For more than four decades, Woody Allen has been writing, directing and releasing a movie per year. He calls this the “quantity theory”, expressing how he wishes that eventually one of these movies will turn out to be good. “The achievement that I’m going for is trying to make a great film and that has elluded me throughout the decades” he says. Coming from someone who’s amassed countless awards, influenced so many artists and has remained relevant after his career seems to be about to expire, this self-deprecatory comment comes off looking as something unfounded, perhaps even ungrateful.
However, fans of “the Woodsman” know better than to take this seriously, and will be in for a treat watching Woody Allen: A Documentary, perhaps the most in-depth look at his legendary career. Writer/director Robert B. Weide was given unprecedented access to the introspective filmmaker’s life.
The reclusive filmmaker has always tried to stay out of the public eye, not even letting camera crews shoot anything when he’s on location (which explains why home video releases of his films never have any behind the scenes features). Allen has always let his work speak for itself. Films like Annie Hall, Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry, created the Woody Allen character that inhabits the collective consciousness: a paranoid, hypochondriac who always loses at love and always has something funny to say about himself. More often than not he denies that his work contains any autobiographical elements, but people have decided that they know who he is, because he never cares to prove them wrong.
One would’ve expected that a documentary about this reclusive legend would’ve been an incisive examination that would perhaps dig deeper into his enigmatic mind. Woody Allen: A Documentary sadly doesn’t achieve this, with Weide becoming almost too reverential about his subject of study and sticking to a thorough chronology of his work and life. Despite the movie not questioning its subject, there’s actually little you can reproach of it, because watching Woody be so open in front of a camera is endlessly pleasurable. Perhaps Weide wasn’t being excessively respectful, just trying to have the director stick to the documentary until the very end. In one of the bonus features included in this two disc DVD set, Weide tells how hard it was for him to get Woody to agree to be filmed.
So instead of harassing Allen with questions he would never answer, Weide shapes an image of who he is, by linking the precious material he obtained with clips from his films as well as interviews with Allen’s family and friends. We see, then, how Allen went from humble beginnings (“It doesn’t seem like much, because it wasn’t” he says of the house where he was born) to writing jokes for newspaper columns and The New Yorker. Archival interviews with his late mother make for a touching detail, especially when she says she wishes he had been “softer”, perhaps traumatized by his obsession with death and his romantic failures.
His sister Letty Aronson (who works as an executive producer in his films) introduces us to a part of Woody that seems almost too warm to be true, especially after we’ve seen footage of their mother saying how he fell in love with his baby sister, becoming the epitome of what a caring older brother should be. The documentary also covers his heavily publicized breakup with Mia Farrow and his relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. “Apparently it was a very juicy story” Woody says, surprisingly innocently. It would’ve been fascinating to probe deeper into this, but then the documentary could’ve risked tabloid-esque qualities.
Most of the documentary (which runs a bit over three hours) is dedicated to dissecting Woody’s extensive filmography. The movies are discussed by critics, scholars and those involved in their making. It’s a pleasure to see people like Sean Penn, Diane Keaton and Woody’s latter-day muse Scarlett Johansson talking about the things he puts them through in his films. Allen, we understand, is a man who sees something in people they don’t see in themselves, which makes it ironic that he underrates his own work so much. Can it be that Woody is conscious of his genius or is he actually unaware that his work has explored the darkness and complexity of the human mind better than any other auteur in contemporary modern cinema?
His colleague Martin Scorsese says he admires Woody’s ability to continue searching for answers and exploring subjects others only treat lightly. Allen’s obsession with the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini make him that rare artist who can pay tribute while contributing something new to the artform. “Why do I feel like I screwed up somehow?” he wonders, unaware that he proved one of his characters wrong when he says “You’ll never write well if you fear dying”. Weide’s lovely documentary is proof that Allen’s ability to create couldn’t be more filled with life if it tried.
Among the bonus features in this DVD there are lovely anecdotes from Mariel Hemingway (who starred in Manhattan) as well as a trip with Woody down to his childhood neighborhood. Really listening to the man speak is such a pleasure that you wonder whether he creates daily scripts for his own life. Interviews with the director as well as some deleted scenes are also included, but the real gem among the extras is a segment called “12 Questions” in which Woody provides hilarious responses to Weide. Like the best of his movies, his answers will make you laugh out loud while breaking your heart.