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Woody on Woody

TCM spotlights the films of Woody Allen.

by Mark D. Johnson
May 17, 2002

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Woody on Woody_Mark D. Johnson-TCM spotlights the films of Woody Allen. I find myself pleasantly surprised, on a frequent basis now, with the offerings of the Turner Classic Movies cable television network. When it first went on the air in 1994, it was easily dismissed as a worthless purveyor of long-forgotten black-and-white films of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. If you happened to land on TCM while channel-hopping, you invariably saw never-famous actors riding horses in some generic western or engaging in dull conversation in a drab New York apartment. Those movies were hardly “classic” by any film-lover’s definition. But since Ted Turner merged his empire with that of media giant Time Warner, its schedule has become increasingly filled with genuine classics, both old and new, with an annual celebration of Oscar winners and a welcome presentation of many films in letterbox format, providing the original screen proportions of the theatrical release. TCM’s programming generally outclasses its rival network and predecessor, American Movie Classics, earning it legitimacy on the level of former cable laughing stocks CNN and ESPN. Occasionally, TCM will air an original production, as it did on May 4, when it premiered a documentary called “Woody Allen: A Life in Film” to kick off a month-long retrospective of the director’s films. The film will be rebroadcast on Saturday, May 18 at 12:30 am ET (technically, Sunday morning).

The ninety-minute film, produced and directed by Time magazine’s long-time film critic Richard Schickel, features Allen discussing his movies with numerous clips interspersed throughout. As TCM host Robert Osborne points out in his introduction, this makes for a rare treat, given Allen’s long history of avoiding the spotlight. There is no narrator and the interviewer is never seen or heard – there is simply Woody Allen talking about the inspiration behind his films, some points he was trying to make, sharing anecdotes and what he feels is some of his best work. The topics coincide, for the most part, with the chronological order of his movies, beginning with “the early funny ones” (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper) right up to Hollywood Ending, which was released on May 3. Through the span of Allen’s career we see his evolution as a filmmaker along with his recurring themes of life, death, religion, and sex.

For those who were turned off to Woody Allen by the gossip-inducing affair with Soon-Yi and the ensuing painful fallout with Mia Farrow, this documentary may help you see once again why he was, and still is, so well-respected in the film industry, despite consistently low box-office returns for his films. His body of work is unique, filled with his patented brand of humor, an ear for dialogue, and (since 1977’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall) intelligent drama, all while asking life’s biggest questions. Some find his acting to be grating, and he is the first to admit that he has very little range as an actor. He does his one thing: the neurotic New Yorker, through which, in the characters he plays, he can pass for either an intellectual or a seedy lunatic. Yet, with his horn-rimmed glasses, this character gives his films a satisfying consistency, along with his dialogue, which somehow makes all the actors talk in the same snappy, Woody Allen manner. That may sound undesirable from an artistic standpoint, but I consider it an achievement that sets his work apart. After all, you can say the same thing about Shakespeare’s dialogue.

This May, TCM is showing eighteen of Allen’s forty-plus films on Saturday evenings. The first two weekends mostly featured his early, gag-filled comedies, but the last two weekends will feature what I consider some of his best, including, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. These films blend a mix of drama and comedy into beautiful artistry. For the complete schedule, an interview with Schickel, trivia, and more, visit the wonderfully stylish TCM website.

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