seen in its entirety on the series' website. Directed by the capable Bob Weide (previously responsible for excellent documentaries about the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, as well as numerous episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm), the two-part, three-and-a-half-hour survey of Mr. Allen's career was an unexpected treat. Unexpected because Woody rarely participates in this kind of thing, and a treat because he remains the greatest artist America has ever produced in any medium.
Part of what makes Woody Allen so special -- not necessarily better than other comedians, writers, and filmmakers, but simply in a class by himself -- is his very reluctance to be honored. You know what I mean: He's a record-setting Oscar winner who would never dream of showing up to accept an award, an astonishingly prolific filmmaker who works without any commercial considerations, a determinedly self-styled artist who for half a century has defined, rather than allowing himself to be defined by, our culture.
For his fans, it's always been a conflict: We admire his integrity, his seriousness, and his total lack of showbiz slickness; at the same time, it would be nice to see him on talk shows, and to explore deleted scenes and commentary tracks on his DVDs. The chief virtue of Weide's documentary is that it was produced with Woody's participation, and features plenty of new footage: Woody discussing his life and work, Woody directing and editing films, Woody walking around his old neighborhood in Brooklyn and reminiscing. His recent creative revival has given us some excellent films, but what we haven't seen in a while is Woody himself. (He still hasn't appeared in a film since 2006, though he is in the next one.) So watching Woody Allen: A Documentary is like getting to spend some time with a character we've missed.
But not just a character. Woody also comes across as a real person, and the effect is occasionally shocking. There he is, marching down the street on his way to an editing session! There he is, earnestly discussing blocking with Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin! If you were there, it would be hard not to just point at the man and say, "Oh my god, you're Woody Allen!" The film reminds us that there actually is a Woody Allen, who looks and talks a lot like all those characters he played in all those movies, still shuffling around Manhattan and Europe, maintaining a relationship with his iconic status which is just as ambivalent as the relationship he maintains with the rest of the world.
Woody's sister and producer, Letty Aronson, declares in the film that her brother is now happier than he's ever been, and his on-screen manner in the documentary seems to support this. Of course he's still glazed and gloomy -- he is Woody Allen -- but it's been a long time since I've seen him so ebullient, ingratiating, and funny. In the course of his recollections and conversations with Weide, he casually spouts a number of instant classics. On having to explain cloning in Sleeper: "Now, you know, everyone clones." On the Spanish dialogue improvised by Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona: "I don't know what they said. They could have been talking about building an atomic bomb or something." On what would have happened if he had been murdered as a child: "The world would be poorer a number of great one-liners."
Needless to say, for my tastes, the documentary could have been many times longer -- maybe five two-hour episodes, Bob Weide's answer to The Civil War. Weide does an admirable job of covering the saga in the allotted number of minutes, and certainly we should be thankful he got 210 minutes rather than 120 or 60. But by necessity, a number of interesting things were left out -- films unmentioned, chapters unexplored, questions unasked. Every fan will have a personal list of what could have been, and it would be tedious to catalogue mine here. But if you're among those who would have liked to see more early television and standup appearances, I offer this, this, this, and this.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is quite skillful in balancing the classic and the new. For viewers unfamiliar with Allen's work, it could serve as a highly entertaining primer, the perfect "way in" to a canon that is now so vast as to overwhelm newcomers. The standard outline of the Woody Allen story, best conveyed in Eric Lax's landmark Woody Allen: A Biography, is all there, along with a generous number of the immortal clips you'd expect to see: The illegible holdup note from Take the Money and Run, the 59th Street Bridge at dawn from Manhattan, Jeff Daniels' descent from the screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. At the same time, the documentary contains enough fresh perspective, minor revelations, and rare or unseen footage to satisfy those extremists who consider him the greatest artist America has ever produced in any medium. I'm telling you, they're out there.
* * * *
The new title is Nero Fiddled. I have been using that title for fifteen years! It was the title of an unproduced musical Sisk and I worked on for a long time, and then it became the name of our theatre company, under whose auspices we produce "the Nero Fiddled musicals," Moral Value Meal, Life After Bush, et al. Anyway -- I'm not expressing upset, just shock. Here's something with which I've identified myself for a long time, which has never had anything to do with Woody Allen, and now suddenly it does. Usually he does things first and then I do them. I am thrilled silly that if you Google "nero fiddled" now, the first three results you get are: 1) Nero, 2) Woody Allen, 3) me. Okay, time to go watch the documentary again.