- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008


By Eric Lax

Knopf, $30, 390 pages, illus.


America has had a love/hate relationship with Woody Allen. Many became uncomfortable with his serious films. Some of his most loyal fans were hugely disappointed when news of his partnership with adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn hit the press in 1992 (they married in 1997).

In Europe, where viewers seem to appreciate him best, they recognize that Woody Allen’s films, all distinctly American in their themes, treatment and music, have become part of an important movie canon. Mr. Allen credits his being able to maintain himself in the business with complete freedom as a combination of “good luck, deception and overestimation,” but it is precisely his independent core that has kept his work so original.

Author Eric Lax brings us into the mind of this gifted artist through a series of conversations dating from the early 1970s to 2007. The book is divided into eight sections: The Idea; Writing It; Casting; Actors and Acting; Shooting, Sets, Location; Directing; Editing; Scoring; The Career, each with useful bridging and explanatory material.

Mr. Allen’s answers — all given in thoughtful, candid, self-deprecating, witty, well-ordered paragraphs — will remind readers of the legendary “Paris Review” interviews. You feel that you are in the same room, listening to someone asking intelligent, informed questions and hearing the subject giving intelligent, relaxed answers. The end product is an entertaining book, instructive to film students and neophytes alike.

Mr. Lax first met Woody Allen in 1971, when he interviewed him for a profile for the New York Times Magazine. Since then, he has spent 36 years in the company of the notoriously private and shy Woody Allen, sometimes on the set, in the screening room, in dressing room trailers, cars or in his subject’s apartment. As Mr. Lax puts it: “Ours may be the oldest established permanent floating interview in New York.” According to the author, this book differs from his previous books on Mr. Allen in that it is “an album assembled over half of Woody Allen’s life.”

Each of the sections has something new to offer. The most riveting are the first two, when Mr. Allen discusses the most nebulous aspects of his craft; where he gets his ideas and how he writes them.

Before setting ideas down on paper, he allows himself an indulgent period wherein he lets his mind roam; when it comes time to write, he already knows what he is going to say. His entire essence engages on one idea and does not let go. Walking to Central Park, to another room, or pacing on his terrace, “unblocks” him. Outlines for a movie rarely take up a whole page. (The script is another matter.) This does not mean that writing comes easily. As Mr. Allen admits, “I read many years later that Tolstoy said, in effect, ‘You have to dip your pen in blood.’”

When it comes to production, Mr. Allen prefers working with people he knows and trusts. The average cost of a picture is $96 million; Mr. Allen makes his for $15 million. Many stars, such as Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron and others, will act for less pay because of the prestige of being in a Woody Allen film and the joy of being directed by an original. (None, for instance, seem to have expressed any surprise when, during the lunch breaks during the filming of “Take the Money and Run,” Allen closeted himself in a stifling phone booth, to free-associate, by phone, with his Freudian analyst.)

Like Frederico Fellini (a director he admires), Mr. Allen gives little direction to his cast. More often, he reworks his screenplays even while filming them, making changes on the spot that require improvisation. Nor does he indulge in many retakes. As Mr. Allen puts it, “I’d like to make a great film provided it doesn’t conflict with my dinner reservation.”

The section on editing is an intensive, behind-the-scenes look at how much work goes into a film. One of the hallmarks of a Woody Allen production is his almost exclusive use of American jazz from 1900s to the 1940s. He uses LP’s (“to get the real, old sound”), never the sanitized, cleaned-up CD version. Mr. Allen’s intelligent appreciation for music makes one wish that someone would hand him the $80 million he says he would need to make a film that would essentially recreate New Orleans and tell the story of the birth of jazz.

For Mr. Allen, music enhances a film, though there is no saving a bad film with music. Who can forget his masterful use of Gershwin in “Manhattan,” or the hilarious way in which Gene Krupa’s drums, from Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” enhance the scene where two little old ladies march toward him in “Oedipus Wrecks”? His own film favorites are “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Match Point,” “Husbands and Wives,” followed by “Stardust Memories,” “Zelig,” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” He is still surprised by the high regard given to “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”

With 30 films in the last 30 years, Mr. Allen has developed from being a joke writer for NBC and Sid Caesar to stand-up comic during the 1960s to one of the world’s most respected filmmakers. His work has ranged from anarchistic, ethnic comedy in the style of the Marx Brothers (“Sleeper,” “Bananas,” “Take the Money and Run”) to serious treatments of greater issues (“Another Woman,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point”). And they have had influence.

As Eric Lax points out, “Annie Hall,” first considered a romantic comedy, is more of a psychological study of romantic relationships that paved the way for “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and other popular, independent films by other writers. So has the faux documentary style of “Take the Money and Run” paved the way for what has been known as “mockumentaries,” among them “This is Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” among others.

Mr. Allen has benefited enormously from his collaboration with Gordon Willis, his cinematographer from “Annie Hall” to “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” The stylistic innovations introduced by these men, such as letting characters wander in and out of the frame while they talked, use of a single handheld camera, and the technical feats of “Zelig” have joined the cultural lexicon, widely imitated by a whole new generation of moviemakers.

Mr. Allen would be the first to disagree about his significance in the artistic community. “I’m smart enough to know I’ve maximized my limited gifts, made good money compared to my father, and most importantly by far have had my health.”

When one is young, one thinks fame and financial rewards are going to transform one’s life. “Then you find that they don’t really do the trick.” He insists that the real reward is in the doing — the planning, the execution and the busywork. Legacy does not matter. “Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow men, I’d prefer to live on in my apartment.”

Disingenuous? No. After being in the company of Mr. Allen during the course of this book, one appreciates not only his refreshing independence, but also the fact that he has kept true to himself. He is still the small boy in Brooklyn, enthralled by movies such as “Citizen Kane” and “Duck Soup,” by the old-time musical. He remains loyal to the heroes of his young adulthood: Truffaut, De Sica, Kurosawa, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams.

He has been around long enough to know that, when it comes to accolades, much can be insincere or even plain wrong. If he’s a genius, he asks, “Then what is Shakespeare or Mozart or Einstein?” In order not to fall into the trap of self-deception, he insists on making his own world of tastes and criteria and then being true to that world. “Most hype about your work is show business flattery,” he concludes. “Always remember: Many of the people honoring you at one of those black-tie events on TV won’t return your phone calls a week after the dinner.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” now out in paperback.

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