Deconstructing Woody

Allan Konigsberg, a.k.a. Woody Allen, has managed to be hip—in his rumpled, nerdish fashion—for nearly half a century now, a tricky feat he couldn't have managed without making some compromises. His most slavishly devoted fans (and—confession time—I count myself among them) often rank him among the artiest and most intellectual of modern filmmakers, and we're somehow caught off-guard each time he takes one of his sporadic dips in the mainstream, co-starring in some awful comedy with Bette Midler, directing a TV movie, giving voice to a cartoon ant, etc.

Allen's schlocky, populist streak has been present from the beginning, and while it has dimmed over the years, it has never quite gone away. He began his career at age 15, writing one-liners for gossip columns; by college, he'd worked his way up to contributing gags to Bob Hope; and shortly thereafter, he was writing for Your Show of Shows and Candid Camera. While his early, twitchy, often brilliantly funny standup comedy was unlike anything America had seen before, it was not so revolutionary that it kept him from making guest spots on Hullabaloo and The Andy Williams Show. He was often incisive but rarely subversive; here was a comic who could be nearly as cutting as Lenny Bruce, but almost all of the cuts were directed inward, at his own lovably schlubby self.

His "directorial" debut, 1966's What's Up, Tiger Lily? was the spiritual godfather of Mystery Science Theater 3000, consisting of a bad Japanese spy movie with Allen's dialogue dubbed over it. While delightful, it was such a disposable project that some Allen filmographies skip it altogether and begin with 1969's Take the Money and Run, a laugh-'til-you-wake-the-neighbors crime mockumentary. Allen's original ending called for the protagonist—played by himself—to be gunned down by the cops Bonnie-and-Clyde-style. While it's probably for the best that Allen was talked out of that scenario, it gives an indication of the kind of true darkness that, even then, roiled in the man's skull.

Allen made a series of popular comedies in the early 1970s—the movies some people now refer to as his "funny" films—but each picture was a shade bleaker than the last, until he arrived at the full-blown neurosis of 1977's Annie Hall, which was followed by the crushingly unfunny, Bergmanesque drama of 1978's Interiors. Allen was a world away from where he'd been 10 years before . . . but the '70s still saw him starring in a short-lived comic strip roughly along the lines of "Ziggy."

Since 1982, he has cranked out a film a year despite whatever was going on in his life and despite whether he had a good idea or not. This protean work ethic has produced such winners as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it has also produced such reeking dreck as Shadows and Fog and Everybody Says I Love You—films that were so bad and so odd that watching them made you feel both you and he were on some serious drugs.

Despite his genuinely impressive legacy and his ability, even at this late date, to create the occasional mainstream hit, Allen remains uncertain enough of his audience's affections that even his most out-there pictures usually sport a gallery of high-wattage stars. And he's still not above taking on dubious gigs to stay in the public eye, resulting in tripe such as Scenes From a Mall and unexpected treats like Antz. Such insecurity is almost tragic, really. But then again, without tragic insecurity, he'd hardly be Woody, would he?

This week, Chapman University begins a weekly film series featuring what is arguably the essential Allen. Running through mid-May, the series will feature a good portion of his films: Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, and Sweet and Lowdown.

One could quibble. For instance, I'd argue that Bananas, the series' debut, is nowhere near as funny as the other goofy comedies Allen made in the same period. But if this exhaustive series is all the Allen you ever see, you'll be doing fine.


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