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Woody Allen PBS Documentary Is No Dead Shark: It Keeps Moving -- And It's Fascinating
November 18, 2011  | By David Bianculli

The upcoming PBS American Masters two-parter, Woody Allen: A Documentary, is getting a lot of attention and acclaim, and deserves it all.

Robert Weide's four-hour analysis of Allen's works, interests and obsessions is reviewed in depth by TVWW contributor Eric Gould in his latest Cold Light Reader column HERE.

I raved about it in my Thursday review on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which I'll recap in a second. But here, I want to point out some other, additional things to anticipate and enjoy about this fine new TV biography...


Woody Allen: A Documentary, broadcast Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), is an arts biography of the most specific sort. If it informs, affects or exemplifies Woody Allen's art, then it's here: the filmmakers and musicians who inspired him, the TV personalities who hired him, the actors (and especially the actresses) who served, however briefly, as his Muse.

His early rise is so fast, it's almost comical -- but he didn't start as a comic, just a joke writer. But eventually, he was urged by his manager, Jack Rollins, to do standup, and, for a while, do anything else to get his name and face out there. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when a close-up of an early newspaper ad in this program showed Woody on the same bill as the Smothers Brothers.


But that surprise, and delight, was nothing when compared to getting to see a TV clip, from the mid-Sixties, of a very young, very game Woody Allen boxing a kangaroo.

I mentioned that clip in my Fresh Air review, which you can listen to HERE -- but over to the right, you can see the visual evidence.

Woody-mom.jpgAlso on Fresh Air, I played audio of Woody's mother, Nettie Konigsberg, being interviewed on camera in 1986 about her son -- and by her son.

It's an unsettlingly open and honest and forthcoming soundbite, and if you wanted to know what she looked like, here she is, at right.

Much of Woody Allen: A Documentary, in fact, is visual. You have to see the Ingmar Bergman films beloved by Allen to know just inspired him -- and here, you do.

And when there's a detailed discussion about the famous therapy split-screen shot from Annie Hall -- the one where Woody's Alvy and Diane Keaton's Annie are shown in different therapists' offices, complaining about the number of times they make love each week (the joke: he thinks it's too little, she thinks it's too much, yet they agree upon the number) -- we get a visual punch line as well.


That split screen was done not by splitting the film frame in editing, but by building two sets side by side and lighting them differently to look like split screen.

If you find that fascinating, as I do, then this documentary is for you. If not, it might not be.

But if the the thought of any pompous professorial windbag has you replying, "You know nothing of my work!," as Allen conjured Marshall McLuhan to say in Annie Hall, then you need to see this.


And if the sight of the bridge and the dawn in Manhattan has you humming Rhapsody in Blue, then this four-hour study is a TV program to treasure.

And now, Mr. Weide, would you please finish that documentary on Kurt Vonnegut you've been working on for decades? The quality, and creative insights, of Woody Allen: A Documentary only makes me more impatient to see it.




Eileen said:

I feel like PBS has been giving us early Christmas presents what with America in Primetime and now Woody Allen: A Documentary. Good for them, but better for us.

I became a devoted fan the first time I laid eyes on Virgil Starkwell, and there's been no turning back. I consider Woody Allen part of what I call the comedic intelligensia whose membership also includes Dick Cavett, Orson Bean, Robert Klein and Jerry Seinfeld. They are all amazingly funny, and yet it's a comedy that is not based on the lowest common denominator.

I can't wait to savor this upcoming documentary; there is just no one comparable to him. Of the so-called Hollywood up & comers, there's no one capable of tying Woody's shoes, let alone filling them.

I watched one of his favorites muses, Diane Keaton, on an hour-long interview with Joy Behar last night. Diane is no kiss & tell broad, but a lady of the first order. Her memories of Woody were all positive and charming, and she couldn't have been more respectful of him and his talent. I wasn't surprised when she mentioned they remain good friends to this day. She totally credits him for helping her develop that kooky persona which made her a major star.

And as they say, "On with the show"...

[Hey, Eileen -- Please write back with your reaction to Sunday's Part 1. If you can identify Virgil Starkwell -- Woody's bank "perp" in Take the Money and Run -- I can't wait to hear how you react to the documentary. - DB]


Comment posted on November 18, 2011 5:13 PM

Eileen said:

Just wonderful...

Although I've been a fan for years, it was great to go back to the very beginning and reminisce about how it all came to be. Hard to believe that Woody was just a kid when he was writing for Sid Caesar. Amazing.

I loved the running commentary by such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Dick Cavett, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts and Louise Lasser. They added the perfect touch to the clips and background.

What I truly loved was seeing the body of work this man has produced. From the silly to the sublime, it's all here, and all captured so well.

I'd never really thought about this before, but Woody was truly a mentor to so many great actresses. Of all the men doing film all these years, his movies really focus on women, and usually in a very positive way. He made Diane Keaton's career, and who but Woody would have cast Mia Farrow as a gangster's moll. Who really knew much about Dianne Wiest before Bullets Over Broadway? Who else would have been so bold as to cast himself as the leading man in film after film; he usually got the girl, and they were some girls!

His casting is just impeccable, and his usual cast of characters has served his films so well over the years. And unlike the Hollywood types, he just never needed the accolades. If he was satisfied, that was all he really cared about.

I can't wait to see Part II. Anyone who loves film, and loves the films of Woody Allen, needs to see this documentary at least once.

[Thanks, Eileen, for coming back and checking in as I asked. You're a more reliable TVWW contributor than, say, my own son, who's too busy being a "real" writer... - DB]


Comment posted on November 21, 2011 10:43 AM

Neil said:

My major quibble with this program was that the second part was not, as advertised, two hours. It was only 90 minutes, so the combined effort was 3 1/2 hours. I could have watched another 30 minutes. Hell, I could have watched another 90 minutes.

A minor, though understandable, disappointment was the lack of any Mia Farrow interview. I would've been surprised if she had agreed to sit down for an interview, but her input would have been the missing perspective.

This was a wonderful effort. I learned much about Woody Allen I didn't know or had long-ago forgotten. It was also great to see clips of his standup from the sixties, a few of which I can recall seeing when they originally aired.

It's a shame he shot himself in the foot (or groin, more accurately) with his personal behavior, which did so much to distract from his incredible body of work. Because, like Paul Simon and so many other products of New York City, his is a success story that speaks so much better to the exceptionalism of America than the ways we seem to prefer portraying ourselves to the world, through power, influence, economic muscle and jingoism.

{What a great conclusion, and perspective. Honest, I wish I'd written it myself. But since you did, I don't have to... Thanks. - DB]


Comment posted on November 22, 2011 2:25 PM
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