Monday, January 15, 2024

yeah, I read it

Woody Allen, Apropos of Nothing (Arcade, 2020)

Woody's infamous autobiography. I didn't find it anything like the unreadable wad described in most negative reviews; in fact I had trouble finding it on the library shelf because it was far shorter (392 p.) than the giant tome the reviews had implied. It's also - for the most part - interestingly written and it swims along energetically. There are no chapter breaks, but Woody is always clear when he's changing subjects, especially when he enters into or leaves a digression, the more so as many of these involve jumps forward or backward in time, but there's no confusion about where or when you are.

The exception is the long rant against the molestation charges, which is flat writing on top of everything else. It's as if he suddenly switched gears and became a lawyer. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a lawyer ghost-write those parts. The sophisticated arguments are especially surprising coming from a guy who likes to paint himself as being as naive and innocent as some of the characters he plays in movies.

We can specify that molesting 7-year-olds and dating 17-year-olds are entirely different kinds of creepy behavior, and that a man would do one does not at all imply he's likely to do the other, but he can't deny the one. He doesn't give exact ages, but he says Soon-Yi was in college before he started dating her, hence presumably over 18. He implies that Stacey Nelkin was under 18 when he started dating her when telling the story, but later in the book says she was not underage. (This denial is apparently false.) His constant awareness of the hotness of any woman of an age where this can be measured has dismayed some readers, but that's just standard hormonal straight male mindset. Woody insists that when he's making a movie, his mind is purely on the movie and he doesn't try to date his actresses, but apparently that doesn't apply if he's already dating them, or maybe in some other situations ...? It's not entirely clear.

But to the charge that he's a mature man who dates unnervingly young women, 17 or not, his defense is that there were only two of them (he says he never dated Mariel Hemingway, they were only friendly outings: he says nothing about her claim that he intended them to share a room on his proposed trip to Paris), and most of his dates have been his own age. As a justification, that reminds me of an old dirty joke which will perhaps come to mind if I refer to it as the "Seymour the bridge-builder" joke.

Even weirder is his explanation for not casting Black actors in his movies. He trots out his civil rights and "some of my best friends are" credentials, and says the casting works out as it does because he just has to go on his instincts. Has it not occurred to him that his casting instincts might be a wee bit racist? Try imagining a story with Black characters in it, Woody, and then see what happens.

Another strange thing is his name. He started out his career by sending jokes to newspaper columnists, and then when he saw one in print with his (original) name on it, he suddenly felt horribly embarrassed about the possibility of people he knew seeing it. So he needed a pseudonym, fast. But what is the point of having that as a shield if you don't use it as one? He adopted it as his new name, he began to live his public life under it, it doesn't protect him from being identified as the guy with that name at all.

Well, not all the book trips you up like that, and there are some interesting stories about the ideas behind and the making of his movies. He pays warm tribute to Mia Farrow as an actress. But what most interests me is Woody's view of his own talent. Later on in the book he does list talent as among the reasons he's been successful, but towards the beginning he discounts it. He says outright that his success has been simply due to luck, nothing more. A little later he describes himself churning out reams of material for comedy television, and he treats that as just a reasonable task. It doesn't seem to occur to him that not everybody can do that. That fits in with something I've noticed elsewhere: that people often don't think they're talented, they think that what they do is easy. It's only when they notice that most people can't do it that it might occur to them that they think it's easy because they have a talent for it.

Woody Allen has a talent for comedy. He has less of a talent for channeling the likes of Ingmar Bergman, and he has no talent for self-introspection.

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