Conversations with Woody Allen, by Eric Lax

Conversations with Woody Allen

Looking through Woody Allen’s profile on the IMDB site, I count 46 “Woody Allen movies.” There’s some ambiguity there, in that you have to decide whether to only count those he directed, or also those he wrote (or even just acted in). What about TV shows or plays? What about New York Stories, which was a triptych by three directors, where he made just one of the three stories?

So consider 46 to be only an estimate. But anyway, of those 46, I believe I’ve seen 24—the first 16 out of 16, and then eight of the 30 since then.

That’s a pretty good indication of where I stand with Woody Allen. One, given that I have seen 24 of his movies, he is obviously a major figure in my moviegoing life. (I would guess he is the only person—director, actor, whatever—of whom I’ve seen 24 or more of their movies, though I can’t say for sure.) Two, I’m far more familiar with his early work than his later work, though I’m by no means completely unfamiliar with his later work. Three, I loved his early work, and then I gradually drifted away as his movies less consistently fit my tastes. (If I were to pick my top ten favorite Woody Allen movies, somewhere between eight and ten would come from those first 16, in fact at least eight would probably come from just the first ten. Of his later films I happen to have seen, I think Sweet and Lowdown would make it into the bottom half of the top ten, with Midnight in Paris and maybe Manhattan Murder Mystery or Broadway Danny Rose being respectable near-misses for the top ten, but off the top of my head I don’t think any others would be significant contenders.)

So I’m not the most hardcore of hardcore Woody Allen fans, but he is a figure of substantial importance to me. He meant more to me earlier in my life—and I suspect this book would have too—but he has never completely lost me.

Conversations with Woody Allen consists of edited transcripts of interviews of Allen by his biographer Eric Lax. (I have not read his Woody Allen: A Biography.) The interview excerpts are grouped into eight sections—The Idea; Writing It; Casting, Actors, and Acting; Shooting, Sets, Location; Directing; Editing; Scoring; and The Career—and are chronological within those sections.

As indicated by the subtitle—His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking—the book is only about his professional life. There is really nothing about his personal life, except occasional brief references when it pertains directly to his moviemaking. So this is not the book you want if you’re interested in hearing Allen’s side of his bitter dispute with Mia Farrow and the scandalous allegations of child sexual abuse and such.

By the way, speaking of that subtitle, isn’t “his films, the movies” redundant? Though maybe the distinction is in the “his” versus “the.” Perhaps “the movies” refers to movies in general, not just his own, as he does indeed talk about many other movies in the course of these interviews.

Lax is a competent interviewer, but pretty generic. That is—and one could see this as a positive or a negative—he doesn’t make himself part of the story as an equal or near equal participant in the conversations. It’s not like if someone with a strong ego or personality like Dick Cavett or William F. Buckley were interviewing Allen. Mostly it’s just “tell me about the such-and-such movie,” and “what was it like working with so-and-so” or follow-ups to Allen’s remarks, like “tell me more about that comparison between movie X and movie Y.”

The interviews were conducted over the course of several decades, but the Allen we see here doesn’t change significantly, at least as far as I can tell. If I covered up the year of an interview, then assuming there was nothing in the content to give away the approximate date, I doubt I could guess with much confidence whether it came from the early, middle, or late period of his career, though it’s certainly possible that all that shows is that I’m not that insightful a reader or that I wasn’t reading closely enough.

I can’t say I was strongly impressed nor disappointed with Allen in these interviews. He says some interesting things, but he doesn’t blow me away with his intellect. He goes for a laugh occasionally—very occasionally—but it’s not like this is anything special as a humor book. It’s not like, for instance, an interview book with Groucho Marx would be. I don’t mean that Groucho was never serious, but you’d have to think if he were interviewed dozens of times over the course of decades, at least a fair amount of that time he’d be responding with nonstop rapid fire quips and nonsense. This book really isn’t like that.

Maybe part of the reason I didn’t come away from the book overly impressed with Allen is that he is so consistently self-deprecating (but not in so exaggerated a way as to clearly be insincere or intended as humor). Over time, I think psychologically you start agreeing with a person who constantly reminds you that he’s nothing special.

As much as he cuts himself down, he really never cuts down others in the industry. At least he doesn’t in terms of individuals; he does make occasional disparaging remarks about overly commercial movies, popular music of recent decades, mainstream American movies when compared to foreign films, etc.

But apparently everyone who has ever worked on his movies—in front of or behind the camera—is spectacularly talented, totally dedicated to their craft, an absolute dream to work with, and—if it’s a woman—unbelievably beautiful. That’s nice and all, but it doesn’t exactly make for scintillating reading.

There’s some interesting stuff here and there though. Not enough that I’d give the book more than a modest recommendation (unless you’re an even bigger Woody Allen fan than I am), but enough for me to be glad I read it.

He dismisses his early comedy films as trifles. Sometimes he grudgingly allows that they were good for what they were, but in his opinion that’s just it—they weren’t much. Films like Take the Money and Run or Bananas, he says, had no plot and were just one gag after another. He’s much more attached to his dramas—even though those range in his estimation from out-and-out failures to, at best, pretty good movies that fell well short of their potential because of his shortcomings—and for that matter insists that his later comedies were better movies because they were more sophisticated and actually had plots.

In fact, it’s pretty much the later the better, as far as he’s concerned. He thinks that the comedies right after those earliest ones—like Love and Death—were improvements (though still not very good; he considers Manhattan largely a failure, and doesn’t even acknowledge that the much-praised Annie Hall—winner of the Best Picture Oscar—was anything much), and that much later comedies like Manhattan Murder Mystery were far superior.

I respectfully disagree. It may well be that his technique got better in certain respects with experience, but the fact is, to me, for a certain kind of humor he was one of the absolute best of all time. If you put a gun to my head and made me pick a favorite Woody Allen movie, I might well go with Bananas. Some of those early comedies of his are just hysterical from start to finish. I can put them on today and laugh until it hurts. It’s great zany, Monty Python-style madness, just as his wonderful early short stories are. (And Bananas no more lacks a plot than Love and Death—another great Woody Allen film—does.)

I loved his romantic comedies Annie Hall and Manhattan too. They weren’t of precisely that same genre of inspired nonsense, but he was very good at that type of movie too.

But he’s never reached that level with other types of movies—the dramas, the more sophisticated or realistic comedies, etc., or for that matter with the later short stories. He came pretty close here and there—I have mostly good things to say about Sweet and Lowdown and Zelig, for instance—but it’s the genre he now looks down his nose at that was where he truly shined.

It’s like Wayne Gretzky wanting to be a businessman, or Sugar Ray Robinson going into politics. Maybe those are indeed more “important” or “serious” ventures, but however good they turn out to be at them, they’re never going to be among the absolute best of all time like they were in their original fields.

I don’t begrudge Allen moving on and trying his hand at other things that he prefers, that have more meaning for him. I’m happy for him. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with him that what he produced after moving on was clearly superior to what he was doing before the change.

Among the other interesting things he says, he makes the same point as Dick Cavett did in one of his books that a single word change or the slightest change in inflection can ruin a joke. He compares comedy writing to poetry in that respect, in that it takes the same kind of meticulous attention to detail, the same precision in wording and rhythm, to truly do it well.

I already knew this from other things I’d heard or read about him, but he doesn’t ever watch his movies after he finishes them, and rarely talks or thinks about them. He just moves on; his focus is always on the next movie, not the last one or any before it. When asked about a film in these interviews, he commonly remembers little about it (except that it wasn’t all that great).

I really think it’s common that fans know more about celebrities’ careers than the celebrities themselves do. You know, consider all those people who have whole Star Trek scripts memorized and such. Certainly William Shatner doesn’t.

Or I remember when I saw The Beatles Anthology, there was that section toward the end with Paul, George, and Ringo chatting, and the subject of some hit song of theirs comes up and George asks which album that was on, something that any slightly-more-than-casual Beatles fan would know.

Beatles fanatics spend huge amounts of time listening to Beatles albums, talking about the Beatles, posting on the Internet about the Beatles, analyzing Beatles lyrics, memorizing Beatles trivia, etc. You know what people don’t do that? Beatles.

But Allen takes that to an extreme. He pushes something out of his mind as soon as he’s done working on it and he can no longer change or improve it.

He also famously doesn’t care about awards, doesn’t read reviews, etc. He says he knows that comes across to some people as aloof, arrogant, eccentric, or whatever, but that it’s really just that he knows from experience that the opinions of others never made a difference to him when he did pay attention to them very early in his career, that it didn’t soften the disappointment when he believed he’d made a weak film and the public or the critics disagreed, nor did it make him feel worse when he was pleased with something he did (though he seemingly never has been, except to a quite limited extent) and the public or critics disagreed.

As he puts it, “When I’m confronted, of course intellectually I say, ‘Well, I’d rather my film made a lot of money. I’d rather my film was loved by everybody.’ But you can see in my behavior that I don’t do anything to bring that about. I make the films. I never care about their fashionableness, their commerciality, their relevance, their depth, their superficiality.”

I have mixed feelings about this attitude. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which I share it. I’ve made analogous points about my own life choices, including specifically about the films I’ve made. (Private, small scale personal history films, not “real” films like are shown in theaters.) The way I put it, there’s a sense in which I certainly like approval, but I’m for the most part not motivated by it. I don’t have the usual pragmatic mindset that I see in almost every other human being, where they aim directly for other people to approve of them and reward them in some way. For me it’s more like, I really want to do what’s right and true in my life, to the best of my modest ability, and because it would be nice if people valued the right and the true I’d like to get their approval insofar as I succeed, but that’s solely as a byproduct. Plus I recognize that in reality it’s far more the exception than the rule that doing what’s right, or at least doing what’s genuine for you, will also be what is popular and bring you approval and rewards, and that typically they are instead in conflict. And when they are, it has always seemed obvious to me which you are obligated to choose (not that I always do).

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the bit on one of Steve Martin’s comedy albums when he responds to some moans or some indication of disapproval from the audience by reminding them, “I don’t need you! I could do this act by myself!”

I mean, if you’re an artist trying to express something, trying to communicate something, trying to affect people in some way, how can you be indifferent to how—or whether—they receive what you do? Isn’t making a movie and not caring about the audience reaction like that Zen one-hand-clapping thing?

I was a little surprised to read that Allen is more than happy to act in other people’s films, and has almost always said yes when asked, but that he’s almost never asked.

He makes a point, which he says came up in a conversation he once had with Alfred Hitchcock, that I’d never really thought of, that on TV “story is everything.” He says that a Marx Brothers-type comedy that’s all gags and little story, or for that matter some artsy thing that relies on intriguing camera shots and mood and such with little story, works far better in a movie theater than on TV.

I haven’t thought it through enough to know to what extent I agree with that, but I suppose it’s plausible. Maybe more so in the latter case, because I would think some obscure foreign film or some conceptual art kind of film requires a lot more concentration, and that in a theater people are generally more attentive whereas at home watching TV they are more likely to be multi-tasking or be distracted. I’m less certain why a madcap comedy with little story would fare worse on TV though. If anything I would think that that would take even less focus than keeping up with a plot would.

But anyway, if there’s a main theme to this book it would have to be the self-deprecating manner in which Allen looks back on his career:

I’ve had carte blanche for thirty-five years and I’ve never made a great film. It’s just not in me to make a great film. I don’t have the depth of vision to do it. I don’t say to myself, I’m going to make a great film and I’m going to be uncompromising. If necessary I’ll work nights and go to the far ends of the earth. That’s just not me. I’d like to make a great film provided it doesn’t conflict with my dinner reservation.

I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to work long days. I want to get home in time to eat, to play my clarinet, to watch the ball game, to see my kids now. So I make the best movie I can under those circumstances. Sometimes I get lucky and the film turns out good. Sometimes I’m not lucky and it doesn’t turn out good. But I certainly have been, not irresponsible, but lazy.


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