Woody Allen plays the mensch in TCM’s 90 minutes of self-reflection, proffering compliments to actors and filmmakers and taking a rather humble view of his own remarkable work. Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel has crafted a wonderful docu for Allenologists — those who can identify a clip from “Alice” or “Husbands and Wives” with no introduction — but after an hour, the pace changes, a second camera angle is used, and the subject matter is whittled from the general to the specific, making “A Life in Film” feel like too much of a good thing.
Allen appears uncomfortable, his eyes often targeted away from his interviewer or the camera, though he does provide a full range of insights, from his fondness for Bob Hope and attempt to emulate Hope’s humor in his early pictures to his fondness for magic. Allen dissects portions of his films, sometimes without naming them, and remarks generally about core motivations and how they fascinate him. Case in point: the competitive drive of sisters that cements “Hannah and Her Sisters” and Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire.”
Docu is set up like an Allen feature, with old-time jazz over the opening credits and black and white cards that break down each seg by title; “The Anxiety of Influence” and “The Resonance of Dissonance” are the best of the lot.
Pic covers the basics — Allen describes “Annie Hall” as his turning point, the realization that he could be paid to be funny, how Manhattan is the greatest place on Earth — and gets Allen to reach way out of his shell and relate how “What’s New Pussycat” embarrassed him, that “Radio Days” was based on his childhood comprehension of Manhattan, and that editor Ralph Rosenblum and cameraman Gordon Willis were his great teachers.
Only Allen is seen onscreen, and when he positions himself as a bit of a boob who likes to watch TV and go to Knicks games — studying the works of philosophers was only to keep up intellectually with his dates — it seems contrary to the Woody we feel we know.
Clips showcase a brilliant comic mind, even when they come from movies that aren’t particularly funny. Although docu’s presence is related to the theatrical release of “Hollywood Ending,” TMC is also showing Allen pics in conjunction with the special; perhaps “Zelig” will be seen for its narrative brilliance and not just as a technical wonder, and maybe “Manhattan” will be seen as superior to “Annie Hall.”
Final 30 minutes find Allen, who swears he does not see cinema as a religion, dissecting his later films rather than speaking in the sweeping terms used in the first two-thirds of the piece. Here the segs are shorter, although the exactness of his observations requires the viewer to have at least a passing knowledge of the film at hand. Allen eventually acknowledges that he does not very often fit his definition of success: that the final product is precisely what he conceived when he first took pen to paper, like “Husbands and Wives,” an attempt to eliminate “the niceties of cinema.”
“Hollywood Ending,” he says, succeeds, too, and docu even closes on a scene in which he is praising the French for perceiving him as a genius. Funny how life imitates art: “Hollywood” is the opening night film at this month’s Cannes Film Festival.