Sunday, November 27, 2011

Woody Allen: A Documentary (PBS, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Woody Allen: A Documentary is a massive production, written and directed by Robert Weide, telling the story of Allen’s career from his childhood in the Bronx, the demands of growing up in a Jewish family whose parents wanted him to follow in dad’s footsteps — whatever those were; apparently the scenes in Allen’s films in which he flashes back to his childhood and wonders what on earth his daddy does for a living were based on fact — and how he found his niche while in high school by writing jokes (one particularly good early one: “A hypocrite is an atheist who writes a book and prays for its success”) and sending them to gossip columnists, of whom there were quite a few in the rambunctious New York newspaper industry of the 1940’s (mainly because there were far many more papers then than there are now!). He actually got paid for these jokes, and he graduated — if that’s the word — to writing revue sketches for the shows at the Tamamint summer resort (a generation earlier Moss Hart had got his start in show business with a similar summer job at a Catskills resort!) and then to a succession of gagwriting jobs and the culmination of his early career: writing jokes for Sid Caesar’s hit TV series Your Show of Shows and sharing space in the writing room with people like Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks (!).

Allen’s story after that is a familiar one — how he was discovered by managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, who pushed him into performing his own material as a stand-up comedian (he hadn’t thought of himself as a performer and he was painfully shy, so he turned his shyness into an asset and developed a low-keyed style in which he threw away the punch lines — a far cry from a comedian he’s named as one of his idols and role models, Bob Hope, who hurled his punch lines at the audience with such force that on at least one occasion he forgot to bring his script to his radio show, improvised absolute gibberish on the spot, took care every so often to use the rising inflection with which he always delivered his punch lines — and got the audience laughing!), and then by various TV hosts (including Johnny Carson and Steve Allen) and finally by Charles K. Feldman, an old-line Hollywood agent from the 1940’s who had turned to producing (and had made such successful and acclaimed films as A Streetcar Named Desire) and who offered Allen work as both writer and actor in What’s New, Pussycat? 

The film was a sensational hit but Allen hated it, mainly because Feldman hired other writers to rewrite his script and turned it into a broad farce — though in one interview in this program he admits that if his script had been filmed as written the movie would have been a deeper, richer, finer work but nowhere near as big a commercial hit — and, at least according to this show, Allen swore never to work for Feldman again. (In fact, Allen did work for Feldman again on the 1967 version of Casino Royale, a near-total disaster noteworthy only for some good Allen gags and the fact that three legendary film directors — Allen, John Huston and Orson Welles — appear on screen as actors. The only other film I can think of with three great directors onscreen is Sunset Boulevard: Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton.) Allen decided that he would never again make a movie unless he had total control over the project, and he got his chance when the ABC-TV network founded a short-lived filmmaking subsidiary, Palomar Pictures, and gave him a $2 million budget to make a spoof of 1930’s gangster movies called Take the Money and Run. (It was heartwarming to me to see this documentary excerpt the scene in which the Tamalpais High School Marching Band played the Spring Street Settlement House Marching Band, which Woody Allen vainly tried to join … as a cellist; that was my high school and I was attending when the film was made — the band had been invited on a trip to Disneyland to perform there, and in addition to the usual round of car washes and bake sales, they used their fee for the movie to help pay for their trip.)

Incidentally, this film does not go into the history of Take the Money and Run — I’ve seen another Allen documentary that said not only was the rough cut three hours long but it ended with Allen’s character, Virgil Starkwell, dying in slow motion à la Bonnie and Clyde — though it does mention that Allen called in another editor who shaped the movie into the form it is now, essentially by taking some of the broad gags Allen had been willing to leave on the cutting-room floor and editing them back into the movie. The movie launched his career and got him a four-film deal with United Artists, of which the first film, Bananas, was yet another hit (it was recently mentioned in The New Yorker, in connection with a new biography of sportscaster Howard Cosell, who played himself in the movie and appeared at the beginning and the end, narrating the execution of a South American dictator by rebels and the consummation of the marriage of Allen’s and Louise Lasser’s characters — the two had been married but, like Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth on The Lady from Shanghai, had already divorced by the time they made the film together).

The story of Allen’s career — and his various romantic interests — is almost too familiar, though the show does a good job of covering some of the later movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s Charles and I missed at the time and now find ourselves tempted to go back to. At three hours and 20 minutes in length, Woody Allen: A Documentary is a bit of an endurance test, but it’s fascinating to see Allen interviewed at various stages of his career — currently he’s considerably older than we’re used to seeing him and he no longer wears the famously frizzed-out hair — and perhaps the most interesting personality in the film other than Allen is his sister and co-producer, Letty Aronson, who obviously gets along with him because their senses of humor are virtually the same! The film makes at least one of the inevitable comparisons to Charlie Chaplin — the fact that both Chaplin and Allen managed to get complete artistic control over their films, acting as producer, director, writer and star (though neither could have done it in the days of the studio system: Chaplin pulled it off because the studio system hadn’t started yet when he hit it so big he could write his own ticket anywhere in the industry, and Allen did it once the studio system had collapsed and he was able to make modestly budgeted movies that occasionally became blockbusters but almost always made some money) — of course, there are at least two other points of comparison: both Chaplin and Allen specialized in bringing together comedy and drama, and both nearly had their careers destroyed due to scandalous relationships with teenage girls.

Weide’s approach deftly handles the scandal between Allen, his long-time girlfriend and star Mia Farrow (I’d argue that Allen was to Farrow what Alfred Hitchcock was to Grace Kelly: the one director who actually figured out how to get her to act) and Mia’s adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn; it chronicles how Allen brought out the best in Farrow (and in Diane Keaton before her) and makes the story seem like the sort of sad happenstance that often occurs in Allen’s fiction, in which people fall in and out of love and often replace their current partners with others from the same family (this was a theme in Allen’s art, particularly in Hannah and Her Sisters, before he actually lived it). Weide also mentions Allen’s obsessions with big issues like God and death, which he’s able somehow to weave deftly into (mostly) comic films, and he shows enough clips from Allen’s work that we can get an idea of what it’s like (and in the case of films like Annie Hall and especially Manhattan, neither of which I’ve seen in years, we can appreciate just how beautiful it is; Manhattan is a black-and-white love letter to Allen’s city and it was ironic to see Martin Scorsese, who seems to feel he has a God-given right to horn his way into every documentary made about the movies or anyone who’s ever been involved with them, showing parallel clips from Mean Streets and Manhattan to compare and contrast their radically different visions of New York City).

The film has quite a few interesting interviewees, including Letty Aronson; Gordon Willis, whom Allen hired to photograph Annie Hall even though he’d never made a comedy before (his best-known cinematography credit was The Godfather, the movie that more than any before it set the “past is brown” schtick in motion and helped harden it into orthodoxy: if you want one person to blame for the fact that so many films, especially films attempting to be serious dramas, look like they were shot through dirty aquaria, Gordon Willis is probably your man) and whose work on Manhattan (even in the handful of scenes shown here) seems so luminously beautiful it makes me want to see the movie again; various people who’ve acted in Allen’s films (and who report that he’s a non-interventionist director who doesn’t insist that actors say the lines he’s written for them if they can think of something else that works); and Allen himself, who’s shown working on an ancient portable Olympia typewriter he’s used for over 30 years

He drafts his script ideas in longhand on yellow notepads and frequently refers back to ideas he’s scribbled down to see if there’s one there he can use for his next film. What’s remarkable about Allen’s career is not only that he’s cranked out a film almost every year since he started directing in 1969, but that virtually all his movies have been original stories: aside from the ill-advised adaptation of Dr. David Reuben’s best-seller Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) — a pretty useless movie with two great scenes: one in which John Carradine plays a mad scientist who invents a monster breast, and one (excerpted here) in which Allen plays a sperm cell about to be ejaculated (“What if he’s masturbating and I hit the ceiling?” he whines) — he’s never done a screen version of a pre-existing book or play (unless you count Play It Again, Sam, which he didn’t direct and which was based on his own play).

Woody Allen’s work remains fascinating — the documentary comes to an end quite different from the one Weide had in mind when he started it because, after a decade or so in which the critics regarded him as totally played out and his movies veered between modest successes and modest flops at the box office, he’s currently enjoying the biggest hit of his career in Midnight in Paris, a time-travel fantasy in which a modern-day writer goes to Paris and ends up transported to the “Lost Generation” Paris of the 1920’s. The documentary also covers Allen’s part-time career as a jazz clarinetist, mentioning that his teacher was Gene Sedric (though oddly it doesn’t mention that Sedric was in Fats Waller’s Rhythm and played on most of Waller’s band records in the 1930’s) and that all the instruction he got was Sedric playing something and then telling him, “Now you do it.” Woody Allen: A Documentary is a fascinating film about one of the most fascinating careers in movie history, as lived by a man who has courted fame while professing total disinterest in it, who’s been able to avoid the traps that destroy most people in the movie business — especially most people who go into it with artistic rather than commercial ambitions — and who’s displayed a remarkable resiliency approaching that of the characters he’s written for himself to play.