Woody Allen is a comedian, a writer, a director, a clarinet player, an Oscar winner, a very peculiar personality, attractive to both his peers and the people who have known him on a more personal level. Which Woody would one want to know? Woody Allen: A Documentary, directed by Robert B. Weide, tries to show us a bit of everything as it makes everyone from Diane Keaton to his sister to himself talk about him in what ends up being a documentary as funny and interesting as his films themselves.
- Non existence. Black emptiness.
- What did you say?
- Nothing, I was just planning my future.
The film is not a straight-forward biography as it seems to spend more time discussing his career and films rather than personal stories. However, it does include a lot of personal anecdotes which date back to Woody’s early childhood. It’s always interesting to find out stories about people now considered masters at what they do and how much their early years showed symptoms that was to be their future genius mind at work. When it comes to Allen, early years become even more intriguing, as they can contextualise the on going relationship his films have had with psychoanalysis. If, for any other great writer or director, tales of their childhood would reveal a person seeing things differently, or always immersed in his own world of thoughts, for Woody, his childhood seems to have been the birth of themes in his films until this day and revelations still very much present in the way his mind works. Case in point: Woody states he was a rather happy little boy until the time of about five years old when he became aware of his mortality and became a much moodier person, something that would stay with him through out all his adult life. Becoming aware of your own mortality at age 5 has to be one of the ‘Woodi-est’ things I’ve ever heard. Don’t all things ‘Allen’ make a bit more sense now?
There are stories of how he went from a writer for newspapers to TV persona and stand-up comedian and footage of early gigs he had done that I could watch over and over again. And then, with the help of his manager, his career bloomed even more and he scored his first gig as a screen writer for What’s New, Pussycat?, something that had never occurred to him as something he could do. The experience with how studios worked taught him that he could make another film until he had all creative control, for his script for the film was changed into a silly farce movie. And that’s how he attempted directing, by necessity. As discussed in the documentary, this shows in his early films as they are really not all that cinematic. Woody says watching Bergman’s Seventh Seal sent him into desperation as he didn’t feel he could do anything that would match that. He still tried to fuse all of his influences in his films, all from Groucho Marx and Bob Hope to Ingmar Bergman. And, I think, somewhere here is where the ‘classic’ Allen film comes about.
Annie Hall is considered a landmark which changed romantic comedy for good, a film which hits the nail on the head talking about a specific time and place and which spoke to a particular generation so deeply that Larry David calls it earth shattering in its effect on people. Annie Hall was also the film with which Woody consolidates himself as a director, as he moves from just putting out a series of funny scenes (not that I mind any of his earlier films) to making it about the people first and not about the jokes. Annie Hall says something profound about the human condition, in its delicious sarcasm but, also, in its more somber moments, providing the perfect counterpoint, their combination offering us one of the most honest takes on relationships-as does Manhattan and so many other romances he’s created since. And this is the period he stars to be a bit more cinematic as well, with Interiors and Stardust Memories, perhaps thinking that the mark of a truly good director is to be found in form.
Woody comes off as quite quirky to work with, sending letters with the script to actors with someone waiting to take back the minute they’re done with it, or when he meets potential cast members in order to okay them and doesn’t think that they would want to spend any time with him. He seems to be perfectly honest with himself and others, not really caring about hearing nice –or bad- things about himself if they don’t come from an honest place. His disregards for people’s critiques judging good or bad choices rather than just expressing a personal opinion must have come in handy when the Mia Farrow-Soon-Yi scandal broke loose. Allen then realized that he was quite famous, since all these people were interested in his personal life. Or that scandal always sells. Everyone mentions how he was able to compartmentalize and not let that time in his life affect his work as well as the fact that, being quite pessimistic, he was always ready for something incredibly bad to happen. In any case, while sleeping with your adoptive daughter is not something I would recommend and it still sounds kind of creepy, Woody still seems to see it as a choice himself and Soon-Yi made for themselves and that’s nobody else’s business. And, with the traces of Greek tragedy all over this, Woody proves once again his view that some things just can’t be helped. The heart wants what it wants. Mia Farrow learned that the hard way, for sure.
The scandal, along with Woody’s relationship with Diane Keaton, are the two times when the documentary goes into matters of the heart and of a personal nature. Which makes sense since not only were they heavily publicized but, also, complicated romantic relationships are one of Allen-the writer-‘s fortes. Plus, both women have served as muses for some of his greatest films. And when it comes to films that are so self reflexive, the connection between art and reality that they provide is of a greater interest still. Speaking of muses, I had never realized how many actors and actresses have gotten Oscars as well as nominations for working with Woody Allen. The list is very long and, obviously, the documentary doesn’t provide an exhaustive one. Still, it proves how Woody would be an ideal director to work with, as he’s known to be encouraging and lets actors speak their minds about what they think they should be doing. Sean Penn, Diane Keaton, Scarlet Johansson, Larry David and Penelope Cruz all attest to that. He comes off as an artist who allows others artistic freedom but, as a typical Woody Allen storyline would have it, most actors prefer to do everything they way he wants them to, sometimes overly worrying about how well they have served his vision, when he’s perfectly content with their work as well as their personal touches on it.
This was, at least for me, one of the most interesting parts of the documentary, as it makes you see that Woody Allen is not only a genius comic writer or a director of inspired, vibrant movies that have made film history. He’s also an actors’ director as he has a good hunch about casting, knows what he wants and where to find it, is not a diva and creates an environment where his actors can really create, contribute and at the same time feel the need to be at their best in order to produce something he, more than anyone else, will be pleased with. And that’s because, in his turn, he’s interested in telling stories about people, entertaining us and keeping himself busy while struggling to find the beauty in the chaotic mess that is life on earth. Quite the achievement. Even though Woody would probably choose immortality over it without even blinking.
If my films make one more person miserable, I’ll feel I have done my job.