Wednesday 6 June 2012

Stardust memories: "Woody Allen: A Documentary"

The problem facing any documentarist trying to assemble a profile of Woody Allen in the year 2012 isn't that of doing full justice to the early, funny films - which should (and invariably do) take care of themselves - but what to do with the long tail-off. Even with the fairytale ending of last year's Midnight in Paris, Allen's biggest commercial success of all time (if, to these eyes, only a minor return to form), set in place, you do spend much of Woody Allen: a Documentary - originally screened on the US TV network PBS over three hours, trimmed to two for this UK theatrical release - wondering just how it's going to address the director's creative fallow period. Can you really make claims for Allen's longevity after you've endured Celebrity, Hollywood Ending, Whatever Works and Match Point?

What's clear from the opening section of Robert B. Weide's film is that - for all his kvetching over the years - Allen has been blessed with incredible good fortune. Yes, his first encounter with the studio system (seeing his script for Clive Donner's swinging-60s shambles What's New, Pussycat? hacked and slashed and messed around) was unpleasant, but he won final cut on his directorial debut Take the Money and Run, a solid critical and commercial success, and has never had to give it up. There's a clear, confident progression from those early gagfests (Money, Sleeper, Bananas) to Allen's semi-autobiographical human comedies (Annie Hall) and thence to the ambitious character pieces (Interiors, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters); encoded in this trajectory is a certain cinephile nostalgia for a time when a major American filmmaker could look beyond the immediate marketplace to the world around them, and be allowed to grow, because they knew an audience of adults would turn out for these newly mature works. (At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, is that really what people are seeing in Moonrise Kingdom?)

Allen's status within the industry is such that prominent actors, directors and critics have lined up to talk us through the oeuvre - rather aptly, there's even a priest, offering a theological perspective on the films' moments of doubt and handwringing - but the scoop is the access Weide has to Allen himself. A famously reluctant interviewee, he opens up here in a way he rarely has anywhere else, on the subject of both the films and the circumstances they sprang from: his affection for Diane Keaton, for one, is clear, and rather touching, if you're of the belief that Annie Hall and Alvy Singer were made for one another. Whatever his failings elsewhere, Allen has always adored actresses, as witnessed by the elevated number of award-winning roles he's created for them; he may not have a clue what to do with Scarlett Johansson in Match Point or Frieda Pinto in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger the way he once did Keaton or Mia Farrow - but they could scarcely have been shot more rapturously.

Woody may go understandably quiet when the subject of Soon-Yi comes up - but, crucially, the film doesn't quite, enlisting the (commendably candid) likes of Marshall Brickman and Douglas McGrath, Allen's collaborators on the contemporaneous Husbands and Wives and Bullets Over Broadway, to fill in some of the gaps, before concluding that - contra the tabloids of the time - this was a family matter, and nobody else's business besides. A bigger question remains: what happened? It's tempting to blame Allen's creative decline on the changing demands of the movie system, except that the director's own place within that system hasn't changed for almost a half-century: he still makes one film a year, he still has absolute creative control on that film, and he still prefers playing the clarinet to going to the Oscars. "The only thing standing between greatness and me is me," he shrugs, and in this he may be right. (Another quality of his: an unblinking self-scrutiny.)

I still believe there's something less than healthy lurking behind his compulsive need to work - he shows us a bottom drawer stuffed with legal pads covered in rainchecked dialogue and storylines; we might wonder how much of his mid-Noughties output escaped from here - and, indeed, about the industry that continues to bankroll him. Partly, it's a matter of movie economics: Allen shoots quickly and cheaply, rarely risking slipping into the red, but these days this seems as much a liability as a strength. (As he confesses: "I don't have the patience to shoot another take... I'd rather be at home watching the ball game.") In an inverse of the traditional B-movie model, Allen has simply come to find himself with more money than ideas.

You could say the same thing about the modern American cinema in general, though, and at least Allen's never been caught pandering to a younger demographic the way Spielberg and Scorsese were with War Horse, Tintin and Hugo. (Well, Soon-Yi aside.) Midnight in Paris does seem a perfectly nice place to leave Woody, and no matter where he travels from here (Rome, by the looks of things: yes, there's another new film emerging later this year), it looks to have been a full and fruitful life, even more so over these busy two hours than in the three of the television cut. The clips - reminders that Woody beat The Artist to early cinema (The Purple Rose of Cairo), and once even found the funny in Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown) - are terrific, perhaps enough to make you go easier on the blots in the copybook, on-screen as well as off.

Woody Allen: A Documentary opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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