I’ve just finished re-reading Eric Lax’s Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking, and my reaction the second time around is even more positive than the first. This has to be the best conversation-based book on Allen out there. As I mentioned earlier this week, all of the other book-length interviews with Woody Allen are either conducted by a single individual over a limited period of time, or they are collections of separate interviews conducted by a diverse group of people. As such, those are restricted in what they can provide. Lax’s book is ambitious and much more comprehensive in its scope. He brings together the various conversations he has been having with Allen since the early 1970s, from around the filming of Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex and Sleeper, and into the mid-2000s. The beauty of this book is that you get to see Allen develop over time. Lax divides the book thematically, and within a particular section–for example, the chapter “Writing It”–you get to see how Allen’s ideas have changed over the past several decades…or in many cases, how his attitudes and ideas haven’t changed all that much. But what definitely comes through in the text is Allen’s growth as a filmmaker, how he learns from his mistakes and how he constantly attempts to reach beyond his grasp. The reader comes away with the feeling that, with only one or two exceptions, Allen is never satisfied with the films he makes. One the one hand this could frustrate the reader–despite his protestations to the contrary, Allen at times comes across as aloof from all the hubbub surrounding his films–but on the other hand, you do get a sense of how surprisingly detached Allen is from his various projects after they are finished. This helps to put into context the darker and more nihilistic tone that comes from most of his “serious” films. It’s the process of filmmaking that excites him, not the way the movies resonate with his audience.
And Lax isn’t a mere interviewer, asking simple questions and then moving on to the next topic. As the book’s title suggest, this is indeed a series of conversations with the filmmaker where there is a give and take between subject and interviewer. Lax’s insights are many times as enlightening as Allen’s own comments. He knows what questions to ask, and he knows how to arrange the information he collects. Throughout the book, Lax refers back to earlier comments that Allen has made during their time together, so the reader is encouraged to constantly flip back and find the connections. As a result, the interviews encourage you to do what you should do when looking at Allen’s work as a whole: find the threads of ideas, attitudes, images, and themes that keep cropping up again and again in Allen’s films.