The Club that took him in

On Woody Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing

There has been throughout the work of Woody Allen a clear design that has defined his project, revealing its strengths and shortcomings: culture exists next to comedy, drama next to jokes, self deprecating humour next to a heightened sense of purpose. A project framed within a referential apparatus that rarely moves outside of 19th and 20th century art and literature.  What happens when the culture changes, when fewer topics are appropriate for comedy, when actual drama is kept at bay, not permitted to infiltrate the work (though in Allen’s case the unconscious is there to open all doors, recalling that classic line about never wanting to join a club that take members like him) ?

Woody Allen, in an autobiography [1] that accelerates through period-shaping events in American cinema and his role as of one of NYC’s portraitists while plowing unsurprisingly through an irrepressible private episode that echoes  Dreiser, Wolfe and Fitzgerald, doesn’t address those questions. What does emerge is an extraordinary tale of collaborations, with performers and cinematographers, and a commitment to writing and to what Americans need to refer to as ‘artistic control’ of the picture.  A commented chronology that will resonate for a generation and leave another unbothered and uninterested. For all the intellectual posturing at play in his films, some as summits of satire, his language never made the move from borrowing from philosophy to a use of theory instead, even in a film entitled ‘Deconstructing Harry’. Woody Allen’s Frenchness ( that would find him playing a part in the Cannon production of Godard’s King Lear, followed with an intriguing video discussion between both filmmakers) may have stopped at Camus, or even regressed to his version of Americans in Paris ( Midnight in Paris’ Owen Wilson between Hemingway and Fitzgerald in a continental variation of his earlier Purple Rose of Cairo).

Godard and Allen

The book has the merit to either correct or make more precise a history of encounters that  both assist in elevating his work and confine it to what would become a comfortable set of patterns.  In a passage in which Allen achieves something close to commiseration, he speaks bluntly and touchingly of the depression Dick Cavett suffered from. Cavett had begun his career as a tv writer for variety shows and early sixties sitcoms, some of which Allen also wrote for, before he would go on to have one of the most respected talk shows in television history that would welcome movie stars, comedians, as well as authors, playwrights, international directors (Bergman, Godard, Fellini), John & Yoko… France had something in a similar vein, two shows hosted by Bernard Pivot, Apostrophes and Bouillons de Culture. Cavett was an Allen champion, a friend, and an accomplice in this goal of presenting comedy as a part of high culture.

The Dick Cavett Show – 9/24/71

But one would argue that the greatest contribution to the cinema of Woody Allen has been the presence of Diane Keaton during the seventies, from Sleeper to Manhattan, and how she appeared as the foundation to what felt like an ensemble. Her New York makes the city less predictable, though, as has often been said of the director’s films, not less white. The post-Keaton films (including the later ones in which she reappears) are those that immediately put casting in the foreground, that moment in the director’s career when performers start calling to express a desire to work with him. And in between there are the Farrow films, which produced one extraordinary film, Hannah and her Sisters which included Barbara Hershey, Max Von Sydow and Michael Caine (‘I have my answer, I have my answer’). Allen made what feels like a lot of films with Mia Farrow and the book allows for more pages on that creative period, and far more, inevitably, on her accusation of child molestation. The director is passionate about how he had been found not guilty following length official investigations, and how in the public court America has turned itself into, anyone can become guilty simply by accusation. But while this takes up a considerable part of the book, it is mercifully shorter than Morrisey’s financial rantings, in his autobiography, concerning The Smiths’ drummer Stephen Joyce.

Keaton and Allen

In this moment which has seen the me-too movement emerge in the US as its government went on to lose all shreds of moral and ethical credibility, Woody Allen’s book could be another signpost for choosing which side you’re on. Actors Louis Garrel and Timmy Chalomet both appeared in different WA films. When the ghost of the molestation story returned to haunt the director, a number of performers who had worked with him either expressed regret at doing so or vowed never to work with him again, including Chalomet. Louis Garrel defended Allen… Both worked together in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Spanish actor Javier Bardem also supported the filmmaker and will appear with Chalomet in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune. Another pattern emerges in Woody Allen’s legacy.

[1] The book should have been released with a complimentary ‘I’m with Soon-Yi’ t-shirt’.


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