Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Annie Hall

Director Woody Allen on the set

Allen on the set with cameraman Gordon Willis

ANNIE HALL           A-                   
USA  (93 mi)  1977  d: Woody Allen

I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and examining my life and trying to figure out where did the screw-up come.
— Alvy Singer (Woody Allen)

For its time, ANNIE HALL was a startlingly original film, bridging the gap between straight comedy and drama, making that great leap forward, becoming a rare critical and commercial success, made on a $4 million dollar budget, the film grossed nearly ten times that amount, winning accolades and awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Diane Keaton winning Best Actress, all confirming Allen’s status as a great artist, ironically happening in the same year as the release of blockbuster hit STAR WARS (1977).  The two films epitomize the Hollywood divide between smaller art films and large-scale commercial moneymakers, one with almost no international appeal while the other does extremely well on the global market.  Often viewed as Allen’s most appealing film, looking back in time, however, the film pales in comparison to the more dramatically accomplished Manhattan (1979), arguably Allen’s greatest artistic triumph, alongside Stardust Memories (1980), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, though my personal favorite for pure unadulterated joy remains the hilariously weird Broadway Danny Rose (1984).  Perhaps it has something to do with how much you can endure Diane Keaton’s klutzy shtick, where this film doesn’t age as well as some of his others, especially Allen’s efforts to shape the entitled character of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in his image (which is soundly rejected), as the film is not really about her, but about Allen’s view of himself, described by Annie as an island unto himself, satirically expressing his inability to relate to Annie or any other woman, except in his imagination.  While this film takes steps towards drama, it remains first and foremost a screwball comedy, listed at #4 in the American Film Institute’s poll of the top 100 American comedies, AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - Wikipedia, mostly taking place in Allen’s mind, providing a distinctive Jewish-American identity, including a brief stand-up comedy act, opening and closing the film with old Borscht Belt jokes, with several asides directly to the audience, having flashbacks to former wives and lovers, including Carol Kane’s infamous quip to Allen after making love, “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience.”  But the centerpiece of the film is an infamous affair with Annie Hall that includes prolonged mayhem, modeled on their own romantic relationship (though at the time of the film’s release Allen and Keaton had been separated for at least four years), turning into a beginner’s guide to a neurotic love affair, each with their own insecurities and obsessions that continually get in the way, eventually growing tired of each other, but she surprises him by cutting off the romance and making a move to Los Angeles, a cardinal sin in Woody world, where he remains an entrenched New Yorker.  At the outset as comic Alvy Singer he reveals he has a hyperactive imagination, claiming to have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, which sets the stage for the film.  Beginning on a street in New York City, with Alvy living in a house under a giant roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, he and his childhood friend Rob (Tony Roberts) reflect back on their lives, with Rob continually referring to him as Max, with Alvy getting to the truth about living in New York City, “Don’t you see?  The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re leftwing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.  I think of us that way, sometimes.  And I live here!”  Brought up in Brooklyn during the postwar era, both are able to magically speak to long dead relatives in memories and ask pertinent questions, taking him through his troubled childhood with a kind of Groucho Marx sensibility, following him through early years of therapy with Alvy depressed at the thought of discovering the universe is constantly expanding, all the while searching for love, blocked by his own fear of commitment, with suggestions that love is what makes life worth living.

Recognized wearing his signature black-rim framed glasses, with his films offering Allen’s zany point of view, the success of this film elevated into mainstream culture what it meant to be a “Woody Allen film,” reaching unprecedented success for over a decade until 1989.  Coming from a long line of romantic comedies, from Shakespeare’s endless squabbling between Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, to the screwball comedies of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton join the list in this bittersweet view of modern love, using memories of a romance after it is over, as Alvy looks back on his life through a series of incidents told in no particular order, yet interestingly conveys at the outset that he has broken up with Annie Hall.  When they initially meet, nervously exploring their awkward thoughts while checking each other out, subtitles are used to indicate what they are really thinking while a typically banal conversation takes place.  When asked about her previous boyfriends, rather than answer, Annie and Alvy stare and watch, along with viewers, as a younger version of Annie is seen with her boyfriends, both offering a running commentary about what they see from a modern day perspective, a device Allen uses again when he returns to his second grade class, contending that in 1942 he had already discovered women, where he’s scolded for kissing a girl in class, but is then seen as an adult sitting at his desk defending himself, speaking directly to the audience, though surrounded by his elementary school classmates.  Allen also resorts to split screen techniques, with both Annie and Alvy seen in therapy sessions complaining about a lack of progress in their relationship, with Alvy complaining they hardly ever have sex, only three times a week, while Annie says they have sex constantly, maybe three times a week.  This device is used again when they visit Annie’s Protestant family in Wisconsin, shown side by side with Alvy’s Jewish family, hilariously showing the stark contrast.  Alvy is never viewed in a positive light by his own family, even going back to his childhood years, suggesting something is always missing from his life, like joy or happiness, yet Alvy’s own take is that he had a happy childhood.  Much of the humor in the film is Jewish humor, where Allen is highly reactionary to his own deep-seeded paranoia about growing anti-Semitism, including the visit to Annie’s family, where he’s sure her endearing “Grammy” loathes and detest him for being Jewish, always giving him the evil eye, which Allen exaggerates to being a Nazi sympathizer.  Another technique is resorting to animation.  During one heated argument, Annie and Alvy turn into cartoon characters, with Annie transforming into the Wicked Queen from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).  One of the more clever devices has Annie and Alvy waiting in line to see a movie, forced to endure the obnoxiously pretentious pontificating of a loud-mouthed NYU professor standing behind them, getting on Alvy’s last nerve, but when the man starts raving about teaching the theoretical ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Alvy steps out of line and out of nowhere pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out of the lobby to denounce the meaningless and superficial utterings coming out of the man’s mouth, thoroughly justifying Alvy’s sense of moral outrage, turning to the camera and uttering, “Boy, if life were only like this!”       

Despite the novel techniques used by the director, none of the characters reveal themselves with any depth, remaining content to highlight comical moments, strung together in vignettes, where their relationship runs hot and cold, on and off, and back on again, before running out of gas, never delving into the missing ingredients, as they never figure out how to address their conflicting interests.  Annie likes to smoke a joint before sex, as it helps her to relax, while Alvy grows irate that she needs a substance to enhance the mood in order to deal with him, thinking instead it should be natural and hormonal, yet each constructs artificial barriers that the other person is not willing to overcome, beautifully expressed in a scene having sex, with Annie literally stepping out of her body like a ghostly phantom, literally separating the mind from the body, sitting alone in a chair simply passing the time, as if waiting for it to be over, leaving Alvy with a lifeless body to make love to, ingeniously remarking that she feels distant and removed.  Throughout their relationship, Alvy pushes his own agenda onto her, causing Annie to think he views her as shallow and uneducated, not intelligent enough to take seriously, as he pushes dreadfully serious books on her, each one pertaining to death, while also suggesting she take adult evening classes, thinking it would do her a world of good.  This does little to promote her self-esteem, which is publicly on display during an audition at a random club, with Annie singing an excessively slow version of “It Had to Be You” Annie Hall Diane Keaton sings (3:21), singing again near the end, Diane Keaton - It Seems Like Old Times (2:30), and while Alvy confesses support, he does little to help advance her career, showing outward defiance against a move to Los Angeles, suggested by a sleazy record producer (none other than Paul Simon) who would love to record her, whose luxurious home in Los Angeles with palm trees and a pool is the site of his recording studio, with Los Angeles portrayed as a Hollywood fantasy, where even his old friend Rob has moved out there and continually sings the praises, but Alvy is disgusted by his artificial use of canned laughter to enhance the jokes and make him appear to be funnier.  ANNIE HALL is an early version of Manhattan, as much a romanticized ode to the city of New York as it is to the named character, filming all over the city at some of Allen’s favorite locations, including Annie Hall’s apartment on 68th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues in Manhattan which Allen has noted is his favorite block in the city.  Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Gordon Willis, Manhattan is given a glamorized look, hyperenergetic, filled with the nervous energy of those living there, viewed through conversations, clubs, bookshops, restaurants, and a plethora of cinemas, where art house theaters show foreign film masterpieces like THE GRAND ILLUSION (1937) and THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1969), while marquees in Los Angeles advertise schlock films like HOUSE OF EVIL (1968) and MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973), literally skewering the West Coast mentality, reflecting Allen’s disdain for what he perceives as a shallower culture.  Yet to Annie, Los Angeles is a symbol of freedom, while Alvy has panic attacks and car problems, emblematic of all the traffic back-ups that he turns into a demolition derby of disgust, reminiscent of the bumper cars he used to play in his youth, returning back to New York to write his first play, a dramatization of his and Annie’s relationship, allowing art to produce a more favorable outcome.  When the real Truman Capote appears in a Truman Capote look-alike game at the beach, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality, allowing viewers to make their own choices, where perhaps the ultimate message is that in art and life we need our illusions.  

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