Woody Allen: A Documentary
The phrase ‘a Woody Allen film’ is far more than an attribution of cinematic editorial responsibility – it’s a textual metaphor for the philosophical, emotional and existential themes explored by Allen in his films. On a visual level, it’s likely to conjure up images of the slightly neurotic Allen, engaged in a revealing dialectic with his (usually female) co-star on the nature of existence, love and morality. With an average of over a film a year in his 40 years of filmmaking, Allen is arguably the most prolific filmmaker of his generation, and at age 76, Allen is showing no sign of slowing down.
Allen – born Allen Konigsberg in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City – began his professional career as a writer before moving onto stand-up comedy at the suggestion of his managers, Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe. In 1965, Allen wrote and appeared in What’s New Pussycat?, starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers. Allen’s disappointment with the film, and the flawed realisation of his writing contribution to the film, became the catalyst for Allen’s career as a cinematic auteur.
Robert Weide first came across Allen’s films as a nine-year-old, when he saw Allen’s first film, Take the Money and Run. Weide was immediately impressed.
“I stayed there forever with his films,” Weide recalls, “and when Annie Hall came out when I was in high school, I was pushed into hyperdrive”. Weide, an aspiring filmmaker himself, was lucky enough to secure a job working with Rollins and Joffe, through which Weide was able to employ Allen for a part in Weide’s debut feature film.
Sharing a passion for classic American comics such as WC Fields, Mort Sahl and the Marx Brothers, Weide and Allen were able to establish a close working and platonic association. After years of encouragement, in 2008 Allen agreed to Weide’s suggestion to collaborate with Weide in a documentary on Allen’s life.
“I had asked him over many years, and every time he’d turned me down, like he’d turned everyone else down,” Weide says. “And then one day he said yes. I think it helped that he knew me a little bit, and he knew my work, so he knew it wasn’t going to be a hatchet job.”
There’s a sense with Allen’s defining films – Annie Hall, Manhattan, Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose – that Allen is playing himself, the neurotic, psychologically dysfunctional New Yorker lurching from one emotional crisis to another. Weide points out that the ‘real’ Woody Allen is actually not a particularly neurotic character – art isn’t necessarily imitating life at all.
“I think like almost anybody who’s a performer, it’s almost a comic exaggeration of who they are,” Weide says. “Woody’s films aren’t autobiographical, even Annie Hall which draws heavily from his relationship with Dianne Keaton. He’s not actually fidgety or neurotic – he’s actually a really calm guy, and he’s very relaxed on the film set.”
Ask any Woody Allen fan, and you’ll get a different array of good and bad Woody Allen films. Allen himself admits to favouring quantity over obsessive quality: some of his films will be admired by audiences and critics, others will be dismissed. Weide says it’s almost impossible to determine the basis for such qualitative distinctions. “The films that are good or bad is an entirely subjective decision,” he says. “I’ve yet to determine the common denominator for the films of Woody’s that I like. I think I have to agree with Woody that it’s a crap shoot – you put it out there, and you see what people think.”
That said, it’s definitely arguable that Allen is in his best form when exploring deeper existential and moral questions, whether it’s getting away with murder in Crimes and Misdemeanours, or the desire to conform in Zelig. “I think the biggest thing on Woody’s mind is the big existential question: why are we here?” Weide says. “He talks about it in the film that at the age of about five he realised that he wasn’t going to be around forever, and that really freaked him out. He’s interested in why we’re here, and how do we behave while we’re here – if you look at Crimes and Misdemeanours, if you can get away with a crime, is that OK?”
In the early ‘90s, Allen’s reputation looked to be under threat of mortal damage when the breakdown of his relationship with Mia Farrow found its way into the pages of tabloids across the world. A bitter custody dispute – fuelled by Allen’s affair with his step-daughter Soon-Yi and Farrow’s allegations of sexual abuse – ensued. In Weide’s documentary, Allen is open about the personal drama that permeated his life at the time. “He wasn’t hesitant to talk about it – he never battered an eye, and he never tried to control what was I was asking,” Weide says. Despite the blow-torch examination of his private life, Weide says Allen never thought his career would end. “His answer was basically that he never thought it would kill his career,” Weide says. “He just basically kept working all the way through it – he’s the king of compartmentalising.”
Having lived through that particular drama, Allen has maintained his steady average of at least a film a year. The popular and critical reception has remained variable – recent Allen films such as Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris have met with mixed reception, without ever shaking Allen’s desire to keep making movies. “I can assure you that he’ll keep making a film a year until they physically pick him up off the sound stage and carry him out – and I mean that literally!” Weide laughs.
BY PATRICK EMERY
Woody Allen: A Documentary screens at the ACMI from Friday June 1 to Monday June 18. For tickets and more information visit acmi.net.au.