Woody Allen: A Documentary

By Edward Frost

During one of the many talking head interviews in this robust appraisal of Woody Allen, his sister and long time producer Letty Aronson describes how, at the age of seventy six, he is perhaps the happiest he has ever been in his life – still diligently making a film a year, regardless of critical or commercial success.

Promptly arriving just as Allen’s stock has been re-established with last year’s high grossing MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, it seems that Robert Weide, director of a handful of Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, has chosen the perfect time to take an extensive look at the director’s highly accomplished fifty year career. Made as part of the American Masters series of documentaries on American channel PBS, and originally a three-hour tome split into two parts, this theatrical cut of WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY remains both exhaustive and breezy, a serviceable perusal through the seasoned auteur’s back catalogue which celebrates and surveys his extensive and hardworking approach to filmmaking.

Starting (in a somewhat clichéd manner) like a typical Allen movie, with a series of touristy shots of New York City interspersed with credit titles written in the Windsor typeface that has become one of the director’s distinctive stylistic traits, the documentary begins by showing Woody at his home in New York. The film subsequently features Allen – once an intensely private individual – guiding us through his personal life.

Weide lovingly concentrates on the day-to-day minutiae of Allen’s life and creative processes…

Positioning his camera as close to his subject as possible, Weide lovingly concentrates on the day-to-day minutiae of Allen’s life and creative processes, from focusing on the typewriter he has written every single screenplay, joke and article with to the disorganised pile of notes and ideas stashed away in a drawer, giving an invaluable insight into an area ordinarily closed off to public awareness. Later on we get a glimpse of Allen’s approach to physically directing his actors on the set of 2010’s YOU WILL MEET A TALL, DARK STRANGER. This is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how his dialogue is carried across and visualised on screen, and was screened at the Cannes film festival with director and cast in attendance. Perhaps one of the most enlightening aspects of the documentary is Weide following Allen around his home as well as his childhood haunts, showing the audience where he grew up in Brooklyn, the school where he was picked on and the picture houses he spent most of his time in; all centred around candid interview segments with Allen that are as revealing as they are intimate.

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The biggest challenge Weide has is compiling a sizeable and far reaching body of work such as Allen’s and subjecting it all to the type of scrutiny the documentary format imposes, which he capably manages to grapple with despite some notable oversights. Allen has, at the time of writing, written and directed some forty three films (his latest, TO ROME WITH LOVE, is due out in the States later this month) and Weide’s documentary establishes a neat groove early on in its handling of a large portion of his most significant achievements.

… Weide has commendably stuffed his film with an embarrassment of materials, featuring an abundance of gorgeously buffed up scenes …

Accumulating a few short clips and a variety of interviewees discussing a certain film’s context and historical relevancy, Weide bounds from one film to the next in relatively short spaces of time, focusing on how it was made and how it fared critically before dutifully moving on; and yet this works to the film’s detriment. Although studying such masterpieces as ANNIE HALL and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, as well as unexpected critical misfires like INTERIORS and STARDUST MEMORIES, is a delightful way of appreciating Allen’s finest works, the film hinges on the better known films whilst ignoring the rest, creating notable and sometimes jarring omissions as the timeline takes frequently random leaps forward. Allen’s oeuvre is too vast and overpowering for Weide to handle in such a condensed amount of time, proving that the longer edition is the superior cut.

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Obviously an ardent Woody Allen fan, Weide has commendably stuffed his film with an embarrassment of materials, featuring an abundance of gorgeously buffed up scenes from old film prints alongside interviews with some of Allen’s most noteworthy cast members such as Dianne Wiest, Larry David and, of course, Diane Keaton – as well as his biographer Eric Lax and a variety of enthused critics, all spouting nothing but niceties about the director. Only Mariel Hemingway, Allen’s pubescent love interest in MANHATTAN, admits that the esteemed director has indeed made “a few clunkers” in the more recent stages in his career, which is true but there is nary an insight as to why his films have taken a critical beating in recent years. This element, as well as the controversial break up of his relationship with Mia Farrow, is depicted but given short shrift: understandable, given the amount of substance on offer, but disappointingly handled nonetheless.

… slightly lightweight, the teasing primer for the bigger picture Allen aficionados deserve to see.

Thus, for all its analysis and charmingly captured perceptions, Weide very rarely uncovers anything novel or intriguing about the great director, skimming the surface whilst attempting to be as all encompassing as possible in the strictures of its abbreviated runtime. It feels slightly lightweight, the teasing primer for the bigger picture Allen aficionados deserve to see. However much the documentary tends to scrimp on the larger issues whilst forgetting to dig a little deeper into its subject’s inner psyche (a far cry from his fervently neurotic and introspective fictional protagonists), watching Allen break away from his usually publicity-shy demeanour and open up about several aspects of his life is an unrivalled pleasure for his devoted fanbase, even if the rest of the film is entry level Woody Allen at best, appealing to both the novices and the detractors and reminding them of the unparalleled impact Allen has made on cinematic history.

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