Wednesday 17 August 2011

Annie Hall (1977)


One of the most commonly held criticisms of romantic comedies is that they’re all the same, that they all follow the same basic structure and fall into the same basic conclusions. What exactly can people take from this constant slew of generic output? How can you make any kind of personal connection to a story that is so wilfully generalised that it could have been written by a photocopier? It’s not often that you see a romantic comedy that feels like the person that wrote it actually knew what it was like to be in a relationship. That they understand all of the pain and joy that comes with the back and forth of a love story, and are still able to make it both honest and funny and personal. In 1977, one of the world’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, Woody Allen, gave the world his romantic comedy – Annie Hall.

After breaking up with his girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), comedian and perpetual ball of neuroses Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) looks back over their relationship, taking a stream of consciousness journey through the past and his own personality flaws trying to find out where it all went wrong.

I’m going to say it off the bat… I think Annie Hall is one of the best scripts ever. At the film’s opening, Alvy addresses the audience directly, telling two jokes that sum up how he feels about life (“full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”) and relationships (“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”). This is frankly one of the most impressively concise and economical openings in film. In less than two minutes, Allen has touched on comedy, tragedy, name-checked Groucho Marx and Sigmund Freud and summed up his main character with a depth and simplicity that’s rarely come across these days. It’s already identified itself as being intelligent and sincere, funny and cynical. The influences are clear and the heart equally so. It’s a hell of a start.

This precision is strewn throughout the film, and is full of so many great lines and memorable characters, that it’s truly something to behold. A scene in which Alvy mentally revisits his old school, recalling the beginnings of his fascination with girls and all they represented to him in later life, is brilliance and sheer comedy gold, especially as some of his classmates announce where they are when all grown up. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about… If you haven’t seen the film, I’m not spoiling it for you. Just watch it and thank me later.

The intelligence on display is so striking that it’s almost a bit intimidating, which is perhaps why we really don’t get stuff like this anymore. Characters openly and eruditely discuss art, film, history, death, psychology, media theory, politics, war… and the amazing thing is that you never feel beaten down by it, or left behind by it, because it’s all related back to the central relationship so well that it seems like the most natural thing for these people to do.

And it’s so damn funny. You could blindly point a finger at any page of the script and find a great line, from the very dark (“My grammy never gave gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”) to the satirical (“they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.”) to the oft classics (“Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”). Christ, the rate of jokes being fired off could almost rival Airplaine!.

The original title of Annie Hall was meant to be Anhedonia, which is the inability to derive pleasure or joy from anything, and is most definitely the thing that defines Alvy. Annie herself is described as polymorphously perverse, which means she can derive pleasure or joy from anything. The fact that the title was changed shortly before release because it would have been too difficult to explain is neither here nor there. This so wonderfully sums up the nature of the central relationship of the film. It identifies why these two, given their track record, find each other so appealing, but also why it can never work for them. She’s open to everything new; he’s open to nothing new. She sees the glass half full; he sees no point in discussing the contents of some glass because we’re all going to die someday. The fact that Alvy tells us at the beginning that this relationship never works out still doesn’t detract from our hopes as we watch it grow. They look they’re having such fun with each other, they seem to compliment each other so well in that ‘opposites attract’ kind of way. It may be clear that it never works out, but… how can it not work out? And who hasn’t been there in a relationship? This is what I was talking about earlier, about the feeling you get that the person talking to you in the film knows the realities of relationships. The giddy awkwardness of first attraction, the comfort of the intimacy, the gradual dulling of intensity, the sense of restlessness of at least one half of the couple, the bitterness and pain in the break-up… it’s a hell of a roller coaster when you look back on it all, full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Allen’s direction is as rich and dextrous as his script, and is something of scattergun genius because of it, always alive and engaging. The whole film is a flashback as recounted by Alvy, whom we know to be someone so full of splintered thoughts and half- contained neurotic diatribes that it’s a wonder he can get anything done without working himself into knots. Allen’s direction, therefore, matches this sensibility perfectly. The film is a melting pot of filmic techniques and methods that help to tell the story: split-screen; flashbacks within flashbacks; subtitles to show what character’s are really thinking during a conversation; Alvy dragging other people into his story for help and advice; Alvy directly addressing the camera; other characters addressing the camera; and scenes of fantasy, from dragging in intellectual theorists to settle arguments to a straight animated sequence where Alvy can’t even hold a decent relationship with the queen from Snow White. This sounds like an absolute torrent to deal with, but it remains so absolutely approachable that we never lose the train of Alvy’s thoughts or his heartache. It also goes without saying that Wendy Green Bricmont and Ralph Rosenblum’s editing is rock solid.

The acting is above reproach, even in the little roles. Christopher Walken damn near steals the whole show as Annie’s seriously unnerving brother; Paul Simon makes a convincingly slimy L.A. douche type; and Shelley Duvall and Carol Kane make a great, but understated impression as past girlfriend’s of Alvy. Allen himself is on top form, though it’s often said that he presented himself no great challenge since he’s playing himself. However, that’s just it, he’s not playing himself, not really. He’s playing a heightened version of himself, more shambolic and nervous, more prone to brazen self-importance. His half-apologetic defiance of a police officer in L.A. is great to watch. Above all, you can see and feel Alvy’s sincerity when he talks about himself or his views or, most importantly, Annie. And it’s not hard to see why. Diane Keaton is utterly superb as Annie, every inch the smart, ditzy, frustrated, radiant woman in Alvy’s heart. There’s not a moment where you don’t fall for her a little yourself every time you see her. And Allen and Keaton work so damn well together.

The true wonder of this wonderful film is found in how it ends. Yes, we know they don’t wind up together, even though you may spend the whole film wishing it so. Despite this, the film ends on a hopeful note. It’s hopeful because even though Alvy is still obsessed with death and a paralysed with self-analysis and psychosis and he didn’t get the girl, he came close. He got to see and feel genuine love for someone else and if he can do it, anyone can.

To this day, Annie Hall remains as funny and sad and poignant as it was when it was released, and is still one of the best examples of what a romantic comedy can be when done right. I love this film, and I do hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t already.

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