His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking.
By Eric Lax.
Illustrated. 390 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.
By Woody Allen.
160 pp. Random House. $21.95.
THE INSANITY DEFENSE
The Complete Prose.
By Woody Allen.
342 pp. Random House. Paper, $15.95.
Would it be churlish, though, to suggest that Allen is being a tad disingenuous? For if he really were indifferent to his legacy, then why would he sanction the publication of a hefty book called “Conversations With Woody Allen,” and why would he have sat for hours and hours of new interviews with Eric Lax, the man who wrote a quasi-authorized biography of him 16 years ago?
This is a legacy-burnishing project, plain and simple. Allen is a big Orson Welles fan — he tells Lax he considers “Citizen Kane” the greatest American film ever made — and “Conversations With Woody Allen” is essentially the Woodman’s chance to do his version of “This Is Orson Welles,” a magnificent book (published in 1992) that collected years of talk between the orotund “Kane” auteur and his interlocutor-protégé, Peter Bogdanovich. Lax is well positioned to play the Bogdanovich role: he first met Allen in 1971, when he interviewed the then fledgling director for an abortive New York Times Magazine profile, and has since spent a significant chunk of his adulthood in Allen’s company, sometimes on set, sometimes in the intimacy of his subject’s screening room or apartment.
“Conversations” reveals, happily, an Allen who’s game to range freely over his oeuvre. We learn that his favorites of his own films are “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Match Point” and “Husbands and Wives” (the last one a bit of a surprise), with “Stardust Memories” and “Zelig” ranking a notch below. Sometimes Allen’s assessments are bracingly contrarian. He expresses bafflement over the high regard in which “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” continue to be held (“People really latched on to ‘Manhattan’ in a way that I thought was irrational,” he says) and makes a strong case for “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” his underappreciated 1993 reunion picture with Diane Keaton. In other moments, no less fascinating, he borders on the delusional. He can’t fathom, for example, how “Hollywood Ending,” a patchy, forgettable effort from 2002, “was not thought of as a first-rate, extraordinary comedy.”