In more ways than one, it could be argued that the ‘Woody’ persona is not so much different people, but variations of one essence, as if one were glimpsing into the same personage as it exists in parallel universes. This is evident not only in Allen’s manipulators, such as Alvy (Annie Hall), Isaac (Manhattan), or Gabe (Husbands and Wives), but in the ‘good’ characters, as well, who share the same basic preoccupations with love, sex, and death from film to film. It’s always surprising, then, to see how often the persona is conflated with the man himself. Sometimes this is innocuous, such as in assuming Alvy’s romantic issues are from Allen’s youth. At other times, however, it is malicious, and critically negligent to boot, such as conflating the man with the pill-popping, prostitute-loving Harry Block (Deconstructing Harry), or with Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories), which is part of the reason why the latter film has been regarded so poorly, despite it being one of the best films of his career.
Yet for all that, there are many films in which Woody Allen has strictly an actor’s presence, with the persona transferred over to others’ works. How do they stand up? Interestingly, even those films have a ‘Woody’ feel about them, as if he’s downright improvising some of the dialogue, or otherwise changing it to better suit the persona he’d been cultivating since his early stand-up days. In 1967’s Casino Royale, for instance, Allen has a minor role in the type of film that seems to have been his ill luck in those early years. Originally planned as a Bond film, it devolved to an odd spoof in the sense that the acting is often ‘serious,’ while the situations are absurd, with Allen himself buried near the film’s end in a minor role. Yet it’s one of the less successful projects he’s been involved with, despite some pluses. It is a clever film, no doubt, with Allen very much appearing like the life-long neglected loser who, after years of abuse, is finally ‘getting even’ by concocting a plan to make every man in the world shorter than he is. For all that, however, the action and scripting can be over the top, and come undone rather quickly -- an opinion shared not only by the critics, but by Allen himself, who’d go on to ‘disown’ the film in the same way that he’s done with his earliest work. In some ways, Allen’s presence, within, is less important than his perception of it, given how wasteful he thought the project, and how his own severe work ethic would run quite counter to it.
The best actor-only film of this early period was Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), in which Allen plays Howard Prince, a do-nothing bum who gets involved in his friends’ Communist-era blacklist woes, and decides to submit their television manuscripts in his own name. It is far deeper than any of the material he’d been in thus far, but not for the reasons typically given. Upon release, critics complained of the ‘light’ treatment of McCarthyism, but the charge sounds even more ridiculous now than it must have sounded forty years ago. I disagree with these assessments, for they confuse ‘social critique’ with ‘art,’ and end up missing both the film’s implicit critique, as well as the wonderful characterization and good overall narrative, which makes the art, well, art. The film is, at bottom, a series of character sketches, not political comments, as one sees the effects of the blacklist upon the characters, themselves, from Howard’s lying, to Hecky’s (Zero Mostel) inner sickness finally coming out, and thus killing him, to Florence’s (Andrea Marcovicci) growing love for Howard the ‘artist,’ rather than for Howard the man. No, this is not typically political, as has been argued, but shows how the film’s background both shapes and is shaped by the very people within.
But while critics have loathed this alleged ‘faux’ liberalism, they also missed the point: Florence helps Howard get a more ethical view of things, but ultimately declares, like so many other types who engage in identity politics, that the struggle is more or less her life now, at the exclusion of other worthwhile things, such as beauty, and art, and other deep human engagements, for even she, in her attachment to the intangibles of ‘identity,’ ends up falling in love with Howard the artist, which is a fiction, rather than Howard the man, who is reality. In short, Florence is less cloying than misled, is well-scripted as a good but self-deluding idealist, and even more so well acted, as her tics, gestures, and expressions make her utterly real. Meanwhile, Hecky, in a wonderful scene, visits Howard in a near-hypnotic state, for he’s already made the decision to suicide in a kind of ritual: getting more drunk, humming out a smile, tipping the porter, pouring himself another drink, opening up the window -- as if to ‘breathe the night air’ -- and suddenly jumping. These are real, believable actions, from real people, who must interact with other people as well, and are thus shelled out of their true selves, as Howard is, or hyper-developed (as Hecky is) into whatever sickness that had lain dormant, and now, under pressure, finally gets its self-expression. One cannot reduce such beings to mere image or ideology. Clearly, then, the film is political, yet it’s the politics strumming on the human being, rather than the other way around, that makes the film work on levels far beyond mere propaganda, and thus makes the title nigh-poetic in its many possible interpretations.
This was, in some ways, the direction the ‘Woody’ persona would take, for it was serious and unpretentious, and would follow him well into his Golden Age. A slightly interesting if wildly unsuccessful film from this later period is Jean-Luc Godard’s Meetin’ WA (1986), in which Woody Allen is interviewed by the director about a number of things, while Godard subjects him to ridiculous edits, such as putting a big black dot over his face, or cutting Allen off in the midst of his more interesting comments, vis-a-vis Godard’s sillier ones, as if Godard could not handle being outshone on his own film. Yet the ‘duo’ would only return in 1987 with King Lear, another Godard film that casts Allen in the tiny role of Mr. Alien, the film’s supposed ‘jester’ -- an interesting claim, but one that has little evidence supporting it, given how little the characters do, say, or think of any worth. The film’s washed-out visuals, poor sound quality, and near-amateur camera work belies its million-dollar budget, and merely seems wasteful to look at. It is odd, then, that the film was ever praised as being inventive or original, as, in fact, those two overused words can apply to absolutely anything and be just as logical, and just as irrelevant. One may, for instance, logically find Godard’s decision to cast a guy in a makeshift ‘wig’ of tri-colored video wires to be ‘original,’ and one would be right. Yet to what avail, worth, or purpose such things go is a completely different question, and only seldom asked.
Scenes from a Mall (1991) was, likewise, one of Woody’s lesser actor-only efforts, not the least of which was due to the odd choice of casting Allen in the role of Nick Fifer, a married man with an aggressive streak who reveals his affair to his wife and must now deal with the fallout. No, it’s not easy to believe Allen in such a role, even as, in other ways, it does suit him. Given that the film is more or less a drawn-out conversation, with words such as “hostility” being applied to relationships, it captures the ‘talky’ and psychoanalytical edge of his other films, despite it not going anywhere. There are running gags, such as a mime who constantly annoys Nick, or shots of would-be rappers carrying around a boombox, or the fact that Nick’s wife is a kind of celebrity doctor who must now deal with the very issues that she writes about, finding it much harder to take her own advice than to give it. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but that doesn’t mean any of it is well-executed either, merely that it’s a little bit better than the critical panning it has received. In short, a bad film is one that is cliched, very poorly acted, badly written, and utterly pointless in its arcs. This, by contrast, is merely inert, and a film that can never be said to be doing much at all.
In Wild Man Blues (1997), directed by Barbara Kopple of Harlan County, USA fame, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn are followed all through Europe with his jazz band. He is seen frolicking in hotels, talking with politicians, eating food, flying in planes, playing clarinet, being accosted by fans, and getting sick on a boat -- all interesting tidbits, I guess, to a Woody Allen aficionado, but of little value to any other human being who wishes to learn something of lasting worth about the man. The problem is that, for the most part, Woody Allen does not say or do anything worthwhile, is not funny, insightful, or otherwise interesting, and does not -- by his own admission -- play music particularly well, even as it takes up a good chunk of the film. There are a few exceptions, such as his comments on Fellini, or the fact that he knows he is a mediocre musician, yet presses on, anyway, for discipline. But given the film’s length (105 minutes), the occasional words of wisdom can do nothing to revive it, especially since the film, itself, has no real style, narrative, technique, or vision of its own, and merely puts a camera in Woody’s face, and aimlessly follows him around, at times turned on as if by random. In fact, some have interpreted the film as less than a documentary, and more promotional, almost as a de facto telling of his side of the Woody Allen/Soon-Yi Previn scandal, given how ‘normal’ the two are shown together in what they do, say, and eat, but with very little revealed about either. Nor is this very hard to believe given how little the film actually says of Woody Allen, who feels at times like a cipher in his own documentary.
By contrast, Antz (1998) is one of the better animated films I’ve seen, not the least of which is due to Woody Allen voicing Z, a worker ant who inadvertently starts a revolution against his totalitarian colony. No, I didn’t get all the references as a kid, such as the humorous use of Communism (“the workers control the means of production!”), or how deeply the drama was anthropomorphized, or, especially, how much of a Woody film this was, down to the psychoanalysis, and the sudden shot of New York City at film’s end as a sort of aha! moment, but even to an adolescent, Z was unique, clearly quite apart in manner, speech, and outlook from the rest of the colony, and thus his struggle for individualism could be empathized with. In short, the film takes deep, classic ideas, turns them into bite-sized morsels for children, and expects, respectfully, for them to follow along. It is the perfect example of something that would never work as a film, given a film’s audience, general narrative, and pretense to something ‘higher,’ but works marvelously within the world of animation, for it is a world of archetypes, light, darkness, right, and wrong, blown up into an exotic look and locale, which makes the otherwise ‘small’ things seem so thoughtful and fresh.
Yet despite the film’s many pluses of character, narrative, and ideas, it is, oddly enough, often lacking in its most-advertised feature: visuals. Indeed, despite boasting a sixty million dollar budget, it looks incredibly dated now, and precisely how an animated film would look in the 1990s -- a bad sign, for it’ll always imply some difficulty with getting into the tale. Yet for all that, such technological constraints can function in the same way as a suspension of disbelief, in that a desire to simply get over the film’s limits quickly opens the viewer up to the richer aspects of the work, and gives at least some parts a timeless quality that, however odd to look at now, can still be quite arresting for far deeper reasons.
If Antz furthered how Allen is perceived, 1995’s Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story (based on Mia Farrow’s memoir of the same name) merely satirizes him, and perhaps even constructs an utter fantasy down to the very melodrama it is so dependent upon. Despite not being a ‘Woody’ film, as he didn’t write it, direct it, or even act in it, it is nonetheless part of the Woody legend, for it takes some of the very worst that’s ever been said, written, or thought about the man (even by his fans!) and constructs a ‘what-if’ scenario, wherein Allen is the embodiment of precisely that. It belongs, then, in the ‘lesser’ outings, alongside his pretty small roles in The Impostors (1998) and Company Man (1999), both of which are funny but limited works. But while they do little to further or distract the ‘Woody’ persona, The Impostors is, at the very least, 1950's-style entertainment at its best, given its use of ‘elegant’ gags and humor from another era. It is no coincidence, then, that Allen has a small role here, given how deeply he was influenced by this early style of humor.
By contrast, Alfonso Arau’s Picking Up the Pieces (2000) has Allen in a far larger comic role, and it’s an odd one. One sees Tex Cowley (Woody Allen) declaring his love for a woman “at first lap dance,” which leads to a flashback of Tex killing his unfaithful wife Candy (Sharon Stone) during a magic show via chainsaw, Tex’s attempt to bury the body, and the disappearance of a hand stuck in the middle-finger position, only for it to re-emerge as a religious symbol when a blind woman picks it up, and suddenly regains her sight. Tex learns of these ‘miracles’ and decides to pay a visit, only to escape the corrupt cop Bobo (a former lover of his wife), beg his wife for forgiveness, and ultimately become the film’s de facto hero, in an interesting little inversion that has Woody play a sociopath (not unlike, say, Harry Block), while his wife, a dislikable but innocent victim, is hated, making her murder almost irrelevant. There are some nice visual touches throughout, such as the look of Tex’s headlights in the middle of the night, or the way his dog runs down an empty road underneath a ‘heaven-like’ sky. Given the nature of the film, the writing is serviceable, and had even garnered some controversy from religious groups upon its release. Yet watching it now, only fifteen years later, the film is so ridiculous as to be nothing but mild, and completely without bite.
It could be said that while Antz ‘took up’ the Woody persona, the above-mentioned films merely diddled with it. By contrast, Deconstructing Harry was perceived as the extreme version of Woody as a real person, in the same way one might come away with the ‘wrong idea’ after watching the fantasy-tinged Love and Betrayal. Other appearances of the Woody ‘imposter’ can be seen in Celebrity’s Kevin Branagh, and while he was accused of merely aping Woody, he is in a role that Allen simply could have never played, given Celebrity’s dependence on genuine romance, and Branagh’s appearance as the ‘type’ of man who could bed models, and at least try to approximate the celebrity life. Other ‘imposters’ -- who are more properly derided -- are Jason Biggs, of American Pie fame, who is now expected to speak of “man’s place in the universe” in Anything Else, and Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda, whose SNL-like gonzo humor is simply ill-fitting for a film that purports to be about something deeper, even in its comedic half. Oddly enough, however, the biggest blow to the ‘Woody’ persona would come not from imposters, detractors, or accusers, but from Allen’s presence, itself, and the misinterpretations the man would soon be subjected to.
Robert Weide’s 2011 Woody Allen: A Documentary is often frustrating, not the least of which is due to the fact that, at three and a half hours, it remains the most comprehensive film about Allen’s work, all the while ignoring precisely that. It features a number of ‘talking heads’ that merely repeat the same exact judgments uttered over thirty years ago, as if Allen’s work has been in stasis for many decades now, and few critics reveal anything more than one can gain through a cursory look at the RottenTomatoes website. Yet as the many online reviews show, the discussion has long evolved, if one only looks in the right places. Given its over-reliance on passe judgments, however, the film’s only real commentators of worth are Allen himself, as well as some of his collaborators, for while the former sometimes ‘gets’ his art in ways that critics simply do not, the latter offer insights into the man’s work ethic and personality that only they could know. Moreover, the documentary makes the odd choice to spend two hours on the first fifteen years of his career, yet tries to compress the next thirty in a mere hour and a half. This means that great films such as Another Woman are elided, Husbands and Wives gets treated strictly in terms of the Soon-Yi scandal, and Sweet and Lowdown is reduced to mere trivia, while Allen’s more popular films of the last ten years or so are unduly advertised, as if they’re equally important or on par with his earlier work. In short, if a documentary is supposed to be revelatory, not only giving the viewer insight into common thinking, but furthering it, as well, the film does neither, and therefore fails on both counts. Yes, it does reveal a large number of biographical tidbits, some of which hold genuine interest, but one wonders if, after nearly four hours, such things are even worth the expenditure for non-aficionados.
Besides these flaws, however, it should also be noted that this is a film with little real style. Had it presented some compelling information, this would not matter, but since that’s not the case, it is difficult to distinguish between any other documentaries floating about despite the great importance of its subject. Weide does not really have much of an ‘imprint’ at all, and the few attempts to be daring fall flat, such as a shot of Woody speaking, who appears on a movie theatre screen for no reason whatsoever, which merely ends up looking clumsy and ‘cute.’ Regardless, the film does further the ‘Woody’ persona, given how much screen time Allen has, and does much to alleviate the stereotypical thinking re: Allen’s supposed lack of confidence. In fact, he comes off as someone quite serious about his work, and never merely about the joke, despite how often he is thought of as a mere humorist.
And yet, this is not much consolation, as Allen is simply more than what has been written of him, twenty, thirty years ago. He is, in fact, the sum of forty-something films, which in a way have not even been seen. Perhaps, then, it will be up to future generations to ‘get him right’. No matter, since everything great is also self-correcting, as we’ll have eyes for things the present won’t.