BOOK REVIEW / Reel life ain't no joke: 'Woody and his Women' - Tim Carroll: Little Brown, 15.99

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The Independent Culture
'GOSSIP,' somebody says in Woody Allen's Manhattan, 'is the new pornography.' This is one of the most pornographic books I have ever read. If Paul Johnson were to add a chapter on Allen to his Intellectuals he would find this fetid tome a vital resource. For almost two decades Allen has been one of our chief moralists. In film after film he has lectured us on the good life and how it is to be lived.

Then, last autumn, he was accused of child abuse. Johnsonian hacks rushed to the video to check those Woody quotes: 'Politicians - their morals are like a notch below child abuser'; the best thing life has to offer, says a Rabbi in Love And Death, 'is two blonde 12-year-olds'. Such gags were seen as good enough evidence for a hanging. But maybe those journos should have watched a few of Allen's movies from start to finish. His main concern, after all, is the danger of conflating art and life.

That danger doesn't exist for Tim Carroll, though. He knows little more of Allen's life than can be gleaned from leafing through a cuttings file. And if it is difficult to dispel the impression that he hasn't seen many of Allen's movies, it is impossible to dispel the impression that he hasn't thought about them. Despite his book's title, Carroll never looks at the differing narrative functions of Allen's women: how Diane Keaton was usually a pretentious type, in need of being taught that she'd taught herself too much; how Louise Lasser was a sexy comic foil; how, despite his long real-life affair with her, Mia Farrow has never functioned as a cinematic erotic obsession.

Even as a dirt-disher Carroll lets us down. While the charges of child abuse have been dismissed, there are interesting questions to be asked about

Allen's affair with Mia Farrow's adopted teenage daughter. For instance, could it be that (like his character in

Annie Hall) Allen coached Soon-Yi Previn into becoming his platonic ideal of womanhood?

One thing that Carroll's book does make clear is Allen's very limited purview. He rarely leaves Manhattan. Yet despite his small life and small movies - their budgets are minuscule, though until recently the films usually managed to turn a profit - Allen speaks volumes on the big questions. The constrictions of his existence grant him the depth of his vision. The parallels between his life and his art are easy to draw because he's one of the few American directors who makes movies from life.

George Orwell was right when he said it wasn't contradictory to believe that Salvador Dal was 'a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being'. Woody Allen may or may not be as good a film-maker as Dal was a painter, but, either way, he doesn't need the benefit of clergy. He needs the benefit of the doubt. As his 17-year- old girlfriend, Tracy, tells him at the end of Manhattan: 'You gotta have a little faith in people.'