April 6, 2011

#35: Annie Hall

I first saw Woody Allen's classic comedy Annie Hall in college, and here's what that great mind had to say back then:

"Annie Hall... I somehow dreaded [it] because my only experience with Woody Allen was Hollywood Ending which was pretty close to bad. But this was cute. I fell asleep at parts, but overall it's really sweet and interesting and funny. I'm not sure I'm a fan of his comedy style necessarily but this is one to watch, if nothing else because Diane Keaton was a hottie back in the day."

Okay, so many things wrong here, Max.
1) Don't base your entire opinion of a director on one film.
2) Why why why did I watch Hollywood Ending before I saw ANYTHING ELSE Woody Allen has ever done?
3) You fell asleep. How dare you.
4) Diane Keaton, while she may be many things, is not quite a "hottie." Sweet, wonderful, cute, brilliant in this film: all yes. Hot: eh. Maybe not.

Let's rethink this evaluation, shall we?

Company: Stephanie, protector of ancient artifacts, Paul Simon / Sigourney Weaver enthusiast, omelette auteur

Cuisine: tomato and bean salsa omelettes with bacon and wheat toast (how did I not photograph this?) and coffee

"The universe is expanding and someday it will break apart..."

Right from the start of his film-opening monologue, it's clear that Alvy Singer (Oscar-winning director and nominated actor Woody Allen) has a rather nihilistic worldview. Okay, nix the rather. For a stand-up comedian he's nearly relentlessly macabre, constantly worried about death and all but incapable of relaxation or happiness. This was the Woody Allen the world knew well by this point, an actor and playwright of stage and screen formless comedies in the spirit of the Marx Brothers, with thin plots to link a barrage of comic gags. But Annie Hall marked a departure for him: while it's still very much a comedy, the film functions as a partial autobiography (although Allen apparently denies this), and a very heartfelt one at that.

Simply put, Alvy meets, woos and falls head over heels for the title character (played with ditsy abandon by Oscar winner Diane Keaton). The film follows their relationship through to its conclusion, which wouldn't be such a feat in itself except that Allen finds a fantastically exciting series of modes of commentary. Most of the scenes are just Allen and Keaton talking: in bed before sex, in bed after sex, getting coffee, making up dialogue for strangers while sitting on a park bench, or famously, as above, while standing in line at the movie theater, listening to some bombastic asshole behind them blow smoke up his own ass about Fellini and Marshall McLuhan. Finally, when he's had enough, Alvy steps forward and addresses us directly, and the stranger behind them comes up to defend himself when, from nowhere, Alvy produces a living, breathing Marshall McLuhan (whose name I actually recognize from books I had to read in my media studies concentration) who shoots down the stranger's delusions of understanding. "Boy, if life were only like this!"

At various other times, Alvy and Annie look back at the past, sometimes literally. As seen above, they both have a clear view of one-year-earlier Annie and her actor boyfriend, also blowing smoke where the sun doesn't shine. It's the literal visual version of 20-20 hindsight. To quote Alvy, boy, if life were only like this, we would always have the last laugh, putting irritating people in their place and understanding in full detail the problems of our past.

I wonder to whom Allen owes this brand of comedy he so clearly claims as his own in this and later films. From what I read, it sounds like he loves and references Fellini and Bergman, two directors whose filmography is unfortunately mostly foreign to me (no pun intended). But this relentlessly self-deprecating brand of neuroses is what drives us crazy as an audience ... and ensures our attention until the end.

Diane Keaton is at the top of her game here, a perfect match for Allen and a great foil to his neuroses. I wouldn't say that Annie is a female version of Alvy; that would be selling her performance short. They work together so well because and in spite of their similarities. Two such similar people would probably, under normal circumstances, drive each other nuts, but these two actors have crafted such wildly disparate characters, two totally hopeless dopes who somehow just click, without either being able to explain why. Her babbling rants are a pleasure to watch as she jumps from thought to thought with such grace and ease, never letting us see the actor's work. It's a great comedic performance, and one of the only comedic leading ladies in recent cinematic history to be so lauded.

It makes me wonder: is this brand of neuroses necessarily American? Or is it, as Alvy might say, Jewish? That this all takes place in Brooklyn, a densely Jewish part of New York, is very telling. There's something in this rapid-fire, Sid Caesar-style babble of young-ish lovers spouting their own version of their respective therapists' psychoanalysis to each other that's simultaneously endearing and off-putting, and I expect that's Allen's intent.

But a part of why Annie Hall works so well is that old Roger Ebert saying: the more specific a movie is, the more universal its message (I'm paraphrasing). Here, we can see our own instincts, fears and desires in these two lovers because they're not so far from us, even if we don't have therapists to tell that to. In spite of these two dopes being pretty far from what we'd call a leading lad and lady, they worm their way into our hearts as quickly as in any classic romance.

Equally balanced with the whimsy is that sense of serendipitous nostalgia that every good romance has. How can you see the shot above, with a sunset kiss at the Brooklyn Bridge, and not be moved? It's a master stroke to balance this comedy this way, and I can't say I entirely understand how Allen does it, but he does.

(Okay, I just had to include a shot from this great sequence, if nothing else because of the coincidence of what comes next on my list. Brava.)

"I'm paying for her analysis and I'm getting screwed."

Therapy for these characters is not over. Not like we're surprised. In fact, the events of the movie probably lead to more analysis for both of them, not less. But maybe the moral here is ... don't overthink it. Sometimes a relationship just works the way the best kinds of movies do: seemingly without much effort. (Huh. That's hitting home for me right now as I type this.) Spend too much time on the couch and maybe you're bound to end up like poor Alvy, manifesting neuroses for yourself without meaning to by talking out your problems with someone unrelated to them.

Eh. Suffering's funny. Welcome to most of Woody Allen's career. "You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it's so difficult in life?" he lovingly "pontificates" near the film's sweet finale. That might be his mantra summed up in a question. Hmm. He's another director I should probably retrospect on this blog at some point, eh? Probably couldn't hurt.

PS: I've seen more of his films now than when I first saw this. In addition to Hollywood Ending I've seen Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Pretty bad for a supposed film buff. Work on it.

Next up: the other animated film on the list, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry, I deleted the first comment. There was a typo. I own tons of Woody Allen movies. If you're ever in the mood for a Woody Allen marathon LET ME KNOW! We could do it by decade, style, muse, etc...

  3. PAUL. I love that you are game, so let's actually fa'real make this happen.

  4. Okay. Let's find a date after your show opens and when I don't have rehearsal. Maybe a Sunday could work.