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Double Take: 'Annie Hall' (1977)

Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

Is love too weak a word to describe how we feel about Annie Hall? Or is it more like a dead shark? Double Take breaks a few eggs to find out.

Annie Hall

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, Colleen Dewhurst
MPAA Rating: PG
Studio: United Artists Films
Year: 1977
US Release Date: 1977-04-20

Steve Leftridge: Okay, Steve, for Double Take #24, The Big Randomizer landed on our first Woody Allen film, a damned if it isn’t (probably) his most famous of all, Annie Hall. It’s a film that came at a key point in his career -- just after his wacky, broad satires (like Sleeper and Bananas) and as he was starting to make the romantic urban dramedy films for which he’s pretty much been known ever since. So we have to talk about that sweet spot in his career, why this film works so well, Woody’s use of modernist film techniques, his preoccupation with doomed relationships (and, of course, death), this film’s narrative structure, midlife crises, New York and L.A. -- geez, there’s just so much.

I have to believe that the reason that Annie Hall defeated Star Wars for the Academy Award for Best Picture in ‘78 has to do with the fact that Woody’s film hits on some pretty universal truths (not that George Lucas didn’t, albeit from a galaxy far, far away, rather than on the Upper East Side). So about what, specifically, does Annie Hall really hit home, Steve?

Steve Pick: Eggs. Well, that’s what Woody Allen says the film is about, in a nice little postscript echoing the beginning confessional sequence (done years before there were reality TV shows to give it that name). If I recall it correctly, a man says to a doctor that his brother thinks he’s a chicken, and the doctor asks why he hasn’t done something about that, and the man says he would miss the eggs. To Allen, love is made up of little delusions which invariably get shattered, but the delusions are so gosh darn pleasant that we convince ourselves love is real.

Now, I don’t exactly buy his premise, but in the world of Woody Allen fims, Annie Hall features the most convincing delusions about love. Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) seem to make each other happy for quite some time, until they each become unhappy and merely try to convince the other things are still fine. We are told that Alvy is good for Annie, that she wouldn’t have had the courage to become a singer without his help, that she wouldn’t have learned to stand up for herself without his urging her to go to a therapist. We are shown that Annie is good for Alvy, because he gets to have sex with Diane Keaton, because he has a companion who will go along to anything he finds interesting, because he can say awful things and she will mostly just smile and maybe snap something back that’s not as mean. Wait, this is a romantic comedy?

In many ways, Annie Hall is an art film that plays like a crowd pleaser. Allen’s self-deprecating jokes, the public displays of thematic affection (books on death, the doofus in the movie line going on about unity of form and structure, the short statements of intention and summary at the beginning and end), and the all-around likeability of Keaton’s Annie make Allen’s use of long, deep shots, his manipulation of time and space, his breaking of the fourth wall go down easy with people who have barely heard of Bergman or Fellini. I would guess that’s the reason he won the Academy Award, because he snared voters from multiple camps (and because nobody had any idea that Star Wars would become so influential on the rest of film history).

Leftridge: The eggs joke is a great example of how Woody/Alvy borrows jokes as metaphors for his overall outlook on relationships. We keep coupling up--we need the eggs -- even though we know these relationships are almost guaranteed to end in bitterness and heartbreak and guilt. Life in general, according to Alvy, is a mixed blessing, illustrated by his joke about the two ladies having lunch who complain simultaneously about the bad food and the small portions. That is, life is full of suffering and misery, and it’s all over much too quickly. At another point -- twice, actually -- Woody paraphrases the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would have someone like himself as a member. That one, probably more than any other, helps explain why Alvy’s relationship with Annie ultimately fails.

Yes, Annie Hall is indeed a romantic comedy, even though it came along well before that genre term came to imply vacuousness and predictability. It's also one rom-com that is shot through with a pessimistic tug of doom. At the end of the film, Alvy writes a play in which he and Annie end up together after all, but that’s just a fantasy. Instead, Woody sticks to what he sees as the inevitable truth, which is that love fades, as Alvy, at one point in the film, explains to a horse. Which reminds me: Woody takes a lot of left-field directorial chances in this film, maybe more than he ever would again. Do you have a favorite among these experimental moments in the film, or are you one of those who prefers it when the Woodman plays it straighter, cinematically speaking?

Pick: I really like the way he tells the story, and the way he films it. My fave is the extreme long shot where Alvy and Annie are walking in the park talking, and you don’t even see them until the scene is half over. The playful bits when Alvy takes Annie into his past may recall A Christmas Carol, but I think it was an effective way to cover the way couples learn about each other’s lives. I also enjoyed what I took as a tribute to The French Connection, when Annie drives Alvy for the first time, although that’s not exactly experimental. (As long as we’re mentioning other films we’ve covered in Double Take, the party in L.A. at the home of Tony Lacey, played so perfectly by Paul Simon of all people, looks forward to a similar party in The Player, don’t you think?)

Let’s turn our attention a bit to Annie herself. This was Diane Keaton’s career-defining role, and yet in some ways, the character is a cipher. What attracts her to Alvy in the first place? It’s Alvy telling us the story, so we don’t get into her motivations very much. The “La-di-da” line, for all its cultural resonance, doesn’t match the Annie who stays with Alvy through all sorts of attempts to change her. She isn’t well-read, she needs to smoke pot to enjoy sex with him, she can’t have a life separate from him. How do you see Annie as a character, Steve? Do all her actions seem coherent?

Leftridge: It’s true that Annie Hall is more about Alvy Singer than it is about its title character. But to try to answer your question, I’ve never thought of Annie as being inconsistent as a character. Annoying, yes, but that’s just Keaton’s stammering, play-dumb routine that I don’t always love. Otherwise, I buy Annie as real enough. I love the bit on her balcony when she and Alvy are trying to talk about photography, but the subtitles reveal what they’re really thinking (Annie: “He’s too smart for me. Hang in there.” Alvy: “I wonder what she looks like naked”). He’s the nebbish hypochondriacal New York Jewish guy, externally cerebral but driven by his physical urges; she’s the sweet, curious, insecure seeker, one who gains confidence when she trusts her instincts but feels stifled by Alvy’s clingy neuroses.

You’re right that she’s a cipher, one who at times stands in for Woody’s audience, as when she says of his standup sets, “I’m starting to get more of the references.” The film is stuffed with esoteria, which Alvy tosses off during punchlines as if he’s daring the philistines to keep up. So, like Annie, we’d better be up on our Balzac, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Ibsen, Groucho Marx, Marshall McLuhan, Beowulf, Billie Holiday, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Death in Venice, Mick Jagger, Wagner, Norman Rockwell, The Catcher in the Rye, David and Bathsheba, The Maharishi, Henry James, Leopold and Loeb, The Rosicrucians, Altamont, Kafka, and Medea. If not, Alvy might give us a complex.

Say, when did you first see this film? Was it your first exposure to Woody, and what has been your relationship with him since? Were you one of those college hipsters who walked around quoting Woody Allen films and bonding with other Woody-votees?

Pick: Oh, no, not me. I’m pretty sure I watched this some time in the 1980s, but it was probably with friends around a VHS machine, because I remembered it very spottily. I don’t know -- the first Allen film I remember really connecting with was a very minor one, his portion of New York Stories, which had three different short films, each directed by either Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Allen. I did watch a few more in the 1990s, and I’ve found things to enjoy here and there, but never fell under the Woody Allen spell. Which is weird, because while I know some better than others of those references you so valiantly listed, there isn’t one that had me jumping over to Wikipedia to figure out what he’s talking about.

I think my problem with Allen is that his neuroses are so very different from my own. We both find solace in art, but I’ve never been as solipsistic as he is. I admit there was a period in my 20s when I was hoping to find my mirror image in a woman, but I’ve never had the desire to mold a partner into my own vision of intellectual prowess. That’s where Allen loses me again and again, and it only gets creepier as he gets older and his female protagonists get younger.

Still, Annie Hall strikes me as his sweet spot of sorts. Yes, he shapes Annie into something more like what he desires, but here, at least, he offers the lesson that he might not actually like what he creates. Annie eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and Alvy wants her to stay in his own version of the Garden of Eden, one where she provides sexual satisfaction sans grass, and gets his references when he talks about films. She, however, wants to see where her newfound confidence takes her. In Allen’s version of the Fall, I guess Adam stays behind in the Garden while Eve goes running out into the world of sin. Or am I pushing this metaphor too far?

Leftridge: That's an angle that never dawned on me, so I salute your imagination although now that I think about it, I wonder if New York itself wouldn’t fit the Fall of Man, full of "left-wing, communist, homosexual pornographers," as Alvy says, and L.A. is the healthy, clean, pure-white land of happiness. Of course, Woody’s making plenty of fun of L.A. as tacky and fake, but it's interesting to see Manhattan depicted as a "dying city" back in the grimy old 1970s. Then again, the closest Annie Hall comes to actually showing NYC decrepitude is when the two Italian dudes accost Alvy while he’s waiting for Annie before the movie. “I’m standing here with the cast of The Godfather!” Alvy complains. (Of course, he delivers this line to Diane Keaton, an actual member of the cast of The Godfather.)

By the way, I actually saw this film in the theater when it came out in 1977. I was six years old. Looking back, my mom either impressively or inappropriately took me to a surprising number of non-kiddie films before I started kindergarten: The Sting, The Great Gatsby, Jaws, The Goodbye Girl, Rollercoaster, Annie Hall. I remember little bits of each of them although, admittedly, the only thing I’ve retained from my original viewing of Annie Hall was that animated Snow White bit. I’m sure the cocaine and cunnilingus jokes sailed over my head, as would have the complexities of Alvy’s character and his pessimistic view of the sustainability of lifelong love.

At the same time, the film is very romantic. Annie Hall contains some classic moments that capture the unexplainable enchantments of falling in love -- when Alvy tells Annie that he “lurves” her in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, when they wrestle with the lobsters, when they sit and make fun of people in the park. One of my favorite sequences -- sap that I am -- is the montage at the end of the film that shows scenes from Alvy and Annie’s sweetest memories while we hear Annie sing “Seems Like Old Times”. The funny thing is that these are the exact same clips from earlier in the film, which results in the viewer getting nostalgic about a movie that we’re still watching. Gets me every time. After all, life is divided between the horrible and the miserable, so like Alvy, I’m thankful to be among the miserable.

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