Woody Allen: A New Yorker's state of mind

A Woody Allen retrospective begins this month at the BFI and promises to be a treat for his fans. But he still regrets never a having made 'a great film', as a new documentary reveals.

The 76-year-old man revisits the haunts of his youth. We see him outside the decrepit old Brooklyn cinema where, half a century ago, he came to see his first Ingmar Bergman movies. He is shown in the grounds of the high school where he had such a wretched time. Faces from his earlier years flit in front of the camera: girlfriends, collaborators, his devoted younger sister Letty and even – in archive footage – his sharp-tongued mother Nettie reminding him of what a demanding kid he once was. Archive footage rekindles memories of his boyhood trips to Coney Island.

The man in question is the comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen. You can't help but be reminded of Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) by the new film about Allen made by Robert B Weide (director of Curb Your Enthusiasm and one of Allen's most fervent admirers.)

Just as in Bergman's celebrated feature, a distinguished figure in the twilight of his career confronts his own past. Like the old professor played by Victor Sjöström in Bergman's film, Allen can't disguise his disappointments or his yearnings. Even after 40 years, he is still fretting over the "essential triviality" of his early movies and striving "to make a great film, which has eluded me over the decades". He is also worrying about his own mortality – a preoccupation that took hold of him when he was five years old. Nor has that dream of becoming a great jazz musician like his idol Sidney Bechet ever dissipated.

We all know how reticent Woody is. You don't expect him to open up about the implosion of his relationship with his one-time muse Mia Farrow or to talk about his step-daughter-turned-wife Soon-Yi. The tone of Weide's film is reverent, even hagiographical. Nonetheless, it is unexpectedly revealing about its subject. We see Woody sitting at his desk in front of the ancient but still immaculately preserved German portable typewriter he has used throughout his working life. Like a boy scout, he uses scissors and staples to knit his articles and screenplays together. We see him rummaging in the bedside drawer in which he keeps his huge treasure trove of sketches and storylines for possible future films.

Woody Allen: a Documentary is likely to surface in Britain next year. In the meantime, the BFI Southbank is holding a retrospective of Allen's work. As this season underlines, Allen is a full-blown phenomenon – easily the most prolific A-list film-maker of his era. Not only has he made close to 50 movies. He has also retained complete creative control over all of them, a near miraculous achievement given the changing tastes of audiences and the demands of financiers.

It is startling how little Allen has changed in the last half century. He was still at school when he started selling jokes to the newspapers. He "became" Woody Allen because he didn't want his classmates to see his real name in the Broadway columns of the newspapers. Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, he metamorphosed into the comedian we still know today. Those trademark spectacles were adopted early too. He started wearing them because a comedian he admired – Mike Merrick – had a pair. He thought they gave him a comic gravitas. The persona was put in place by the time he was 20 and it has hardly changed since.

The paradox of Allen is that he wants to struggle with the metaphysical monstrosity of existence but has never been quite able to. He talks in Weide's doc of why he puts a higher value on the tragic muse than on the comic muse. What is painfully evident is that he has never really been open to this tragic muse. The ferocious work ethic that made him so successful so early meant that he was invariably so busy with the next project that he had no time to dwell on the last one. He never looks back. He doesn't watch his own films again. He doesn't read reviews. Although his movies are famous for the way they probe into the inner lives and anxieties of his characters, there is little evidence that he agonizes over his own life in the same way. The neurosis is all on screen. His friends all describe about how good he is at "compartmentalizing". A former wife mentions in wonderment how well he sleeps. Even when his custody trial with Mia Farrow was the subject of garish news headlines all over the world, he carried on working as normal.

Allen claims to be influenced in equal measure by Groucho Marx, Bob Hope and by Bergman. He was first lured to Bergman's Summer with Monika by publicity promising that the film's star, Harriet Andersson, would disrobe. "She was allegedly naked in that film so I beat a quick path to the door and I went to see that film just so I could see a woman without her clothes on and it was a fabulous movie apart from the nudity," he tells Weide.

After watching Harriet Andersson gambolling naked in the Swedish countryside, Allen soon discovered other Bergman movies like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.

"I thought it's pointless for me to work any more because no one will ever be able to do anything better than this. Bergman has just reached the limit of what you can do in film and there was nowhere else to go."

Not that the shadow cast by Bergman stymied him in any way. One ruse he seems to have learned from the Swedish master was always to have the next project in place. That meant you would never be distracted by the success or failure of the current film but could keep on working regardless.

"I don't do any preparations," Allen admits to Weide in what can't help but seem like a shocking confession. "I don't do any rehearsals. Most of the time, I don't even know what we're going to shoot when they hand me the couple of pages of material that we are going to do for the day and I see what I am in for. I don't read the script. After I am finished with it and rewrite it, I don't read it again because it gets stale to me and I start to hate it." This explains why the films are so fresh but also arguably why the lesser ones seem so perfunctory.

The irony is that Allen became a film-maker in the first place because he was a perfectionist. The comedian was unhappy with the way Hollywood "mangled" his first feature film script, What's New Pussycat, directed by Clive Donner. Allen knew he could do far better himself and was determined to protect his material.

Allen's Peter Pan-like qualities were underlined when his most recent feature Midnight in Paris became his most successful ever at the US box-office. Even without the $50 million and counting that his 47th feature has already made, there are many potential patrons who would rush to finance his work. As the years pass, it seems less likely that he'll ever make that one truly "great" film that he talks about. The irony is that if he ever did, he'd almost certainly find fault with it... and the audience would still probably prefer the earlier funny ones anyway.

BFI Southbank's Woody Allen retrospective (media partner: The Independent) runs from 30 December to the end of January

Funny Guy: The best Woody Allen Films

1. Manhattan

Gorgeously shot in black and white by the "prince of darkness" Gordon Willis, full of Gershwin music, this is Woody at his most rhapsodic and romantic.

 

2. Broadway Danny Rose

Woody in Damon Runyon mode as a small-time theatrical agent. Mia Farrow gives one of her best and

least characteristic performances as a gangster's moll.

 

3. Crimes and Misdemeanours

Woody poses some profound questions about love, death and conscience without ever losing his comic zip.

 

4. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

The mood is akin to that of 'Smiles of a Summer Night' in Woody's magical country house comedy drama.

 

5. Zelig

A technical tour de force, this spoof doc tells the story of a human chameleon who popped up at every key moment of the 20th century. The presence of heavyweight talking heads like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow adds an air of verisimilitude. Did Leonard Zelig really exist?

 

6. Love and Death

Tolstoy done Groucho Marx-style in Allen's high-spirited foray into the Russian epic genre.

 

7. Hannah and Her Sisters

Allen complained that the film was too "optimistic" but this Chekhovian drama about three unhappy sisters in New York is one of his best observed.

 

8. Annie Hall

Diane Keaton was the perfect foil for Allen, a preppy girl about town, as outgoing as Alvy Singer (his character) is neurotic.

 

9. The Purple Rose of Cairo

Allen's escapist Depression-era fable sees matinee idol Jeff Daniels step out of the screen and into the life of housewife Mia Farrow.

 

10. Bullets Over Broadway

This Roaring-Twenties-set comedy is a delight, even if Chazz Palminteri's gangster-writer seems far-fetched.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us