There is life in the bespectacled one yet. As with many directors (for example, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, both of whom he has been emulating of late) Woody Allen the senior citizen is still pumping out movies at a pace many younger colleagues might envy. A propitious time then for the release of an updated edition of Eric Lax’s Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies and Moviemaking.
For frequently disappointed fans like myself, the book is a valuable window into the character and motivations of this elusive artist. He’s never been easy to pigeonhole. A Brooklyn-bred sports nut and musical reactionary, he first gained fame in the 1960s as a stand-up comedian who mixed a surrealist sensibility with a modern, urban persona which mirrored the real-life social transformations of his times. Frankly neurotic and up-front about his ongoing psychoanalysis, he was also a weirdly contemporary sex symbol even as he posed as someone who couldn’t get a date. Pegged early on as an “intellectual”, at the same time he freely acknowledged his debt to one of America’s least intellectual comedians, Bob Hope. His comedy routines, New Yorker humor pieces and early films owed much to the Marx Brothers and S.J. Perelman. After a decade and a half of mass adulation with this formula, he then seemed to turn against his audience by apparently trying to become that same intellectual he had always posed as being onstage (but denied ever being offstage). He now wore the likes of Chekhov, Ingmar Bergman and Fellini on his sleeve – and an ill fit it seemed indeed, turning off both audiences and critics, but still retaining a large enough contingent of hardcore fans to muddle through the fallow periods. By the 1990s, he was not only repeating himself, but repeating his repeats. Then, in the mid oughts, out of the blue, he hit a new stride with a series of dark, ironic pictures that eschewed static pretension for good old fashioned suspense.
The trajectory gets less bewildering when you get to hear the famously reclusive Allen speak on his own behalf. As he so often asserts, he is emphatically not an intellectual. Only in America would he pass for one. I’ve long held that American infatuation with European directors is a middlebrow affectation, and it’s one which just happened to have been fashionable in Allen’s young adulthood. Just as popular jazz standards and radio and cinema comedy turned him on in his youth, art house pictures grabbed him as a young man. But, as he freely admits, he hasn’t the slightest interest in, say, Samuel Beckett. His own stage plays have been commercial exercises all the way. George S. Kaufman is the only influence he mentions in that regard, with the possible exception of Danny Simon (Neil’s brother, Allen’s comedy writing partner on Your Show of Shows.) To my mind, films like Interiors (a slavish Bergman imitation) and Stardust Memories (ditto Fellini), as stylistic homages are of a kind with his parodies, whether he realizes it or not. He sees a style, he apes it, only this time not for comedy. It’s only in the films since Match Point (with the exception of Whatever Works) that he has found a way to synthesize those various cinematic voices and come up with a new one of his own.
Indeed his recent success (at all levels) has upset my longstanding belief that Allen’s chief enemy has been the pace he’s set for himself. Since the early eighties, all of his films had seemed thin, incomplete, half-baked. With more time taken, (went my theory) they would become richer, more thought-out (not to mention more original) and therefore more rewarding as experiences. Allen’s own self-assessment, quoted more than once in the book, seems to back up my thinking on this. He is fully aware that most of his films aren’t great. He claims, at least, that to him directing is just a job. He doesn’t claim to be any great artist, he just makes the best films he can. To me, it sounds like a bit of ass-covering, but also betrays a frustrating lack of ambition which is a breaking of a covenant with the audience. I, for one, would prefer to wait 18 months or two years for fewer, but better, Woody Allen films. But since the better Woody Allen films are now arriving once a year, the question is moot, at least temporarily.
All this nit-picking about Allen’s work I’m doing has of course been spawned by reading Lax’s book – which is a good sign, since books like this ought to get readers fired up about their subjects. And Conversations covers a lot of ground. I’m tempted to say too much ground, but since there was almost no single fact in the book that didn’t satisfy my greedy curiosity, that can’t have been the case. The book’s main flaws have to do with editing. The conversations are theoretically organized into broad categories (“Editing”, Directing”, Career”) but they digress wildly, meaning the various subjects bleed between chapters and wind up woven throughout the book – making the chapter headings largely superfluous. Many anecdotes and points are repeated several times as a result; the scissors would be used with profit, making it a less aimless read. The book’s most annoying feature is a downright insulting tendency to explain every reference that Allen and Lax use, in editorial italics. In other words, if reference is made to Sweet and Lowdown, we digress for an editorial recap of the film’s plot, who the stars were, etc. If reference is made to E.G. Marshall, it’ll be followed by “[died 1998]”. Hello! This is a book for Woody Allen fans! They know all that stuff! The only people who’d be requiring that sort of information in this context would be people who wouldn’t pick the book up to begin with. As a result, I found myself saying “Tsk! Duh!” so often I developed a tender spot on my soft palate. The flavor of the book’s repetitiveness is captured in its subtitle: “His Films, the Movies and Moviemaking.” Yes, there are three different meanings there. But so are there in “Me, Myself and I”. That said, for those who want to get the inside skinny on how Allen works, the book is fairly indispensable. Furthermore, several times he mentions an admiration for Jerry Lewis, which redeems the auteur several times over in my eyes.