Saturday, January 21, 2012

American Masters - Woody Allen: A Documentary [television/film review]

Debuted on PBS in November 2011; now available on DVD and video on demand
Woody Allen: A Documentary premiered in late November as part of PBS's sterling American Masters series, now in its 25th season. The documentary, which aired over two nights and runs at three hours and twenty minutes, was directed by award-winning writer, director, and producer Robert B. Weide, probably best known for his work on TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm. It took 20 years of convincing from Weide to get the notoriously private Allen to participate in the ambitious project and his perseverance pays off big rewards, delivering revealing and candid interviews with the filmmaker that offer rare insight into his life and creative process. This obviously isn't the first documentary on the cultural icon: 2002's Woody Allen: A Life In Film and 1997's Wild Man Blues, the latter of which focussed on Allen's experiences touring with his jazz band, are both excellent pieces of work that also benefited from exclusive access to the filmmaker. Woody Allen: A Documentary, however, makes judicious use of its expansive running time to provide a wider scope, establishing itself now as the definitive visual document on the man, now 76, and his work.
The documentary's biographical background details about Allen's younger years are given extra emphasis by the fact that Allen himself takes viewers on a mini tour of significant landmarks from his time growing up in Brooklyn, such as his childhood home, school, and old movie theatres (and there's plenty of laughs to be had watching the double take reactions of pedestrians as Allen casually walks past them). One of the most fascinating and charming parts of the film is derived from an unlikely source: Allen's ancient Olympia typewriter. Allen reveals the stunning fact that he's used the same machine to type every piece of work he's created since 1952, when he purchased it (Allen recalls that the salesman told him "it would be around long after my death"). Word processors? Pshaw! Significant edits to his copy, always typed on lined paper from yellow legal pads, are done with a pair of scissors and stapler. It's personal insights such as these that Weide accesses which go a long way in humanizing the withdrawn, enigmatic visage that Allen has developed over his career.
Allen, born Allen Konigsberg, began his show business career as a young teen, submitting jokes to various print publications in New York City. Gifted with a sharp wit and a prolific talent that saw him regularly churning out as many as 50-100 jokes daily (and, even to this day, having a remarkable knack for avoiding creative roadblocks), he achieved quick success as a humourist, pulling in more money than both of his parents by the time he was just 16. Allen's young adult years found him embarking on a successful career as a stand-up comic that mined his trademark neurotic persona for laughs, which led him to becoming a staple on TV talk and variety shows. In 1966, he directed his first feature film, What's Up, Tiger Lily? (which he also wrote, and acted in), insisting on complete creative control following the headaches he experienced with meddling studio execs and thin-skinned actors on his first foray into cinema as a screenwriter and actor on the previous year's What's New, Pussycat?. Since then, Allen has written and directed (and frequently acted in) an astonishing 41 feature films, which includes this year's upcoming Nero Fiddled. That's a clock-like productivity of at least one movie a year since 1982 (two came out in 1987), with an occasional short segment as part of various collaborative films contributed along the way. Naturally, not all of these efforts are gems, and Allen's uneven output over the past 10-15 years is addressed by himself, his peers, and critics. Poorly received works such as Everybody Says I Love You and Anything Else receive specific mention, but they also could have included the recent abysmal Larry David-starring Anything Else?, which I consider the worst film Allen's ever put out. One of the central storylines in that movie sees David's character, who is in his sixties and essentially an extension of the characters (or, one could argue, singular character) Allen himself regularly plays in his movies, dating Evan Rachel Wood's character, who is about 35-40 years younger. It's a recurring (and creepy) theme in Allen's work and I'd have like the documentary to have broached the topic of this curious predilection of his. It's especially eyebrow-raising in light of the 1992 scandal he went through with Soon-Yi Previn, his current wife and the then 22-year-old stepdaughter of former partner and muse, Mia Farrow. The scandal receives more coverage than I expected from A Documentary, but Allen's facetious statement that he was surprised at how much media coverage it received is somewhat off-putting.
Even in a lengthy doc such as this, Allen's filmography is so expansive that it's difficult for Weide to get too in-depth about specific movies, save for some of Allen's high-water marks, like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Many, even standouts such as the recent Cassandra's Dream, are barely (if at all) commented on. Most of the filmmaker's work is at least represented via film clips, which Weide uses liberally and effectively. Midnight In Paris, Allen's most recent release and now his most commercially successful film ever, is briefly touched upon, but the film that gets some of the most screen time is its so-so predecessor, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. It was being shot while Weide was putting together A Documentary, so Allen gave Weide exclusive access to the film's London set, the first time in his career that Allen has given any outside media that privilege. Interviews with cast members Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts, as well as interviews throughout the film with a bevy of previous Allen players, including Chris Rock, Penélope Cruz, Mariel Hemingway, Sean Penn, Dianne Wiest, John Cusack, Dianne Keaton, and Scarlett Johansson revisit their experiences working for the filmmaker (I personally have wondered why Allen has employed the wooden Johansson as his lead in four of his last seven films - she says the pair just "clicked" when they first worked together on 2005's Match Point). Discussed are his directing style (he gives minimal guidance), oddball casting process (initiated with a self-effacing feeler letter to the actor), and the recurring theme of hugely successful actors doubting whether or not they're up to the challenge and prestige of working for Allen. A wealth of interviews with film critics and Allen's contemporaries, as well as his creative and business partners, further round out Weide's rich portrait of the iconic throwback.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is essential viewing for Allen buffs and cinephiles. In fact, I'd go as far to say it's downright superlative and probably the best thing I watched in 2011.
Rating: ★★★★