agnostic Jew, full of self-loathing and fearing anti-Semites, one who we know from magazine profiles and books emerges here alright, but Weide seems to take it all at face value. Even Allen’s neurosis, his chronic dissatisfaction with his own work, is sort of laughed off, as is his lack of personal warmth. It comes off as ‘cute’ (rather than something perhaps unhealthy and destructive).
Weide of Curb your Enthusiasm fame got unfettered, unconditional access to Allen after some years of trying to persuade the famously shy filmmaker that he would make a great subject for a documentary.
And some of the best stuff in the film comes out of Allen playing the willing ‘subject’: he takes Weide out to his old neighbourhood in Brooklyn on a guided tour of key places from his early upbringing, including his ancestral home, that’s part grim nostalgia, part melancholy reflection on a childhood that sounds, emotionally at least, less than idyllic.
The best parts of Woody Allen lie in its use of archival material; predictably the stand-up and talk show spots from Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson are hilarious, but then so are some of the behind-the-scenes material that Weide has managed to uncover. There’s a priceless bit here shot during the making of Allen’s Love and Death from 1974. Allen keeps ruining a take – by collapsing into hysterics – because co-star Diane Keaton is doing a bit of schtick that Allen says is just a little too reminiscent of his mother’s nagging at meal times. (Allen’s mum is seen here in an old interview; she says that once Woody reached adolescence he turned sour!)
If Allen ultimately comes off as a little diffident and cool, Weide surrounds him with talking heads that are full of good humour, frank insights and a loyalty that’s warming and precious. Particularly good are his old managers/producers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, old pal Cavett and old girlfriend Diane Keaton. She notes tellingly of her real life romance with Allen that: “I tried to get him to fall in love with me and I don’t think he did.” Any fan of Annie Hall (1977) will recognise the art/life significance of that line in an instant.
Still, Weide leaves Allen’s relationships alone. Soon Yi, Allen’s long-term wife and one-time adopted stepdaughter, does not appear and neither does Mia Farrow (she declined apparently). Allen talks admiringly of Farrow as actor, but he leaves the marriage be.
Instead, Weide concentrates on the films; there have been 43 in as many years, so the treatment here is glib – it’s clip/comment, next clip/comment, etc…. Even on Allen’s major works that get some genuinely fat screen time here like Annie Hall and Manhattan (1979) a fan might feel gypped. Apparently, Weide takes Allen’s self-regard as an existential artist seriously. But he never goes too deep on this aspect of Allen’s work beyond noting that Woody has a fear of dying, and is convinced that existence has no real meaning – ideas that permeate his work.
Originally, Annie Hall was called Anhedonia. It’s a clinical psychiatric term that describes the patient as experiencing an emotion where there is “an absence of the feeling of pleasure in situations where it is normally present”. Throughout Woody Allen, Woody Allen still talks like someone so afflicted… success is transient, though, as he says, he’s always done everything he ever wanted and got everything he ever dreamed of. He’s scared of dying and that’s understandable. As for his perpetual gloom, it seems, well, like excessive self-regard. I don’t think it’s Allen’s fault and he deserves better than this. Weide just isn’t at all rigorous. Lucky the jokes are good. But in the end, I got the feeling that Allen is simply telling Weide gags as a way to avoid confronting the real subject here: himself.
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