“You’re very lucky to be miserable.” – Alvy Singer to Annie Hall
Even at 194 minutes, Robert B. Weide’s documentary can’t claim to provide a comprehensive view of the career of one of America’s most prolific filmmakers, but he certainly gives it the old college try.
Weide takes 45 minutes before even getting to his star’s film career, first detailing the former Allan Konigsberg’s emergence as a gag writer named Woody Allen for New York gossip columns while he was still in high school. A reluctant move into stand-up comedy (Allen imagined himself a writer first, second, and third) soon morphed into a full-scale media blitz making Allen one of the most widely-seen entertainers on television for a few years. A song, a dance, a little seltzer down his pants, Allen was willing and ready to do it all, but he still jumped at the opportunity to return to his first passion when he was offered a hefty check to write the screenplay for “What’s New, Pussycat?” (1965). The film was a hit, and Allen was miserable because his script was mangled by the studio, the first and last instance of studio interference Allen would suffer.
Woody Allen is so ubiquitous and so successful that he is seldom thought of as an independent filmmaker (usually you have to languish in obscurity for such an honor), but from his solo directorial debut “Take the Money and Run” in 1969, he has maintained final cut and total creative freedom. Perhaps it helped that studios weren’t able to categorize this new hyphenate, or to figure out exactly how or why he connected with audiences. They seemed content to let him work on his own until he inevitable fell flat on his face, but the inevitable proved evitable, and within a few years the Woodman Express was rumbling down the tracks at runaway speed.
Weide races briskly through many, though obviously not all, of Allen’s forty-plus films, which means you’ll have to look elsewhere for in-depth textual analysis. Though many clips are shown, the focus remains resolutely on the man himself, which is understandable since Weide scored a coup simply by getting Allen, who prefers to let his work speak for itself, to agree to the project in the first place. Many of Allen’s associates are also interviewed, most notably his sister and producer Letty Aronson and longtime friend and collaborator Diane Keaton, but it is most often Allen at center stage, whether discussing his films, his neuroses, or taking Weide back to visit his childhood home.
Unsurprisingly then, the portrait that emerges of Allen is the one he has long been painting for the public. Allen is a workaholic and, yes, a neurotic who does not consider himself a great filmmaker (he’s still waiting to make a real masterpiece like his hero Bergman did) and his world-view is almost completely determined by the gruesome prospect of his impending death (One of his most famous quotes: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.”) Since we know we’re going to die, all we can do is lie to ourselves about what we do in the meantime: “We all know the same truth, and our lives consist of how we distort it.”
Allen has been distorting the truth on film for five decades now, and continues to plug away at his own furious but completely self-determined pace. He claims to prefer quantity over quality because making a greater number of films means he’s more likely to sneak through a good one every now and then. This poor-mouthing might sound disingenuous, but Allen lives in such a rigidly structured world (his friends sing the word “compartmentalizing” in unison to describe his ability to keep his life organized exactly as he wants it) that it’s somewhat easier to believe. Indeed, one of the more interesting facts mentioned in the film is that Allen was so unhappy with his final cut of “Manhattan” that he offered to make his next film free for United Artists if they would not release the movie.
I haven’t followed Allen’s career closely enough to know if that tidbit is a major revelation (it’s listed in his Wiki entry… but sourced from this film), but there is nothing particularly shocking about “Woody Allen: A Documentary” (which was shot for PBS’s American Masters series), and little that will dramatically change anyone’s perception of the writer-actor-director-musician-icon. However, the rare direct access to the reclusive artist is invaluable. He may be miserable, but he’s enjoying it the best he can because it beats the hell out of the alternatives. And if the movie thing doesn’t work out, he’s always got Knicks’ games to keep him busy. Well, maybe not this season…
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Though image quality varies with the various film clips and other archival footage, the interlaced transfer is solid and fairly consistent throughout.
The film is presented with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. There’s no noticeable difference between the two, and most of the sound design is dialogue so it’s all pretty straightforward stuff. No subtitles are provided.
The two-disc set offers Part One and Part Two of this American Masters’ program. Part One runs 110 minutes and ends with “Stardust Memories.” Part Two runs 88 minutes and includes an addendum about “Midnight in Paris.”
The few extras are on Disc Two. The best of the lot by far is a quick “12 Questions with Woody Allen” (6 min.) in which director Robert Weide peppers Allen with a series of random questions, leading to some very funny answers. If Allen knew he was going to live to be 100 years old, would he then be willing to give up two years, still living to 98, in order to make his much sought-after masterpiece? Hell no, he’d take an extra two months, let alone two years!
The disc also includes an interview with Mariel Hemingway (6 min.) talking about Allen’s visit to Idaho (not really prime W.A. territory), an interview with the director Robert Weide (6 min.) and a few other very short featurettes.
If you’re looking for a hard-hitting exposé or muckraking, look elsewhere. This is mostly a celebration of Allen’s career, largely guided by Allen himself. It’s intriguing nonetheless, and a must-own for any fans of the indefatigable filmmaker’s work.