One of the gems of the Sofia Independent Film Festival was a documentary about Woody Allen. The diminutive, bespectacled nebbish filmmaker is now 76. And judging from the audience and critical reception to his most recent movies – I’m thinking in particular of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight inParis– he seems to be reaching a career high.
Not that we should worry about Allen’s imminent retirement or more permanent departure just yet. With a father and a mother who lived to be 100 and 95, respectively, he is likely to be around for some time. And Allen has always been vehemently against death anyway. Or, as he has said elsewhere, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.
Robert Weide’s documentary was fascinating on many levels. Firstly, Allen’s modus operandi. He still punches away on an old German typewriter he acquired as a teenager. The contraption is very gradually disintegrating but Allen has been assured that it will still outlive him.
At other times, when inspiration strikes – and it could be any place – Allen frantically scribbles down ideas on post-it notes. Would not his life be easier if he learned how to copy and paste on a word processor, asks one interviewer? Well, says Allen, retrieving his notes, he can do that anyway. He just takes the pieces of paper with good ideas and sticks them together with other pieces of paper containing other good ideas. So don’t go searching for an Allan Konigsberg or a Woody Allen on Facebook. You’re more likely to find Woody Woodpecker.
Allen has now made 40 films, starting from the broad humour of Bananas and Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex to the semi-serious phase of Hannah and Her Sisters, through to full-blown dramatic works like Match Point. Allen would no longer seem to care if he is funny or not. This has liberated him. There’s certainly nothing rip-roaringly funny in. Vicky Cristina Barcelona. We just smile ruefully at the self-destructiveness of the characters and the general carnage around us. Yet it’s still one of his best works. Likewise with Midnight inParis, Allen’s charming period fantasy about a Walter Mitty American transported to 1920sParis. Match Point hardly has a laugh in it and is instead a series of lucky escapes and infelicitous encounters, perhaps a reflection of Allen’s own absurdist philosophy.
Various worthies, friends and collaborators were brought on to praise Allen. Fellow director Martin Scorsese said that Allen always had something to say, implying he was a great storyteller if not a great filmmaker. Diane Keaton said she fell in love with Woody and made most of the running – ah, the perils of working with attractive actresses! – and remains friendly with him. Mia Farrow is definitely – we assume – not very friendly ever since “La Scandale” of 1992 when Woody took up with their adopted daughter. Farrow did not appear in the programme. Allen professed not to care one iota what others thought of his private behaviour, probably – although I’m guessing – his only lie in the near two-hour long documentary.
More revealing was Allen’s hatred of collaboration on his films – unless it’s with a trusted circle of writers and friends. His early cinematic experiences gave him a horror of ceding artistic control. Not that he’s a tyrannical, egotistical filmmaker. Far from it; he’s a pussycat on-set, judging from footage of his behind-the-scenes direction on You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. He suggests something ever so delicately and then semi-retracts it. But, of course, once he has planted the suggestion, the actors, desperate to please, generally take it on board. Naomi Watts said he was the best director she had ever worked with. And Allen does seem particularly good with actresses, extracting Oscar-winning performances out of Keaton and Dianne Wiest, in particular.
Allen’s bugbears and neuroses received surprisingly little coverage in the documentary. He did reveal that he dislikes elaborate premieres and, especially, the false approbation of the Cannes-type red carpet where everyone tells him he’s wonderful.
“Everyone in Germany loves you,” says one drooling fan at Cannes.
“Everyone?” says Allen, quizzically. “That’s a lot of people. What’s the population of Germany?”
Allen will always be funny. He just has that plaintive, sardonic way with a line that invests even a banal rejoinder with special meaning.
He freely admits that he is not a perfectionist. If a take works for him, he will not try to improve on it. He’d rather, he says, go home to watch the ball game. He tries to make one film every year. His reasoning is that, by the law of averages, some will be very good. But he claims never to be totally satisfied with any of his films. He also claims not to read reviews, something which, if true, would have stood him in good stead following the cool reception of movies like Stardust Memories.
Allen’s sister chimes in to say that his films are not to everyone’s taste. Doubtless, some strange people secretly believe that sex, anxiety, fear of death, hypochondria, introspection, paranoia and melancholy are the exclusive preoccupation of the liberal Jew York fraternity. But – I ask you – what else is there?