By David Wiegand
© San Francisco Gate, November 18th, 2011 permalink
Woody Allen: A Documentary: An "American Masters" presentation. Part 1, 9 p.m. Sun. Part 2, 9 p.m. Mon. on PBS.
Woody Allen long ago mastered the art of drawing seemingly unwanted attention to himself as a way of keeping the world at bay. Or perhaps it's that he knows how to keep the world just far enough at bay to ensure that it pays attention to him and his work.
The realization that both sentences may be accurate comes through in the fascinating new two-part "American Masters" documentary on the filmmaker airing Sunday and Monday on PBS. Made with Allen's cooperation and participation, "Woody Allen: A Documentary" is directed with compelling attention to detail by Robert Weide.
Allen has been hiding in plain sight for more than 50 years. By shunning interviews, guarding scripts for forthcoming movies as if they were top-secret plans for nuclear war, and, for the most part, making himself scarce whenever he's nominated for an Oscar, he's managed to turn the presumed definition of the term "famously private" inside out.
For example: Early in the film, Allen is driven back to his boyhood home in Brooklyn where, as Allen Stewart Konigsberg, he spent hours going to the movies at the Midwood theater, just around the corner from the second-floor walkup he shared with his ever-quarreling parents and younger sister.
As the car pulls up in front of his old home, Allen makes a point of donning his floppy hat before getting out. Does that make him blend in so that no one would know it's Woody Allen? Hardly. The ratty old hat is as much a part of Allen's trademark "uniform" as his horn-rimmed glasses, oxford shirts and baggy corduroys. In fact, later in the movie, there's a great scene of Allen striding along a city sidewalk in his Woody Allen costume - with various passers-by of course following his every purposeful step.
Elsewhere, and unavoidably, Allen has to address the media wildfire that arose when he and former longtime partner Mia Farrow split up after he began an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, to whom he has been married since 1997. Yet, even now, after all these years, Allen apparently thinks he can get away with saying he was surprised at how interested the media was in his personal life at the time of his romantic realignment.
The Brooklyn version of "aw shucks" and "who, me?" obviously works because it's stood the test of time, and in no way diminishes from Allen's eminence as one of the nation's - and the world's - great filmmakers. Weide follows the evolution of Allen's career from his early beginnings writing gags for newspaper columnists and scripts for Catskills resort shows, before becoming a writer for TV great Sid Caesar.
From there, he became a stand-up comic, at the insistence of his manager, who was determined to make him a household name across the country. Despite his shyness and avowed reluctance to perform before live audiences, he did whatever was required to make his name known, including appearing on the old TV quiz show "What's My Line?" and boxing a kangaroo on another show.
After his screenplay for the 1965 romp "What's New Pussycat" was mangled, Allen determined to protect his work better in the future by directing the films himself. Weide takes us through virtually all of Allen's subsequent films, giving us a chance to hear the director's assessment of the obvious hits - "Annie Hall" - as well as the more difficult films, such as the airless Bergman homage, "Interiors." Allen readily fesses up when talking about a failed film, but without specifically expressing regret: For him, a film's success is measured in how well it reflected his initial vision, rather than in box office returns or awards.
With intoxicating commentary from insiders in Allen's life and career such as his sister, Letty, former wife Louise Lasser, former partner and frequent co-star Diane Keaton, four-time co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman, actors Tony Roberts, Mariel Hemingway and others (not Farrow or Previn), the film offers a kind of pointillistic portrait of its subject. We take what others say and add it to what Allen himself says - and, perhaps more important, what he doesn't say - to get something akin to a three-dimensional take on the man.
Perhaps the most significant clue to the real Woody Allen, though, comes in an interview with his late mother, Nettie Konigsberg, filmed by Allen himself. In the clip, she seems to reproach herself for not having been more maternal toward him when he was a boy. Perhaps if she had, she tells him through the lens of his own camera, he would have been ... well, not a better person, because, after all, he is a good man ... but perhaps more "warm."
Whether she's right or not isn't as telling as how she damns him with the faint praise that he is "a good person," and then belittles him by saying he isn't very warm. After seeming to express regret for how she raised him, she deftly turns the focus - and nudges the failing - toward the man behind the camera.
In some ways, it's the most revealing moment of the film. Not only does it suggest why Allen can be shy and self-deprecating as well as an artist firmly in control of his own product and persona, but the clip itself is like something out of one of Allen's films: a mother guilt-tripping her son in a way that seems cruel and mordantly humorous at the same time.
Allen couldn't have scripted it better himself.