Saturday, January 22, 2011

Annie Hall

Year: 1977
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 35
Writer: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Director: Woody Allen
Star: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane

Thank God we have that screen separating us from Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), because if we had to be in a room with the guy for more than an hour we might think that first-degree murder might not be such a bad idea after all. But since we are observing Alvy from a distance, even when he addresses the camera directly, we can look past his so-damn-annoying nature, actually listen to what he has to say and, ultimately, get a lot of insight from what he tells us.

Alvy is probably the best incarnation of Allen’s sometimes-engaging, sometimes annoying “New York Neurotic” character that he played in countless films. Alvy freely admits all of his vices and neuroses but is too obsessed with himself to do anything about it, despite seeing a therapist for the past fifteen years. Like everyone else, he wants to be loved but can’t imagine a woman who meets his standards could ever want him. He quotes that great philosopher Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that accepts me as a member.” This is a man with deep problems, ones that the movie doesn’t exist to solve or admire, but to observe.

Because Alvy is so self-deprecating and lacks even the slightest bit of self-censorship we hear things from him and see things in the film that would otherwise go unheard. Other film stars were, and still are, too vain to have dealt with the material with the same sad-yet-humorous tone.

Many of Allen’s sequences were so inventive and pierces so closely to the truth of relationships and the way humans interact that they have been ripped off regularly in the decades since. How many times have we seen random animated interludes in romantic comedies? Or a device where both characters are in different conversations but addressing the same subject? Or how about when characters are saying one thing and their thoughts or emotions are subtitled below? My favorite moment is when Alvy is about to have sex, but his partner’s spirit seems to physically leave her body and go watch from a chair a few feet away.

Sadly, since these tropes, once so original, have been ripped off in lesser form so often, they can’t help but have lost some of their original power. The animated sequence in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb today. In 1977, I’m guessing just cutting to an animated sequence was enough to make viewers laugh back then, but today the viewer needs sharper dialogue and a better tag in the sequence to really make you laugh. I feel the same way, to a lesser extent, about the subtitled thoughts, but the dual dialogue sequence remains as sharp today as ever.

At the center of all this emotional turmoil and trauma (almost all of which is created by Alvy) is the title character, played with a great balance of charm and eccentricity by Diane Keaton. And how great is it that Annie is actually a “character” in a romantic comedy? Not only does she have opinions on books, films and culture, but she also has interests and real motivations. Filmmakers have become so damn lazy in recent years in their treatment of women. Even if she’s the main character in a film she often lacks any distinguishable trait. Screenwriters think that merely making her “busy” and “wrapped up in work” give her interests and enough characterization to get by. They don’t. And an even lazier subset of writers time and again make heroines obsessed with “finding the right guy” or “getting married” because it simplifies their goals and makes it easier to paint in broad strokes. Here, we understand Annie and why she is acting the way she does.

We also understand the relationship and why it breaks down. There are no romantic comedy clich├ęs to be found here—things happen because the characters are fated to behave in certain ways. Alvy falls in love with Annie because she isn’t a parrot and has her own personality and opinions. Annie falls out of love with Alvy because of that exact reason: She’s too strong of a personality to put up with his constant need for focus and attention, however humorous his self-deprecation may seem.

Both of these characters are smart, and that’s something else modern films have forgotten about. The characters talk about Proust, Fellini, Balzac, Kafka and McLuhan, to name a few, and not in a way that talks down to the viewers. If we get it, we get it. If not, they’ve already moved on. I miss when movies were this literate and even the Muppet films could make references to Bronte or Kafka without being censored. Any script with these references today would be marked with red pen immediately—what if someone doesn’t understand it!? God forbid. The movies have long forgotten this, but luckily television is beginning to rediscover it thanks to the work of such writers as Amy Sherman-Palladino and David E. Kelley.

Allen takes his time. There’s no quick cutting to ensure a joke has landed or hurried dialogue to make things seem funnier than they are. The shots are long and the characters inhabit the screen as if they are normal people congregated in a room together. Early in the film, a noisy filmgoer launches into an attack on Fellini that gets his films and their meanings precisely wrong, and I think that wasn’t random. A lot of this movie reminds me of Fellini in its emotion and with the patience the filmmaker shows in the various scenes and sequences.

Like any comedy, there are some misses, but “Annie Hall” hits the mark most of the time, and has a few gags and insights that linger long after the film is over. It’s the movie where Allen says just about everything he has to say about relationships, and has spent the rest of his career saying it over and over again, but with fewer laughs each time.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

1 comment:

Manish said...

Interesting analysis! you are spot-on!