revisiting your work

Interesting interview with Woody Allen here.

The quote that stood out for me is:

I never see a frame of anything I’ve done after I’ve done it. I don’t even remember what’s in the films. And if I’m on the treadmill and I’m surfing the channels and suddenly Manhattan or some other picture comes on, I go right past it. If I saw Manhattan again, I would only see the worst. I would say: “Oh, God, this is so embarrassing. I could have done this. I should have done that.” So I spare myself.

Whenever I’ve read that from an actor/writer/director I’ve found it hard to believe, after all how can you improve your work if you don’t take a look at what you did to see how you could eliminate the faults for next time? Obviously that’s not been a great problem for Woody (although I’d say he still has yet to make a better film than Manhattan), so my theory must be bullshit, mustn’t it?

Well, if we think about Woody’s assertion a little longer it’s somewhat disingenuous. He’s obviously seen the finished version of Manhattan, or something very close to it, dozens of times. During the editing process alone he must have spend months watching it come together, and when that was over he must have seen it so many more times in the rest of the post-production process and in screenings to studio execs etc. So he might not continue to watch it years afterwards but he’s had the opportunity to analyse his work in great detail.

I suspect that his reluctance to return to his earlier work has more to do with its context. He made Manhattan about 35 years ago, so he was a different person making a different work for a different time and a different audience. In many ways the benefits of revisiting the work of 1979 would be counter-productive and possibly damaging. Some of us like to look at our old school photos because it brings back memories of a happy time; others find it a torture to be reminded of the crappy haircuts and sophomoric attempts at sophistication.

From my point of view I occasionally take a copy of Instinct down from the shelf and have a flick through. That’s mainly because I still get pleasure from acknowledging that I actually wrote a proper novel, and that Penguin decided printing a phrase like ‘the world’s most pointless erection’ was a good idea. But I don’t think I learn much from the experience, after all I’ve moved on a bit from the person who wrote that in 2009, and I certainly don’t get anything out of re-reading a plot that I spent 40-50 drafts improving.

So I can see where Woody’s coming from, but what about advertising? For a shortish period of time you might have little choice about experiencing your work as it graces the real world. I suppose you can turn away from poster sites and switch off the TV, but the chances of seeing your ad work by accident years later are pretty slim. Also, saying that you can’t bear to look at your ads after they’re finished is a bit daft: you need to see them in their natural media environment to judge them properly. Watching a DPS coming together on a Mac screen is miles away from turning a page in a newspaper to see how your work stands out and learning how impactful and tempting to read it might be.

Besides, unlike Manhattan, it’ll almost certainly be forgotten a few seconds later.