REVIEW: 'Woody Allen: A Documentary,' Episode 1

07/30/2012 09:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


"The world would be poorer a number of great one-liners." That is Woody Allen's only comment concerning how his lack of existence would affect society -- a comment that is one of many which help make episode one of Robert B. Weide's film series, Woody Allen: A Documentary, so enjoyable to watch. As much as Allen's film characters are enough to give an audience a general understanding of what Woody Allen is all about, it is another thing entirely to listen to him actually tell you himself.

I think the most gripping facet of the film is the seriousness that Allen attributes to the tragic muse as opposed to the comic muse. While Annie Hall and Manhattan were films that many audiences still labeled as comedies (despite their blatant departure and evolution from pictures like Sleeper and Take the Money and Run), Allen was attempting to pursue a genre much different than the comedy that epitomized his style in the past; he was trying to make films where he would "go with feeling first and people first and the jokes have to come out of those people." He was trying to focus more on the aesthetics of the drama and the romance of the people and of New York.

Allen's goal for Manhattan was to flaunt New York through his own rose-colored glasses -- the black and white cinematography, the seemingly in-the-flesh disposition of the jazz; that was how Allen wanted the world to see the city that he had fallen in love with so dearly. Martin Scorsese muses about the eccentricity of Allen's perception of the same city he grew up in: "It's one of the reasons why I love his works, but they are extremely foreign to me. It's not another world, it's another planet... Taxi Driver is my state of mind."

You would think that after creating what was arguably the masterpiece of his works to that point, Allen would have been more than satisfied with Manhattan's reception but, in fact, he was appalled, even flabbergasted. He was disappointed with the picture itself, and he was even more frustrated with the public's reaction to what they were calling "a comedy." Yes, the film still had the fresh wit that defines most, if not all, of his films; however, this was his "love letter" to New York. To dub it a comedy, or anything at all of such, was demeaning to him; to him, that meant that he had labored to create something trivial, not new, not innovative, something that he had done before, that he already knew he had the capability to accomplish.

He said, "Writing tragic theater, tragic film confronts reality head on and doesn't satirize it, tease it, kid it, deflect it, opt out with some kind of a gag at the last minute. It's harder for me and I embarrass myself more readily, but I get more pleasure out of failing in a project that I am enthused over than succeeding in a project that I know I can do well."

And fail gloriously is precisely what he did next. Stardust Memories was a story that many people had trouble connecting to. It was called "a drag." But Allen took more pride in this work than he had in any of his other previous films. This was the film where he took opportunities to play around with his ingenuity and proclivity to apply new visual, artistic elements. In the film, fans accost Allen's character, demanding more funny movies like those produced in the past. For this, audiences criticized the work for lampooning his most dedicated followers. Allen swears that this was never his intention, and I think, instead, his intention was more to point out the distinction between the message he had intended to release with films like Manhattan and the way his fans had decided to perceive that message.

If there's anything to take out of Allen's pride and joy in Stardust Memories it is that he has never, and will never, make a film to appeal to contemporary favoritism. One of the main reasons Allen entered the field of directing was because of his great dissatisfaction with the way his material was manipulated in What's New Pussycat. He wanted to be in control, to present his script the way that he had imagined it to be performed when he typed it on that German typewriter that he has used to write every single work that he has ever published; he wanted to make films his own way, without needing to appeal to any particular person. If you look at why he wants absolutely nothing to do with the Academy Awards, the same philosophy is applied at the core: a stark devotion to individuality.

"I think what you get with awards is favoritism. You get the implication that [said movie] is the best movie. And I don't think you can make that judgment," he said.

Allen's excuse for evading the Academy Awards the year Annie Hall snatched Best Picture, one of four Academy Awards the picture won that evening, was that he had his jazz band on Monday night. Skipping the most glamorous night of the motion picture year to swoon a crowd with the dexterous moves of his fingers upon his clarinet, for a night out with the band... Isn't it genius? Either you accept him as this eccentric, creative genius, or you alienate him as too foreign, too quirky, too whiny and too neurotic. Either way, Woody Allen does not care. This is a guy who really lives to make a statement, which is 'I'm going to be who I want to be and nobody else is going to influence me or prevent me from, dare I say, "taking the road less traveled by."' For Woody Allen, that really does seem to have made all the difference.