Of course, there is more to this than Alvy reveals. As he goes on, Alvy more or less traps himself by trying to appear reasonable. “I am not a morose type”, he reassures his audience. “I’m not a depressive character.” Perhaps, but the viewer, at that point, does not have much to go on except some false bravado, and a little self-deprecation -- a good pairing, in fact, as it not only makes Alvy’s point, but makes him believable, and someone to root for. Yet for all that, it is really one of the film’s many small manipulations that help turn Alvy into an ‘Everyman’ that’s not only been through it, whatever ‘it’ may be, but that has made it out, as well. People (men, especially) can look at him and smile and thus feel affirmed, and know, as the cliche goes, that they are not alone.
Well, so what? Such things are truisms! Perhaps, but the more cogent point is that they are utterly false, and wrong-headed, and ensnare not only the ‘Woody’ persona, but the viewer, as well, into mindlessly accepting them. In Annie Hall, for instance, Alvy Singer is not a bad man, but still is an out-and-out manipulator who not only lies to himself, but tries to force a personality, a mode of being upon Annie that is utterly alien to her, and thus only makes her miserable. No, her life of partying, tennis, and smarmy talent agents is not exactly noble, but it suits her purpose, much to Alvy’s chagrin. In fact, it is Alvy (not Annie) who must deal with himself, and the patterns he’s engendered. Isaac (from Manhattan) is no better, as he leaves his job for a supposedly higher pursuit, but can only come up with terrible, cliche-ridden sentences at the film’s open, and is utterly rewarded for it via publication. Yes, viewers and critics alike have rhapsodized over the film’s beautiful and ‘romantic’ imagery, but miss the fact that it’s wholly undermined by the manipulations of those within, from Isaac’s refusal to nix Tracy’s growing attachment, to Mary’s cancerous behavior, to the way that the film’s stated ideals are never realized -- not even in Manhattan’s illusionary ending, wherein it is clear that the film’s main relationship will never work, despite the words being exchanged. And Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories) is one of the few ‘Woody’ personas viewers loathe, despite the fact that -- unlike Cliff (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Gabe (Husbands and Wives), and Harry (Deconstructing Harry) -- he is the only true artist in Allen’s films, and is quite healthy, selfless, purposeful, and whole, and therefore a better person than most of Allen’s other personas.
In short, the real Woody Allen would never go for this. It is, alas, all too easy to mistake the persona for the man, especially since most can’t really tell the difference between the fake artists Allen so often skewers in his films, and the ones that, like Allen, are to be celebrated. So, where does he fit in all of this? Well, as Allen once said: “I’m a serious person, a disciplined worker, interested in writing, interested in literature, interested in theater and film.” These are not the words of a nebbish, nor a pretentious film-school type. There are no grand philosophical justifications for his work, or things that need to reach beyond the screen. Indeed, its great visuals, narrative, characterizations, scripting, and scoring speak for themselves, and remain the films’ own best evidence -- as it should be in all art. In this way, however, it also means that Manhattan’s illusions are not Woody’s. Marion’s (Another Woman) gloomy feelings are critiqued most harshly by the film’s psychoanalyst, who is therefore the film’s ‘real’ Allen and serves as a de facto over-voice. And Sandy Bates’s wonderful, self-effacing exchange with the aliens was scripted by Woody, and thus completely undermines the very things Allen, himself, was accused of saying in that film. Again, where is the man, exactly, if not even the viewer can discern something as simple (or so it seems) as his presence?
Woody Allen: Reel to Real helps shed some light on this question. Suffice to say that, in 1965 -- around the time of What’s New Pussycat? -- none of the issues that I’ve described, above, would have been thinkable if one were to merely look at Woody’s early work. First starting as a mere writer of jokes at sixteen, Allan Stewart Konigsberg changed his name to the ‘funnier’ Woody Allen, and, within a decade, moved on to stand-up comedy, television, and script-writing. This early period was especially important for Woody’s career, as it not only gave him a feel for that side of the business, but also established a professional relationship with people that would be quite instrumental to his films. In 1962, for instance, Allen wrote a television pilot (The Laughmakers) that, years later, was to feature both Louise Lasser and Alan Alda, whom Allen not only uses in his films, but also (as in the case of Lasser) explores their personal lives as raw material for fiction.
But while 1966 marks Allen’s directorial debut (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), 1969 his first film ‘proper’ (Take the Money and Run), and the next decade saw a number of artistically and commercially successful comedies (Bananas, Sleeper, and Love and Death), they were none too deep. Yes, viewers and critics alike have gushed over the supposed political commentary (among other things) in all three, but the films are primarily gag-driven, not character-driven. After a while, then, they are merely superseded by the joke, and thus become it, obviating most claims to depth, despite how supremely crafted these films are (and, I’d argue, some of the best ‘pure’ comedies ever made). Woody Allen’s prose and stand-up comedy from this time was quite similar: funny, extremely well-crafted, and even reaching, at times, for higher things, but more or less a string of jokes. Thus, to say at this point that Allen would eventually be capable of scripting Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors would have been little more than an article of faith.
Yet as early as 1953, there was another side to Woody Allen that did not come out in his jokes (except, perhaps, in Love and Death). It was the year that Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika came to America, and Allen -- on the reputation of its nude scenes -- went to see it. Despite the hype, however, down to the cheesy, over-sexualized American ads, it was a good film, with strong characters, good writing, and a poetic flair that would come to define much of Bergman’s later work. Allen’s perception was further reinforced with Sawdust and Tinsel a few years later, and -- coupled with Allen’s new-found interest in August Strindberg, Dostoevsky, Fellini, and Bernard Shaw -- his own ideas finally started to materialize in the late 70s. Nor were these ‘heavy’ films ever meant as an aside, but a long-term ambition that, in Allen’s own words, was simply higher than comedy, as it dealt with reality head-on. He was criticized for his foray into pure drama, yet these critiques (as this book will clarify) miss some rather obvious things, not only about the ‘big’ issues, such as artistic influence, and the like, but the nuts-and-bolts of art, itself, which is really what matters in the end.
In this way, too many essays on Allen’s work reveal an anti-dramatic bias, all the while praising some indubitably great films (such as Manhattan and Annie Hall) using the wrong sort of evidence. Now, this is not merely nitpicking, but an insistence on the fact that explaining why a work of art is great is far more important than merely judging it so. In short, a correct judgment is meaningless if the reasoning is suspect, as there is no way of extrapolating this judgment to similar works in a consistent and reliable manner. To this end, reviewers list favorite quotes, characters, and the “best” and “worst” moments of Allen’s career, but in a way that undermines the very reality of those creations. For this reason, a lot of what is said is merely expected and generally innocuous. There are, for instance, a few well-known quotes that top such lists, including assertions that Isaac Davis is a ‘great artist’ (via his poorly-written paean to New York), or that he is the director’s most honest self-portrait, despite the fact that Isaac is a bad artist, self-destructive, and a wannabe murderer, to boot. The reasons, therefore, for such critics’ assessments are wrong, but nonetheless show the popular thinking re: Woody Allen at the start of the century, and everything this entails for Woody and Woody’s art.
At other times, film criticism is downright plagued by issues that have come to dominate artistic discourse to the point of utter confusion. Viewers, for instance, have derided Match Point because they are ‘annoyed’ by the characters’ stiffness and pretentiousness. This is true, but obviated by the fact that Allen chooses to depict reality, i.e., how people actually are, and is not merely catering to an individual’s preference. The two are often confused, which has led to negative reactions to films like Interiors (despite the very positive reception of far bleaker films, such as Bergman’s A Passion, and far clunkier ones, like Cries and Whispers), or critics ‘wishing’ this or that film be something it simply isn’t, to the detriment of art.
Thus, on a purely cultural level, being exposed to such opinions is valuable, as film-goers a century from now will marvel at not only what the professional critics have written of Allen, but what the ‘laity’ has wrought, as well, much in the same way that modern readers are amazed at what was ignorantly said of Moby-Dick in 1851. In a way, then, to read Reel to Real today is to have a snapshot of how cinema, as a whole, is perceived. To read it decades hence, however, is to merely come full circle, as there will inevitably be even more great artists ripe for misunderstanding. The trick, then, is to learn the ‘how’, and see where it applies to new yet wholly predictable situations.
And that’s it, really. That is the goal of artistic criticism, and ought to be encouraged. Not every reviewer that I cite, within, is a ‘professional’, or otherwise pedigreed. Most do not reveal their political beliefs, fears, or hang-ups, or take sides on some of Woody’s more tabloid-worthy woes. Naturally, this is all for the better, since your job, as a reader, is to simply look at the words, then at the films, and see whether they align. Anything else is mere accoutrement, diversion.