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A Great Filmmaker's View of Himself,
This review is from: Woody Allen: A Life in Film (Hardcover)
Woody Allen makes films like no one else. Sure, the themes of Allen's films (New York, anguished intellectuals) aren't ones that are shared by most blockbusters, but his process of making films is different. Since he started making his own films over thirty years ago, he has put out about one every year, a record no other American director has come close to, and of course he writes them and acts in most of them. It is no metaphor that he has put his life into films, and in _Woody Allen: A Life In Film_ (Ivan R. Dee), the movie critic for _Time_ magazine, Richard Schickel, examines the life work along with Allen. The book is the complete text of a four-hour interview shown last year on the invaluable Turner Classic Movies channel; that version was edited to ninety minutes. It also has an essay of appreciation about Allen's work, which Schickel clearly values. He admits that he is biased, not because of friendship for Allen, but because of similarities between them, being roughly the same age and distrusting organized religion, corporate America, and aromatherapy. Allen "... speaks to me - and _for_ me sometimes - in a quite uncomplicated way." If you do not share his bias, he warns, you are reading the wrong book. If you do, you will find Schickel's essay, and especially Allen's own words about his work, a delight.
The film a year output has lead to many people thinking that along with all the other neuroses that Allen has depicted for himself, he is a workaholic. He denies it. He likes the work. "It keeps me sane to the degree that I'm sane. It helps me." But if he can't get the shot exactly right, and it is time for the Knicks game, he lets the shot go. He may love making the movies, but he is distinctly modest about them. "I think I'm going to write _Citizen Kane_ every time out of the box, and it's going to be great." And then he is humiliated by what he sees on the screen. "I have failed almost every time..." He reflects here on his ability to make jokes; even in high school, he could get out of class at one and go into New York to start writing jokes for clients to put in the newspapers. His films are not all just funny, of course. Even though there is humor in, say, the masterful _Crimes and Misdemeanors_, the sad lesson of the movie is that good intentions don't count; "... they do in your heart - but to society success is the bottom line." The earnest film-maker in the movie is a loser and the murderous doctor loses nothing. "I just wanted to illustrate in an entertaining way that there's no God, that we're alone in the universe..." No wonder people like his early funny ones.
Schickel has done a masterful job asking the right questions. He does not go much into Allen's personal life, but sticks to the work. Allen gets to explain his attitude toward actors, and it is clear why he can continue to get the best of them to work with him. He lets them improvise, and he lets them alone: "You get out of the way and let them do what has made them great." He is laudatory about Mia Farrow's participation in the films, and for all her subsequent acerbity towards him, he did provide her with an enormous body of work. Schickel rightly gets Allen to talk on the magic in his movies, like the character leaving the screen in _Purple Rose of Cairo_. Magic is the only thing that could save us, but it doesn't do so for Farrow's character because she, like all of us, has to choose the real world. There is a surprising segment on gangsters in Allen's films, who play roles more often than I had remembered. Allen says that with his father having been a pool hustler and his own having grown up on the streets of Brooklyn, he is closer to gangsters than intellectuals: "I mean, I was thrown out of college in my freshman year." There are insights in this small volume aplenty, and if you like Allen's films, you will learn much about him by hearing what he has to say about them.