Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.4: Woody Allen's Annie Hall

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen. Today’s entry covers 1977’s Annie Hall.

Grade: 97 (A)
Woody Allen’s films had grown increasingly ambitious with each effort: the zany satire of Bananas and Everything You Always… gave way to the more intellectual (but still goofy) Sleeper and Love and Death. 1977’s Annie Hall, however, marked a shift for the director. No longer was he satisfied with broad comedy. He wanted to be taken seriously as a mature artist. Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman originally conceived a larger, sprawling work, titled Anhedonia (or the inability to feel pleasure) that would be 2 ½ hours long and focus on protagonist Alvy Singer’s life and loves. Allen found a strong central story in the relationship between Singer and the titular Annie Hall and cut nearly fifty minutes of footage. The result is a tender, warm-hearted film that won four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director for Allen, Best Screenplay for Allen and Brickman, Best Actress for Diane Keaton) and went down as the greatest romantic comedy of all time.
Alvy Singer (Allen) is a comedian, a conspiracy theorist, a neurotic, and a lover. His love life has been complicated- he pushed away his first wife, Alison (Carol Kane), and his second wife, Robin (Janet Margolin), was an overly-intellectual socialite. Alvy and his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) debate conspiracy and the relative merits of New York (Alvy’s love) and L.A. (Rob’s desire). One day, the two meet Annie Hall (Keaton), a daffy, ditzy, outgoing girl. Alvy is smitten, and the two fall in love. But love doesn’t last forever, and eventually the two tire of each other’s eccentricities, break up, make up, and break up again. Is Alvy right that their relationship is a “dead shark” that has stopped moving, or is it the old Groucho Marx joke that he’d “never want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member?”
Allen brings his old influences- Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton- to new territory with Annie Hall. Woody is still visibly Woody, with the same witty one-liners that’d crack anyone up (“In the event of war, I’m a hostage”). But there’s a new maturity to how the verbal and physical comedy play out, in large part due to ace cinematographer Gordon Willis’ stark, shadow-filled photography. Willis and Allen ground the camera, opting for longer takes than in previous Allen efforts, giving the film a more immediate feeling. Watching the main characters meet, fall in love, and bungle everything is very funny, but there’s real weight to what’s going on. The relationship means everything to Alvy, and his passive-aggressive neuroticisms, while funny, keep the relationship from staying alive.
Allen brings his European influences with him as well. Throughout the film, Alvy and Annie revisit Alvy’s childhood and their old relationships reminiscent of a more comical take on Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. When Allen visits Annie’s family, the chilliness of the WASPs is an absurd take on cold Bergman characters (even better is one-scene wonder Christopher Walken as Annie’s creepy brother, bathed in shadows, reflecting on his suicidal driving impulses). Fellini, meanwhile, shows up in Allen’s portrayal of the film’s numerous pseudo-intellectuals, teachers, families, schoolmates, and Average Joes. Whenever Alvy revisits his childhood, he meets some sort of a “jerk” that he’s had to put up with, from his idiot classmates who grow up as heroin addicts and leather fetishists to his idiot teachers who can’t do anything to his constantly arguing family. When Alvy goes on the street, he’s bothered by some teamster-type characters (“the cast of The Godfather”) who recognize him from television. Alvy’s pseudo-intellectual second wife dismisses his love for basketball, proving that intellectuals “can be brilliant and still have no idea what’s going on”.
The Fellini-esque grotesques cross with another Fellini trope- breaks from reality into fantasy- in one famous scene: Alvy gets stuck in a movie line near a blowhard who rambles on and on about his dislike for Fellini and other artists. When Alvy remarks that the man knows nothing about Fellini or Marshall MacLuhan, the man claims to teach a class on MacLuhan’s work. Alvy then pulls MacLuhan out from behind a movie poster as he proceeds to dismiss the blowhard as a man who “knows nothing of my work…how you got to teach a class in anything is totally amazing”. Alvy claims to have a hard time distinguishing reality and fantasy, and the film constantly blurs the lines. Alvy revisits his childhood, but he brings Annie and Rob along with him. Alvy complains about his failing relationship to strangers on the street, only to have them reply to him in earnest, as if they know exactly what he’s referring to. Alvy even breaks the fourth wall, over and over again: from the opening shot, as he explains his current predicament to the audience, to the very end, it’s his story, and we’re going to listen.
Allen claims that the film is not autobiographical, but it’s very clear that his personal life greatly influenced the film’s story. Alvy, like Allen, is a comedian, and by the end of the film he’s a first-time playwright (Allen’s transitional phase before film). As a comedian and writer, he was forced to write for lousy comedians (Allen’s pre-comedy career). Alvy constantly wrestles with his Jewish identity (Allen brings in Philip Roth as an influence here), his neuroses and analysis, his religious skepticism (when a Gentile tells a Jew they don’t understand the concept of Atonment, the answer is “tell you the truth, neither do we”), obsession with sex and death, and his tendencies to gravitate towards conspiracy theories (“the country’s failure to get behind New York is Anti-Semitism”). Alvy hates rock and roll (his date with Shelly Duvall’s Rolling Stone reporter doesn’t go so well), the laid-back Los Angeles culture (epitomized by Paul Simon’s sleazy producer), awards shows (Allen avoids the Oscars and other events of the like), and drugs (a famous scene where he sneezes into thousands of dollars worth of cocaine is priceless).

Mostly, though, the film is about love. Sure, sex and death are important, but Alvy’s relationships with women, particularly Annie, are the highlight of the film. It’s Allen’s first truly mature look at the subject, and the film reflects his personal life: Allen had been married and divorced twice, had not yet found the “right woman”, and his relationship with Diane Keaton (whose real name is Diane Hall, nickname “Annie”) had ended (although the two remain close friends to this day). Allen and Keaton were never more natural as they were here, and with reason. There’s no real way to talk about the film’s wonderful, realistic portrayal of love and relationships (only Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind rivals its poignancy) without discussing much of the film’s plot, so: SPOILERS ahead.
The film begins with the admission that Alvy and Annie broke up, and it shows them near the end of their relationship. He’s annoyed that she came to the movie late (I can relate to Alvy’s need to see a movie from beginning to end, no matter how little he’s missed). She’s annoyed that he constantly underestimates her intelligence. He’s annoyed that they don’t have sex anymore, and she’s annoyed that he constantly begs for sex. It isn’t a good start. The film then traces back to Alvy’s previous relationships, most notably his first marriage to Alison, an intelligent political activist that Alvy fell for only to push her away. Here, Alvy is the distracted one, no longer interested in a woman he loves him. There was an initial attraction between Alvy and Alison, but that spark has long since faded; it foreshadows the inevitable fade of love that has plagued Alvy his whole life.
Alvy meets Annie at a tennis match. She’s strange, ditzy, charming, and utterly adorable (Keaton was never better). She has a wardrobe unlike anything Alvy has ever seen before. She’s a happy-go-lucky Gentile to his neurotic Jew, a girl who “grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting”. She’s dorky and a terrible driver (though she’s the safest driver in the world compared to her crazy brother), but it’s all charming at the moment. He finds Sylvia Plath tragic; she finds her “neat”. He goes to see her sing, and he falls head over heels in love with her. The two have sex, but she feels the need to smoke grass for it, and he’s so obsessed with death that he buys her books about death. Their eccentricities, initially interesting or even attractive, will eventually annoy each other, but for now, everything is happy. The two meet under the Brooklyn Bridge, stunningly photographed by Gordon Willis, and look into each other’s eyes with love.
Nothing’s perfect forever, however. The two start to fight: he needs room to breathe, and she feels that he doesn’t think she’s smart enough for him. His jealousy overcomes him, and he starts to spy on her. They break up, but the dating world isn’t so great: he meets a vapid, Bob Dylan obsessed reporter who’s difficult to sexually satisfy. Her dates aren’t much better. They miss each other, and it’s clear that the affection is still there, so why not get back together. This time it will be different. It’ll be all giddy highs and no soul-crushing lows. This hope is highlighted in a gorgeous scene where Annie sings “Old Times” in a nightclub; it’s a love letter to the best moments in their relationship, and a final moment before it all comes crashing down again.
Annie wants to go to L.A. and try new things. Alvy, always a neurotic, hates L.A. and the very idea of a “mellow” culture. She thinks a lot of the stuff in L.A.- the weather, the people, the music-is great. He hates all of it, from the stoner partygoers to the annoying men who want to “turn a concept into an idea” and “forgot [their] mantra” (Jeff Goldblum in a bizarre cameo). It’s too much: she feels weighted down, and he’s no longer charmed by her. The relationship is dead, and that’s that…until he wants to give it another go. She refuses, and their relationship finally ends.
It’s all painful stuff, and when he writes a play based on their relationship, Alvy gives their final confrontation a happy ending, saying that “we make things perfect in art because they’re so difficult in life”. Why go through with this love garbage, then, when it’s so painful? He gets his answer when he and Annie meet one more time, as old friends, and reminisce about old times (the song plays again as a montage of their best and worst moments plays). Good and bad, it’s all worth remembering. Alvy sums it all life with one last joke:
“This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘Well why don’t you turn him in?’. The guy says, ‘Well, I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships. They’re totally irrational, crazy, and absurd, but we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.”

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