DVD Notes: “Annie Hall”
For Woody Allen, the Upper East Side of Manhattan could be Mount Olympus. Or, perhaps more aptly, the cultural centres of Classical Athens or Rome, overrun with artistic exhibition and discourse as well as with decadence, while the rest of America is the provinces of the empire, sunny and decent and undistinguished. Allen makes no effort to conceal his biases, and emphasises the distinction again and again in this sudden growth spurt in his filmmaking. His earlier films – of which I have only seen the 1972 vignette farce Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) – were competent enough comedies, it seems, and, along with his stand-up acts, already established him nationally as a remarkable comedian, but with Annie Hall, his eighth film as director, he applied his wit and his satirical skills to a frame of new self-awareness. Annie Hall marks not only a surge in maturity – which is what youll generally find it being called by critics who reviewed it at the time – but also a great blossoming of modernity and grace. While Allen had literally filmed himself before, appearing in main roles in all of his previous films, he began here to film himself in another sense: to include his own experiences, enthusiasms, fantasies, complexes, sexual activities, and aspirations in his films. The change is marked from the first frame, with Allen addressing the camera and speaking to us, as if in a one-to-one stand-up performance, about his romantic past and relationship troubles.
Annie Hall is a dramatisation of Allen’s love life, and of a single relationship in particular – his affair with the young aspiring performer for whom the film is named, played by Diane Keaton. The points of contact between the film and his life are immediately apparent: Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is a Jewish New Yorker, who grew up in Brooklyn, began his career writing jokes for others and then embarked upon his own comedic career, is married and divorced twice before he’s 40, has been devoutly attending psychoanalytic sessions for over a decade, loves the films of Ingmar Bergman, is obsessed with anti-Semitism and manages to see it cropping up everywhere, and is fascinated with death and allots most of his reading time to the subject. Even his love interest in the film is played by his love interest in real life, though Keaton and Allen ended their relationship years earlier, and is named after her – Keaton’s maiden name is Hall. And, in a captivating turn at the end of the film, Allen manages to dramatise that dramatisation: Alvy writes a play about his relationship with Annie, but with a brighter, more conventional conclusion.
The interesting aspect of any neuroses, quirks, and idiosyncrasies is where they originate, and Allen’s depiction of his growing up in Brooklyn is particularly gleeful in its insurrection against the cinematic conventions of a fond and enchanted childhood. The primary crisis of the film is the discovery by Alvy, while still a very small boy, that the entire universe will someday disappear, rendering all human endeavours futile and meaningless. Through the course of the film, Alvy overcomes this depressing thought through his rapturous appreciation of aesthetic beauty and love, and his exultant assertions of presence and identity. Humour and art may be perfectly useless, he seems to say, but so, eventually, is everything else, and these are what bring life and joy. Allen upholds his defense of aesthetic pleasures most fiercely in the trip Alvy and Annie take to Los Angeles, where he disparages everything from the architecture to the television. He manages to get Gordon Willis’s camera to make the bright green lawns and golden sunshine look arid and inert next to the nervous energy and knowing grace of Manhattan’s streets and apartment blocks.
The other, smaller delights of Annie Hall comprise all the tricks Allen employs as simultaneous gags and cinematic flourishes: subtitles conveying characters’ thoughts while they speak, joking asides addressed to the audience, split screens, abrupt flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, an animated sequence, addressing passers-by for their comments and input, the separation of Annie’s body from her mind during a sex scene (shown by having Diane Keaton playing in two places at once), and, the greatest fun of all to many moviegoers, the entrance of filmmaker Marshall McLuhan to deflate the ego of a pompous commentator at the local movie theatre. Rarely have a director’s wishes been more shamelessly fulfilled. Annie Hall is also where Allen first used the device of filming an entire conversation, or even entire scene, in a single shot. He uses the technique far more prolifically in his brisker late films, but achieved marvellous effects with it even in these very first attempts.
Annie Hall pulled in four Academy Awards, two of them for Allen himself. It was followed, two years later, by another great success of his, Manhattan, also starring both him and Keaton. From there, Allen moved his career in a different direction, which frustrated many of his fans. His reputation never quite recovered from it (and it wasn’t helped by shocking personal scandals), but his art continued to rise from there. Critics who assert that Allen’s early films are his greatest are not real admirers of his work, since they disregard the vast majority of it, as well as the spirit in which those early works were made, and the ambitions in which they were born. Annie Hall is by no means the pinnacle of Allen’s achievement, but the dazzling beginning to an upward path of artistic progress and wondrous cultural contribution. Allen has been reported as saying, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Would that he could, and the path could continue ever upwards.