BWW Book Review: Alex Sheremet's Insightful WOODY ALLEN: REEL TO REAL
One of the things I truly enjoy about being a critic is not just the fact that I get to cover the St. Louis theater scene, but also that I receive countless opportunities to review other mediums within the artistic world of creation. I've had the request to deliver my thoughts and opinions on concerts, CDs, DVDs, art, and books. The printed word is something I've always enjoyed, and when that book concerns music, theater or film, it touches on subjects that are especially near and dear to my heart. So, when I was contacted by Ascot Media Group about Alex Sheremet's ebook, Woody Allen: Reel to Real (Take2 Publishing), I naturally jumped at the chance. Not only because I've always admired Woody's movies, but because I feel he's never been given a truly honest and thorough examination of his vast body of work. Writer Alex Sheremet has taken on the task, and since it is truly a digi-dialogue, it will be an ever-evolving piece that will continue to grow as Allen continues to make films, and as discussions occur concerning their validity and worth.
I initially received a PDF version of the ebook. However, since I currently do not possess a device that I can easily read the electronic copy on at this particular time, although I'm headed toward getting one for the sheer portability it allows, to my delight, I was graciously sent a softcover version to read. Before I go more in depth in my discussion of this work I'd like to say up front that it's an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Allen's canon, and it covers a lot of territory, including discussions involving his acting, as well as examining six particular critics who have appraised his work, and various interactions the author has had with some of them.
After a brief forward that establishes the author's intent, Sheremet dives right into the films, dividing them into four periods of time that reflect Allen's growth and occasional regressions as a filmmaker. He chooses to utilize a format of detailed synopses to examine, not only the narrative threads and plots themselves, but also to interject observations of his own and of others that are insightful, thoughtful, and revealing. I guarantee that if you take the time to go through these texts you will have a much deeper appreciation for Allen's forays into the world of filmmaking. You may not always agree with the author's assertions, but it is so well written that you may reassess your own opinions, and possibly seek out copies of various films in order to gain a better appreciation, or at least a clearer understanding, of them. For me, that's what a truly well thought out look at an artist's body of work does. It makes you want to seek them out again.
Naturally, it begins with what even Allen himself (along with countless critics and viewers) have, perhaps jokingly, referred to as "the early, funny ones." These are the films that I was exposed to as a youth. They're the initial attempts that reflect more of Allen's comedic sensibilities, and as such, they're often gag-driven and sometimes seem to be more a collection of vignettes, than a fully fleshed out narrative. In fact, the first film of his that I saw was Sleeper, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which caused me to explore the films that followed as well as those that preceded it. Some viewers and critics have never gotten past that point in his career. Those are the films they enjoy, and when his talents began to develop, and he tackled more mature material and issues, they simply stopped caring. But I didn't, and Sheremet hasn't either. I think there's a lot to be said for making people laugh, but when you also can make them think, or tap into their emotions, you're on the path to something greater and, in my opinion, more profound.
What's most refreshing about Sheremet's book is that films that have been panned and ignored, as well as some they have had great success, are all given their turn in the spotlight and assessed in great detail. I found his essays on Stardust Memories, which I loved, but which was critically skewered by many, as well as the engaging Radio Days, which is particularly moving and entertaining in my estimation, to be right on the money. These were both neglected in different ways when released initially, but are now finding favor with viewers who see them for what they are, and not what some people wanted them to be. By the same token, his Oscar-winning Annie Hall, which had a profound effect on me as a youth, is revealed to have many flaws that I simply ignored or failed to understand during my first viewing.
I don't think anyone is going to find themselves nodding in agreement with every point that is made, but that's really part of the pleasure in reading something of this nature. And, since Sheremet has backed up his points of view with credible discernment, there's an authenticity present that you may not find in some of the other tomes that have glossed over, or simply excluded different aspects of Allen's films. Allen himself, like a lot of creative people, is hyper-critical about his own sense of worthiness. He still feels he hasn't done his best work yet. But, you have to really appreciate the inner drive that makes someone produce, basically, a film nearly every year from 1965 to the present. Contrast that to someone as critically lauded as Orson Welles, who was often his own worst enemy, starting a myriad of projects that remain to this day incomplete and unfinished (or butchered by studio interference).
Another thing to consider is Allen himself. Too often we judge a piece of art, in whatever medium it is undertaken, by the character of the person presenting it. I don't understand that way of thinking, and I probably never will. Sheremet himself, in a wonderfully informative interview over the phone, pointed out how the artist Caravaggio is thought of, and rightfully so, as a brilliant painter. Yet, he was also a murderer, a point that is rarely addressed. Should we, therefore, dismiss his brilliance? There are countless performers and artists of all kinds who have had their transgressions become fodder for the tabloids and media, yet some continue to flourish in their given profession, while others are admonished and dismissed. Shouldn't the work stand on its own, without the baggage that the person who creates it brings to it? I think so, but that's just my take, and others will continue to be judgmental, irrespective of whatever "truths" are lying around waiting to be exposed or espoused. That's their loss. They often deprive themselves of greatness because they cannot get past their own moral code, and the fact that they feel the need to impose it upon others.
Sheremet also takes the time to look at Allen's work as an actor, and that's also refreshing. Audiences and critics often see his performances as merely extensions of his own persona. That's why the profession is called "acting". Sure, he may possess some of the same qualities that you see, but they are not necessarily representative of the man himself. Allen is also frequently accused of placing a cypher in his films that represents him. There's some truth to that idea in a great number of his movies but, once again, we're mixing art with a reality that is actually further removed than we imagine it to be. And, sometimes these cyphers are miscast to the point where the film suffers, but often they're just misunderstood. There is a distinct difference, but one critics often fail to differentiate.
Perhaps one of the most important sections of the book is a look at six different critics who have their own individual styles and takes on Allen's work. Some are uneven in their assessments, some seem to have missed the point, and some seem more interested in themselves than in giving a true critical examination of a film. I'm particularly proud of the way Sheremet handles the once lauded and revered critic Pauline Kael. There was a time when her words could make or break a film. But, any critic who has taken a vow to watch a movie once, and only once, is truly misguided. Initial viewings can often be tainted by many aspects, including what's occurring in the lives of the critics themselves. Limiting your review in that manner is deplorable. I am often restricted, unless I want to actually pay to see a play again, by the fact that the venue wants to make money so they can continue to mount productions, and by my own lack of funds that would allow me to do so. But, theatrical production's runs are live and limited, while movies can now be viewed over and over, either on DVD, blu-ray discs, cable, or streaming video (and yes, I'm aware that some theatrical productions do crop up on video, legally and otherwise). So, they lend themselves to repeated exposure, and that allows a viewer to see nuances and subtleties that might otherwise be missed or neglected. It can also lead to reassessments that can drastically change their initial opinions.
In addition to an addendum, Sheremet also provides Woody's own take on his work, and he honestly feels he hasn't contributed to cinema in a meaningful manner. I don't personally believe that for a moment. But, it's an important point that bears closer inspection. His perspective is integral in understanding his creative output, as well as the choices he has made artistically, whether dramatic or comedic, in their content. But it is not so important that it should influence how you feel when you watch his work. He may view his career choice as merely a job. Yet, there is implicitly a drive within him to create something that will stand the test of time. Sure, he approaches filmmaking differently than someone like Martin Scorsese, who brings an intensity to the experience that some would consider wildly over the top. They both share a passion, that much is readily apparent, but they just go about their business in a different manner. Both are valid. Both are very much unique and worthy.
Woody Allen has finally been given the full-blown treatment of his career that he deserves by Alex Sheremet. This ebook is undeniable proof. What makes it particularly special is that it will continue to grow (although with my physical copy, I'd have to wait for, and purchase, actual printed revisions in order to keep up with the continuing dialogue that the ebook is intended to establish, so I really need to upgrade my own technology). I highly recommend Sheremet's work. My copy is simply a review copy, so what you purchase will be the ebook that provides the full effect of an actual digi-dialogue. The really cool thing is that you can contact the author at http://alexsheremet.com, leave your own comments and opinions at http://www.wooodallenreel2real.com, purchase the ebook on various websites like Amazon, or go direct to the source at http://www.take2publishing-sales.com/woody-allen-reel-to-real. This is the direction that writing and reading is headed. It's really still in its infancy, but as we have witnessed with computers and cell phones; the technological advances will allow for more and more information to be exchanged in, what can be, more meaningful and interactive ways to enjoy their content.
Thanks Alex (and Ascot Media Group), not only for allowing me to review this fine book, but for also taking the time to talk with me about its inception and intentions. I'll never look at Woody Allen's work the same way again. And, that is something well worth the purchasing price of this literary and extremely literate masterpiece!
Cover illustration by Eun Lee