Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Woody Allen: A Retrospective ( Thames and Hudson)
For an artist who professes never to read criticism, Woody Allenfeeds the medium most generously. The sheer regularity of the 79-year-old film-maker’s output – averaging a film a year since 1969 – matched with its stimulating inconsistency of content and quality, makes for one of the most amply analysed oeuvres in modern American cinema. Each new study that comes along has mere months to thrive before it’s officially outdated.
One does not, then, tend to wait ages for a book on Woody Allen. Nevertheless, like the proverbial buses that no character in Allen’s bourgeois London fantasy Match Point would dream of using, along come two at once, markedly similar in form to boot. Both Tom Shone’s Woody Allen: A Retrospective and Jason Solomons’s Woody Allen: Film By Film are luxuriously illustrated career overviews, each one methodically examining his 45 features (including 1972’s Herbert Ross-directed anomaly, Play It Again, Sam) in chronological order, inadvertently sharing much anecdotal and archival material between them. (Solomons’s book is even more exhaustive, including TV curios and Allen-focused documentaries in its timeline.)
Even when the outcome is glorious – and when it isn’t – Shone’s analysis is most piercing
The films are pointedly the focus in both, Allen’s tumultuous personal life bubbling up only when called for – most inevitably in gripping chapters on 1992’s venomous breakup drama, Husbands and Wives, a production nearly sunken when the Soon-Yi affair came to light mid-shoot. Both are bang up to date, too, ending on brief appreciations of the newly released Irrational Man– a sketchy, awkwardly cast, tonal experiment, it hardly seems the milestone that would prompt such simultaneous exercises in stocktaking, but Allen has never made it easy to count on those.
Yet the books are the work of two very different writers, even when in rapturous agreement on the virtues of consensus classics. Solomons is the chatty, trivia-dispensing enthusiast, loath to dwell too harshly or specifically on lesser work. “OK” is the verdict on the execrably mean-spirited Whatever Works, while he graciously slides out of calling The Curse of the Jade Scorpiona nadir by quoting Allen’s own words to that effect. (The Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón contributes an even more besotted foreword; even among Allenophiles, few would venture that his screenplays are “always flawless”.) Still, infectious affection spills from Solomons’s superlative-strewn tributes to Allen’s greatest hits; it’s a peppy primer for viewers still navigating the less expected realms of his filmography.
Drawing on several years’ history of first-hand interviews, Shone’s book betrays an equal degree of personal investment in Allen’s work – though it trades in tougher love. There’s an inquisitive rigour to his praise and criticism alike: a substantial appraisal of Allen’s 1977 smash Annie Hallbuilds tension between the evergreen marvels of the finished film (“its theme of fading love nestled within an intricate remembrance of things past”) and a hypothetical anatomy of the solipsistic calamity it nearly was, before its love story was foregrounded in the editing suite. The vagaries of Allen’s creative process are never glazed over here. Even when the outcome is glorious – and when it isn’t – Shone’s analysis is most piercing. He certainly doesn’t share Solomons’s (nor my) revisionist appreciation of Allen’s “pure”, Ingmar Bergman-fixated dramas: 1978’s critically mauled Interiors, he writes deliciously, boasts “a palate of slate greys, stonewashed blues, and muted beiges, with emotions to match”.
This level of discernment and tart dissent is an unexpected treat in what appears a chunky coffee-table adornment, presented in slightly more lacquered fashion than Solomons’s more practically pictorial volume. It’d be easy to lose sight of the text amid the photos, many of which serve to remind casual admirers of Allen’s work of his undervalued gifts as a visual stylist. But Shone’s prose has a beauty of its own, abounding in nonchalantly exquisite turns of phrase: I especially love his description of actress Dianne Wiest’s face as “[seeming] always to photograph in soft focus”. Allen may not read criticism, but the writer in him would surely approve.