‘Woody Allen Film By Film‘ is a fantastic new book from UK film critic Jason Solomons. It is a comprehensive look at Allen’s film career – spanning all the films he wrote and directed, and taking us all the way up to date to this year’s Irrational Man.
Solomons was one of the first people on the planet to see ‘Irrational Man‘ at Cannes, and asked Allen a question at the press conference. He later sat down with Allen, one-on-one, for his book. You can listen to the interview on his website.
We like Solomons a lot. He was occasionally on TV when we lived in the UK, and we were happy to discover he is a dedicated Woody Allen fan. His book is a labour of love, and if you’re like us, it is just nice to hear from a super-fan who is also super-knowledgeable. In our interview, we talked about how he discovered Allen, he tells us about his new book, and of course we asked him to pick some favourites.
You can get the ‘Woody Allen Film By Film‘ from Amazon right now.
When did you first hear of Woody Allen? Do you remember watching your first Allen film?
Yes very clearly.
BBC2 used to do these directors’ series over Christmas – they did Billy Wilder and I think a Howard Hawks one – and there was a Woody Allen one. I knew the man’s face because my grandfather had Without Feathers, and I’d read the jokes in there and thought he was hilarious, but I don’t think I quite knew he made films. I must have been 14 when the series hit and i video taped them all (VHS, of course).
Annie Hall was the first one i saw and i fell in love on the spot – with Diane Keaton, with New York, with Alvy and all his problems, with jazz. I just wanted to live in the big city, in a flat, drink wine, stand in cinema queues and watch Fellini movies (I don’t think I knew who Fellini was but it all sounded so sophisticated). And the look of the film, the to-camera speeches, the flashbacks, the cartoon, the split screen – all these tricks and tics. I didn’t know you could do that in a film. I’d seen and loved war movies (‘Where Eagles Dare‘), and disaster pics (‘Poseidon Adventure‘) and loved the ‘Rocky‘ movies but this, this opened up a new world of cinema to me, it opened up being Jewish and dating and fancying women and reading books and telling jokes. I know it changed my life.
The next day they showed Sleeper and remember falling off my chair laughing. And Play It Again, Sam was in that series too, and I adored that and suddenly I needed to watch Bogart movies. In three movies, i was hooked. They did show Manhattan among that but I took longer to warm to that one. I think it’s a more grown-up movie, and more bitter, so I wasn’t quite able to process its complexities, despite adoring that opening sequence and getting a cassette tape of ‘Rhapsody In Blue‘ in a local record shop. I got weird looks at the counter because I know I bought a Michael Jackson album on the same day – so that was a strange combo.
Did you binge on Woody Allen after that, or did you fall in love more slowly?
It was gradual after that. We got Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex out on a rental with friends but that was about the only one anyone else seemed interested in, because it had sex in the title. I started going to the cinema to see his films – The Purple Rose of Cairo was the first, but then never missed one. I didn’t really binge until i lived in Paris in 1990-91 and you could catch up with Woody’s films such as Interiors and Another Woman and Stardust Memories because they played him on a loop in certain cinemas and treated him like an auteur. I remember seeing Shadows And Fog there by the Pompidou Centre and hearing how badly it had gone down in the US and in Britain but there in Paris it was still a major work.
You’ve been a film critic for many years. What was the first Allen film you covered as a critic, and do you remember what you said about it?
Yes. It was Deconstructing Harry and I was shocked. Horrified even. I couldn’t believe Woody has just uttered the word ‘cunt’. I know it was Harry Block, but still. I can still hear the intake of breath in the screening room. I’d loved Everyone Says I Love You before that but i wasn’t officially a critic yet, so it was ‘…Harry‘ that I first got to review and it was a tough one. Funny and structurally brilliant, of course, but angry and flailing and vicious.
I was reviewing for a tabloid – The Daily Express – at the time, and I knew the editors always wanted a mention of the scandal, you know, the Soon-Yi thing, which just kept hanging around. I kind of loved it but felt a bit callow as a reviewer (I was callow) and not brave enough to stand up for how good the movie was. It felt so star-stuffed and mean-spirited so i think I was more reserved about it than I should have been. I also didn’t want to declare my fandom, feeling it would get in the way of critical impartiality. So it’s great to be able to reassess that particular film in the book – it’s genius really.
Can you do a credible Woody Allen impression? Do you have a particular Woody Allen quote you drop into normal conversation?
I can, you know, not bad actually. Better, I always felt, than Kenneth Branagh did in the next film I reviewed, Celebrity.
I read the script to ‘Annie Hall‘ back to front and knew all the tsch’s and uh’s and the opening and closing monologues by heart. So I’m always saying in restaurants that aren’t great – “yes, and such small portions,” and I always drop in “we need the eggs” to some conversation or other. And whenever someone says someone else is a genius (a term often bandied around too lightly, particularly at film festivals these days), I’m moved to say “you ought to meet some stupid people once in a while, you might learn something…” and then I feel the thrill like Allan Felix in ‘Play It Again, Sam‘, when he finally gets to use his ‘Casablanca‘ speech: “I waited my whole life to say it…”
When did you realise you wanted to write this book?
If I was going to write a film book, it was always about someone with whom you don’t mind spending a lot of time. I’m never fed up in Woody’s worlds and if felt i could explore them further, like Cecilia in the ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo‘, disappearing into the movies itself. It didn’t take me that long to actually write the 70,000 words of text plus 3,000-odd in photo captions – I’d waited my whole life to say it…
There are hundreds of Woody books. There are many dry, scholarly tomes whose authors don’t seem to recognise a joke if it ran up their trouser leg and bit them. They tend not to focus on how beautiful his films look – we’re talking cinematographers Gordon Willis, Carlo Di Palma, Sven Nykvist here, so you have to do their photography justice. And too many books forget – or recoil from mentioning – how many beautiful women and great actresses there are at work in Woody’s films. I wanted to get all that in and do something a bit more personal because Woody clearly appeals to so many people on a gut level, as if he’s talking directly to us, so a blend of film criticism, admiration, and art were the ingredients for this book.
So much of Woody’s recent work is overlooked in terms of artistry that I wanted to cement his work as art and give it the art book treatment. I also felt that the Jewishness of his work is, these days, ignored or treated like an elephant in the room of 21st century political correctness and I felt I wanted to re-visit his cultural Jewishness and its importance.
You count 50 films by Allen – we count 45. How did you get to your number? The UK press has certainly picked up on that 50 number.
Well it’s definitely 50 years involved in making movies, since he wrote What’s New, Pussycat?. Woody himself says ‘Irrational Man‘ is his 45th movie, but he doesn’t count What’s Up Tiger Lily, ‘Play It Again, Sam‘, Wild Man Blues, Robert Weide‘s doc about him (Woody Allen: A Documentary) nor New York Stories‘ ‘Oedipus Wrecks‘ segment. So i put those in there too as for me they’re bound up with him and feature him and his artistry and have his creativity all over them. I didn’t count, as many wanted me to, The Front, Fading Gigolo, Antz… Though i did bulk the book up with the little-seen TV sketch Men In Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story and the short he did after 9/11, Sounds From A Town I Love.
You went to Cannes to see Irrational Man and interview Allen. How did that come about?
I just had to wait to get ‘Irrational Man’ in and we held back going to print for two weeks to get it in there, and the interview. Cannes announce their line-ups so late, so I based it on a hunch and whispers but without ‘Irrational Man‘, the book would have been out-of-date the day after it came out.
The interview was a trickier process but I lodged requests a year ago. At one point, Warner Bros who have the film for UK, didn’t want me around and locked me out, so I was consigned to press conference duties. I did get a good question in there in that nervy public arena: ‘Woody, seeing we’re in France, the home of cinema and existentialism, can you say what cinema has taught you about the big questions in life?‘ (i’d worked on that question). He gave a great, long answer and everybody patted me on the back after the conference, but, you know, I’d essentially given them all my good stuff. I went back to the martinez where I knew Woody was doing his more intimate press duties, and hung around and made his people feel a bit sorry for me.
My world was crashing down, I was cursing. I went away for a sandwich. My phone rang and it was Woody’s personal publicist saying if you can get here in 20 minutes, I’ve got a slot for you. And the sun shone again. I just had to make sure i bought new batteries for my recording machine.
I had met Woody a few times before – i’d interviewed him briefly for the BBC’s London TV station when he was over doing his jazz concerts here. I’d met him at the London premiere of Match Point, too, which was held at the smart jewellery store in Mayfair, ‘Asprey’. I’d also had a glass of champagne with him on a balcony in venice at the premiere of Cassandra’s Dream basically because I’d bumped into my friend Sally Hawkins as she was teetering along to the reception and she ushered me in on her arm as her escort.
I actually made him laugh as I’d recently got married and for my wedding gift my old newspaper editor had given me a portrait of Woody shot by the great observer photographer Jane Bown. I hadn’t got round to hanging the picture yet and seeing him, I said, ‘ah that reminds me I must put the picture up’. He actually laughed (I made Woody laugh) as I bumbled on about the photo and in turn he charmingly said he remembered sitting for that portrait as Jane was a memorable, no fuss kind of photographer and used only natural light, which he loved. I said, ‘It must be weird to know there’s a picture of him in my hallway, you know, like he’s part of my family’, and I thanked him for reminding me to get round to finally doing some home decorating when i got back. I promised, that even though I was bad with a hammer and nails, the least I could do was put it up myself. He smiled and said: “not to use as a dartboard, I hope.”
How long did it take to put the book together, and did you discover anything new, watching so many films in such a short amount of time?
It was actually three months from the day I started writing to the last full stop of the main text. Then came picture research, caption writing and the negotiations to get the interview and ‘Irrational Man‘ review in. It was a very intense three months, but thrilling and it rarely felt like a chore at all. I was still doing my day job of reviewing the week’s usual releases – and I can tell you, even during the awards season (I began writing on January 4th, 2015), most of the new films were nowhere near as good, skilful, elegant, funny or wise as any of Woodys’. It was almost a relief to leave the desperate scrabble of the current weekly release glut to disappear into Woody’s unhurried, sure-footed and timeless movies every night.
New? My admiration for his clear-eyed scriptwriting and story-telling ability grew, my respect for his effortless screen craft expanded and I could suddenly draw parallels between different films in wildly different decades. Other benefits included re-assessing how good and unique the “serious” films are in American cinema: I loved ‘Interiors‘, September and ‘Another Woman‘ far more this time than the first. I was slightly disappointed that I found Bananas a little dated and silly, but Love And Death was funnier than ever, mainly because Keaton is so great in it. I still could barely watch Hollywood Ending, though.
Allen is currently shooting a new, 2016 film, which means your book will be dated next year! How did you approach that feeling – that writing a Woody Allen film book is never finished?
I’m terrible at business and deals and all that stuff. But one smart move was that I included a clause in my contract with the publisher that the book must be updated with every new movie. So I get to add to this ever-evolving, never-ending oeuvre. I like that feeling about his prolific output, that he’s kind of an impossible book, like Escher or Borges would imagine. It’s a body of work in flux, always mutating like Zelig and, unlike that dead shark, always moving forward.
Finally, some favourites. Annie Hall and Manhattan – the big two – which would you choose to take to a desert island?
‘Annie Hall‘. It’s got everything you need to survive and I could contemplate the expanding universe as I gazed up at the stars without any mother yelling “what is that your business?”. ‘Manhattan‘ is too neurotic, too fragile to watch on a desert island (however, I think I would and could just watch the opening sequence on a loop all day).
And of the 43 (or is that 48?) others – and you could only pick one – could you do it and what would it be?
I would pick Radio Days. I could listen to that movie forever: Woody’s own voice doing the ultimate storytelling, the 45 or so classic music tracks on there, the sheer mix of tales, characters and wonder, all recollected in tranquility but with a cartoonist’s gift for just the right amount of comic exaggeration and rose-tinted nostalgia. It’s a movie with incredible transportive powers, I find, one of the very best films about childhood and a neighbourhood. So that would be perfect for a desert island, or indeed anywhere.
You can follow Jason on Twitter (@Jasoncritic) and find more of his work on his website. ‘Woody Allen Film By Film‘ is out now in the UK. A great book for all Woody nerds and if you’re on this site, chances are that is you! Get it at Amazon.