Sunday 5 July 2020

On Woody Allen - Tom Ryan reviews the director's memoir APROPOS OF NOTHING (Arcade Publishing, 2020)

It’s not a good time for Woody Allen to be trying to get a fair hearing for his 392-page memoir, Apropos of Nothing. The 1992 allegations of molestation made against him by his former partner, Mia Farrow, their adopted daughter, Dylan, and son, Ronan seem to follow him wherever he goes and whatever he does. But, rest assured, I don’t intend to spend the rest of this book review grappling with them. As Alvy Singer’s mother (Joan Neuman) in 1977’s Annie Hall might have put it, what is that my business anyway? *

Suffice then to say that, despite no charges ever having been laid against Allen, despite his repeated denials, and despite a mountain-load of evidence to the contrary – see, for example, cartoonist Rick Worley’s By the Way, Woody Allen is Innocent (2020, click here to watch it on YouTube) – an entire generation now routinely regards him as a pervert who sexually assaulted his then seven-year old adopted daughter. 

As far we the public are concerned, what seems undeniable is that, over almost three decades now, Allen and, to a lesser extent, Farrow have become increasingly stereotyped according to the disposition of whoever’s opinion piece is the order of the day. He, as an older man with a prurient interest in younger women; she, as a spurned woman seeking vengeance on him for having transferred his affections from her to her 22-year-old adopted daughter (with Andre Previn), Soon-Yi Previn. 

The first hurdle facing Allen’s memoir was, notoriously, when Hachette, who’d originally contracted to publish it, then changed its mind, deciding that it didn’t want its name attached to such a product. Pressured by Ronan Farrow – whose expose, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and A Conspiracy to Protect Predators (2019), had been published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group – and by a group of disapproving employees, Hachette changed its mind. Soon afterwards, Arcade Publishing came to the rescue. It cost me $60 for an imported hardback at my local bookseller; the nearby library has yet to include it in its collection.

The second hurdle the book has to overcome is getting a fair hearing/reading. Alas, as has been the case with most of Allen’s films in recent years, as Scott Murray has observed recently on this site, reviewers generally now tend to be preoccupied with the writer-director rather than his work. Such is the power of celebrity. It can serve you well one day (week, month or year), and swing against you the next. So, as I said, if you’re Woody Allen, right now is not a good time to be hawking a memoir.

Is the book worth making a fuss about? My tentative answer to that question is yes: for the most part, it’s a very enjoyable, if not especially enlightening, read. Anybody who’s encountered any of Allen’s previous literary efforts (from Getting Even in 1971 through Without Feathers in 1975 to Side Effects in 1980 and Mere Anarchy in 2007) will be familiar with the way he writes. As he outlines in Apropos of Nothing, he began as an adolescent by penning jokes for others to tell, before moving into stand-up in his own right. And you can hear his voice throughout the memoir, setting the scene, adopting that familiar self-deprecatory demeanour, and spreading the ironic patter far and wide as he moves towards the inevitable punch-line. 

For years, he’s been giving that voice to the characters he’s played on screen, sometimes lending it out to actors in a way that mixes their personas with his. In Celebrity (1998), hilariously, for example, even Kenneth Branagh takes it on: the nervous stutter, the social awkwardness, the terminal uncertainty about his place in the scheme of things. 

Sometimes the gags in the memoir fall a bit flat, and the book could certainly do with a good edit. But there are also plenty of zingers on offer as Allen bounces back and forth across the years. It’s often been said that, if you can make an audience laugh, you can have them eating out of the palm of your hand. And if Apropos of Nothing is apropos of anything, it’s that. 

Allen is generous, virtually without exception, to all of his collaborators on both sides of the camera, and the book is full of lots of behind-the-scenes chat about what it was like working with Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, John Turturro, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Penn, cinematographer Gordon Willis, “name-dropping” designer Richard Sylbert, and many others. None of it is especially illuminating, but it’s never dull. Of Judy Davis (with whom he’s now made four films), he notes regarding her involvement in Celebrity, “(She) was of course great, and since we had now done several films together, I was determined to say hello, but I lost my nerve when she couldn’t remember who I was.” (Boom! Boom!)

Even Mia Farrow is unequivocally endorsed for her contributions to his work. Allen seems to have the ability to compartmentalise his relationships, between what transpires professionally and what goes on privately. He spends about a third of the book making his case about what really didn’t happen between him and daughter Dylan and how much evidence there is to indicate that Farrow fabricated the whole affair. You can hear the tone of his voice shift as he gets passionate about his total innocence and quite vicious about Farrow. It’s the book’s weakest link, although (especially if he isinnocent) it’s understandable.

Elsewhere, he encounters an abundance of famous people and he’s not averse to dropping a name or two himself. He dines with his hero, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, spends time with Pauline Kael (who provides him with one of the book’s funniest lines), brunches with President Sarkozy and his wife, singer-actress Carla Bruni, and runs into Arthur Miller, who confirms for him that life is meaningless. Cary Grant comes to watch him play with his jazz group at Michael’s Pub in New York and asks him to autograph copies of his books (probably “so he could sell them on eBay”, he surmises).

However, we really learn nothing about what drives him, what angels or demons rise up whenever he sits down to write a screenplay or goes on set to direct a sequence. We learn zilch about the creative choices that govern the shape of the films he’s made, why he did this rather than that. All he’s willing, or able, to share is that he arrives on the set, lets the actors do what they think is appropriate (his decision was the casting, they have the script, now it’s up to them), and then cuts it all together.

Allen keeps saying that he really doesn’t care about the finished product; what matters to him is the shooting process. He says he doesn’t think he’s made any especially good films and isn’t the slightest bit interested in what reviewers have to say about them. Or what people think about him. “Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment,” he offers as his departing punch-line. 

Should we believe him? Should we trust him? Is his disinterest a pose? To what extent is he the same unreliable narrator of his own life as all the hopeless narcissists he’s played over the years are of theirs (like Alvy in Annie Hall or Isaac in Manhattan)? Did his mother, Nettie Konigsberg, really resemble Groucho Marx? Alas, there’s no photo to support his claim (the only picture the book offers is a portrait of Allen on the back cover taken by Diane Keaton). My advice, then: you shouldn’t read Apropos of Nothing for the answers to any of these questions. But it can be awfully engrossing to ponder them. 

*I said what I had to say on that subject a couple of years ago in The New Daily.
And nothing has happened in the intervening years to persuade me to change a word of it.

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