Serious Jest, Sharp Jabs

By Nancy DeWolf Smith

Robert Weide's film about Woody Allen is so long that it takes two nights to unfold on PBS, although it follows a conventional formula, featuring commentary from Mr. Allen and clips from his movies in roughly chronological order. For many of us, that would be enough.

Along the way, though, something wonderful happens. Amid the familiar, including Mr. Allen's self-deprecating patter, a curtain goes up on new scenes of his life as an artist. And we see clearly that the movies he has been making for 40 years are not so different from our own repeated efforts to orchestrate perfection in our lives, to make things come out right.


It is not immediately clear that this film will come out right from the opening montage, which features actors Mr. Allen has directed, fellow directors, film critics, collaborators and many others, all singing his praise. After such fawning, it's almost a relief to hear Columbia film professor Annette Insdorf intone, in what could be a gag from one of his movies: "To really contextulalize Woody Allen in the history of American cinema, one does have to go back to the idea of an actor who becomes the writer, the director, the true auteur...."

But all that is soon past and we are in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Mr. Allen points out the house where he grew up, happily until around the age of 5. That's when, he says, "I became aware of mortality—it ends, you vanish forever. And once I realized that, I thought, 'deal me out, I don't want to play in this game.'" Even now, as in his movies, Mr. Allen nurses the notion that the certainty of death makes life a cruel joke: "We all know the same truth and our lives consist of how we choose to distort it."

But could a little boy of 5 have glimpsed this? Perhaps so. Mr. Allen recounts here how he was tended to by various maids as a child, because his mother worked. And he tells a story about how one maid stood over his crib and told him about her power over him, saying that she could smother him if she liked and throw his body in the garbage, and no one would ever know. (Fortunately, it would seem that the chaotic but caring family life depicted in "Radio Days" was more the norm.)

After covering Mr. Allen's early career and movies, this documentary in the "American Masters" series comes to rest at a fascinating place, when he determined to be less "trivial" and decided: "I'll sacrifice some of the laughs for a story about human beings and they [the audience] will get involved in the story...and it will be richer, it will be a better experience for them." The result was "Annie Hall," the love story in which a luminous Diane Keaton and her character erased any ideas the director originally had about focusing on the man he played in the movie.

Mr. Allen describes working on "Annie Hall" with cinematographer Gordon Willis, famous at the time for filming "The Godfather" and "Klute" and known in the industry as "the Prince of Darkness." An odd pairing but delicious to imagine especially after Mr. Allen recalls that the first scene they filmed together was the one involving escaping lobsters.

Yet the most compelling aspect of this documentary is what it reveals about Mr. Allen's process, starting with the scraps of paper he spreads out on his apartment bed to show us how he collects and sorts through ideas before sitting down to type a script. "It's not rocket science, it's just storytelling," and so he makes it appear. Actors he wants for roles get short invite notes, but some don't even meet him until they're on set. Mr. Allen is famous for not giving much direction, so it is a treat to see him directing a scene from "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger." There are even a few precious moments of Mr. Allen at work in the editing room.

The disconnect between what we see in Woody Allen movies and what he says he meant to convey is stark here. Take "The Purple Rose of Cairo," a Depression-era saga about an abused woman who watches a movie repeatedly until its hero comes down off the screen and romances her. Film scholar Fr. Robert Lauder relishes the movie as a tribute to the power of hope in the face of despair. Mr. Allen describes his ambition as more "pretentious and deep," explaining that he wanted to say "that people choose fantasy but that way madness lies, and that reality always disappoints."

So, too, does the process of making a movie. After the inspiration and all the effort and high hopes, lofty aims become subjugated to more urgent needs. "By the time you get the thing together it's such a mess," he says. "You're flitting around the editing room making all sorts of compromises" and thinking "I'll prostitute myself any way I have to survive this catastrophe."

Not quite like performing in a school play, or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner, but at some point we get it, what Mr. Allen has been fussing about all these years—that high hopes, like kisses, only make us forget how frail, how imperfect we are, and alter nothing. At least now Mr. Allen is able to laugh about this with a relaxed warmth that seems new and appealing, and may be the gift of age.

woody collage