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The Films of Woody Allen by Robert Benayoun; translated by Alexander Walker (Harmony: $25; 176 pp., illustrated)

October 12, 1986|Charles Champlin

It has been a kind of scandalous historical joke that French critics, spurred on by the late Andre Bazin, should have led the way in recognizing the achievements of American film makers from D. W. Griffith to Jerry Lewis and, now, Woody Allen.

Although the great French film makers of the New Wave, Old Wave and Newer Wave have had thoughtful and respectful American students, the exchange of critical insights remains lopsided in favor of the French observers.

The auteur theorists initially overstated their case, lending to some of the directors of the Hollywood golden age a creative sovereignty that ignored, or was unaware of, the contributions of the writers most particularly but also of the staff producers and the studio structure generally.

In one of the conversations with the French critic Robert Benayoun reproduced in "The Films of Woody Allen," Allen, speaking of the Academy of the Overrated from the dialogue in "Love and Death," says, "On my list I would put many venerated American film makers that Europeans adore. I like many of our alleged great ones, but they're clearly overrated. They're nothing like Renoir or De Sica for example. They had great talent, did very entertaining films, but they are not thinkers."

The reverential regard for Jerry Lewis among French critics has baffled many American film buffs, but the sheer physicality of his comedy can be seen through European eyes as extending the tradition of Keaton, Chaplin and the other silent clowns. It may also be--or have been--that his child-like buffooneries struck the Parisians as somehow characteristically American, although Lewis has in later career attempted more serious themes.

The appeal of Woody Allen for Europeans is far easier to comprehend. His swift progress from a coughing comic photographed doing one-liners to a film maker in assured command of every phase of the medium continues to be the most exciting growth chart in American movies. He seems no less prototypically American than Lewis, but his sensibility is European, or perhaps universal, in his concern with the anxieties and emotional dislocations of modern life.

Benayoun, whose forte is the study of American comedy, begins in this appreciative study by separating the public character Allen has created for himself--the myopic born loser, the "harassed sparrow" as one admirer called him--from the private, creative Allen, who is tough-minded, good at sports and card tricks, plays primitive but admirable self-taught clarinet, collects art, reads voraciously, is a genius with words and, not incidentally, an able administrator.

"His choice of language--precise, compact, comprising many aphorisms--needs twice as many words in French as in English," Benayoun writes. "It is the same with Coleridge, Edward Lear or Cole Porter."

Benayoun's text is strewn with such favoring comparisons. Having fancifully suggested that Allen's films, on cassette, should be released in a uniform edition like the Pleiade series of French literary classics, Benayoun says, "I hardly need add that 'Manhattan' and 'Annie Hall' stand 're-reading' better than Paul Claudel, and have more point."

Allen achieves, "in a way accessible to popular audiences, the mastery of the great aphoristic authors, Forneret, Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld revised by Ducasse, while at the same time becoming part of the feverish imagination of a Benjamin Peret or a Tex Avery." Benayoun finds "Love and Death" a cross between Nietzsche and "Tristram Shandy."

The intellectual and international ambitions behind "Interiors" suggest to Benayoun that Woody Allen "is staging Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' as it might have been reworked by Strindberg or O'Neill, engraved by Munch, painted by Nolde and imbued with music (for the inward ear) by Mahler." Perceiving that the innocent reader might find all this attribution a bit on the pretentious side, Benayoun adds, "This flood of references isn't gratuitous; I hope to justify them in due course." And he pretty well does.

Seldom has a book in the coffee-table mode, profusely and aptly illustrated, offered such succinct but provocative text, with a sort of Gallic flair for extravagant declamation. The extravagance is amusing, but it also invites a fresh and admiring look at a man who has come a very long way from the nightclub comic talking about the moose on the fender, to the humanist observer of "Hannah and Her Sisters." ("Hannah" is too recent for inclusion in the text, a pity because Benayoun's sermons on the Allen texts are acute.)

Benayoun pays close attention to the growing sureness of Allen's visuals. The book reproduces Monet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" alongside a still of the picnic scene in "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," and the linkage in both shape and feeling is obvious.

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