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“Most surprises are negative.” That’s a quote from Woody Allen in the positively evocative surprise that is the PBS American Masters series’ Woody Allen: A Documentary, airing in two parts Nov. 20 and 21.
Writer and director Robert Weide got unfettered access to one of the country’s great and most prolific directors whose private life and personal feelings about his work had never been adequately captured. Credit Weide, who spent a year and a half with Allen, including at home, traveling and on the set of a working film, for not botching such a grand opportunity.
Woody Allen manages to astutely chronicle not only a career in film but to shed some light on the man behind the movies, and in so doing it pushes the too easily used “neurotic New York Jew” out of the way as a catchall for Allen into areas both familiar and not. Whereas Allen spends much of the documentary deflecting credit and using self-deprecating lines to soften the glare of introspection, there are plenty of moments when he seems at his most open and vulnerable. Even in the shortest of scenes — getting out of a car, talking to actors on set — a lot can be gleaned about what the 75-year-old is like at this stage of his life.
And sometimes it’s those small moments that stay with you — Allen sitting on the side of his bed, glancing at the random scraps of paper where he jots down movie ideas and then forgets them and moves on, or admitting that he really doesn’t have anything to say, in short uncomfortable social situations, to the actors who work in his films. Or the delight he seems to take in falling short of genius because he got in the way and made a mess of it (he’s still critical of Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, among other films, for not turning out exactly how he would have liked).
“This is the Woody doc everybody has been waiting for, and I am delighted that this creative giant is finally assuming his rightful place in the American Masters library,” said series creator and executive producer Susan Lacy.
Weide begins the documentary with Allen essentially wondering what all the fuss is about and gets him to take a car trip to his old neighborhood and open up and walk around. And Weide taps into a simple truism that is a hallmark of Allen’s career: He’s constantly writing and creating and has never stopped thinking about doing just that virtually every day of his life. Weide then starts at the beginning, with Allen writing jokes as a teenager and sending them into newspaper columnists. That begat writing jokes for publicists to give to their clients, then writing for Sid Caesar, to his earliest, most painful work as a stand-up comic (where his natural shyness is simply overcome by his refusal to stop doing what he loves). Weide tracks Allen’s early career through television (with indispensable comments from Dick Cavett and Allen’s sister, Letty Aronson) to Take the Money and Run, the guidance of Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins, and what would then become a unique structure for making and financing films, roughly one a year, with total autonomy for the rest of his life.
Woody Allen has an enormous number of stars talking about their involvement with Allen (including Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Dianne Wiest, Owen Wilson, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Penn, Mariel Hemingway and John Cusack).
Aronson gives the most detail about what he was like as a child, and there’s some hilariously revealing footage Allen shot of his mother, Nettie Konigsberg. Weide gets just the right amount of professional balance by including the actors, co-writers like Mickey Rose (Take the Money and Run, Bananas), Marshall Brickman (Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), film critics like Richard Schickel and F.X. Feeney, former assistants and cinematographers like Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond and even Martin Scorsese to opine on Allen. There are enough outside comments to flesh out what Allen adds and what he shades a bit with his self-deprecation.
And, yes, if you’re wondering — and everybody will be — Weide addresses the Soon-Yi Previn situation, but even with Allen and others discussing it, some people won’t be convinced that Weide went far enough with his questioning (he said Allen never refused to answer a question). In fact, you can’t profile someone like Allen in 3 1/2 or so hours and not leave yourself open to second-guessing. Maybe some viewers will believe that even with unprecedented access, Weide didn’t shed as much light on the reclusive Allen as he could have.
That’s because, despite some of the intimate discussions Allen engages in, his shyness is still formidable. And much of the best material in the documentary — Allen criticizing his own work, his candor — mostly comes with an undercoating of humor. That’s natural, but you have to wonder how much deflection of real emotion and honesty is going on and how much Allen is meticulously guarding the search for personal revelations and soul-baring.
To Weide’s credit, there is a flourish midway in the documentary where he catches and edits together a number of people, including Allen, using the term “compartmentalize” as it relates to Allen’s mental makeup.
Even if there are shortcomings, Woody Allen remains fascinating, funny and insightful. The film has many moments where actors — all of them dying to work with Allen and then feeling a mixture of confusion (about how well they did) and admiration for what he got out of them with a minimalist’s touch — recall his style. Cusack and Wiest say that Allen’s coaching is simple: Do what feels natural, and do it in a hurry. They then laugh, as does Allen, when adding that this derived from his interest in getting home to watch a Knicks game.
“I don’t have a lot of patience in life or in general,” Allen says. “If I’ve gotten what I want, then I want to move on, finish and go home.”
That rush, if you will, has churned out a vast list of movies, some of them great and others not — the calculation of a life’s work that Allen seems to sum up in two different responses: 1) that he wished he had done better even on the great films; and 2) that he’s happy people come out and watch his work at all, even if the film doesn’t do well.
“Woody Allen has never felt obligated to top himself,” Feeney notes. “He’s felt obligated to do whatever interests him the most.”
“I don’t really care about commercial success,” Allen says, and laughs while adding, “and the end result is I rarely achieve it.”
Woody Allen ends with reflection on Midnight in Paris, his most financially successful film. And, fittingly enough, Weide acknowledges that Allen’s life and career are still in forward motion: “The prolific nature of Woody’s output has provided me with an embarrassment of riches. In fact, Woody will have made three features just in the time it’s taken me to make this one documentary.”
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