Andromeda: Woody Allen's Manhattan and the Self-Critical Creative Process

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If it had been up to Woody Allen, audiences never would have seen “Manhattan.” He was unhappy with the film — now widely considered his best, an iconic black-and-white late 1970s portrait of New York, paired with a gorgeous soundtrack (Gershwin, for starters) and featuring the young Mariel Hemingway in a story that was far more poignant and complex than many of his earlier, slapstick films. If it had been up to him, he would have simply cancelled distribution.

Amazingly self-critical? Yes– unlike many of today’s novice writers and self-published authors, who think they should be in print even after editors and agents have expressed no interest. Lately, I keep coming across authors who don’t even want their own early published works in print (Michael Cunningham has distanced himself entirely from his first novel, even though it received good reviews; Tobias Wolff is another example) and I marvel that some of our most talented authors take apprenticeship so seriously that they don’t expect or require accolades or even an audience for their early works. (Too much self-flagellation, or the right amount? An interesting question…)

But for self-criticism — and a suprising lack of egotism — you can’t beat Woody Allen. Whether you’re a fan of the filmmaker, or someone who got a little tired of his work five or ten years ago (I know my own adoration waned, to be revived by the surprisingly heartfelt and satisfying “Midnight In Paris”) or just someone interested in the creative process and career longevity, you should see PBS’s latest American Masters documentary. It ran about two weeks ago and is available now online, in two parts.

I thought I knew a fair amount about Woody Allen; at the very least, I thought I knew my own opinion of his work. But watching the documentary, I was struck by how much I’d forgotten — how brilliant his movies are (yes, he’s had some misses, too, but that’s one of the documentary’s points about his process), and how much my early ideas about adult life (urban culture, Jewish/WASP culture, love and sexual relations, the depiction of morality in film) were shaped by his movies of the 1970s through 1980s in particular. Certainly, he’s been embroiled in scandal, too — the relationship with his current wife is not an easy biographical element to overlook. The PBS documentary does explore that issue, while not overplaying it.

As a writer, I pay close attention to how authors and filmmakers feel about their own work (Joyce Carol Oates has written a worrisome essay about this topic, suggesting authors are more often wrong than right), how they develop themes over time, and how they handle the productivity issue. Some of our beloved authors produce stingily, making us wait eight to ten years for each book. (I just finished two well-reviewed books by such authors, and was frankly disappointing in each one. My own expectations had risen to a point the novels simply couldn’t fulfill.) Others take a workman-like approach, producing a film or book every one to two years (for the last dozen years in particular, Philip Roth has proven he can produce one strong novel after another). Will they all be equally good? It’s not possible.

What often seems to happen is that the audience becomes jaded and dismissive, the author or filmmaker endures rounds of criticism, only to resurge into popularity at intervals. Woody Allen and Philip Roth have ridden this wave numerous times, too busy chronicling our culture from World War II to the present day to be terribly concered about each individual project’s commercial outcome. Neither of these men are hacks; Allen has more than 40 films under his belt, and Roth has more than 30 books, but they’re not interested in cookie-cutter production. Watch or read their ouevre, and the evidence is clear: they’re steadily working out ideas, shifting into new directions, enduring withering reviews, surprising and delighting the audience — maybe not every time, but often.

More surprises about Woody Allen (whose birthday is tomorrow, by the way — he’ll turn 76):

He was writing professionally from the age of 16 on, writing enough one-line gags for top columnists and entertainers that he earned more than his parents.

He never wanted to be a stand-up comic or actor — his managers pushed him to endure the discomfort of the stage.

“Annie Hall” won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but Woody Allen didn’t show up to receive them. Awards don’t interest him and he is generally more critical of his most-loved films than the critics are. “Hannah and her Sisters,” another one his more mature films and one which ends happily, is seen as a cop-out by Allen himself, who intended a less happy ending.

For decades, he has typed everything, from his New Yorker essays to his film scripts, on a single, old typewriter, cutting and stapling saved sentences by hand. (This you gotta see. I made my own kids watch this part of the documentary, as a reminder of how much we all defer to technology, as if one can’t write without a keyboard.)

He keeps piles of notes and sifts through them at intervals for ideas, of which he seems to have an endless supply. The documentary shows him riffling through the handwritten pages, explaining his process for thinking through and discarding plot ideas.

He gives his actors great leeway in rewriting and improvising their parts, and he directs with a very light hand, mostly preferring to stay out of the way. When he wants them to play a role, he sends a handwritten or typed note, introducing himself, as if he wasn’t one of today’s most best-known directors– even when an actor has already worked with him before.

1 thought on “Andromeda: Woody Allen's Manhattan and the Self-Critical Creative Process”

  1. I enjoyed the show too. What impressed me the most was how he lets himself live in the moment of the current movie–he doesn't think that it has to be like the last one or worry if it is going to be a blockbuster or not or whatever else might pull him out of that moment. He just goes with his concept of that particular project and does his best to get that concept onto the screen.

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