When I visited the Woody Allen papers before winter break, the allegations against Mr. Allen of sexual abuse had not yet resurfaced. Those accusations, presented by his daughter Dylan Farrow in the New York Times on February 1, have reignited an age-old debate about the relationship between an artist’s personal life and the content of his artwork. It was not in this context, however, that I decided to explore the works, but in light of Mr. Allen’s October speaking engagement at Princeton and the donation of his writings to the university. It seems now that some observations from that afternoon might remind, at the very least, of the inimitable talent of the public Woody Allen, even if they provide no defense of his private self.
My first exposure to Woody Allen came at age seven, when my family spent consecutive Saturday nights with the Manhattan series: Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and her Sisters. Since then, I have seen numerous other films, perused scripts and essays, and watched countless early stand-up routines. And, even before the sexual abuse allegations, I had known that Mr. Allen’s personal life was, to say the least, unusual. So I had a clear-cut and wildly unattainable goal for this visit—to resolve the perennial enigma that is Woody Allen. Last fall, I read Eric Lax’s “Woody Allen: A Biography,” in an unsuccessful attempt to distinguish between the man and his image. On the one hand we have comedian and amateur clarinetist Woody Allen, né Allen Stewart Konisberg in 1935 to Nettie and Martin. On the other: Isaac Davis, Alvy Singer, Mickey Sachs, each an alter ego of his creator. Reading Lax’s biography and other film essays obscured, rather than illuminated, the enigma. There, I had hoped that writings about the man would shed light. Here, I hoped that writings by the man could do the same.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the Rare Books section of Firestone Library was the immensity of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. There are forty-eight boxes containing manuscripts, drafts, jokes, and letters housed somewhere within Firestone’s vast underground expanse. The woman at the Rare Books desk told me that I could view a maximum of five boxes at a time, and should therefore choose wisely. The complexity of the Firestone Special Collections website meant that my five were chosen essentially at random. When they finally came, I found drafts for early plays and later, mediocre films, correspondences, various short essays and one-liners, and a curious piece of satire entitled “Toward a Sub-Linear Mode of Film Criticism.”
The first box I opened contained drafts and final copies of three early one-acts: “Sex,” “Death,” and “God.” I had read “God” previously and enjoyed it greatly. The play is a meditation on metatheater: in it, two Greek characters search for the ending to their play, calling upon members of the audience and the writer himself to help them out. The Purple Rose of Cairo draws heavily upon it. I didn’t spend much time on the other two, but it was clear in quick skims of both that they possessed the same comedic charm as “God.” Unfortunately, I garnered little from earlier drafts; I could have reached the same appreciation in Without Feathers, the 1975 collection of jokes and short stories in which these one-acts appeared.
Other excerpts of Without Feathers were in the same box, including a few tasty one-liners: “Thought. Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food. Frequently it must include a beverage.” The joke is presented in three stages: the initial draft sent to The New Yorker magazine, the revisions from The New Yorker, and Mr. Allen’s final edits. A copy of the published magazine is thrown in for good measure. The edits proved fascinating. Nearly a dozen drafts showed careful tinkering of the final line, adding and removing the word frequently, changing the sentence structure from a beverage must be included, and changing the word drink to beverage. Here we see the comedic perfectionist, the neurotic at work, tinkering for maximum effect. Other jokes are less funny, if equally strange. A memorable one prefigures the opening monologue of Annie Hall in humorously invoking Freud: “Short story: A man awakens in the morning and finds himself transformed into his own arch supports. (This idea can work on many levels. Psychologically it is the quintessence of Kruger, Freud’s disciple who discovered sexuality in bacon.)”
The title of the next box was “Correspondences,” whose title conjured images of witticisms exchanged between Allen and other comedians. I awaited that peculiar voyeurism that comes with reading someone’s private letters—I had hoped to find a gateway to the enigmatic mind. Instead, the series contained dozens of legal correspondences, exchanged mostly between young filmmakers requesting permission to use a line of one of Allen’s jokes, or for a shot from one of his movies. Nearly always, the answer was yes, and nearly always, Allen’s secretary responded. Once, the man himself responded directly, to a letter from James V. Ghebo, Chairman on the United Nations Sub-Committee on the Implementation of the United Nations Resolutions on Collaboration with South Africa. Reportedly, Allen had agreed to show one of his films in South Africa, against international resolutions. The response is pithy and earnest: “All such press reports referred by you in your letter April 2 completely erroneous. I have made no such statements at anytime nor has my previous stand against apartheid changed. Woody Allen.”
By far the best part of the collection, though, was the satiric piece “Toward a Sub-Linear Mode of Film Criticism.” Woody Allen was an avid student of film—many of his own are framed as satires of the work of the great directors, among them Fellini and Truffaut and Bergman. The essay exaggerates to mockery the way we talk about movies. Snippets are humorous and revealing:
On Density in Film: “Obviously film is a young art and as such is not truly an art but an art within an art employing the devices of mass communication in a linear, non-modal, anti- or non-diversified, creative otherness which we will call density. If a picture is dense, it has density. This concept was first borrowed from the French and then before it could be returned to them was misplaced by the prop department.”
On Truffaut: “Truffaut, of course, always refers to his films as movies and his movies as films. He also refers to himself as Godard, because Truffaut, he feels, has a pseudo-arty, non-proletarian quality while Godard is much easier to spell.”
On the Role of the Critic: “To alert the public to new dimensions in art and of course, whenever possible, to point out where the fire exits are.”
On Laughter: “Laughter, remaining subconscious in it’s (sic) manifest realm (or as Freud put it, when it comes out of the mouth) often works best after something funny has happened. This is why the death of a friend almost never gets a chuckle but a funny hat does.”
On Fellini: “In an experiment at Western Tennessee Agricultural School, a group of films were criticized by monkeys who were wired to computers so their reactions could be electronically programmed. Most of the monkeys hated what we call ‘art films’ and preferred pictures that revolved around biblical themes. Only one monkey disliked the work of Fellini while four monkeys agreed he was a genius but felt his grosses would be low in rural areas.”
It is difficult to for me to gauge the success or failure of the Woody Allen papers as a collection, in part because I viewed only 10.4% of them—hastily—and because it would be folly to do so. Alas, I gained few new insights into my favorite comedian. Many of the works I viewed I could have viewed at home, in my chair with Without Feathers, or in front of the television, a copy of Annie Hall popped into the DVD player like it has been so many times. Or on my laptop, where many of his stand-up routines are available on YouTube in grainy black and white. Only in the John Foster Dulles Reading Room, however, could I view all of them in one place—the entirety of a man’s working life, all the good stuff and some bad, too, and all the steps along the way. Allen Stewart Konisberg’s personal life may have just reentered the tempestuous court of public opinion, but his papers reveal nothing of that turmoil. They show only the world he fashioned for us to see. And that world sure is a treat.