Review Of Woody Allen: A Documentary
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/13/12
I watched the recent PBS American Masters documentary on Woody Allen, Woody Allen: A Documentary, online, and it was surely a disappointment. It covered, in its three and a half hours, many of his films, his early life and break into show business, but it offered almost nothing of depth- oddly recapitulating the flaws of Barbara Koppleís 1998 documentary on the same subject, Wild Man Blues. In a sense, the film gives the best representation of the critical cribbing that is killing most film criticism, by having vapid and flat out bad critics opine on subjects they do not understand, but it does little to give one a better understanding of the filmmaker, for the so-called talking head Ďexpertsí it relies on are the dense and pretentious film professor Annette Insdorf, the lifeless hack film critic Richard Schickel, the ebulliently vacuous film critic Leonard Maltin, a film critic priest named Robert Lauder, who uttersÖwell, nothing of value about Hannah And Her Sisters, a number of Allenís co-stars and actors, who burble on cluelessly, and, worst of all, utterly unknown schlock filmmaker and critic, F.X. Feeney, who displays he has absolutely no clue about films, in general, much less Allenís, in particular. The much better insights into Allenís life and art come from his non-screen cohorts: comic and talk show host Dick Cavett, managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, cinematographer Gordon Willis, and co-writers Mickey Rose and Marshall Brickman. The only other filmmaker of note to appear onscreen is Martin Scorsese and he mostly rambles on about how his New York and Allenís are like visions from two different worlds. Well, duh, Marty. Exactly how and why is that is never broached by Weide.
Particularly revealing is the utter lack of critical recognition of the Golden Age of Woody Allenís film directing career, from 1977ís Annie Hall through 1992ís Husbands And Wives. To the critics, the trite and wrong trope that Allen brilliantly skewers in Stardust Memories, that his funnier, earlier films were better, is hewed to as if gospel, and, bizarrely, 2005ís Match Point, an arguably great, but limited, film, that sucks much of its essence from Allenís earlier 1989 masterpiece, Crimes And Misdemeanors, is treated as if it is a revelation while its far better father film is almost glossed over. Even worse, other excellent films are shown a few scenes only (Interiors, Radio Days, Husbands And Wives) or totally ignored (1988ís magisterial Another Woman, Sweet And Lowdown, Cassandra's Dream- arguably a better film than Match Point, and all of Allenís actor only films), but no film comes off more critically raped than what is likely Allenís best overall film, Stardust Memories- more on that later. Similarly, many of Allenís lesser works are held up far beyond their worth (Bananas, Sleeper, A Midsummer Nightís Sex Comedy, and Vicky Christina Barcelona- although I suspect this was merely to wedge in vapid comments from Scarlett Johansson), which shows the utter schizophrenia and banality of director Robert Weideís approach and assessment of the man and his oeuvre.
The 3Ĺ hour long film is divided into two parts. Part One is two hours long, and follows Allenís early life, his break into show business, as a joke writer for local New York newspapers, then on Sid Caesarís Your Show Of Shows in the 1950s, and his rise as a standup comedian, and entry into film, up until 1980, and Stardust Memories. Part Two follows the last thirty plus years, and takes up only 90 minutes, so the 30 or so films Allenís done in that period are shortshrifted big time. Also, there is a bizarre overpraise for Allenís 2000s films, which, with a few exceptions, are almost all slight comedies of manners. Overall, Allen tries to pass himself off as an everyman, even though video and text interviews with him reveal a deep, intelligent, and engaging intellect. To hear Allen tell it, heís a fraud and poseur, not one of the four or five best filmmakers in American history. Little on the plane of Allenís filmís artistic merit is presented in the film- itís more of an omnibus take. About the lone positive I can state is that the film keeps the so-called scandal with Mia Farrow and her daughter Soon-Yi Previnís involvement with Allen to a minimum. A montage of talking heads praising Allenís ability to Ďcompartmentalizeí his life is the closest thing to razzle dazzle that Weide employs. About the only interesting personal anecdotes that appear in the film are Allenís closeness to his sister Letty Aronson and the fact that, at least early on, in his career, his eyeglasses were a mere comic prop, not prescriptions for bad eyesight. Part One ends with the usual critical pabulum on Annie Hall and Manhattan, and continues that trend with the critically cribbed assessment of Stardust Memories: that itís an inferior ripoff of Federico Felliniís 8Ĺ, and that it was Allenía rebuke to his fans, even though it is plainly NOT those things. Even worse is that several times, in the documentary, they take that filmís most important scene- where Allenís Sandy Bates character is told by aliens that they (as the critically cribbing critics do) like his early, funnier films, and if he wants to do the world a service he should Ďtell funnier jokes.í The film clearly puts this in a philosophical context, meaning that the character is admonished to do what he does best to maximize his potential, but on all the occasions this moment is referenced it is claimed or implied to being Allen rebuking his own pretensions. It simply is not the case, yet Weide seems to have utterly no clue as to the value and worth of his subject matter, nor his best works. That thirty plus years later such a witty and intelligent critique of humanity, as well as the boobery it skewers, is STILL missed, shows how prescient and dead on Allenís aim was, and how utterly vacuous most of his critics are.
Part Two continues the general idiocy of the talking heads, where Feeney dismisses Stardust Memories, and hails the next film, A Midsummer Nightís Sex Comedy, as a Ďreturn to form,í even though it is one of Allenís least engaging films on any level, and is notable only for having Mia Farrowís first appearance in an Allen film. There follows a startling dismissal of Allenís Golden Age, which is a period that few filmmakers can match, and an even more bizarre pumping up of Allenís recent non-New York based films, which makes one wonder if this documentary is less a genuine journalistic article of celluloid, and more simply a marketing device, for the amount of time spent on Allenís last two films, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight In Paris; filmís Iíve yet to see, but which donít look promising, and almost certainly fall short of Allenís Golden Age triumphs.
Nonetheless, there are worse ways to spend 210 minutes. The problem is, there are almost as many ways to better spend such time. I recommend the latter option, especially with the knowledge that most Allen films are crisp enough that almost three full features of his can be squeezed into that same timeframe. My recommendation? Try Stardust Memories, Another Woman, Crimes And Misdemeanors, and, for dessert, Allenís truly greatest comedy: Radio Days. You can thank me later.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Critical Critics website.]
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