Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cinema Bestius: Annie Hall

The Pope and this terrific film go way, way back.

#43 – Annie Hall
Annie Hall is a groundbreaking film, both in the history of the medium and the career of Woody Allen. Although many moviegoers might still prefer his “earlier, funnier films” (as he himself referred to them in Stardust Memories) Annie Hall is the Papal Line of Demarcation when it comes to film comedy. There exist all comedies made before Annie Hall and all of those made after. It’s that important a film.

The Plot In Brief: Stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) reviews his life in an attempt to figure out what went wrong with his recent relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The audience is treated to a parade of scenes from Singer’s life, but always through the lens of his relationship with Annie.
The film as we know it almost didn’t happen. Annie Hall began its life as a very different film titled Anhedonia that explored Alvy’s inability to experience pleasure. All of the building blocks of the finished film were there, but not the structure and dominant narrative. As ace editor Ralph Rosenblum describes in his seminal book, When The Shooting Stops, The Cutting Begins, he helped Allen shape the narrative into a cohesive whole, ordering all of the disparate material to best serve the “Annie Hall” storyline.

What a smart move on the parts of both Allen and Rosenblum: the process yielded a relatable film that isn’t just a disjointed series of gags. One could argue that Allen’s whole career is marked by a movement towards a more mature, naturalistic storytelling (Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Midnight in Paris) and away from the semi-random series of jokes around a theme (Take the Money and Run, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex, and Bananas). Annie Hall certainly has jokes—some of the funniest in Allen’s career—but here they are made to serve a cohesive narrative that also has some trenchant things to say about adult relationships.
I love how the style of the film itself changes as the narrative progressives. We begin with a screen-filling close-up of Allen, speaking to the audience as a stand-up comedian might, handling exposition chores through direct address. As the film moves on, we get less and less of Allen the comedian and more of Allen the filmmaker; we end on a beautiful, evocative shot of an empty restaurant window with only Allen’s narration in voice-over. I believe this shift is a handy metaphor for the metamorphosis this film represents in Allen’s own career, from jokester to assured filmmaker in a brisk 93 minutes.
The Pope has told the story before about how young and impressionable he was when he first saw this film. As I wrote some years ago, “At thirteen I had never kissed a girl. Yet I was only a year away from seeing Annie Hall, one of several films that would change my life – [enjoying nothing but bad movies] helped make my Annie Hall epiphany happen. ‘Maybe I’m better than this’ was my first step toward thinking, ‘movies can be better than this’ —so that when I was finally old enough to happen across one that really was better, [in this case Annie Hall,] I was ready for it to bust me open.”

In short, Annie Hall made me feel like an adult; it started me thinking like an adult about adult things—jobs, and life, and love. Annie Hall also made me laugh… a lot.

Let’s face it—very few comedies are adult. It’s no wonder film critics and the Oscars often consider comedy to be “kid stuff.” With the exception of black comedies like The Apartment and Dr. Strangelove, comedies often dwell on the mindless and the silly. I am not talking about the skills required to create successful comedies; I agree with the old maxim that “comedy is hard.” I am suggesting that the stuff of comedy is generally immature and almost childish, and it is the (increasingly) rare comedy that can make us laugh and make us think… about something other than flatulence or falling down.
Diane Keaton’s performance in Annie Hall is the anchor that grounds the whole enterprise in reality. She is playing such a specific person that she becomes a stand-in for every girlfriend, every object of love, or every manic-pixie-dream-being that ever was or ever will be. That is how it often happens in art, and that is one of the biggest mistakes movies (especially movie comedies) make in characterization: a character written as generic to appeal to everyone will appeal to exactly NO ONE. We don’t treasure our lovers (or friends or family) because they’re blanks—we love them because they’re themselves. Learning to navigate their specificity is what love is.

Certainly Annie’s unique fashion sense was based on Keaton’s own (and may be the one aspect of the film that dates it) and Allen and Keaton had dated in real life, but nothing in Keaton’s previous films (not even her previous films with Allen) revealed her to be such an effortless, gifted comedian. We get hints of this later Keaton in Play It Again, Sam and Sleeper, but her performance in Annie Hall was a leap into the iconic and unforgettable. She sings nice too.
Annie Hall’s Three Miracles: That all the ingredients here came together so perfectly: script, performances, direction, and editing; Diane Keaton’s performance as Annie, which is something to treasure; and the scene in which Woody Allen first tries cocaine, which sparked the loudest and longest audience laugh I have ever heard in a movie theater to this day.

Annie Hall is one of the best comedies ever made, both tremendously funny and slyly profound. You may never know anyone exactly like Alvy or Annie, but they’re so relatable, they’ll break your heart a little. You’ll just be laughing so much you won’t mind.

"In nomine Patrici, et Scorsese, qui mecum est Jai Beaie, Amen.”


  1. Annie Hall also contains what might be considered the opening salvo in what would become an ongoing battle between New York and Los Angeles. Allen - a lifelong New Yorker - clearly doesn't have much use for Los Angeles. His attitude towards the city might best be summed up in a throwaway moment where we overhear Jeff Goldblum calling his guru and saying the classic line, "I forgot my mantra." Steve Martin outlined the New York vs Los Angeles battle in his terrific short story "Hissy Fit," which appears in his collection Pure Drivel. If Woody Allen gave us the quintessential New York story in his film Manhattan, Martin provided a witty rejoinder with L.A. Story.

  2. I've been on a big Woody Allen kick lately, so this article is exactly what I needed. JB, I'd love to hear you and Patrick do an entire podcast on him, either his films, doing you favorites lists, picking an individual movie, whatever. I just know it could be a great discussion.

  3. Great stuff, JB. There are so many hilarious moments in this film. I think the scene when Alvy brings in Marshall McLuhan to win his argument is the ultimate fantasy of anyone who has ever gotten into a fight on the Internet.

  4. This is indeed a difficult question. I tend to think of artists' works as being separate from their lives. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski could be reprehensible in real life but still make great films. In the world of politics, Bill Clinton could be a great President and a shitty husband. But there is a difference between cheating on your wife and molesting a child... This is a difficult moral question to reconcile... and I'm the Pope.

    1. It's a tough call. I just wish people would stop hating on Mel Gibson for being a stupid drunk. C'mon, almost no one has ever had movie star charisma like Mel Gibson.

  5. I wouldn't have a moral dilemma regarding Allen unless I knew for sure Farrow's allegations were fact. Which I don't. And neither do you.

    I also believe Allen gets shit for the wife he currently has because most people hold the false belief and/or memory that he married his own adopted daughter and that it's gross. It was Farrow's adopted daughter. They fell in love, are still married, and have adopted children of their own. There is speculation that that open letter was manipulated vengeance puppeteering from Mia Farrow. But I don;t know for that as fact either.

    Just saying.

    However the moral dilemma regarding one's viewing of a film, I think it's important to keep in mind that there were a lot of other people involved in the creation of the work. It is a bit different than, say, making a decision to never appreciate Hitler's art.

  6. And no, I'm not comparing Hitler's art to Annie Hall.

  7. You may find the age differences disgusting, and you may find it a tragedy that he married his ex-wife's adopted daughter she shared with her husband at the time (who was not Woody Allen - this is also a common misconception) Is that a weird way to meet your wife? Traditionally speaking, sure. And quickly, taking full-frontal pictures of a 19 year old is legal. As well as wanting to take an 18 year-old to Europe.

    I am not a devout Woody Allen fan unable to look past abhorrent behavior. Is it possible Woody Allen molested Dylan Farrow? Yes, but it's also possible he didn't. Abusers indeed hold power over their victims, and like I stated before, there is speculation Mia Farrow was mentally abusing Dylan since childhood rather than Woody sexually abusing her. Your list of facts is less a condemnation of a criminal than it is self-righteous vitriol. And adding that you are a lover of movies but a lover of people more is a condescending passive-aggressive statement toward anyone trying to illuminate the chance that Woody Allen didn't actually molest a child. As if anyone who thinks it's possible he didn't doesn't love people enough.

    Side note: why mock a sentence I wrote? Good lord, I'm gonna nab a wafer and get out of here.

  8. That was a response you made out of passion. No worries. I want to stress that I wasn't responding to your original post to make you feel attacked personally. I wouldn't call myself an Allen supporter per se, I just think it is unfair to socially "convict" someone in a public forum based solely on opinion and I see a lot of that regarding Woody Allen on the internet. I will say, if he admitted to molesting a child, I would have a hard time watching him in a movie.