The notoriously press-shy Woody Allen has been coming out of his shell lately. First there was Barbara Kopple’s 1998 documentary on Allen’s tour of Europe with his Dixieland jazz band, Wild Man Blues. More recently, Allen made a surprise appearance at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony urging filmmakers to return to New York in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. Still, film critic Richard Schickel scored something of a coup when he convinced Allen to sit down for his first extensive on-camera interview about his career. The result is Woody Allen: A Life in Film.
Allen’s observations are intercut with a generous sampling of clips from his extensive filmography. (The documentary was re-edited at the last minute to remove all appearances by Allen’s ex, Mia Farrow, who strenuously objected to being included in the film.) Schickel proceeds chronologically, giving short shrift to the director’s so-called "early, funny ones." Perhaps Allen had little to say about such comic gems as Bananas and Love and Death besides pointing out that he lifted his screen persona from old Bob Hope movies, but it’s still disappointing that more screen time is devoted to his grim 1978 stab at serious artistry, Interiors, than his entire pre-Annie Hall body of work. One insight does emerge about the 1973 science fiction spoof Sleeper, however. Allen had initially intended to make a nearly silent slapstick film set in a futuristic society where the underclass is forbidden to speak. This proved unworkable, but the idea did survive in the form of the robot that Allen’s character impersonates through part of the film.
Allen is more forthcoming about his later work, though he continually insists that very few of his films have lived up to his expectations or even come close to turning out as he imagined they would. One of the few that pleased him in its final form was Husbands and Wives, his 1992 effort that was widely interpreted as an autobiographical look at the disintegration of Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow. The director denies this was the case; he was simply trying to match a raw new technique to appropriate subject matter – in this case, the emotional turmoil of romance gone awry.
When analyzing his more seriously intentioned pictures, such as Interiors and Shadows and Fog, Allen inadvertently reveals their shortcomings by exposing their thematic flimsiness. He seems unaware that by discussing the three sisters of Interiors in schematic terms, he is essentially acknowledging the fact that they come across as symbols rather than fully realized characters. But then, Allen himself is quick to point out that he is no highbrow, insisting he’s the guy who sits at home watching the ballgame in his underwear and drinking a beer rather than the intellectual many mistake him for. "I can play two characters," he explains with a wry smile. "An intellectual type, because I wear glasses, and a lowlife – because that’s what I am."
No doubt some would agree with that latter statement, but fortunately A Life in Film refrains from delving into Allen’s sordid personal life, focusing solely on the movies, right up through his latest release Hollywood Ending. Allen professes the new comedy to be one of his few films that lived up to his expectations, though this may be a hint of pre-release hype from a filmmaker who has lately shown more and more willingness to shill his work in the public eye. Still, while it’s no miraculous return to greatness, Hollywood Ending is a livelier, funnier effort than one might have expected possible at this late date, and should give hope to his fans that this life in film is far from over.