Last Updated August 9, 2014
I'm often torn by Woody Allen's movies, even as I'm enamored by his work. Most confounding is the sheer volume. More or less every year since 1965, he's written and directed a new feature film. He, like anyone, is drawn to his themes; but otherwise, his is a career marked by variety and fecundity. This is a path he's actively pursued.
I just don't want to get into that situation that so many of my contemporaries are in, where they make one film every few years and it's a Big Event … You know, the work was important. Not the eventual success or failure, the money or the critical reception. What's important is that your work is part of your daily life. Woody Allen on Woody Allen, p127.
Though he's often saddled with the "great artist" designation, his movies are typically low-key affairs. They're little shows he puts on with his friends based on his current interests. One year it may be a gag film, another may bring a thriller or murder mystery. What never changes is his personality, attitude, and worldview. Whatever characters or stories are being presented, the camera's always on Woody Allen — the real one, not the nebbish he often plays. In this sense, his movies are always intensely personal.
With each movie, you get to watch Woody Allen deal with being Woody Allen, his attempting to realize a vision of the kind of movie he wants to make. He can't hide the struggle or the sweat. This drama is always vivid and engaging, even when the movies themselves miss the mark. There's plenty of fun in following this part of his films.
I realize that, while many people may want to see a few of them, they also may lack the interest and patience to launch a comprehensive survey. What follows is what's, to me anyway, the salient bits of each I've seen so far.
You sort of wonder if he got into movies as a way of getting with women who were out of his league.
It's sci-fi, which still feels unexpected, but maybe that was just a '70s thing. Anyway, it only serves to get the motor running for some old-fashioned capering. There are also the profligate women problems, which seem to involve Diane Keaton, which is either the point or beside the point.
Low gags on high culture (Russian lit, philosophy, Bergman).
That this romance was first conceived as a murder mystery is suggestive of both the richness of its writers' imaginations and how strongly integrated the whole thing is. WA's sense for gags has expanded into a set piece sensibility that he uses to gently limn the outlines of that romance. So while the movie may often feel circumspect, it seems as much out of an urge to resist intimacy as it is to avoid crushing a fragile, cherished thing.
After critico-commercial success, WA eschews both comedy and Jewish characters for a cloistered drama. Dialogue as if one learned English from the subtitles of Bergman films.
Gershwin-backed romance obscures potential pedophilia. The black & white reminds you that it's Serious.
A writer/director known for his comedies struggles with fans and critics after a string of "serious" pictures.
Scherzo on a weekend in the country. First film with Mia Farrow.
A fake documentary about an ethnic chameleon, full of (artfully) faked found footage. Honestly, I don't remember much else. A Sunday school teacher showed it in class, if that tells you anything.
I think my favorite. An overly sincere talent agent gets in over his head with the mob. Combines his comic/dramatic/romantic/magical realist/American/European sensibilities into a well-balanced, 84 minute whole.
This is one of those scripts that screams "good writing," which is probably why WA holds this one in such high regard. So there's an aesthetic pleasure to be had in that, and also in the fully-realized way a Depression-era film star walks out of the screen, takes Mia Farrow back in, and you see the ways in which that kind of relationship can and can't work.
Man-child commits adultery and doesn't want to deal with it. Sure structure carries narrative through all sides of an extended family. First "drama" that really hits the mark.
Kind of a twofer. One chunk of the movie is scenes from shtetl life in Queens, ca. WA's youth. You know, the kind where the parents argue about which ocean is the best — I'm an East Coaster, so Atlantic, obviously. The other follows the off-air antics of radio actors. It's cute.
Feels like a stage play. Everything from the title down is architected to say "autumnal." Aside from all that, there are multiple moments where one hand holding another carries the kind of charge usually reserved for other kinds of touching, which is something you don't see on screen very often.
One of those "intelligent," "understated" dramas, any of which would suffice when you're in that mood.
Man-child commits adultery, murder, and doesn't want to deal with it.
A magical realist orientalist herbalist gives Mia Farrow the tools to weigh two competing love interests. The execution mostly works, but the momentum peters out in advance of the denouement.
Roughly-cut fake documentary on four married people who confuse their problems with themselves for problems with their spouses. Last film with Mia Farrow.
Rough farce about a murder obscures a nuanced study of how far one will go to keep a relationship together. Diane Keaton returns to working with Woody Allen.
The same WA who could keep so many ensemble balls in the air in "Hannah" turns that talent to a showbiz comedy. It's a real charmer.
Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis play a divorced couple who are both WA. Bounces between a comedy of their class striving and a thesis on the nature of celebrity in American society and its influence on interpersonal relationships therein.
A comedy about bungling burglars. One of those movies that comforts because it's comfortable with its modest aspirations. Elaine May fans will note that Elaine May is in this movie.
Though this movie has its charms, I've borrowed a lot of DVDs from my local library and I can't think of any others that were completely free of scratches.
I haven't met anyone who's liked this movie. Hitchcock, British, something something.
A filial thriller with overtones of Greek tragedy. Original score by Mr. Philip Glass.
Kind of a throwback to the early WA who could paint a tightly-coiled picture of interconnected romance where no one's needs are ever met for long. That, combined with the kind of brightly colored European tourist picture for which he's had an easier time finding funding in recent years.
A fairy tale of misguided and righted love. The thought alone of Larry David playing "Larry David" playing "Woody Allen" could be a dream come true for some.
Time-travelling fanfic wherein Owen Wilson (standing in for WA) gets to hang out with his artistic heroes.
Plush, witty, well-dressed, tourist picture. There were some stories in the mix to maintain momentum.
Yeah yeah, it's Streetcar, we get it. While it may be stating the obvious to note that WA is more interested in women than Tennessee Williams, that brings a lot to this telling.
After 78 years and 44 movies, he still don't know what love is. But he's working on it.