WOODY ALLEN is the comic laureate of our age. Nothing against George Carlin, he of the long hair, cute dirty words and drug jokes, but Woody stands head and glasses above anyone else in terms of the absolute number, quality, diversity and insightfulness of the comic ideas he has produced. Woody the loveable neurotic forces the audience to laugh at its own foibles and fuck-ups. Allen often reaches a peak of manic intensity amazing in such a small, redhaired nebbish of a man. So how does he do it? What makes Woody Allen funny, and why is he the way he is? In several of his films Allen gives a few clues, but one is never sure how seriously to take them. In Take the Money and Run, we see Woody's parents (albeit wearing Groucho disguises) discussing him, and we see the young Woody at work, at play, practicing his cello. But we aren't meant to believe any of it, and even the more personally revealing Annie Hall does not nearly satisfy our natural curiousity as to just what Woody Allen is like.
So when Off the Wall Theatre in Central Square began to show Woody Allen: an American Comedy, local Allenologists began hoping the film would yield a few insights into Woody. But if you're looking for clues to Woody, write off this film. On the other hand, if you don't mind (or even welcome) a light, superficial portrait of Allen that amuses if not informs, go see it. Besides, the six short comic films that accompany the half-hour-long portrait of Allen are quite good, ranging from the couple-of-chuckles Betty Boop cartoon to the brilliant parodies of Bergman and Star Wars.
After this solid lead-in of shorts, the Allen film is disappointing. Throughout the film producer/-director Allen Mantell consistently fails to probe hard enough, whether out of respect for Allen's privacy or out of deference to a comedian/social observer of Allen's stature. While Mantell does cover some of the relevant bases, he ignores key leads to the problem at hand. For instance, in the half-hour we hear nothing of Allen's fifteen years of psychoanalysis, although that process has probably provided Allen with a larger portion of his humor than any other single factor. Allen does a lot of psychological jokes, and the understanding that his analysis has afforded him into his own personality and into his relationship with his parents, friends and lovers is essential to a man who survives by the quality of his observations of people. Allen's whole shtick, simplified somewhat and ignoring to a degree the growth and development visible in Annie Hall and Interiors, is that of an awkward, clumsy, neurotic, unconfident, hapless little man who manages to maintain a sense of irony and self-awareness throughout his mishaps and setbacks. Even when he gets the woman the self-mocking tone is always present. So why would a documentary-maker not immediately try to find out how much of this image Allen believes to be true of himself? Any film of Woody Allen's life which ignores his psychology and his subconscious mind is doomed to be of quite limited value toward understanding the man.
The film opens with Woody walking down the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue, in his familiar rumpled jacket, corduroy pants, nondescript hat, discussing his jokes. It's all very casual. Woody has a lot of ideas, he doesn't try to put in a message or say something, he doesn't tailor his material to the audience because everyone has different tastes. So he simply gets up there, says what he thinks is funny, and everyone laughs. Well, don't buy it. Allen hates improvisations with a passion. He needs to be in control, and from the beginning of his career has demanded (and won) the right to write, direct, star in, and even handle the promotion for his films. Every seemingly random pause, gesture, intonation in his material is carefully practiced and structured to contribute to the whole; it is the only way the nervous young Allen could overcome his fear of failure. That habit of maintaining total control stayed with him through his career. As for the easygoing, casual manner he suggests is the way he produces comedy, that too should be taken with a carton of salt, since Allen is still a troubled, somewhat tormented man. Many of his earlier self-mocking jokes had a fine edge of painful truth to them--when, for instance, he is humiliated by a girl he has not seen since high school when he asks her out in Play it Again, Sam, the scene is kept insane enough so that the viewer does not think about it too hard and realize that this sort of thing probably hurts Woody down to his core, and he is laughing at it so as not to cry.
THE FILM THEN moves to Woody's ancestral home, Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he was born Arthur Allen Koenigsberg in an apartment building on Avenue K and East 15th Street. He grew up in the classic Jewish, middle-class ghetto, where the central dream is educating the children who will become well-off doctors, lawyers, engineers. As Woody put it later on, "My parents' dominant values were God and carpet." In all movies in which his parents appear, they are heavily parodied. In few interviews does he mention his parents or his childhood in any but the most joking tones, the most passing references. One would suppose the serious documentary-maker would take Woody's desire to avoid that period of life as a full-speed ahead signal to explore another potentially crucial source of Allen's humor and another central clue to what makes up Allen the man. One can only conclude that Mantell is not a serious documentary maker.
Whatever its failings as explanation, the film is interesting as description. Interspersed among the shots of Allen talking to the camera, or scribbling over and over on a first draft of some comedy routine, we see scenes of Midwood High School, which he attended for three uneventful years, and the playground at Avenue L and East 17th Street where he spent much time as a growing boy. Trying to give us a feel for his background, the camera sweeps past the Orthodox Jews buying fruit at the numerous stands on Avenue J, past the movie house and the pizzerias and the bagel stores, across the colorful, comfortable panorama that is middle-class Brooklyn. Yet even here we are denied glimpses of the essential Allen. We never see or hear from Woody's parents, or teachers, or friends, or professional acquaintances, or indeed anyone but Woody himself--as ever, personally in control of things.
Scenes from several of Woody's movies highlight the half-hour. They always illustrate points made by the surrounding narrative but they break up the audience nonetheless. There on the screen is the Woody Allen we have come to know (maybe) and love--Woody flying over the battlefield in Love and Death, Woody as a robot of sorts in Sleeper, Woody talking to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall--and these scenes alone carry the film.
But the documentary, despite Mantell's efforts to the contrary, is not wholly bereft of insights into Woody or chances to view sides of the man not often seen. When Allen says he would rather risk failure by experimenting with comic possibilities less familiar to him instead of "going with my strength, always making hits," but not growing as a performer, one begins to understand what led him to produce a straight movie like The Front and then move on to the Bergmanesque Interiors. And the shots of Allen at home talking casually to the unseen documentarian and playing his clarinet put to rout forever the myth that Allen is still the totally nervous, completely incompetent schlep; inept in daily life and in his relationships. Fact is, Allen is as well-adjusted, self-actualized as he will ever be, and, after years of struggle--through analysis and through self-expression in his films and stand-up comedy--he seems relatively at ease and happy. The documentary's only redeeming value is that it presents this other side.
MANTELL'S FLIMSY effort to capture the essence of what makes Woody Allen an American comedy only lightly brushes over the subject, concentrating not on the sources of Allen's humor but on his technique of turning that humor into finished comedy. Nor does the film ask why audiences identify so strongly with Allen--do they laugh out of recognition or from the sheer absurdity? If only Mantell had titled his work something less pompous it would be fine; as Woody Allen: Some Random Facts, no viewer would be misled into thinking he would get an explanation of Allen instead of a few scenes from his movies, a few filmed conversations with him, a few laughs. Of course we could use a few laughs these days. If you do go, keep in mind that Woody probably wouldn't. But then, Woody probably wouldn't go to any film that would have him as a subject.