| Dir: Woody Allen
“Why do you always reduce my animal urges to psychoanalytic categories…he said as he removed her brazier.”
Annie Hall is many things. It’s as neat as you can get. It won’t go out of fashion at the turn of any century. It’s unbearably wonderful, too wonderful for words. It’s unbelievably transplendent. It’s so much fun to know. It’s the eggs we need in life. It gives great meeting. It’s la-di-damn delightful. It’s something you fall in lurve/loave/luff with. It’s the opposite of a meal at a Catskill Mountain Resort. It’s the Woodman at the height of his powers. It’s what won Allen his first Oscar, beating Star Wars in three categories. It’s quintessential Allen and yet merely a blip in his infinite output. It’s not my favourite Woody Allen film, but it has a wit and warmth to match any other. Above all, it’s truly timeless cinema.
I discussed Allen’s preoccupation with populating his work with autobiographical topics in his first official film, Take the Money and Run. Annie Hall acts as much a turning point in Allen’s career as it does the vehicle for his catharsis. The content of his further 39 films (on this day of writing) would suggest that he didn’t succeed here, despite his best attempts.
Allen is neurotic and self-absorbed comedian Alvie Singer. He has an overbearing mother, values sports over all else, has been in psychoanalysis for 15 years, views existence bleakly, has anti-Semitism paranoia, has problems with authority, struggles with the obligations of fame, enjoys watching Ingmar Bergman films, writes jokes for other comics, has had multiple wives, is snobbish towards awards and slots in a child molestation joke (oy vey). There is even a play within the film about the relationship of the film, which is itself based on Allen’s prior relationship with Diane Keaton. In this moment, Allen-come-Singer justifies his idealised depiction of the relationship because life makes it difficult for you to get things to come out perfect. But as a continually dramatized version of his reality and psyche, how appropriate is it to view and judge them as separated?
Pitched as a nervous romance, Annie Hall charts Alvie’s attempt to sift the pieces of his failed relationship with Annie through his mind. This framing presents an overflow of ideas (the split screen, subtitled inner monologues, the removed body, breaking the fourth wall, cartoon animations) to play with conventional methods of cinematic storytelling and a shuffled timeline out of chronology that Allen hopes would keep audiences “more alive”.
It not only subverted the conventional 1977 romantic comedy, it also ushered in the whole genre after the screwball burst. Its success then, and in the following 39 years, is a testament to how relevant and true to nature it is at exploring the personal intricacies and irrationalities of romance. What area of relationships doesn’t it offer amusing insights into; trying to fix someone in your idealised image, inadequacy, fear of intimacy, paranoia, infidelity, suffocation, fear of moving in together, rushing into love, improving as a person because of your partners influence, comparisons to other couples, avoiding sex, getting bored, jealousy, lust vs love. We’ve all surely made a long winded and light-hearted anecdote about a family member’s death via narcolepsy to try and appear funny in the early stages of courtship, right?
It’s an awkwardly honest film to the point that it makes us all aware that we’re not alone in our insecure romantic manifestations. Keaton in particular is the catalyst for this. Her loveable portrayal of the titular ditz Annie Hall – a woman who has the plague for being wide open on a Friday and a Saturday night – created not only a fashion icon but someone rooted in everyday unspoken anxiety. She’s your infectious best friend, she’s your crush and she’s also the person looking back at you in the mirror. Allen wrote the part for her and how masterful Keaton is here at reactive acting, crafting an affable and genuine aura to this heroine. The orchestrated 3am spider scene for Annie to see Alvie because she misses him still hits me in the heart when she breaks down in tears. You could rewatch the wonderfully naked scene in the tennis club infinite times, still finding equal levels of joy and universality and psychoanalysis from it.
The advancement from Allen’s initial slapstick films to this is startling; the marked jump in sheer quality of the work, the unexpected nature of it and the composed level of execution of the premise. It’s almost as big a shift as this to his next film, the drama Interiors. As we began to see in Sleeper, Allen is now sacrificing comedy for story. We’re treated to vignettes not of jokes but of intimate narrative movements, with character moving away from speaking in pure witticisms to more behavioural dialogue. For the first time you see well rounded characters that aren’t there just to crack a laugh out of you. They and the jokes, still funny as ever, serve to develop the narrative.
Allen’s bravery in forgoing “clowning around and the safety of complete broad comedy” was profitable. For 1977 this is transformational cinema: just as inspired as any of his earlier pictures but (slightly) less scattergram and more sophisticated. It’s honed, wholesome and heartfelt. You wouldn’t have expected that a man who had shown only an aptitude for making funny slapstick jokes and quick witticisms could explore resonant issues on the many complications of life so profoundly, sharply and with such astute awareness. But it is what made Allen one of the world’s most lauded filmmakers and established a viable prototype for the anti-leading man. Do you disagree?
To think he almost released a 140 minute stream-of-consciousness film about Alvie’s mid-life crisis named Anhedonia – described by editor Ralph Rosenblum as a “non-dramatic and ultimately uninteresting kind of cerebral exercise” – instead of this masterful re-cut. How different our world could be today.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Fourth viewing.