Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit on Woody Allen. Back in April I re-read Eric Lax’s latest book on the filmmaker, a wonderful collection of interviews thematically arranged, and since then I’ve picked up three other Allen-related texts. The first two were biographies. I had read two earlier biographies years ago–Eric Lax’s authorized biography that came out in the early 1990s, and Julian Fox’s 1996 Woody: Movies from Manhattan–and while they were insightful, they were limited in their own ways. As I’ve written on this blog before, Lax’s biography “suffers” from being too enamored and uncritical of its subject matter, although it is a fascinating look at the filmmaker. And Fox’s biography reads more like a formulaic filmography than it does a look at the man’s life and work. The two biographies I recently read are quite different. By far, the better of two–and really, the best of all Allen biographies out there–is John Baxter’s Woody Allen: A Biography. It is the most balanced of the lot, and it provides a wonderful mix of Allen’s personal life, from childhood to post-Soon Yi scandal, and the contexts surrounding his films. While Baxter didn’t have the kind of access to Allen’s life that Lax had–and as such, having to look at his subject from more of a distance, which at times can be problematic–this distance nonetheless allows him a more evenhanded assessment of Allen and the people around him. In fact, Mia Farrow comes out looking less attractive than Allen in Baxter’s biography. One of the biggest strengths of Baxter’s work is his attempt to get behind the media facade that Allen has created, the barriers that he has established over the years, and present us with a more human figure, complete with both admirable and faulty qualities. Woody Allen is unique, that’s for certain, and it is the all-too-human side of Allen that makes the subject (at times) sympathetic…or if not sympathetic, then at least understandable. Maybe my love of Allen’s work makes me biased with wanting to use the word “sympathetic,” but I do feel that Baxter’s Allen is much more approachable and believable than others I’ve read.
The other biography I recently read was Marion Meade’s The Unruly Life of Woody Allen. It begins with the moment of the scandal, which didn’t surprise me. But after that introduction, it starts to cover what you think will be the sweep of Allen’s life. After all, the book’s subtitle is A Biography, so one would expect this to cover the gist of the man’s life. However, such is unfortunately not the case. Fairly quickly, Meade gets to the events leading up to the Allan-Farrow breakup and the media circus that resulted from their nasty fight. In fact, over half of the book is devoted to the scandal, and now I read the first few chapters as nothing more than a thinly disguised set up to the real function of the book: celebrity tell-all and blatant sensationalism. How this could be considered a biography is beyond me. Perhaps the subtitle should have been something like “Portrait of a Scandal.” At least that would have been more honest. Whereas Baxter, despite his limitations, did a pretty good job of being objective in assessing the filmmaker’s life, Meade shamelessly exploits the notorious events that defined Allen for most of the 1990s and up until recently. Outside of the celebrity quality of the book, I don’t see much value in it for those who truly appreciate Woody Allen’s work.
The other book I’ve recently picked up, and now am over halfway through, is Mary P. Nichols’s Reconstructing Woody: Art, Love, and Life in the Films of Woody Allen. This book isn’t bad, and there are parts of it that I think are quite insightful. Many of these come in the early sections of the work where Nichols sets up her perspective and introduces us to the tone of her book: that Woody Allen’s films, far from being pessimistic or dark, are actually more hopefully suggestive than many critics have acknowledged. She pits her reading of Allen against such earlier critics as Girgus and Pogel, who she feels tend to see Allen as more dour and depressive. While I tend to agree with her, and see that Allen’s films are much more ambiguous than many viewers may think, I nonetheless feel that Nichols loses her way as she continues her analysis. Critique gives way more and more to needless plot summary…at least needless in the amount she engages. What’s more, she’s rather selective in the films she discusses. I would have no problem with this–as prolific as Allen has been, it’s near impossible to adequately discuss all of his films–except for the fact that the time spent summarizing plots could have been better spent drawing more parallels to additional films in his oeuvre. I’m hoping that toward the end of the text, Nichols will return to the critical framework she established at the beginning, one that is informed nicely by her background as a philosopher.