"Woody Allen: A Documentary" airs on PBS stations in two parts, at 9 p. m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 20 and 21. Check local listings for airtimes. Also available via PBS On Demand.
by Odie Henderson
I took this gig as a challenge. It's not that I hate Woody Allen; I just don't adore him as much as you would like. Plus, I live in the Bizarro World when it comes to his films, enjoying the ones most people hate and vice-versa. For example, I hated "Match Point," disliked "Annie Hall," and could never commit to "Manhattan" despite its astonishing, heartbreaking cinematography. Conversely, I loved "Deconstructing Harry," found "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" amusing, and I may be the only sane person who liked "Hollywood Ending." These confessions may disturb die-hard fans, but before you vow never to read anything of mine again, you should watch American Masters' "Woody Allen: A Documentary." There you'll discover that Woody Allen dislikes most of his movies, even going so far as to offer to make a different movie for free if United Artists used "Manhattan" for kindling. Compared to that, my "meh" reaction to the gorgeous-looking film is a ringing endorsement. We now know who should be getting your hate mail, don't we?
Not that Allen would care. Robert B. Weide's exceptional documentary makes clear that critical opinion is the farthest thing from its subject's mind. The prolific writer-director has been too busy cranking out a film a year for the past four decades to worry about what anyone thinks of them. You'd have to go back to the studio system's heyday for that kind of output, work that produced eleven solo and three collaborative Oscar nominations for writing. That's two more than my beloved Billy Wilder, who coincidentally never got a solo writing nomination. Add to those fourteen writing nods his six directing nominations, sole acting nod and the resulting three wins, and you have one of the most honored filmmakers in Hollywood history. He can expect a 22nd nomination for "Midnight In Paris," which I cop to liking but not with the slobbering praise afforded it by most critics. (It's like a cross between Cliffs Notes, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and a Tea Party rally, with all that "it's so much better in the past" nonsense.) The fact that awards mortify Allen makes these numerous acknowledgements the kind of ironic, funny joke one would find in, well, a Woody Allen movie.
View image Genre picture? Marketing label?
Charles McGrath wonders if critics and the public give genre work enough credit. In "Great Literature? Depends Whodunit," published in Sunday's New York Times, McGrath makes a case for pulp fiction that applies to movies as well as to literature. Often behind the generic labeling, he says, is: ... the assumption that genre fiction — mysteries, thrillers, romances, horror stories — is a form of literary slumming. These kinds of books are easier to read, we tend to think, and so they must be easier to write, and to the degree that they’re entertaining, they can’t possibly be “serious.”
The distinction between highbrow and lowbrow — between genre writing and literary writing — is actually fairly recent. Dickens, as we’re always being reminded, wrote mysteries and horror stories, only no one thought to call them that. Jane Austen wrote chick lit. A whiff of shamefulness probably began attaching itself to certain kinds of fiction — and to mysteries and thrillers especially — at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “penny dreadful,” or cheaply printed serial. The market and public appetite for this stuff became even larger in the early years of the 20th century with the tremendous growth of pulp magazines, which specialized in the genres and eventually even added a new one: science fiction. I think of genre conventions as something akin to sonata form in music, or the chord progressions from a popular standard that jazz musicians may use as a foundation. The familiar prototype is just that: a recognizable structure upon which a craftsperson (even an artist) can create almost anything at all -- even turn it inside out or blow it apart.
LONDON - All was abustle in the abandoned conservatory of the Duke of Langley's late manorial seat. Two prop men were delicately arranging a chess game between skeletons while a third. high up against one wall, was pulling a hidden wire to make an enormous dragon sit up and look around.