Books In Brief // Biography

December 02, 2007|By Los Angeles Times

CONVERSATIONS WITH WOODY ALLEN

Eric Lax

Knopf / 416 pages / $30

Compiled over 36 years of interviews, conversations and experiences one could only glean from gaining Allen's confidence and respect, Conversations is essential reading for aspiring filmmakers and those who wish to eventually put finger to keyboard in hopes of telling a story, but it is no less intriguing for simple cinephiles. Broken into eight sections - "The Idea," "Writing It," "Casting, Actors and Acting," "Shooting, Sets, Locations," "Directing," "Editing," "Scoring" and "The Career" - Conversations details not only the creative process but also the psychic burden of the divide between comedy and drama. "There's no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff. There's also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff. It has less of an impact, and I think for a good reason," Allen told Lax in 1972, during the filming of Sleeper. "When comedy approaches a problem, it kids it but it doesn't resolve it. Drama works through it in a more emotionally fulfilling way. I don't want to sound brutal, but there's something immature, something second-rate in terms of satisfaction when comedy is compared to drama."

BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC'S LIFE

Steve Martin / Scribner / 210 pages / $25

There is a YouTube video, shot at a Lincoln Center tribute to Diane Keaton this year, in which Steve Martin comes onstage with his banjo and plays a sweet, twangy melody called Father's Pride. The music is winsome and his execution heartfelt. After a few seconds, a rumble of laughter rolls up from the crowd. Then it dies. The audience can't seem to resolve the humorous visual cue of the banjo-wielding Martin with the sincerity of his song. Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, will similarly confuse those who come to it looking for laughs. It is a mostly unfunny yet oddly stirring book about the comedian's early life, beginning with his boyhood before moving through his 20s and on up to 1982, when he hung up his balloon hat and quit doing stand-up for good. Since then, Martin has done much to make us laugh, but he has also pursued other, loftier passions: essay writing, art collecting and a certain amount of armchair philosophizing. In all these years he claims never to have looked back at his beginnings, until now. Martin was, and remains, an entertainment anomaly. Finding inspiration in the poetry of e.e. cummings and the topsy-turvy logic of Lewis Carroll, he created a humor hybrid that centered on contradiction and the juxtaposition of disparate ideas. "What if there were no punch lines?" he was wondering by the 1970s. "What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What would the audience do with all that tension?" This led him to create, in the words of Richard Zoglin, "a more sophisticated kind of metacomedy, a comedy act in ironic quotation marks."

A LIFE OF PICASSO: THE TRIUMPHANT YEARS, 1917-1932

John Richardson

Knopf / 608 pages / $40

In the fall of 1917, Pablo Picasso attended a bullfight with Ernest Ansermet and unwittingly gave the Swiss conductor a tutorial on one of the central issues in modern art: How do you represent a thing? Picasso had brought a sketchbook to the corrida and proceeded to fill it with drawing after drawing of the bull as it was being jabbed by picadors. "[H]e skipped back and forth between cubist and more traditional methods of representation," John Richardson writes in the latest installment of his four-volume biography. Ansermet, baffled and fascinated, recalled Picasso explaining to him, as an art teacher might to a student, "But can't you see? It's the same thing! It's the same bull seen in a different way." Between 1880 and 1970, the world of modern art, which Picasso created and then exploded through his ceaseless innovation, went through a series of revolutions over just this question - how best to see - until virtually all that remained were garage-door-sized blocks of color in Ad Reinhardt's paintings. Picasso thrust his work to the center of nearly all these battles, borrowing from one camp, stealing from another, all the while keeping close and greedy watch over his own artistic flame. He did this with a virile physical restlessness. Almost no medium was beyond his reach - sculpture, painting, ceramics, set design - and he earned the envy of his contemporaries for this virtuosity. To read Richardson's third volume of A Life of Picasso, then, is to understand why a man with such abilities would find himself at the swirling center of malice and flattery, money and attention - in other words, fame. The third, penultimate installment in Richardson's powerhouse of a biography spans a dauntingly complicated time in Picasso's life and in European history.

Source: Los Angeles Times, Booklist

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