'Woody Allen: A Documentary,' airing tonight and tomorrow on PBS, is candy for Woody buffs

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Image Credit: Brian Hamill/MGM/PBS

The first thing to say about the two-part, 3-hour-and-15-minute American Masters special Woody Allen: A Documentary, which airs tonight and tomorrow on PBS, is that it mixes things you already know with things you didn’t know in an avidly enjoyable, Woody-nostalgia way. Here’s something, for instance, that I didn’t know: Allen still does all his writing on the same tiny typewriter he has owned since he was 16 — a German-made Olympia portable that he purchased for $40 in 1952. He’s written all his movies on it, all his plays, and all his New Yorker pieces. The typewriter is missing its top, so you can see those primitive reel-to-reel ink cartridges, but, according to Allen, it “still works like a tank.” Of course, this means that when he’s re-writing, he has to literally cut and paste pieces of paper together. But hey, his system ain’t broke, so why fix it? Looking at that small, boxy relic of a typewriter (it’s nestled on a desk amid the tasteful coziness of the writing room in his Upper East Side brownstone), and listening to Allen talk about it with such sheepish devotion, one can see how much of him it embodies: his obsession with the past — old movies, old music, old ways of being; his stubbornly skeptical view of technology; even, in a funny way, his fear of mortality, since the guy who sold the typewriter to the young Allen Konigsberg assured him that it would still be working after his death.

At the rate he’s going now (one film a year, like clockwork, for 40 years), Woody Allen may still be working after his death. The filmmaker agreed to sit down for a rare, leisurely series of interviews for this PBS portrait-of-the-artist, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him come off in as relaxed, open, and gregarious a fashion as he does here. A week from this Thursday, he’ll turn 76, but there’s something bouncy and spry and ageless about Woody Allen. Even his sandy gray-brown hair looks robust, and he seems more comfortable in his skin than he did when he was younger. The fascinating thing about watching Woody look back on his career is that he’s so compulsively self-deprecating that you can see perfectly well it’s all a strategy, a way of deflecting criticism by puncturing his own balloon before anyone else gets a chance to do it. He claims that he doesn’t think most of his movies are very good. Not even Manhattan (“I didn’t like the film at all”). He also says that he often can’t be bothered to shoot another take of a scene because he’s simply too impatient. He wants to get back home to watch the Knicks.

Some of this, I think, is pure nonsense, pure image creation. It’s Woody Allen’s convoluted way of being a “regular guy.” At the same time, he’s quite open — and, I think, sincere — about how the act of working, for him, may be even more important than the work itself. As a budding joke writer, hired while still in high school to supply one-liners for newspaper columnists, Allen would churn our 50 to 100 jokes per day, and he didn’t have to labor at it; his mind was a Jiffy Pop joke machine. Then he got signed by the fabled team of Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, who basically ordered him to start delivering those jokes himself and become a standup comedian. He’d had no previous ambition to do so, but they saw what Allen didn’t: that his personality, all impish stammers and horn-rimmed horniness, was pure, instinctive showbiz — that he had the makings of a one-man nerdquake. There are great clips of Allen’s television appearances from the early-to-mid-’60s, where he boxed a kangaroo, danced like a geek Astaire, and did What’s My Line? For all his shyness, his ambition was boundless. It was a careerist masterstroke for him to write himself into What’s New Pussycat? (1965), which became a monster hit. He not only appeared regularly on The Tonight Show but, beloved by Johnny, became a frequent guest host, and by the time he started to make his own movies, in 1969, with Take the Money and Run, his connection to the audience was seismic.

Woody Allen: A Documentary, thanks to terrific commentary from people like Larry David, Chris Rock, professor Annette Insdorf, and film critic F.X. Feeney, nails what was so funny about the Early, Funny Films — the antic vaudeville-surreal hilarity of movies like Bananas and Love and Death, all sealed by Allen’s neurotic fusion of long-frizzy-haired ’70s Brooklyn-Jewish hippie panic and Bob Hope-meets-Groucho nonchalance. Yet the sheer hilarity of Allen’s comedy wasn’t the whole story. An aspect of him that this documentary more or less misses is that Woody Allen made himself into a counterculture hero — an American pop-image revolutionary — by becoming the first anti-macho movie star who was also, in effect, a role model. (Nobody ever wanted to be Jerry Lewis or Don Knotts.). It was just a few years before, in 1967, that Dustin Hoffman, with his big-schnozzed, gawky-voiced charisma, had broken the Hollywood mold of what a star could look and sound like. But Hoffman was still a new kind of sexy. Allen was a brainiac from another planet. His rise was the true start of geek chic, and it cued a generation of men to stop worrying and love their own neuroses.

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Image Credit: Brian Hamill/MGM/PBS

The first half of Woody Allen: A Documentary traces Allen’s career from his boyhood to the early comedies and up through Annie Hall, Manhattan, and — the 1980 critical debacle that marked the end of an era for him — Stardust Memories. The show captures the startling glow of New York romantic magic that surrounded Annie Hall when it was first released. It was the ultimate feel-good movie for people who didn’t feel good about themselves, and the film’s instant landmark status made you realize how big that club really was. (It was a club you wanted to belong to, because it had a lot of members just like you.) There are fascinating anecdotes about how Allen’s off-screen relationship with Diane Keaton fed their on-screen collaboration, and though this may sound like inside film-nut baseball, the documentary really captures how cinematography played such an unexpected role in those Allen classics. Getting a cinematographer like Gordon Willis, the fabled “prince of darkness” who photographed The Godfather, to shoot a comedy was, at the time, an unprecedented idea. It was instrumental to the mystique of those films. Mariel Hemingway, recalling how Allen staged his scenes with her in Manhattan, does full justice to him as a director and actor. Her evocation of the film’s final scene is as moving as the scene itself.

Woody Allen: A Documentary is shrewdly structured. Tomorrow night’s installment recognizes that Allen’s career underwent a fundamental gear shift — changed its spirit, really — when he made A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, in 1982. From that point on, he would go off in a different direction every time, yet he had also become a kind of short-story miniaturist, a spinner of cinematic baubles. The teenage joke writer who popped out dozens of gags a day now became just as promiscuously frisky with his ideas for movies. At one point in the documentary, Allen, at home, opens a drawer and pulls out a huge, messy sheaf of scrap paper, a collection of all the ideas he’s compulsively scrawled on legal pads, hotel stationary, etc. It’s a kind of compost heap of inspiration that he keeps returning to, and he pokes through it and reads us one random premise for a movie: a man inherits all the magic tricks of a famous magician. And yes, right there, we can see it — how that one little scribbled-down concept could, with a bit of tending, become next year’s Woody Allen movie. (I see it with Jonah Hill, and Kristen Stewart as the magic fanatic/muse/girl he saws in half with his personal hangups.)

There’s also a lot of good testimony about how, exactly, Allen works with actors. It truly seems to be a Zen method, one that begins with the delivery of the script, by hand, without any agent intervening. The actor who’s being considered for the part then has to read the script and hand it back that day, as if it were a CIA document. There’s no audition, and Allen’s meetings with actors tend to be awkward hello-and-goodbye encounters that take all of two minutes. From the start, he’s almost completely hands off, letting them rewrite lines at will and create their own characters with a minimum of guidance. Yet Allen imposes himself in a different way, by shooting long scenes in a single take, so that the dialogue has to come spewing out in his rhythms. I actually think that there’s a serious drawback to this method: Too often these days, Allen’s actors sound as if they’re reciting their lines. Yet there’s no denying that a Woody movie, at its best, is still a showcase for the sheer personality of performance.

Of course, Woody Allen, in the last two decades, has had his ups and his downs, and the documentary, I was happy to see, is willing to go both places. It confronts the shocking public disaster of his Mia/Soon-Yi tabloid moment (“Believe it or not, I didn’t think I was that famous to warrant such coverage” — yeah, right!), and it does so with a reasonable degree of candor. Allen’s ability to compartmentalize during that period becomes almost a joke, and we’re reminded of how carefully he nurtured his image back to respectability. The show, as well, doesn’t shy away from his post-Deconstructing Harry rut as a filmmaker. When you consider Allen’s own shrugging assessment of some of his greatest films, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that artistic and/or commercial failure (as in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Anything Else, etc.) isn’t something that he’s at all scared to admit. His comebacks have been extraordinary: the uncanny dramatic power of Match Point, and, like a perfect maraschino cherry on top of his career, the record-breaking success of Midnight in Paris. After all these years, he can still be a crowd-pleaser. Woody Allen: A Documentary is a smartly effusive testament to why.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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