Eric Lax has been talking to Woody Allen for 36 years and has accumulated more than a thousand pages of interviews to draw from for his new book, Conversations With Woody Allen. And while these conversations with Allen are always warm and chummy and chock-full of production details and anecdotal information useful for examining the filmmaker’s life as both a world-renowned director and a prolific screenwriter, they are still conversations that have zero insight into the creative fire that ignited Allen’s career five decades ago and has continued to burn so ferociously since then, with no signs of slowing. It is, in other words, like looking at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and only thinking to ask the painter if he stood on a ladder or a chair to reach the top of his canvas.
There appears to be no attempt under Lax’s questioning to discover what dragons Allen hopes to slay or damsels he hopes to save or personal demons (or angels) he hopes to excise. Instead, there is only a polite mulling over of the subject’s films as if they were conceived, like virgin births, in total isolation from the vulgar, flesh and blood–filled corporeal world that they so deftly mock, mimic and expound upon. Whatever else Woody Allen’s films might be to his fans and detractors, they are most definitely social commentaries that demand some attention be given to their source material — that is, the hardcore realities that provide the ballast to counterbalance the ethereal nature of the fiction encasing them — in order to provide a complete picture of the man whom many believe to be a gargantuan genius on par with Chaplin and Bergman.
It isn’t only Lax who has chosen to dialogue with Allen this way. Even in Stig Björkman’s highly praised collection of interviews, Woody Allen on Woody Allen, published more than 10 years ago, there was no indication in the text presented that the filmmaker believed that an artist had any responsibility to express any opinion not directly related to the casting, lighting, scoring, typing, editing or directing of his movies. Which, of course, raises the question: Is Allen willing or even capable of having a deeper conversation regarding contemporary art and postmodern culture and the relationship that his work might have to both?
If one were to consider only the books by Lax and Björkman, or the interviews conducted by Playboy, Life, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Esquire and New York magazine over the years, there certainly is no evidence that Woody Allen is anything but a 1960s comedian with a movie camera, a handful of microphones and nothing better to do. However, if one found the scripts for Husbands and Wives, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Stardust Memories, Deconstructing Harry, Another Woman, Interiors and Hannah and Her Sisters to be insufficient proof to the contrary, then one need only look to the interviews conducted by Paul Krassner for The Realist in 1965 and by Michiko Kakutani for the Paris Review in 1985 and the brilliant essay that Allen wrote for Tikkun in 1991 discussing how his criticism of the Israeli government in a New York Times op-ed piece had created a small firestorm of protest, to know that he is more than capable of participating in a discussion that is less infatuated with his celebrity and more curious about his work. That said, Conversations With Woody Allen is perhaps the most thorough and compelling book compiled for the purpose of finding out how Woody Allen creates his films. If nothing else, it is not a bad way to pass the time with while awaiting the publication of a book that explores the deeper and more compelling question of why.
CONVERSATIONS WITH WOODY ALLEN: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking | By ERIC LAX | Knopf | 416 pages | $30 hardcover