Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)


Shelley Duvall (Pam), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall), Carol Kane (Allison), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Woody Allen (Alvy Singer). Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Rating: 15. Running time: 93 minutes.

Why do Woody Allen characters always feel like they are not characters at all, but only alter-egos of the man himself that are highly revealing of his life and personality? This is a hard question, but out of all of Woody’s films, Annie Hall probably makes the answer clearest. In this effort, not only does he write and direct a role for himself to play, and not only does his character express so many life-orientated quasi-philosophical opinions about existence and relationships, but various flashbacks to Alvy’s (or Woody’s) childhood show him as a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn, and it becomes clear that the two men may as well be the same.

The older Woody Allen denies this. In a recent TIME magazine interview he insists he was far from the neurotic type he played so well in his films as a younger man, and, on the contrary, he was a lot calmer than anyone would imagine. But it’s hard to accept this when you see footage of him being ‘himself’ on television, alongside the veteran film critic Pauline Kael, and when you consider that, like his characters, he attended psychoanalysis religiously and seemed to childishly alternate between women with ease, just as Alvyn, Manhattan‘s Isaac and countless other of his personas do. Part of this is down to what Alvyn confesses, which is the tragic applicability of a couple of jokes to his life. The first is that old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have someone like himself as a member. Likewise, Alvyn seems to lose his desire for women as soon as they stoop to the level of being attracted to him. The second joke is about the man whose brother thinks he’s a chicken, but the man won’t turn him in because he needs the eggs. The link implied seems to be that Alvyn, or, once again, Woody, sees relationships as something much greater than they can ever be, and tries to get something out of them that doesn’t exist.

Annie Hall toys with this idea for about ninety minutes, not showing us the development of a relationship as such or pinpointing explanations for its flourishing and eventual collapse, but rather providing a collage of comedy and insights acting as a canvas for Allen and Keaton to exhibit their talents on. The scenes are all very funny at the same time as contributing to the theme, and they are all enlivened by wonderfully unique narrative touches: the old Alvyn is allowed to have his say in the classroom of his childhood self, and he can take Annie and his friend back to his family parties. When Alvyn and Annie chitchat we see their real thoughts as subtitles. When Alvyn feels Annie is withdrawn from their lovemaking one night, her translucent soul sits on a chair beside the bed moaning. When a pretentious twit talks crap about Fellini’s films and then Marshall McLuhan’s literary criticism in a movie queue, Alvyn’s agitation leads to him firstly ranting straight at the camera and then secondly actually getting McLuhan out from hiding and giving the other man in question what for (Alvyn’s remark, tellingly, is to dream ‘if only life could be like this’). And, finally, that now infamously cheap split-screen shot was perhaps invented, or at least popularised, by Annie Hall, and it must have been wholly innovative for 1977.

This will sound as pretentious as the Fellini-basher, but there seems too much truth in it to ignore: I honestly like to see Annie Hall as Woody’s attempt at a Jackson Pollock. He’s shown by subtle homages in both Play It Again, Sam and Vicky Cristina Barcelona that he’s a great fan of the abstract expressionist’s artwork, and the idea of his painting being very physical, standing over the canvas and being in complete control of what’s splattered onto it seems very applicable to the type of art Woody Allen does as a simultaneous actor, script writer and director. Annie Hall, whilst somehow an Oscar-sweeping film which managed to entertain the masses, is undoubtedly not a ‘movie’ in the plot-driven drama sense. It really is like a canvas upon which Woody can exert his whit and thoughts, and it’s a canvas he has complete control over.

But this final thought reminds me of another artist Woody’s work in Annie Hall is reminiscent of, and that is undoubtedly Godard. Again, the evidence of a relationship and influence is there, and no moreso in the fact that the auteur-theory perspective on the director’s role in filmmaking that the French New Wave propounded is embodied completely by Woody Allen and everything that he makes. But Godard was also keen on reflecting his offscreen relationship with his muse Anna Karina through the films they made together, which was made no clearer than in Vivre Sa Vie, when the actress’ name is changed no further than to ‘Nana.’ Diane Keaton was born as Diane Hall, and the fact she was living with Woody at the time the film was made means the implication is crystal clear.

My favourite moment in the film comes, though, when Alvyn tells a girl that he hasn’t been himself since he stopped smoking, which was sixteen years ago. She asks if he’s joking, and confesses to not really understanding what he means. As such, in this one moment, a person witnessing that eternal Woody Allen persona doesn’t just accept his constant joke-telling as if it is normal behaviour, and as if it isn’t deliberately cinematic for our sake. I think in this moment we become conscious of just what Woody Allen is doing when he makes films: he is crafting a masterpiece in a way that’s inherently exaggerated and larger than life. Annie Hall allows devilishly good jokes to be told at the same time as reflecting upon what happens in reality during Woody’s relationships. It’s a real treat, and a perfect piece of art.

One Response to “Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)”

  1. 1 Chua Pei Ni Richael

    jacob you stole my line – tries to get something out of them that doesn’t exist- i said that. but oh well honey.

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