Like a lot of people, I’ve probably seen Annie Hall more often than Woody Allen’s other films. I can’t remember when I first saw it, but I know I’ve seen it in a revival cinema, on a plane, on VHS and several times on DVD. I enjoy it every time, but it was interesting to watch it this week after recently watching Woody’s eight previous films, since it became so clear why this film was such a radical departure for the filmmaker.
The first films Woody Allen wrote had plenty of jokes, and later even had plots and characters. However this was the first of his films to be set in a world resembling our own. Finally, Woody Allen fans weren’t being entertained by what he thinks about the future, or South America or Russian literature. This was Woody’s view of what it was like to live and love now, in New York in 1977.
The film is a love story told in flashback and flashforward between a neurotic comedian, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), and a budding singer-photographer, Annie Hall (Dianne Keaton). Alvy says in his opening monologue that he has been trying to piece together where the screwup came in their relationship, which is exactly what we see in non-linear form: those pieces of their time together through their meeting, Alvy’s cultural education of Annie and the couple’s final breakup when she outgrows him.
Though the female protagonist gets the film’s title, Annie Hall is really the story of Alvy, and his self-destructive attitude to not only relationships, but to life and work. We see much more of his life (even his childhood), his friends and his work. And we hear his personal philosophy: I would never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member. Perhaps it was here, with Woody Allen addressing the camera so much and by playing someone so close to himself, that the confusion began between the writer and his characters.
Annie Hall won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is routinely listed in top film lists and has had volumes written about it. I can only add what appeals to me about this film. Probably more than anything else, I respond to its audacious quality, especially in its structure. Besides flashbacks and flashforwards, there are changing points-of-view, characters narrating memories and placing themselves within those memories, repeated breaking of the fourth wall and even an animated sequence. It sounds as complex as Last Year At Marianbad, but the whole thing is carried off so briskly and with so much humour that it becomes as entertaining and exhilarating as Goodfellas or Being John Malkovich. A perfect example is the famous Marshall McLuhan scene :
That creative inventiveness is what strikes me about Annie Hall each time I watch it. What stays with me, however, is something much smaller: the specificity in the writing. When young Alvie tells his mother that the universe is expanding, she replies, ‘What is that your business?!’ I love the syntax of that line. Annie Hall is where Woody Allen’s starts writing is now suddenly very sharp, allowing him to sell a character or even an idea in just one or two lines. Jeff Goldbum’s four-word part is enough to satirise all of Los Angeles:
There is so much that’s wonderful and memorable about this film that I could go on and on. In the context of this blog, Woody Allen’s artistic journey, this is an undisputed turning point. The writing, the editing (which by all accounts is responsible for the revolutionary structure, not the screenplay), the performances, the costumes and especially the cinematography (by Gordon Willis) are all a marked improvement on Woody’s previous films. There are themes we have seen before, such as exploring the fuzzy line between fantasy and reality, and there is the introduction of the New York intellectual class which will appear in many more films.
Woody Allen himself emerges as much more intellectual and more sophisticated than his previous films might have suggested; referencing Grouch Marx and Freud in one breath. He also emerges as a more romantic figure, because besides what impressive filmmaking it is, what makes Annie Hall so endlessly watchable for so many is its love story. Even though it is more bittersweet than triumphant, and even though it is set in a very particular time and place, there is something universal about this film that has made it such a favourite.
Next week: Interiors