The BBC’s Imagine documentary on the legend that is Woody Allen was generally well received by critics but it’s mind-numbing three and a half hours gave it a comatose feel that was unworthy of an artist noted for brevity.
Allen likes to shoot his films fast – and the documentary illustrated this many times, most notably when the director urges his actors to deliver their lines quickly so he won’t miss his beloved New York Knicks playing basketball. Watching this, made me think only one thing: If Woody Allen doesn’t care about his own work these days then why should we?
Fans would obviously say that his stupendous body of work gives him the freedom to do what he wants in the twilight of his film career and this is a fair argument. Some of the work is indeed spectacular because it sprinkles his lifelong intellectual obsessions with sparkling comic insights and messy romantic entanglements. Personal favourites include Love and Death, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanours. Even in his ropier efforts (and in the last couple of decades they’ve reached well into double figures) there’s always a funny gag or an insightful line to keep us on our toes.
Yet there’s always a nagging doubt in his films that he’s making the same film over and over again, more than what would be acceptable for other artists. The flimsiness and frothiness of most these projects also casts doubts on whether he is serious about making good cinema or he’s just serving up his annual dish of stale panto because he needs to show he’s still got what it takes.
In the documentary, there were also a galaxy of stars including Diane Keaton, John Cusack and Penelope Cruz lining up to lavish praise on the angular auteur. That’s not a surprise considering he gives them such an easy ride. They usually end up being tourists in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The New York love-in has been exhausted, now it’s a European picture postcard.
And all this before we get onto Allen’s leading man syndrome: a desire to appear time and time again as a bumbling, neurotic semi-intellectual who always gets the girl falling for him. The three jewels that fell onto set for him made him: Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway and Mia Farrow. Their vulnerability and charm in the films they appeared in elevated those movies onto another level.
Yet Woody Allen wrote those films. Without his talent for writing female parts would the likes of Keaton and Farrow be lesser actresses today? Probably, because on balance, we remember Farrow for Hannah and her Sisters rather than Rosemary’s Baby. And Keaton for Annie Hall rather than The Godfather. Which is not to say they weren’t good in the heavier films.
So Woody Allen’s legacy and talent are not in doubt – it’s just whether he has much more to give, and whether this Robert B Weide’s documentary was a fitting tribute to a relentless filmmaker.
It wasn’t because Woody Allen is the classic example of an artist who should remain in the shadows. He had little to say and, for a three and a half hour epic, this didn’t make for compelling TV. A snappy 90-minute run through of his films, without the waffle would have sufficed.
Just like the philosopher in panto prefers his own movies.