Thursday 4 February 2010

Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I should make it very clear at the outset that I don't understand why Diane Keaton won about a zillion awards for Annie Hall including an Oscar and a Golden Globe. The may have given a fine performance as the title character (so obviously based on her that it carries her name: her surname is Hall and her nickname is Annie) and a fashion trend may have been based on her wardrobe in the movie (which was comprised of her own clothes), but she has so little to do and the film apparently has so little to do with her that I wouldn't even call her the leading lady. The character of Annie Hall would appear to be little more than a prop for the real leading lady to work with. And who's that? Erm, Woody Allen. OK, he's a male actor playing a male character, but how would you describe the role he has to play here? The most appropriate description of the part to me seemed to be simply 'woman', as defined in the most sneering manner possible by a male chauvinist pig. It's a caricature, merely one that seems a little bizarrely written and cast.

As Alvy Singer, Woody Allen plays the most neurotic, unstable, demanding, whiny attention whore that I think I've ever seen on film. He's like the sort of hypochondriac who reads the medical dictionary and on discovering a hitherto unheard of condition is immediately convinced that he's been suffering from it for years. He's paranoid (he gets invited to a tennis game but can only imagine that he'll be barred entry for being Jewish), he's insufferable (he broke up with one woman over disagreements about the second shooter theory in the JFK assassination) and he centres his life around his psychiatrist, even though fifteen years of therapy has obviously got precisely nowhere. Admittedly he does all this with such sheer talent that it is impossible not to admire his performance, but the end result is so annoying that it's hard to imagine sitting through an entire film based around it.

That I did sit through it, and thoroughly enjoyed myself to boot, must be the primary reason why Annie Hall can fairly be regarded as a true classic. After all I hadn't much of a background in Woody Allen's work. When I watched this in 2004, I think I had only one of his films under my belt, Zelig, which I'd seen many years before and only remembered in an abstract sense. I certainly couldn't be considered a fan, and it took me a few of his films to get past that initial annoyance factor, but I'm a fan now. And as much as I found myself in two minds, this is a great introduction to Woody Allen and his work. Learn about him here, then work through his career in both directions, back to the parodies and the slapstick and forward through the more subtle comedic dissection of human interaction.
The title notwithstanding, this is all about Alvy Singer, the way in which he spends a year falling in and out of love with Annie Hall, and how this affects the rest of his life. And that's pretty much the entire plot, because the movie isn't really about the plot anyway: it just defines a start and an end and fills in nuances of character in between the two to explain why. It would be easy to translate that to the film being all about Woody Allen, how he thinks, how he sees the world and, not least, how he imagines things. There are ideas all over this film, both intensely focused ideas that we're given the opportunity to think about during conversations and wildly flung ideas that pepper the screenplay like scattershot, there to trigger something in our brain and keep thinking.

There are other people you'd recognise in the film beyond Woody Allen. There's Carol Kane as an early girlfriend, a young Christopher Walken as Annie Hall's brother, Shelley Duvall as a disastrous date. There's Paul Simon as a rich music mogul who is interested in Annie's voice and thus actually switches the location away from New York for a while. Sigourney Weaver makes her film debut in a tiny non-speaking role towards the end of the movie. Blink and you'll miss her. At least Jeff Goldblum gets one line at a party. There's even Truman Capote playing a Truman Capote lookalike. Yet, just like Annie Hall herself, they're really just props for Alvy Singer to use and move on from. What's most amazing is that given that the film could easily be personified by Woody Allen himself he didn't win an Oscar for his acting, though he did win for Best Picture, for Best Director and for Best Screenplay (along with Marshall Brickman) and I'm not going to argue with any of those three.

Surely the biggest achievement is the way Woody Allen deconstructs the manual on how to make movies, by cutting it up into little pieces and then pasting it all back together in a completely different order. He introduces the film with a narrative monologue aimed directly at the camera and within ten minutes he's changed perspective so many times that there's nothing we can do but accept that we have joined the plot as characters in our own right and everyone we see on the screen is someone we know. There's a lot of that here, as you might expect from a filmmaker who began as a stand up comedian. Stand up routines are generally about establishing a rapport with the audience by getting on their wavelength, ensuring that whichever characters they tell stories about are also descriptions of people we know. This film is no different.

Even when the narrative stops leaping about in all sorts of directions and settles down to some semblance of linearity, it's still subversively altered from anything we're used to seeing. In one scene Alvy talks with Annie Hall on the street, but when she leaves he continues his conversation with complete strangers who answer with utmost honesty, and then the whole thing shifts off into narration. The weirdest thing is that the flow is unbroken even though the one scene is really three. Sometimes Alvy completely gives up on reality and veers off into sheer fantasy as a means of illustrating what he's talking about. At one point, when waiting in a line at the movies, he gets so fed up of the pretentious bore behind him talking about Marshall McCluhan that he walks out of the line and starts arguing with us through the screen. We've seen characters break the fourth wall before but Allen takes the concept a couple of steps further: the bore follows him to join in the argument, at which point Alvy introduces the real Marshall McCluhan, who has been hiding behind an advert, to prove his point.
Some of the strangest scenes are when we switch not just in perspective but in time. During a conversation about who Annie used to date, she flashes back to her former boyfriends in full video and then the pair of them walk into the flashback and discuss what they're looking at. Early on Alvy flashes back himself to what he was like in grade school, then switches so that it's his present day character arguing with the past characters of his fellow students, only to shift again to a documentary perspective where these kids start telling us what they do in the future. How many grammatical rules about tenses I've just broken or how many levels we get removed from reality I don't know, but no doubt it's a lot in both cases. More modern filmmakers paid a lot of attention to this sort of thing, as you can see versions of this everywhere nowadays. In fact whole movies have been based on scenes from this film, even deleted scenes.

It doesn't even stop there. I wonder if Woody Allen compiled checklists of all the cinematic rules that could be broken or all the different techniques he could use so he could work through all of them in turn and gradually mark them off as he went along. Ten minutes in, check, check, check. There's a scene early in the Alvy/Annie relationship where we're shown subtitles to show what the characters are really thinking while their dialogue follows a different path entirely. There's a fun little animated section where Alvy argues with the Wicked Queen from Snow White, and a couple of split screen scenes. There are even a couple of musical numbers where Diane Keaton sings in a nightclub.

The thing is that while all this gimmickry really should have turned the film into an incoherent mess, somehow it doesn't. It merely becomes clever but without becoming pretentious, though with Woody Allen's work that's a fine line with many viewers on each side. The screenplay works the same way. It's intensely clever, both in the big picture and in the superb lines that almost entirely go to Woody Allen himself, but somehow it keeps from being pretentious even when deliberately trying to be. Maybe all the other tricks help to hide another trick, namely that everything we should find annoying about the movie gets cunningly translated into Allen's performance, knowing that we'll be annoyed by Alvy Singer while still admiring the skill with which he is portrayed and defined as a character.

It's redundant to say that Woody Allen is an acquired taste or that he's someone either loved or hated but it may be helpful to describe him here as a neurotic version of Groucho Marx. The jokes are as clever, as funny and as fast in coming, but they highlight a real change in culture. As much as their performances have so much in common, Groucho would have been as disastrous in Annie Hall as Woody would have been in Duck Soup. In fact, Woody Allen would have been disastrous in anything made before his time. He arrived only when culture allowed him to, and since then has defined his part of culture to the point of monopoly. He's the Walt Disney of neurosis and Annie Hall is generally regarded as his finest moment. I'm halfway through his filmography now, and while there are a number of other classics in there too, I'm not going to argue with that.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you liked Annie Hall, It's one of my favorites as well as a few of his other films. I saw an interview years ago with Allen where he discusses making Annie Hall and the end result wasn't the picture he was orginally trying to shoot (a murder mystery)...a lot of the end result and storyline came though the editing process after the editor told Allen he thought the movie should be a romantic comedy....he did however years later make the murder mystery film he wanted, Manhattan Murder Mystery which is also pretty good in my eyes. Anyhoo I liked your review and am done adding my 10 cents to it!


Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Tracy.

I liked it a lot more second time round. The first time through was my first experience with Woody Allen, who is really an acquired taste, and he came close to driving me nuts. Whine, whine, whine.

Now I've managed to get used to him, I'm a fan. The new question I need to answer is why I dislike some of his films when other people see them not just as good but amazingly awesome. I'm thinking especially of Interiors, Everyone Says I Love You and Shadows and Fog, all of which guest programmers have picked on TCM as some of their personal favourites.

Just for reference, I'm at the halfway mark through his filmography and I've rated seven of his films classics in my rating system: Bananas, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters and Deconstructing Harry. That's a varied set indeed.

Anonymous said...

I love a few of his films...Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose and Manhattan Murder Mystery. I like Allen cause his humor is up my alley and his style of direction is something that always amused and fasinated me. You either get Allen or you don't. Just like Jerry Lewis is known for his "screwball" characters he plays in films, Woody is known for always being the "nebbish" Jew who loves to whine and talk endless on death and self loathing...what's not to love?


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I`ve always regarded "ANNIE HALL" as Woody Allens cross-over movie because its like a cross between his funny early films and his later unfunny ones. By the way, in my opinion his best film is the astonishing 1980 masterwork "STARDUST MEMORIES" its almost better by itself than all his other movies put together.