Doc Talk: Woody Allen and Documentaries

Doc Talk: Woody Allen and Documentaries

Dec 01, 2011

Like many of you, I watched Robert Weide’s Woody Allen – A Documentary last week. Going by my radar it seems to be the most watched nonfiction film of the year among people I know (and I do know many people who don’t regularly watch docs, god bless them). But what about people I don’t know? I haven’t a clue where to find ratings info (where’s the TV equivalent of Box Office Mojo?), but I have to assume at least readers tuned in since the subject is of great interest to cinephiles, whether they appreciate nonfiction film or not.

Fortunately if you missed it, you can view the two-part, 195-minute film online thanks to PBS Video (below), and then we can discuss the reasons why part one is so much better than part two. And no, it’s not because his latter films aren’t as good (part two includes many greats from the past 30 years anyway, albeit rushed through). I mostly am disappointed at how little is discussed of his life since the scandal twenty years ago. And why wasn’t Soon-Yi even interviewed for what’s meant to be the definitive biographical documentary on the filmmaker?

Watch Woody Allen: A Documentary Part 1 on PBS. See more from AMERICAN MASTERS.

Watch Woody Allen: A Documentary Part 2 on PBS. See more from AMERICAN MASTERS.

Soon-Yi’s absence can’t be attributed to camera shyness or privacy, can it? She is so prominent, and enjoyably so, in Barbara Kopple’s Wild Man Blues, a verite doc following Woody’s 1996 European tour with his New Orleans Jazz Band (or should we say alongside his band since he’s obviously not with the other musicians very much?). This film is more for the diehard fans, and even they might get a little bored, just as many in the concert audiences who are clearly there for the celebrity alone appear to be. And it’s been criticized for coming off as a kind of self-serving PR stunt, which is why so much attention is put on the relationship with then-girlfriend Soon-Yi, an attempt to mend his and their public image.

But one thing I find interesting in retrospect is the relationship between Woody and Europe at the time. He doesn’t seem all that comfortable there, and he addresses the fact that he can’t just enter Europe through any city except Paris, which he still wasn’t tremendously fond of, at least compared to New York. Now of course he’s so at home in Europe, filming most of his recent movies in London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome. Why wouldn’t he love it, though? He flies around in a private jet, stays at hotels where he gets a private pool and “even the maids have maids” and he’s clearly adored everywhere he goes.

In addition to warming up to Europe since the making of Wild Man Blues, he has also been in or involved with a whole lot more documentaries. Of the 62 nonfiction titles he’s credited with, 50 were made since Kopple’s film. Of course, many are not true documentaries, some are simply credits of “thanks” (Beyond the Mat and The Devil and Daniel Johnston), and I can’t confirm if all of the likely appearances in films about other film people, such as those on Bunuel, Kubrick, Chaplin, Almodovar, Truffaut, Fellini, Toback, actress Liv Ullman, composer Philip Glass and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, are legitimate. I can tell you that Woody is nowhere to be found in Weide’s 1982 doc The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, despite what IMDb says.

Is it that he’s warmed up more to appearing as a talking head in docs, or is it that more of these docs are being made lately? Between the Kopple and Weide films he was also the sole focus of Richard Schickel’s TCM doc Woody Allen: A Life in Film, which I believe concentrates on the film more than the life. I’ve seen him show up in some very crude things, like this year’s other Woody doc, Woody Before Allen, which focuses on his Russian ancestry (see the trailer here), and some pretty random stuff, like 1997’s The Language Master, about language teacher Michel Thomas, who taught the filmmaker French back in the ‘70s (watch it on YouTube in three parts).

The funny thing about that latter appearance, in which Thomas is praised for being such a great instructor, is watching it immediately after seeing Woody not comprehend French at all while being interviewed by Jean-Luc Godard in Godard’s bizarre short documentary Meeting Woody Allen (aka Meetin’ WA), which initially seems a promotional project tied to the release of Hannah and Her Sisters before turning into a discussion of VHS versus cinemas. Well, discussion might not be apt. Godard sure was ahead of his time. The faux rudeness shtick in viral videos today (especially Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns) has nothing on him. Watch in full here (apologies for some of it being in French without subtitles):

Through all this perusing and thinking of Woody’s documentary appearances, I can’t help wonder why he hasn’t ever directed a documentary himself. He’s obviously interested in the form, clear from the styles employed for Take the Money and Run, Zelig (not surprisingly my favorite of his films), Husbands and Wives and Sweet and Lowdown, as well the attention to the doc field in Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which he plays a filmmaker directing a profile of a philosopher and another of a TV producer. And let’s not forget the use of Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity in Annie Hall. That classic about the Nazi occupation of France would later be “presented by” Woody for a reissue and DVD release, as well.

Oddly enough, it's his non-documentary-style films that many might associate with reality, specifically as semi-autobiographical works. This misconception that films like Annie HallRadio Days and others are directly based on Woody's life, at least more so than is the truth, is unfortunate enough. But then the actual documentary works -- Schickel's and Weide's anyway -- encourage the misconception by intercutting testimonials from Woody and other interviewees about his background and childhood with scenes from his films. I understand that they are employed for loose illustration and pertain to scenes that might indeed come from out of Woody's actual life, but not everyone so easily notes the distinction. 

Anyway, I’m sure (or hopeful) there are some greater Woody Allen experts out there who can tell me why he’s shown such interest in documentary yet has never made one. I couldn’t find any explanation in the books I went through, but maybe he’s never addressed this question. Or perhaps it just has to do with him having a preference for fiction and an interest in realism, a desire for control over characters yet a looser filming process? I’d love to know the answer, and I’d love for him to at least make another documentary-structured film.



My one recommendation for theatrical openings over the next two weeks is an extraordinary documentary thriller that opened in NYC today (with other cities to follow after the new year). Titled Khodorkovsky, this inquisitive yet very well made film looks at the life and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Russia’s Yukos Oil Company and once one of the richest men in the world. He’s now ironically of interest to human rights groups and potentially a protagonist that even Occupy protestors can get behind. Here’s a bit of my full review of the must-see film:

Admittedly, I don’t understand every bit of international, economic, political and historical element of “Khodorkovsky,” but that only makes it all the more like a complex fictional thriller to me. And while there’s a lot going on and it can get rather convoluted, the general story is hard to lose track of. Tuschi keeps things interesting and entertaining with reenactment animation, some incredible assets -- particularly the letters written to the director by the imprisoned Khodorkovsky -- and occasional oddities, like the scene in which an interviewee is feeding what I suppose is his pet hippopotamus. On top of all this is a very well shot and edited film, which somewhat came out of nowhere, really pulled me in and now has me engrossed beyond the doc itself.

On DVD, there’s a bit of trickiness to recommending one of my favorite docs of the year, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. For more than a year now I’ve argued that nobody should wait until home video for this brilliant, entrancing exploration of France’s Chauvet Caves and their ancient wall paintings. But I guess I can make an exception for 3D home video. The film is now available on 3D Blu-ray, and it might just be worth getting a 3D television for. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Hollywood films like Avatar and Legend of the Guardians on a friend’s TV, but it’s pretty impressive. Perhaps not immersive enough for Cave, but it’s better than watching it flat. You might as well just look at pictures of art in a textbook.

Next Tuesday sees the release of Bobby Fischer Against the World, which I mostly say rent for the first half alone. You can read my full review here. An excerpt:

As a biography, "Bobby Fischer Against the World" is pretty incomplete. By focusing so much time on the 1972 games it doesn't allow a lot of time for too many details about his life that you'd find in a book about the man. Instead we get a bunch of old men, most of whom knew him or were involved in the World Championship, talking about events as they could be remembered from their perspective. It's like a [James] Marsh film in that oral historiographical sense.


I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog


Categories: Documentary
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