My first reaction while watching To Rome With Love was one of disappointment.
My first reaction while watching To Rome With Love was one of disappointment. Not because I was expecting vintage Woody Allen. But because I was hoping that this latest tryst with a European city would yield the kind of Woody-ness his best films have had in abundance. What this Roman Holiday gives us is a Woody back in the frame (his last appearance in one of his movies was in 2006),and the sort of omnibus-spectrum hes been dabbling with: men,women,relationships,quirkiness,getting older,getting wiser (maybe),and the way fame can take you over and make you over and leave you to hang out and dry once it flees.
These are themes that have been the mainstay in Woody Allens body of work,astonishing for its prolific nature and the way hes managed to stay with the plan. He wrote his first film in 1965. And hes still at it,about the only American filmmaker of his vintage who can safely be called an auteur,making almost one film a year and mining love and death and everything in between. His hair is now silver and sparse from being gingery and tufty-over-the-ears,but his subjects have remained the same,the grand themes that impact life. The little subplots that liven his movies come out of these. But his last few cinematic expressions have been beset by a laziness,a lack of tightness,and a kind of vacuousness,all of which conspire to create fleeting loveliness instead of lasting greatness.
His last outing,Midnight in Paris,was a spectacular looking film with spectacular lookers in it. The central conceit,of a screenplay writer in love with Paris and its great artists and litterateurs,is wonderful. I would happily pay to watch just the opening credits which make love to a city that epitomises romance and rain-soaked streets and misty lamp-lights. Before Paris,Woody was floating about Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona),getting one of the most mouth-watering couples in the movie business to cosy up. I cant quite make up my mind who is more delicious,Javier Bardem or Penelope Cruz. But once I stop slavering,Im left asking that question: this is great but wheres the rest of it?
I may have found the answer to this in the cracking two-part documentary written and directed by Robert B Weide which trains the lens on the 77-year-old director who has assiduously been building Brand Woody right from the time he stepped into showbiz. At 17. That makes it 60 straight years of practically non-stop work,where the Woody persona that guy with those neuroses which were aired for laughs was honed one gag at a time,one movie at a time. He was funny from the time he started to open his mouth,and he never let go of that one thing that set him apart from the other comics of his time: his acceptance that he needed other people to set himself off,and that people with talent would go to any lengths to work with him because he gave them space and freedom while being very clear about what he wanted from them.
Over three hours long,Woody Allen: A Documentary,tracks the filmmakers childhood in tranquil Brooklyn to his early days as a stand-up,to his writing one-liners for well-known comics,his arrival as a frequent guest on talk-shows,his stepping into the movies and Manhattan,his switching from pure,physical gag-filled comedies to exploring love and troubled couple-dom and sentiment and crimes and misdemeanours,to where he is now,cutting a wide swathe through Europe.
The thing with Woody,says everyone who is interviewed (the line-up includes his siblings,past wives and loves,biographers,agents and collaborators,and actors),is that he needs to move on. That he needs to keep working. That he is writing the script for his next film even as he is editing the present one. That he is beginning to live with his future project and casting off the one he is working on. That he doesnt ever aspire to greatness,but his intense need to put aside the feeling of oh-my-god-this-is-terrible-how-will-I-ever-make-a-movie-of-it colours all his projects. In all this,I wonder,how does a film become more than it set out to be,given that its creator is busy grappling with all this,as he puts it,stuff? The film becomes what it can. Once its got past Woodys stuff.
You can picture him waving his hands about,Woody-style,as he says this. As an actor,Woody is pretty much channelling himself all the time,whether he is catching crabs with Diane Keaton,or getting moony-eyed with Mia Farrow,or dodging the barbs of his latest screen spouse Judy Davis in To Rome With Love. As a director,hes given me moments I treasure. And at his best,entire movies. Even at his worst,theres a takeaway: a throwaway line,a citys silhouette,a sweet tune of the sax. And that is what keeps me watching,even when disappointment trumps all else. Because no one else can do what Woody does. Even his weakest ruminations are shot through with love,with a wisdom thats not full of graven-in-stone absolutes but accepting of frailty and failing. And I will take that,above all else. And celebrate that spirit.