For those that regularly follow Joel Bocko’s website, you will have probably seen my new interview posted last week. I contacted Joel late last year since his work is quoted in Woody Allen: Reel To Real. In fact, he was one of the only critics mentioned, within, that correctly declared the late 70s/1980 of Woody’s cinematic output to be a genuine high point- and, yes, this includes Interiors as well as the supernal Stardust Memories. Joel expressed an interest in reviewing the book and interviewing me. The result is 15,000 words on art, criticism, philosophy, and film– with only a slice of it on Allen.
This Fall, I’m updating Reel To Real with new material, including an unexpurgated version of the above interview- another 5,000-8,000 words, probably- that was simply too technical to include on Joel’s site. Still, those interested in the macro of my judgments- their inner ‘why’- will do well to read it. They are a blueprint to the arts as a whole.
Anyway- here is my answer to the first question. The interview can be read in full here.
Before we begin, for the sake of readers can you introduce yourself, your interest in Allen, and the reasons behind your outlook and approach to this book?
I am a poet, critic, and novelist living in New York City. I have a variety of interests- hence my desire to do film criticism from a wide “art-first” approach, where issues of character, writing, narrative, imagery, music, and their summation(s) matter. More than anything, however, I wanted Woody Allen: Reel To Real to be a kind of blueprint for critiquing art as a whole. It covers dozens of films at great depth so that, over time, the reader knows what to look for, and can extrapolate some of these ideas to the art-world at large. In an important sense, this book isn’t merely ‘about’ Woody’s art. It is about ART, with Woody serving merely as a convenient specimen.
For this reason, I don’t necessarily state my premises outright- I don’t give readers a ‘list’ of what to look for in a good film, as that’s the quickest way to formulaic thinking (which is counter to art) and a way of avoiding the exceptions that utterly DEFINE so much of art. For instance: to many viewers, John Cassavetes’s best films might ‘go on too long,’ or Walt Whitman’s great poems have too much ‘stuff’ within. Yet a careful look at either reveals that there is purpose- there is communication- in the excess, even though concision is a good rule of thumb. The point is that any artistic rule immediately calls up sub-categories, exceptions, sub-exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions… save for one. And it is this: whatever ends up on the screen, page, or frame, it must be purposeful- it must communicate something of substance, or at least act as a route to substance, of re-framing substance. And the measure of ‘substance’ is Man at his apex. I am not communicating to school-children, Homo erectus, or the guy down the street who has no knowledge of these things whatsoever. I am communicating to those who are interested, open-minded, and willing to put in a little work. I assume my audience is smart. I assume we are, at least on some level, equals. No, I cannot prove it, but if I act like it, write like it, and think like it, something valuable starts to happen that goes beyond the both of us.
My hope is that, after seeing my reactions to so many films, an implicit (rather than explicit) system will emerge in the reader’s mind. I can’t, for instance, praise a well-executed film (say, Manhattan) for its visual and intellectual depths, then go on to deride Husbands And Wives merely because I disagree with some of its conclusions. There needs to be a consistent response, even though- for instance- a flaw in one film might be a strength in another, thus leading to some surprising conclusions. Over time, the careful reader will take on these surprises, and will turn them inward- make them part of his own thinking. And by not making the films about me, I hope that the reader won’t make them about himself either. The point is to go further- to go beyond one’s opinions, one’s limits, one’s preferences and likes, and see the object for what it is rather than the desires commonly imposed on it. As Confucius wrote 2500 years ago: ‘Rare is the man who can love and see the defects, or hate and see the excellence of an object.’ For whatever reason, this style of thinking is still not the norm.
Yes- Woody Allen: Reel To Real is the biggest book on Woody’s film art ever written, and will continue to grow every year. But it’s above all a tool. This is its long-term value, and its value to those that aren’t even necessarily fans of Woody’s films but wish to better understand art. I could have done this book on Ingmar Bergman, Wallace Stevens, Caravaggio, Bosch, Ovid, John Steinbeck… In a very real sense, it would have turned out to be the same exact book. Sure, the details would have to be different, but the approach would be the same- the patterns would be the same, for art has the same underpinnings everywhere. Once these underpinnings are understood, adding a new artist- from ANY discipline- to one’s sense of things is no longer so daunting, merely a challenge to see where such things fit. It’s different for everyone, of course; this is why artistic ‘rules’ are so inane. Yet to therefore assume that there are NO patterns one could work with is an extreme that simply defies human experience. We need to get at these patterns and understand them, not merely spell them out.
As for Woody, himself? I don’t think criticism has been very fair to him. Excepting Roger Ebert’s review, for instance, the general reason why Manhattan is praised is 100% counter to the film’s reality, and why the film works as a film. This is not mere nitpicking. I think it’s great that a wonderful film like Manhattan is understood to be a classic, but if this is informed by the wrong reasons, it means that, if you put a similarly great film in front of those same people, they might not be able to recognize it, for they’d be reacting- as with Manhattan- to something they think they see, as opposed to what’s there. In a very real sense, they’d be reacting to themselves, their own drives, their own needs, their own desires. This is dangerous to the arts. Same goes for other films- Stardust Memories is great but neglected; Another Woman is similarly ignored; counter to the odd mythology, the 90s were actually a pretty good period for Woody, overall. And many ‘name’ critics- Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Vincent Canby, Ray Carney- have gotten the individual films so wrong, even on the seemingly minor details, that it’s shocking there hasn’t been a comprehensive response to their errors and crude lapses in judgment.
Still, this happens to many great artists. Woody isn’t special in this regard. He simply happens to be more useful to this sort of book because he’s made so many films and has withered so many responses to his work- positive, negative, and/or simply dumb. In this way, I can approach things from multiple angles, and have many opportunities to finally get things right even if I might fail in others. This might be harder to do with other artists- especially those far removed from our own time, since they’ve long settled into a glow of general acceptance. People are much more willing to praise you- and to be fair to you- when you’re dead. The dead are harmless. The dead don’t threaten the insecure. And the insecure don’t wish they were dead. Primate thinking, I guess- or some bullshit…