Woody Allen has made a lot of movies. I know this because I recently tried to watch them all in three days, over the Memorial Day weekend. It was impossible. To watch all 44 of Allen’s feature films back to back (and these are only the ones he wrote, directed or both), would take more than 70 consecutive hours, leaving no time for little things, like sleep. Toss in the short films, TV appearances, acting roles and documentaries, and you’re looking at almost a straight week in front of the TV. Clearly, Allen is a man who likes to work.
Since the early 1970s Allen has churned out movies at a pace of roughly one per year. It’s a tremendous feat, though you have to wonder whether it’s the best approach to filmmaking. Despite producing some classic pictures, he’s also made a lot of duds. This year’s offering, “To Rome With Love,” is one of those — a real mess. Unlike most of his features, even those in the not-so-amazing category, it lacks any clear premise. Instead, it takes four stories and tosses them together without an apparent plan. If you look hard enough, you might be able to discern one, but it’s really not worth the effort.
That’s a shame, especially since last year’s “Midnight in Paris” showed that Allen can still make movies worth watching. But you can’t take his films on a case-by-case basis, regardless of whether the latest is a hit or a flop. The essence of Woody Allen lies in the whole. To get what he’s about, you have to watch all his films — if not necessarily all at once.
It’s not the case, for example, that if Allen made fewer films, more of them would be good. The opposite might be true. Allen’s strategy throughout his career has been to produce so many movies that hitting the target becomes inevitable, once in a while. He has said so himself. “I’ve been working on the quantity theory,” he told Robert Weide in the 2011 HBO portrait “Woody Allen: A Documentary.” “I feel that if I keep making films and keep making them, every so often one will come out. And that’s exactly what happens.”
The bulk approach does more than give Allen a reasonable chance of producing a few winners — it also informs, influences and shapes each film. To begin with, anyone who creates so much is bound to reuse ideas. A buzz went around the Internet a few months ago when a clip surfaced of Allen doing standup material that prefigured “Midnight in Paris.” In fact, the material also came from a piece called “A Twenties Memory” that he had written in the 1960s for the Chicago Daily News. It was later collected in his 1971 book “Getting Even.” The same is true of many themes, which he has treated in prose and on film, often several times. Entire doctoral theses could be written — and probably have been — about recurring motifs like the seduction of the undesirable man by the unattainable woman, the invasion of reality by fiction and vice versa, and the idea of “passing” as something, or someone, you are not.
This also applies to the conventions of cinema, which Allen twists and turns one way and the next, time and again. Sometimes it’s in homage, as in his many scenes that ape the style of silent movies. In other instances, Allen’s tics are for the sake of convenience, like using narrators in most of his films. Such storytelling shortcuts come in handy when you’re trying to write and shoot a picture in 12 months or less, and to do it again the next year.