APROPOS OF NOTHING (2020) ****
by Woody Allen
This hardback edition published by Arcade Publishing, 23 March 2020, 392pp
© Woody Allen, 2019
Blurb: In this candid and often hilarious memoir, the celebrated director, comedian, writer, and actor offers a comprehensive, personal look at his tumultuous life. Beginning with his Brooklyn childhood and his stint as a writer for the Sid Caesar variety show in the early days of television, working alongside comedy greats, Allen tells of his difficult early days doing standup before he achieved recognition and success. With his unique storytelling pizzazz, he recounts his departure into moviemaking, with such slapstick comedies as Take the Money and Run, and revisits his entire, sixty-year-long, and enormously productive career as a writer and director, from his classics Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters to his most recent films, including Midnight in Paris. Along the way, he discusses his marriages, his romances and famous friendships, his jazz playing, and his books and plays. We learn about his demons, his mistakes, his successes, and those he loved, worked with, and learned from in equal measure. This is a hugely entertaining, deeply honest, rich and brilliant self-portrait of a celebrated artist who is ranked among the greatest filmmakers of our time.
Comment: Woody Allen’s autobiography is a fascinating insight into the life of one of modern cinema’s true geniuses. But, like some of his films, it feels like it could have been even better. Caught between two stools – 1. Giving an honest and witty account of his life and his films and 2. Finally taking the opportunity at length to give his version of the molestation allegations made against him by Dylan Farrow. Allen says that he hopes no-one has bought the book simply on the back of point 2 and regrets having to devote so much space (more than 80 pages) to that issue. That he does so is a necessity, however, as much of the publicity around the case has been based on one side’s account – which was proved to be heavily flawed by a thorough investigation and is further questioned on reading Allen’s plausible version of the whole sorry tale that has likely unfairly tarnished one of America’s greatest filmmakers. It has done so to such an extent that his films can no longer be funded in his own country where there have been vigorous attempts by the Farrow family to prevent publication of this book – Ronan Farrow taking the highly dubious moral high ground view that in such allegations only the point of view of the accuser is to be heard. If those too eager to jump on the accusatory bandwagon would only take the time to read Allen’s account of events they will no doubt reflect on their initial judgement and come to doubt the motivation behind a campaign against Allen led by his manipulative former partner (although importantly not co-habiting partner), Mia Farrow, whose own behaviour is remarkably questionable. Allen’s indifference to his predicament is perhaps the most frustrating element. His philosophical attitude, whilst dignified has also not helped his case. My advice is to read his account and judge for yourselves.
Despite my own inclination – having read accounts from both sides and considered the judgement of the investigation into the allegation that took place at the time – that Allen has been falsely accused by a vindictive former partner with highly questionable parenting techniques, there are elements of Allen’s life story that leave the reader a little uncomfortable about his partner choices. It is ironic that his happiest relationship, and a marriage that has lasted 25 years, is with Soon-YI the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, who was twenty-one when Farrow learned of their affair. Allen has made his partner choices on impulse and little rationalisation and suffered the consequences of those choices. But that shows he is only human in his naivety and he is certainly not unique in having naivety as one of his flaws.
On his career, both as a filmmaker and part-time musician, Allen remains winningly self-deprecating. In his own view, he has never made a great movie. There will undoubtedly be many who agree, possibly based on preconceptions or just a sheer divergence of taste. Most authoritative commentators and scholars of film history would put a strong case for at least four masterpieces in his filmography. For me, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours stand with the very best American cinema has to offer. Many of his other films come close. he has also made his share of average movies, or movies that do not achieve his ambition. Allen firmly lays the blame for any quality divergence at his own door – acknowledging his lack of perfectionism as a director or his inability to convert his writing vision to celluloid. He looks to surround himself with the best people he can get. His choice of legendary cinematographers and top-class actors is unquestioned. The freedom he gives these artists to explore their craft is his real skill. Allen will only pull them up if their interpretation of his script or direction is off-key. He has been known to wholly re-shoot movies or re-cast parts. Again he does not blame the actor or artist’s skills, merely that his own initial judgement in the choice was wrong.
Where the book may disappoint is in the insight Allen offers on his own body of work. We rarely get to scratch beneath the surface of the themes he explores in his movies. Allen’s way is to write film, edit, release and move on. he never looks back and never rewatches any of his movies once they have been completed and released. he no longer reads critiques and has never accepted awards. Many of his movies are covered in 1-2 pages, which to some extent in a sizeable filmography is understandable, but offers nothing to the fan or scholar wishing to get further insight into his films or the creative process in their making.
Hopefully, before he leaves this world the truth around the allegation that has dogged his career since the early 1990s will win out and Allen’s stature in motion picture history will be rightly acknowledged. In the meantime, this autobiography at least enables him to state his case and for those who retain an open mind, it will help them arrive at their own balanced judgement.