Annie Hall (1977)
Dir. Woody Allen
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Woody Allen), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen, Marshal Brickman)
Other Nominees: The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, The Turning Point
After all these years, what is there left to say about Annie Hall? It was revolutionary, Diane is a treasure, Woody is a creep, such postmodern autocritical angst is passé, it’s a laugh, it’s so dated? I’ll admit upfront I’ve never been a fan of Allen and especially not of this film, though this viewing (my third if memory serves) proved to be my most enjoyable. The film is tight as a drum, clever, fast, meticulous, and for all of the wallowing in self pity, it’s strikingly to the point. So my question then morphs from what is there left to say to what can Annie Hall tell us today?
Annie Hall plays with countless formal techniques, from the obvious to the incredibly sly. Allen and Marshall Brickman, his cowriter, layer puns atop social commentary atop delicate narrative structuring. The film relishes the many possibilities of the meta, from the surely autobiographical main character, Alvy (as Allen has denied such claims of autobiography, the rest of the world joins for a collective eye roll) to one of the film’s opening lines “I’m standing with the cast of The Godfather!” as Diane Keaton, star of The Godfather, makes her first entrance. He goes on to further toe the line between story and true life: Truman Capote plays a Truman Capote lookalike, Marshal McLuhan plays himself, and Paul Simon plays a man so like Paul Simon that you only realize he’s not playing himself when another character calls him his fictional name. The name Annie Hall is a combination of Keaton’s nickname and her true surname. So much of the story lists perilously on the edge of reality that we don’t really know how we’re meant to interpret these signs.
This brings us to the question that looms over all of Allen’s work these days: can we still enjoy a Woody Allen film knowing what we know of Woody? Enough digital ink has been spilt on the issues of Woody’s culpability in the crimes attributed to him that I do not feel it necessary to rehash the ugliness of the accusations, but we have accepted as a society that he is at worst a criminal and at best a thorough creep. We didn’t know this in 1977, however, and the neuroses of Alvy were those of us all: replaying romantic entanglements to free our minds of our possible faults, unreasonable immediate jealousy of our lovers’ exes, embarrassment of our bodies, constant judgement of others in the vain quest of self preservation. The issues that Alvy relays to us still ring true to us, and in today’s world of encouraged self-pity and overly zealous internet sharing, perhaps even more so than before.
The film is nearly forty years old, and it definitely shows its age: many of the activities that the main characters engage in during the film today are those that upper middle class urbanites would scoff at as elitist: playing tennis doubles, driving a convertible through Manhattan, shopping unceasingly at Bloomingdales. Today the upper middle class views its privilege differently, and is always eager to critique former signs of wealth, although of course our signs of wealth today are just as prevalent, if not more so, they just wear a different disguise.
As mentioned before, the film does toy with numerous structural innovations, always parading its newest trick. The film employs cartoon, direct address, voiceover, subtitles for subtext, all very clever, all very eye-catching, but do they really assist in telling the story or are they just showing off? Is he inventing a new style or repurposing techniques of other innovators? The film feels light – as if it was made in an afterthought; none of the heavy, dense visual plotting of some of Allen’s contemporaries, like Coppola or Miloš Forman. His cuts are quick, which in one way is a method of ending a conversation as it climaxes, which does not allow for a counterargument. You sense, towards the middle of the movie, that Allen is trying to control your reactions the way that Alvy is trying, in his pathetic male way, to control Annie.
Of course, the film definitely does appeal, in part because it’s just joyous watching someone who is more pathetic than we are. Partly because of the delicious cameos: Christopher Walken, Carol Kane, Shelly Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Signourney Weaver! But it succeeds mostly because Keaton is just so tremendous. She’s at such ease, and so present in the film. Everything about her seems natural, from her hair to her blinking, none of it rehearsed, all of it true. It is also largely entertaining today as a museum piece: we certainly don’t think of sexual relationships in this way today. At one point, early in their relationship (though late in the film) Alvy describes Annie as being “polymorphously perverse” meaning that she can derive pleasure from whatever, wherever. She is just full of joy. At the end of the relationship, she is very much quieted and is a sadder person. It’s terrible to watch, and while one might argue that this is the stress that heartbreak causes a person, it’s hard not to see this today as a man intentionally keeping a woman down. Whether this is what Allen intended, I’ll leave to the scholars and fans. Either way, it adds a punch of melancholy to a film that had not yet trod to that territory.
Diane, always present, always real.