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"Woody Allen: A Documentary" + Diane Keaton's "Then Again"

PBS broadcasts its 3½-hour doc tonight and tomorrow; Keaton's memoir is on shelves now.

I'd rather have opened with the spider scene from Annie Hall, but there doesn't seem to be an embeddable version of decent quality. At any rate, it's probably a little unfair to both Woody Allen and Diane Keaton to lump PBS's Woody Allen: A Documentary (airing in two parts tonight and tomorrow) and Keaton's new memoir, Then Again, into the same roundup. After all, of the 46 films he's made and the 50-odd films she's appeared in, Keaton has only been in seven Woody Allen movies (eight, if you count Play It Again, Sam [1972], which he wrote but which Herbert Ross directed). Diane Keaton is, of course, a director in her own right, too (her oeuvre includes an episode of Twin Peaks!), as well as a photographer, artist and designer. And Woody Allen is, well, Woody Allen. Draw a Venn diagram of their careers, and there's just a whole lot of terrific work on either side of the overlap.

And yet. Take a look, for example, at Matt Zoller Seitz's personal list of top ten Woody Allen films and there's Annie Hall (1977) at #1 and Manhattan (1979) at #3. Reviewing the Documentary for the New York Times, Mike Hale notes that the first chapter, "the longer and better of the two, follows its subject through just the first 10 films of his career, ending with Stardust Memories [1980]. Then the program's director, Robert Weide, stuffs Mr Allen's 31 subsequent features into the 90 rushed minutes of the second night. You could read this divide as an implicit act of film criticism — a vote for those earlier, funnier movies (not counting Stardust Memories, the transitional work in which Mr Allen himself perpetrated the 'earlier, funnier' line, or Interiors). You could certainly see it as an acknowledgement, a somewhat melancholy one, that after all these years Annie Hall and Manhattan remain the two movies that first come to mind when you hear the name Woody Allen." Hale's bottom line on the doc: "It's an approved biography…. My advice: watch the first night of Woody Allen, then go back to the movies, to see what all the fuss was really about."

But even though it runs 3½ hours, the New Yorker's Richard Brody finds it "so engaging and enlightening that it seems too short." Granted, it's "neither a paragon of formal innovation nor of investigative journalism; Weide sticks to the rules of the genre, with its chronological, and essentially celebratory, march through Allen's life and art by means of interviews and clips, commentary and wallpapered music." And yet it emerges as "a compendious yet nuanced sketch of the contours of one of the most exemplary artistic careers of the era; a treasure trove, or even a kit, for a careful critical consideration of Allen's cinematic achievement; and even a palimpsest that folds back on itself to suggest why Allen's life and work continue to exert such an enduring fascination — why an Allen broadcast is, in and of itself, such an event."

The doc "seems to race through" the "trickiest terrain," the "part about Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of André Previn and Mia Farrow," notes David Bianculli on Fresh Air, but: "That's not to say this character study avoids Allen's character, or what shaped it. Quite the contrary: Weide takes Allen back to his childhood home in Brooklyn, which triggers all sorts of recollections and realizations. And the film also includes one piece of home-movie footage that's almost uncomfortably revealing. Woody Allen, in 1986, stood behind the camera and interviewed his own mother, Nettie Konigsberg, to record her stories and memories. She tells Allen that he was very bright as a child and that she regrets being so strict. 'Because if I hadn't been that strict, you might have been a more, a not so impatient... you might have been a — what should I say? Not "better." You're a good person. But maybe softer, maybe warmer,' she says. Yikes."

In the San Francisco Chronicle, David Wiegand agrees that it's "the most revealing moment of the film. Not only does it suggest why Allen can be shy and self-deprecating as well as an artist firmly in control of his own product and persona, but the clip itself is like something out of one of Allen's films: a mother guilt-tripping her son in a way that seems cruel and mordantly humorous at the same time. Allen couldn't have scripted it better himself."

Betsy Morais talks with Weide for the Atlantic. Clips from the Documentary: An early appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Allen talks about disliking Manhattan and Diane Keaton recalls meeting and then working with him. Earlier: "Woody @ 75."

"Diane Keaton's book about her life is not a straight-up, chronological memoir," writes Janet Maslin in the NYT. "It's a collage that mixes Ms Keaton's words with those of her mother, Dorothy Deanne Keaton Hall, who died in 2008. Since Ms Hall left behind 85 scrapbooklike journals, a huge and chaotic legacy, there is every reason to expect that Ms Keaton's braiding of her own story with her mother's in Then Again will be a rambling effort at best. Instead it is a far-reaching, heartbreaking, absolutely lucid book about mothers, daughters, childhood, aging, mortality, joyfulness, love, work and the search for self-knowledge. Show business too. The collage format works so well for Ms Keaton that she can easily weave her love affairs with three very famous film luminaries into the larger tapestry of her life with family and friends."

"When discussing the three big loves of her life — Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino, none of whom, she says, loved her enough to marry her — she inevitably and repeatedly defers to their brilliance," notes Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times. "Allen is a genius who remains 'borderline repulsed by the grotesque nature of my affection.' Her performance in Reds was 'more like a reaction to Warren — that's what it was: a response to the effect of Warren Beatty' and Pacino made her 'think about the difference between being an artist and being artistic. I knew where I stood. I was artistic.' Even Jack Nicholson, her costar in Something's Gotta Give, was so magnificently distracting that during a kissing scene she kept flubbing her lines. All of which can be a little wearing except, you know, here she still inarguably is, Diane Keaton, still making movies, raising her kids, giving interviews, writing this book that fits no construct or style but her own."

"The book contains few startling revelations or anecdotes about her films," adds the Observer's Philip French, but there are "a couple of interesting references to Unstrung Heroes, a curious independent movie Diane directed in the 1990s, and to Something's Gotta Give (2003), probably the only movie of interest she's made since Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), her eighth and last collaboration with Allen. She refers to the characters of Unstrung Heroes "finding redemption through documentation", a good description of what her mother achieved in her journals and Diane does in this book. After initially thinking Something's Gotta Give a doomed project, she ends up calling it 'my favorite film.' She recalls particularly the happy memory of a love scene played with Jack Nicholson at the age of 57, and the surprise two years after the movie opened 'when a check with a lot of zeros arrived in the mail for my back-end percentage.' As she didn't have such a deal, she phoned her agent and discovered that Nicholson had given her a piece of his own percentage of the movie's gross."

There's a trailer for Then Again, but I prefer that Jon Stewart interview.

Updates, 11/22: AO Scott's pick this week:

"In Weide's documentary," notes Bill Ryan, "Allen comments on the strangeness — and you have to think he regards this as debilitating — of his having been influenced primarily by Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Ingmar Bergman. I think 'strange' is probably fair enough, although I'd say some version of that combination, with equivalent figures swapped out based on generational differences and what have you, is hardly unique. What's unique about Allen is his ability to make it work."

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They skip over the ’trickiest terrain", but do they address the issue of him not putting black people in his films, even as extras, until much later in his career? I can’t bring myself to watch his movies anymore. The fact that he is adored by so many just confuses me. But we have a long history of forgiving famous people for some of the most heinous things.
Woody Allen: A Documentary was an insightful and excellent piece in its first three-quarters. I agree that the last hour and a half attempts to cram in too much about the latter half of his career. As with most artists, their human frailty is vulnerable to public scrutiny and is fodder for the tabloid feeding frenzy. As much as I don’t care for how Allen handled his relationship with Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter the public’s insatiable hunger for dirt is every bit as distasteful. We love to crush those more accomplished than ourselves as much as we like to idolize them. What is at the heart of the matter though is not his personal life but his cinematic genius irrespective of his failings.
Even if you didn’t know these things about him, they are there up on the screen. Part of any criticism of an artist has to do with the actual content. The fact that certain themes re-appear is a clear signal to me. The problem is that it’s a fantasy for many men to have young girls fall in love with them. Men who are more interested in being adored than loved. Real love is complicated and difficult. The horror movie Husbands and Wives or the adoration of Mariel Hemmingway in Manhattan. Go ahead, twist his arm. He goes through the requisite guilt, so it’s perfectly fine. So keep the blinders on and ignore the stuff that makes you uncomfortable. After all, he’s a genius.
It is not our role or right to forgive; that is the domain of the self-righteous and the Sunday tabloid. The only question that ought to be asked is, do you like his films?

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