BOOK REVIEW / Play it again and again, Sam: Woody Allen on Woody Allen - ed Stig Bjorkman: Faber, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
FOR inspiration, Woody walks. He walks up, down, all around. He walks inside, outside, no doubt in those strange little sunhats of his. It sounds so painful: he says he squeezes out ideas, and if he walks enough eventually they come, enough for plots and scenes and then one-liners. He gets so annoyed when critics and audiences assume his work is mostly autobiographical - he sweats this stuff, he does so much walking.

After the ideas, the writing is easy. He writes anywhere, on the stationery of Europe's finest hotels, on the backs of envelopes, standing up against lampposts until his pen runs dry. Most of his screenplays take two weeks, two drafts, bashed out on a portable Olympia bought when he was 16 (no Windows for Woody). He's ready to shoot immediately, and immediately everything starts to get ruined. When a film is finished he always dislikes it. Only a year before he had this idea that was 'so beautiful, and everything was just great. And then, little by little, I wounded it, in writing, in casting, in shooting, in editing, in mixing it, I want to get rid of it, I don't want to see it again.'

Because of this, Woody says he rarely watches his films, which is perhaps not something you should learn near the end of a book in which he discusses little else. Stig Bjorkman interviewed his subject many times over a number of months, and sets the edited results down in Q&A format film-by-film.

Admiring, not quite fawning, his questions are nave and detailed enough to elicit revealing answers.

He asks about the impact of failure, how film-makers in a less secure financial position might have been hurt by the consecutive failures of Interiors and Stardust Memories. Woody agrees, but then explains his own particular version of the ostrich position: he must be working all the time, success or failure, grinding them out. His aim is to look back in old age and say he made 50-odd movies, 'some excellent, some not so good . . .

What's important is that your work is part of your daily life and you can live decently.'

When the Mia / Soon Yi scandal broke, Woody kept his head down shooting Manhattan Murder Mystery. There is very little mention of the saga here, though this was probably as much Bjorkman's wish as Allen's. Woody's only stipulation about this project was 'that it should have a nice cover'.

As ever with books about funny men, there is little humour here. Allen emerges as an introverted man who's ironed out most of his kinks, sure of his purpose, which is to make better films. In particular he wants to make one about two characters and rain; for him, romance only exists when it is raining, and so whenever these two characters meet, it's throwing it down.

Cumbersome, though: all those men up ladders with watering cans.

We are encouraged to re-view his films in a new light (we learn plenty about pacing, structure, opening shots, the use of music, the reshoots), but we are also made aware of how little direction his career seems to have, lurching from good to bad to indifferent films, and from lightweight to philosophical. Ultimately Allen's work doesn't progress that far in these pages, certainly not as far as he would have liked.

The interviews provide just as rich a picture of Woody's world as Eric Lax's full biography. Occasionally there are real gems: to get through life, we must create fake worlds. You see it in sports: you get lost in a world of points and moves, you think it's important at the time, but when you step back you realise it's a worthless pursuit. The same for life in general, Mr Sunshine attests. 'It's meaningless. But it's important that we create some sense of meaning, because no perceptible meaning exists for anybody.' Oh come on. Nice cover on your book, after all.