Tuesday, November 22, 2011

PBS Does Woody: Musings on Woody Allen: A Documentary

I spent part of Sunday and Monday watching the four hour two part Woody Allen: A Documentary on PBS. I enjoyed it a lot. It certainly didn't, as more and more PBS documentaries are doing these days, whitewash its subject. And I liked that.

When I first went to college way back in the 1970s I usually made it a point to see all of Woody's films. I saw the wonderful mockumentary Take the Money and Run, the satirically hilarious Bananas, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Sleeper, and Love and Death. Like so many others I recall being disappointed when Woody seemed to make the transition from comedy films to serious films in Interiors and Stardust Memories. It is been a long time since I have seen either so my memory of both is rather hazy but I think I was among those who saw both films as retreads of Bergman and Fellini in American guise. I recall loving Annie Hall and Manhattan (a film that takes on new meaning, perhaps, in the wake of later events in Woody's life), both of which I thought nicely mixed Woody's comedic and serious sides.

I haven't seen many of Woody's films since Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy, a film I loved. I saw Sweet Lowdown and thought it was good though it didn't move me. I saw Manhattan Murder Mystery but again it didn't move me. I did like the Welles Lady of Shanghai redo at the end of the film, however. I have many of his later films thanks to the $3 dollar bin at Big Lots, but haven't seen them yet. Perhaps this documentary will push me to watch them. I would like to see Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, and Midnight in Manhattan.
Like so many bio-documentaries these days Woody Allen: A Documentary was limitedly critical. There is no engagement in the documentary, for instance, with the claim of some critics, most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum, that Allen has become an auteur who is acceptable to Americans who simply refuse to watch foreign films for a variety of reasons, parochialism, a bizarre fear of subtitles, their slow pace, their intellectualism.

By the way, one of the things I, at least in part a New Yorker, found really interesting in Woody Allen: A Documentary was Martin Scorsese's quip that he didn't really understand Woody's Manhattan. It was not, he said, his New York City. I found Scorsese's statement interesting because Woody's cinema is more like my life, the life of the nerd, and Woody's Manhattan is more like my Manhattan. To turn the tables a bit I just don't quite understand Scorsese's violent mob New York City and am not sure I really want to. I have never really been into the mafia and gangster film and television genre beyond Once Upon a Time in America. But hey, that's me.

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