Screened at this year’s 65th Cannes Film Festival, Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012) combines the usual talking head interviews and archive footage with a generous dollop of the Brooklyn-born actor, comedian and director moping about his bedroom, discussing his artistic process and wandering his old neighbourhood to the obvious amusement of current denizens. The success of the film is in giving us a perhaps overdue summation of just how huge a success Allen has been. Recent excrescences have somewhat dimmed his star, yet Weide’s documentary marks a conscious effort to redress the balance.
From humble beginnings as a lackadaisical scholar in a large Jewish family emerging from the Depression, Allen is painted as a curiously driven man, writing zingers for syndicated columnists like Walter Winchell while he was still in school. Thrust into the limelight by his long-time agents, Allen became a reluctant comedian and television celebrity. “I had no shame,” he states as we see him boxing a kangaroo and singing with a talking dog – arguably worth the price of admission alone. His move into cinema finally came in the unhappy form of What’s New Pussycat? (1965). His screenplay mangled beyond recognition, Allen vowed to never again cede control of his own material and never did, achieving almost instant success with his directorial debut Take the Money and Run (1969).
Through a combination of economy, a keen sense of comic timing and an evermore recognisable public persona, Allen gradually grew and matured as a director. The apotheosis of this came with Annie Hall (1977), swiftly followed by both Manhattan (1979) and Zelig (1983). Throughout Weide’s documentary, Allen appears candid in his own self-estimation, arguing that he has never made a great film.
Allen seems to be someone who found joke writing so easy it almost got in the way of what he really wanted to do – to be a great tragedian which, with such false steps as 1978’s Interiors, ultimately proved to be far from his reach. That said, Allen is probably the closest we have ever come to G. K. Chesterton’s definition of true comedy, his oeuvre laden with meditations on mortality and the meaning of life. He even reprimands himself, via aliens from another world: “What can I do for humanity?” “You’re a comedian, tell funnier jokes.”
It’s a pity that at times Woody Allen: A Documentary fails Woody’s own ‘bullshit test’. When attending the premiere of Midnight in Paris (2011) at Cannes last year, we are privy to back stage footage in which Allen acerbically, yet refreshingly, dismisses the praise for the film as people just being generous – his candour here contradicting the box office figures that are reeled out as a cast iron defence of his record.
Midnight in Paris was received generously and might even be his best of the decade, but then again (and as Chris Rock reminds us), when an artist has spanned so many decades, we should perhaps give him some leeway. Despite the tagged-on Hollywood ending, Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary remains a well-researched,ample portrait of the artist and man.