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November 17, 2011 - Image 64

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2011-11-17

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arts & entertainment

Woody Allen

Deconstructing Woody

and filmmaker

Robert Weide

(Up To A Point)

Woody Allen documentary holds interest
while skimming the surface.

Michael Fox

Special to the Jewish News


bet that its bemused subject won-
ders, even if PBS doesn't, who'll have
the curiosity and stamina to stick
around for all 31/2 hours of Woody Allen: A
There must be a dozen times in this
two-part entry in the venerable American
Masters series when the Jewish gag writer,
stand-up comic, screenwriter, playwright,
filmmaker, New Yorker humorist and clari-
netist expresses self-deprecation, typically
with a wry smile or a deflecting one-liner.
All of this time on camera, primarily in
the form of recent interviews the staunchly
private artist acceded to, represents a coup
for director Robert Weide.
But let's tell it like it is (to borrow a
phrase from Bananas sportscaster Howard
Cosell): Access, as much as the merits of
Allen's ambitious and impressive body of
work, is the raison d'etre for this epic-length
Unfortunately, the insights gleaned are
largely familiar and superficial.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is reason-
ably interesting and (for baby boomers)
nostalgia inducing, but it fails to examine
the prolific director's importance and influ-
ence in American culture.
Weide applies no critical dimension and
therefore lends no gravitas to the artist's

work, resulting in a program that is per-
fectly watchable and largely forgettable.
Allen tells us very little that we didn't
already know about his childhood, his cre-
ative process and his self-doubts.
The good news is his unvarnished run-
ning commentary — devoid of the mock
humble, self-congratulatory, self-mytholo-
gizing patter of many movie folks — works
to save the film from the endless fawning
of actors (including Louise Lasser, Diane
Keaton, Tony Roberts and Larry David),
critics (EX. Feeney, Leonard Maltin and
Richard Schickel) and various other talking
heads (Dick Cavett, Chris Rock).
Weide is best known for producing and
directing HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and
prior portraits of the Marx Brothers, W.C.
Fields and Lenny Bruce. His background
is comedy and television, not movies, and
he's clearly more interested in diverting
his audience than challenging them with a
probing analysis of Allen's work.
So we get a soup-to-nuts chronology of
Allen's career, beginning with plenty of clips
of him on Dick Cavett's, Steve Allen's, Jack
Paar's and Ed Sullivan's TV shows. These
early stand-up bits are quite funny, and we
readily accept that the guy was a comedy
prodigy who got his start in high school
placing one-liners in Walter Winchell's and
Earl Wilson's New York newspaper columns.
Allen quickly got gigs writing for comedi-
ans, radio programs and a TV show starring

Sid Caesar. He then penned the screenplay
for What's New Pussycat? (1965), including a
part for himself, but was appalled by the way
the studio turned his thinking-person's sex
comedy into slapstick farce.
He vowed to direct his own scripts from
then on, and the success of Take the Money
and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971) won
him total control on all his films ever since.
This is ancient and familiar history for
Allen's loyal fans, who will revel in the sunny
sound bites and clips from Sleeper, Love
and Death, Annie Hall and Manhattan. But
ifs unlikely that viewers under 30 will be
inspired to check out the movies, for the
documentary makes no effort to establish
a broader social or historical context for the
Allen and Robert Altman were the U.S.
filmmakers who spoke most directly and
consistently to a new generation of post-
collegiate Americans. But there's no discus-
sion here of the shift in social mores of the
'60s and '70s and why Allen's dialogue-
based Jewish humor (or New York humor,
if you prefer) resonated with moviegoers all
over the country.
Do you think Mel Brooks, a peer and
friendly competitor, might have something

interesting — even if critical — to say
about Allen's style and success? Don't hold
your breath waiting for Brooks to show
up, or Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller or Sarah
Silverman, who wouldn't have careers if
Allen hadn't mainstreamed Jewish identity.
Mainstreamed and sexualized it, I might
add, for sex was as central to Allen's appeal
and worldview as literature, mortality and
morality. None of which, incidentally, are
addressed in any depth.
If you do watch the entire 31/2 hours,
you'll at least be rewarded near the end
with the most provocative comment of the
entire documentary.
"I don't have the concentration, or the
dedication, that you need to be a great art-
ist," Allen says with utter seriousness.
The sheer number of films — and many
exceptional ones — that he's made belies his
frank self-assessment. Too bad Woody Allen:
A Documentary doesn't grapple more with
the question of its subject's greatness.

Bride is no longer assumed to be Jewish,
nor necessarily a bride. By current scholarly
consensus, there is exactly one identifiable
Jew in Rembrandt's art, the Sephardic doc-
tor Ephraim Bueno. Two other Rembrandt
paintings, both young men in skullcaps, are
also thought to be Jews. One hangs in the
Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and
the other in the Staatliche in Berlin.
The distinctive features of these men —
broad face, heavy eyelids, round lips — sup-
port his case, DeWitt argues, because they
resemble images of Jesus that Rembrandt
began making in the late 1640s, among them
the studies at the heart of this show.
In the show's catalog, various scholars
note that these works came at a point in
Rembrandt's career when he was moving
from the highly dramatic, divinely inspired
images of Jesus that were the norm in
Western painting to a more introspective
figure that inspired meditation and rever-
ence, a quality that characterized master-
works like The Hundred Guilder Print
and The Supper at Emmaus.
The latter work includes another direct

allusion to Christ's Jewish heritage, write art
historians Larry Silver and Shelley Perlove
in that catalog: The bread he breaks with
the disciples is a braided challah.
Yet most of the catalog's contributors are
more circumspect than DeWitt in assert-
ing that this serene, inward-looking Jesus
is modeled on an actual Jew. Silver, for one,
believes the jury is still out on whether
Rembrandt needed to have a Jewish model
in front of him to make a Jewish-looking
"Rembrandt's faces look so lifelike
you're immediately impelled to say that's a
portrait:' he said in a phone interview. "If
someone asked you to paint a picture of
any fantasy figure, you could probably draw
Snow White. You can have an image in your
head without having an actual model."
In any case, Rembrandt's Jewish Jesus, if
that's who he was, was in a sense ahead of
his time — the Semitic Jesus didn't catch
on right away, or much at all. Centuries
later, however, he reappeared in the work
of some of the first prominent Jewish art-
ists to step onto the international stage,

figures such as Maurycy Gottlieb and Max
In the new book Jewish Art: A Modern
History (Reaktion Books], Silver and co-
author Samantha Baskind chronicle how
these artists, along with other Jews assimi-
lating into the mainstream art world in the
late 19th century, emulated the Rembrandt
they perceived as a Jewish role model.
Ephraim Moses Lilien drew from his
Old Testament scenes; Hermann Struck
painted heads of old Jews who resemble
Rembrandt's prophets; and the scruffy fig-
ures in the paintings of Jozef Israels seem
lifted, like Rembrandt's, from the Jewish
quarter of Amsterdam.
These descendants of the "Jewish"
Rembrandt hardly help us determine just
what about him was crypto-Jewish, of
course. But they do confirm that modern
Jewish art is crypto-Rembrandt.

Woody Allen: A Documentary airs 9-11
p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, and 9-10:30
p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, on Detroit
Public Television-Channel. 56.

Semitic from page 53

Some of these efforts highlight
Rembrandt's special relationship with the
Jews in newly tolerant, newly multicultural
Amsterdam, a haven for refugees from the
Inquisition and Eastern European pogroms
alike. Others — most famously "The
`Jewish' Rembrandt," a contrarian show at
Amsterdam's Jewish Historical Museum
— contend that there's no evidence of a
special relationship whatsoever between
Rembrandt and the Jews, and that the long-
time image of the mentshlich Old Master is
just a romantic myth.
Today, most art historians do agree on
some things: that Rembrandt was not a
secret Jew, not especially philo-Semitic and
not particularly a mentsh. Instead, we know
it was his reputation for having those quali-
ties that led generations of curators to mis-
label certain types of paintings (especially
of soulful, bearded men) as his portraits of
Jews (especially rabbis).


By now, most of Rembrandt's "Jewish" oeu-
vre has been de-Judaized. Even The Jewish


November 17 0 2011

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of

ARTnews. She blogs at letmypeopleshow.com .

This was reprinted from Tabletmag.com , a new

read on Jewish life.

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