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Alex Sheremet on his book “Woody Allen: Reel to Real”

Woody“No matter what you do, there will be critics.” – Woody Allen.

In WOODY ALLEN: REEL TO REAL, Sheremet guides readers through the myriad of Allen’s movies, correlating their style to the various stages in Allen’s life, and to real life in general. Sheremet’s critique is detailed and he makes a point of approaching the films cerebrally rather than emotionally, painstakingly revealing to the reader the thinking behind his opinion – something he says some of Allen’s biggest critics have failed to do, thereby misinterpreting Allen’s work. Here, Sheremet shares some of the unique aspects of his book, his views on reviews and the future of book publishing.

Maya Fleischmann (MF): What inspired this project on Woody Allen?

Alex Sheremet (AS): As with many ‘big’ pursuits taken on early in life, I first became interested in the arts for purely egoistic reasons: as a defense mechanism, really, against the world, back when it felt like I had nothing, but could- by pure luck- at least use my mind to beat others back. Obviously, this is not sustainable, as artists (and people, really) generally have two options. They can either grow up, thus transcending their own limits, or simply become irrelevant, and- in time- self-destructive. Luckily, I chose the former, as did Woody Allen. Recall that the director first started reading serious books and watching serious films as a way to get women, but stayed with these pursuits once he realized they were useful, and good, on their own terms, that they had more meaning than what they could do for him.

The same can be said about film, which was no less egoistic for me. I started watching Woody’s films as a teenager, and realized that one of his best-handled topics was relationships: how people get entangled, how they manipulate one another, and above all how they deceive themselves in the process. He was quite good at this, and it was something I really needed then, when I had my own series of bad relationships but few tools to analyze what went wrong. By watching Woody’s characters, whether Alvy in Annie Hall, or Marion in Another Woman, I’d test my behavior against theirs, learn to see the habits, the patterns, and how to sidestep them in the future. Yet, as with Woody, himself, I quickly saw the films’ value in ways that had nothing to do with me. This was necessary to better understand them, to see things not in terms of my uses, but in terms of their meaning to the world outside of me, the world at large.

Soon, however, I realized that many of my interpretations of the films were not at all the interpretations of others- and that, quite often, my interpretations made a lot more sense, for I was able to provide reasons for things that others would merely pass over. I watched many of his best films (Stardust Memories, Interiors, Another Woman) without realizing their poor reputations beforehand, and thus did not carry any critical baggage. Once I started reading the essays of Pauline Kael, however, and more ‘academic’ types like Jonathan Rosenbaum, I saw their inconsistencies, their inability to follow through to the end of their own arguments. This needed to be addressed, both directly, as well as indirectly, merely by talking at length, and in the right way, about the films that so many critics got wrong.

I’d already written on film when, in late 2013, Dan Schneider of Cosmoetica fame turned down a book opportunity from Take2 Publishing but passed my name along as a good candidate for the task. Given how much I’d written, however, the book became much larger in scope, tackling every film Woody had ever written, directed, or otherwise acted in, as well as the related criticism. It was, in short, an opportunity at the right time, for I was a critic and fan that was suddenly given an outlet.

MF: Why do you feel Allen’s films are especially vulnerable to being misinterpreted?

AS: There are two things going on here. First is Woody’s personal life, which gets conflated with the art by people who cannot compartmentalize- who cannot see distinctions between things. So, there are people who flat out refuse to even watch the films, on ethical grounds, and others who, while a bit more mature than this, still read biography into his work past any reasonable point. Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories) is a neurotic filmmaker, for instance, and all of his qualities are now Woody’s, despite Woody- obviously!- in fact being the film’s over-voice, often criticizing Sandy for his flaws, and pointing out things he cannot see. These are all predictable errors that need to be discussed.

Second are more ordinary misreadings of Woody’s films- which aren’t necessarily all the worse than the misreadings of all great art. These include overstating Woody’s influences (such as Bergman and Fellini), as well as ignorance of how artistic influence even works both in the macro and micro sense. Other misreadings involve the specifics of this or that film- such as Manhattan being a mere ‘love-letter to New York’ as opposed to an excoriation of its characters, or being blind to the narrative nuances of a film like Radio Days. I cover much of this in the book, and give the reader a few alternatives to these errors.

On a side note, while I don’t believe the sex abuse allegations, myself, they are still irrelevant either way. Even if the worst of it all was true, it’d have zero impact on my (and hopefully, others’) appreciation of Woody’s films. Knut Hamsun was a Nazi (or at least a Nazi sympathizer). How many people know this now? Caravaggio was an outright murderer- again, much worse than pedophilia, but who ever thinks of this when standing in the Louvre? Rilke was a terrible father and husband, as was Carl Sagan, and Walt Whitman- in one strange twist of events- was possibly accused of pedohilia, too, and violently run out of a Long Island town. This has zero impact on how I (and most people) perceive their art, which is wholly separate from the ‘person’ despite wholly emanating from that source.

MF: Tell me about the DigiDialogues concept and why you chose to go this route. How often you plan to update the book and for how long?

AS: Given the interactive and ever-growing nature of Woody Allen: Reel To Real, the publisher decided to create a DigiDialogue: that the book will be updated perpetually with new essays, interviews, as well as reader feedback and my response to it. If you look at the books on Woody released over the past couple of decades, often by academic imprints, they are now hopelessly out of date- and most stop at a dozen or so films. Yet there’s been a re-evaluation of key films for some time now, and most critics haven’t realized this. Nor is Woody unique in this regard, since these re-evaluations typically occur for most great artists- from Melville to Kafka, to Kubrick, Welles, as well as the gradual obsolescence of those in lesser company.

MF: What are your hopes/plans for Reel to Real?

AS: I hope that it continues to grow, to gain traction, and is seen as a key film text down the road.

MF: You state in WA: RTR that “Criticism does matter precisely because bad criticism exists . . . thus must be dealt with so that future generations can learn from our errors and hopefully correct them.” Do you read reviews of your books? How much does criticism help/hinder your writing?

AS: There is a VERY small number of people whose critical and intellectual views I take seriously, and who, in different ways, keep me on my toes. Whenever I finish a book, I have them read it, give me feedback, and I change whatever I feel is appropriate. That said, if a homeless man can offer an intelligent critique, one that could make a book better, I’d take it over the complimentary burbling of some professor, and vice versa. It’s just that, as a rule, there are few people who know what they’re talking about, few who can be tough with you, firm, positive, negative, but- most of all- reasonable, as well.

So I rarely Google myself, mostly because I just don’t really care. The best thing, the only thing, is to finish a great book or be in the midst of one, because if you take the long view of things, you see that reputations come and go, good and bad art gets attacked alike, good and bad art gets praised, but the only thing that stays is the art itself.

That said, I am not above pointing out errors, malice, or stupidity, either directed at my work or at others’, for such things damage art and the discussions surrounding it. There was a particularly silly, unprofessional review of Reel To Real written by BlueInk earlier this year, and I was shocked that- despite being a ‘service’- basic things were never even checked. The title of my book was wrong, for one, and the content of the review, itself, just lobbed accusations against me: that I was engaging in ad hominem, or did not substantiate my critiques of films, or that of others’ critiques. I asked for specifics: page numbers, arguments, whatever, but none were provided, probably because I spent so much care picking apart others’ words, literally line by line, or specific films, often scene by scene, that it is just not reasonable to say otherwise. Sure, you can disagree with an argument, as well as my conclusions, but 1) an argument exists– which is in fact the opposite of the phrase ‘ad hominem’; 2) a better argument must be offered in its place, if a critic wishes to point it out as somehow being wrong. There is literally no other way to get at the truth- or, rather, closer to the truth.

MF: What one thing do you want your readers to take away from this book?

AS: That it could have been written about any artist, and the book’s essence would have been the same. In short, Woody Allen: Reel To Real is an objective look at an artist’s output: why it works, where it doesn’t, and, by implication, how this thought-process can be applied to other films, other art-forms, and still ring true. In a way, Woody Allen merely happens to be my specimen, here. And although the details might change if it were about, say, Bergman, or Bruegel, the spirit would not.

MF: You have two other books – A Few Streets More To Kensington and Doors And Exits: Some Cues From A Study Of Two Extremes. What are your plans for this book? Are you hoping to publish it traditionally or independently?

AS: Next summer, once Reel To Real climbs more, and I’ve written more essays, I will begin sending around these earlier books to agents, as well as another novel that will have been written by then. I’m not really looking at one form of publication over the other. I am looking for what works.

MF: What do you think of the future of e-books versus traditional (paper) books?

AS: Traditional (paper) books have no future. Kindles and the like might be clunky, primitive, and at times annoying to use, but so were the first computers, or- going further back- Chinese gliders in the Han Dynasty next to American drones today. In a decade, maybe two, e-books will be the norm, and then it’ll be whatever we can download into our brains- or extrapolate from the universe, at the speed of thought. It is shocking at how childish these arguments are, as if we’ve reached some end-model in politics, economics, or interpersonal relationships. There is no end-model, in anything, for as soon as we reach ‘the end,’ the cosmos will have to acclimate to it. Stop assuming the narrows of your vision are the limits of the world at large! It doesn’t need you; it will continue to do its own thing.

MF: What’s your favorite Woody Allen quotation?

AS: This quote, it seems, is probably the thought that all self-consciously great artists carry with them (even as Woody would deny this of himself):

“Sometimes when I look in the mirror I’ll see myself back there and I’ll say, you’re Allan Konigsberg from Brooklyn. Shouldn’t you be eating in the basement?

MF: What question would you want to ask of every reader of your book?

AS: It wouldn’t be a question, but a request. If you read the book, cover to cover, and really think about the ideas within, don’t let these ideas stop at Woody, or even at cinema. The arts have much in common, and it’s about time that people learned to think systematically, even as the best among them will still leave room for exceptions to the system, as well as exceptions to the exceptions. I hope Reel To Real implicitly provides this.

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