Watching Woody

In part to prove Steve Jobs wrong, I quietly resolved to myself earlier this year that I would read a book a month, but I’m already way behind. The problem is that for book number one I chose “Conversations with Woody Allen” by Eric Lax, a thoroughly engrossing compendium of Lax’s many interviews with the filmmaker over the past three-plus decades.

In theory, it should have been an easy book to polish off for January, because it reads quite breezily. The thing is its subject matter has naturally spurred me to spend much of the time that I should be reading book number two instead watching as many of Allen’s movies as I can. In case you lost count back in the nineties, there are now over thirty-five of them. Gulp. Before I read this book I think I’d seen about twenty of them, but now I want to watch all of the ones I’ve missed — and watch those twenty again, too. Time consuming.

The Allen Archives

Since the new year, I’ve seen “Radio Days,” “Shadows and Fog” and “Scoop,” none of which are particularly amazing though all of them have their merits (some moreso than others). Early in January I also went out to see his latest release, “Cassandra’s Dream,” which had an unjustly brief theatrical run; for my money, it’s just as good if not better than the overpraised “Match Point” and I recommend it.

Last week I watched “Stardust Memories” again, which was Allen’s follow-up to the immensely well-liked “Manhattan” (of which I’m on record as an adoring fan). It’s not remembered with quite the same affection, but it’s a truly remarkable and convincing homage to Fellini’s “8-1/2” that still manages to remain true to Allen’s idiosyncratic qualities.

What’s more “Stardust Memories” was, like “Manhattan,” also photographed in glorious black and white by the genius cinematographer Gordon Willis. That alone gives it an aesthetic edge, but the presence of the actress Charlotte Rampling catapults it to another level of gorgeousness. Near the end of the movie, there’s a shot of Rampling lying on her stomach, flipping through the Sunday newspaper and smiling back up at the camera. It has all the makings of an iconic image, and yet somehow time has obscured it if not exactly forgotten it. I’d watch these films all over again anyway, but discovering little gems like this one makes it all the more worthwhile.

  1. The one-act play upon which Shadows & Fog was based was included in one of Allen’s short-work compilations (“Without Feathers”), along with his hilarious one-act spoof of ancient Greek tragedies. I highly recommend reading it — the pace works better that way. His early compilations, are truly beautiful works of comedy.

  2. I checked out “Manhattan” after you mentioned it last time, it’s fantastic! I’ve seen a few more of Allen’s films since then, they have varied between fairly average to pretty good. Will have to see “Stardust Memories” next!

  3. This is great – I love when this cause-and-effect thing happens! I watched a few of Allen’s movies because of your previous “Manhattan in Black and White” post. I want to read Conversations with Woody Allen – maybe I’ll be inspired to watch all these, too.

    If I may: Colin Wilson’s book, “The Books in my Life,” caused the exact same thing to happen with me (only with other books – not Woody Allen’s films). Wilson, an eccentric bibliophile, delivers sometimes enthralling endorsements for his favorites – such that I’ve abandoned “The Books in my Life” several times to read Wilson’s recommendations.

    I still haven’t finished it – but the cause-and-effect effect is a lot of fun.

  4. Thanks for the book tip– I’ll go look it up.

    To those not familiar with his work, you have to remember there’s early Woody Allen, middle Woody Allen and later Woody Allen.

    It’s the early Woody Allen that is true, shocking comic genius. Early Allen movies (70’s) like Sleepers, Bananas, and “Everything you Wanted to Know About Sex” are madcap farces that are hysterically funny. To true Allan fans, this is the good stuff.

    Middle period stuff (80’s) like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories are also funny, but with deeper characterization and a little drama. These are probably his more popular films.

    Late 80’s films are often dramatic only (radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters) or experimental (Shadows and Fog). I like these films, but they are very different.

    The 90’s and 2000’s is really a grab bag, not all good. Some of them are throwbacks to earlier periods, some stand out as new categories entirely. There’s a bunch I’ve missed, I’ve found it hard to get enthused.

  5. Good for you for trying to proved Jobs wrong. There was an interesting article about readership after his infamous comment. See link.

    Favorite Quote:

    “In fact, when we exclude Americans who had not read a single book in that year, the average number of books read was 20, raised by the 8 percent who read 51 books or more. In other words, a sizable minority does not read, but the overall distribution is balanced somewhat by those who read a lot.”

  6. I am doing almost the same thing, only there was no book involved and it was with an even better set of directors.

    The Cohen Brothers (Ethan & Joel)

    I haven’t yet seen all of them, but I am definitely pretty darn close.

  7. Last summer — the entire oeuvre — only reason I signed up for a Netflix account. Well, that and The Wire.

  8. Charlotte Rampling is an incredible actress. Her performance in Swimming Pool really stuck with me.

    I’m doing a similar thing with Mel Brooks and ZAZ movies, then I want to do Cronenberg. It’s nice to devote yourself completely to one thing. It’s a good feeling.

    Steve Jobs: I think he’s wrong. There have always been people who read and people who don’t read. The problem is that dichotomy is becoming acute, and digital delivery is one way of solving that problem, along with better libraries and better English classes (although the American system, with Freaks and Geeks as a reference, seems much better than the British one!). I do get jealous when I’m on the train and 15-year-old private school kids are reading the same books I’m reading at university.

  9. I’ve been working for a comic-book company for three years now, and keeping up with the books (and all the awesome older material we’ve collected) has been eating up too much of my time. So I’ve pledged to read THREE books a month in 2008 — two non-fiction, one fiction — and so far, I’ve been keeping up. It’s nice to be exposed to thoughts and ideas again, y’know? (Not to say that comics aren’t great, but, well, a lot of them aren’t great. Ahem.)

  10. This is great. I did an MFA project on Woody Allen and started my research by reading “Conversations.” I promptly spent about 90% of my time watching Woody Allen films—instead of designing—and the project unfortunately reflected that. His films are so engrossing, even if you’re not sure you like all of them.

  11. Hey Khoi

    If youre looking for more reading, Id highly recommend Allen’s “Getting Even”.

    It’s a collection of essays and pieces he wrote early in his career for The New Yorker, Playboy and the like. If you enjoy it, then there are the follow ups: Without Feathers and Side Effects.

    I used to enjoy reading them on the subway.

    It should be noted that this is fairly impossible to do and not come off like some raging lunatic (because you’re constantly laughing out loud to yourself), but give it the old college try.

    BTW: I was living in Barcelona last summer while he shot his latest, billed as a “love letter to Barcelona”. Unfort the city had 2 blackouts and it was the wettest and coldest August on record since 1982. Sometimes a city just doesn’t like to be hugged I guess.

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