Woody Allen: A Documentary

By David O'Connell

movie posterA breezy overview of Woody Allen’s cherished career, Robert B.Weide’s documentary works best as an appetiser for those seeking to rediscover what has made this great filmmaker a resilient survivor in the industry. With insights and observations drawn from a range of contemporaries and collaborators we're taken back to Allen’s beginnings, initially as a joke writer for newspaper columnists who instantly recognised his knack for observational comedy. This soon led to notoriety on the New York club circuit as a stand-up comedian. With his small stature and dweeby appearance Allen was never anyone’s idea of a ladies man, but his singular devotion to a regimented routine of writing gags would have its reward before long in cinema. His first writing gig, What's New Pussycat (1965), was butchered by its producers. Soured by the experience, Allen vowed to continue in film only if granted full autonomy, something he'd had ever since.

The self-deprecating Allen is on one level a fascinating enigma for many: the man who has made so many strangers laugh, seems to have rarely released a cackle of his own since discovering at the age of 6 that his term upon this mortal coil would be one restricted by his own mortality. This horrifying knowledge has informed his work ever since – both his comedy and drama – with its essential assertion that life is absurd so why not look at the funny side of things?

A limited time is devoted to biographical detailing: we see Woody visit his childhood home and school recalling episodes that resonate strongly with those buildings, but these moments, as welcome as they are, feel rudimentary. The comparisons generally fall back on acknowledgements of how different New York, the comedy scene and film industry were in the good old days. And yet Allen endures, churning out a film a year like clockwork, rarely turning more than a meagre profit. And yet how many actors in the world would knock back an opportunity to become an Allen cast member?

Weide rightly concentrates on the landmark films: Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Crime and Misdemeanors (1989), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and the stunning success of his last film, Midnight in Paris (2011). But there’s ample time to acknowledge the quality of projects in between – of which, all will have their favourites. Mark me down for the hilarious Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).

Diane Keaton - Allen’s first great muse – is a key interviewee, shedding light on her time, both professionally and personally, with him. Allen openly admits to possessing limited insight into female perspectives before meeting her. Later there was Mia Farrow continuing the inspiration though there’s little time to dwell on how sour their relationship became in later years.

Ultimately Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011) serves to highlight the filmmaker’s immense body of work whilst adding a backbone of biographical detail to this endearing portrait of the man born Allan Stewart Konigsberg. More than anything it emphasises the scope of his contribution to cinema over a huge span of years. Oblivious to changing fashions and trends, Allen’s films continue to roll out, offering a refreshed perspective of the world in recent years since he decided to sporadically leave Manhattan behind for the exotic terrain of England, Spain, France and in his upcoming film, Italy. Allen the filmmaker continues to honour his creative urges, his work achieving a richness that derives not so much from generating immense wealth, but from the reputation and respect it earns from critics, peers and fans the world around.

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