Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

This is the first Woody Allen-directed film most folks see, but whether you’re approaching it as audiences at the time did — expecting a sparsely connected series of uproarious, often silly, occasionally incisive gags — or with the foreknowledge of the more mannered and meticulous filmmaker Allen would soon become, Annie Hall is a shock and an outlier. At the time, it was slightly revolutionary, and it certainly rewrote the sheer notion of a romantic comedy in ways that are still felt now, because it was so disarmingly unfiltered, the extended act of a personal communication between a man, in this case the comedian and persona that was then Woody Allen, and his audience. This was an impressive illusion because by most accounts, the character Allen tended to play then, the one to which he now assigns a back story and trajectory not dissimilar to his own, has little in common with the soft-spoken, slightly nervy reality of who Woody Allen was. Allen and cowriter Marshall Brickman turn this exaggerated caricature into an honest and brutal three-dimensional creation.

Approaching it from the other direction, as a member of the audience that knows this man’s future and has seen Interiors, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories, each of which would redefine his directorial style from scratch, and then The Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanors on into Match Point and Midnight in Paris, what’s striking is how easy Allen found it then, however briefly, to please everyone. The shock is that this achingly melancholy film is in fact crammed full of jokes, comedic asides, and a veritable flood of idiosyncratic content that, in the greatest miracle of all, allows us to simultaneously share in its central character’s paranoia and pratfalls and to mock them derisively, mercilessly. Not since Chaplin and Keaton had anyone managed so elegantly to construct and deconstruct a comedic idea in the same desperate breath. Annie Hall is a missive from a man’s inner life, full of the fantastic and the unmistakably true in equal turns, and it’s knowing and self-critical enough to have a permanence that transcends the specificity of Allen and his contemporaries.

The progression of Allen’s filmmaking from Take the Money and Run to this is intriguing because it places Allen in a rare class of directors who found eclecticism and restlessness quickly became their only options, a delicious irony for a man whose tastes in popular entertainment have remained coyly conservative; his films consistently exist in a world that, except politically, hasn’t really moved past the mid-’60s in any cultural terms, and they’re also marked by the contradiction of a man who both loves and hates such intellectual vagaries. The problem was that Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Sleeper couldn’t be improved upon; in terms of the sort of films Allen was interested in making then, they were perfection. There was nowhere to go except the formal experimentation of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and Love and Death, and then the utter audacity of Annie Hall, which shares plenty with its predecessors. It breaks the fourth wall, it’s tangential and goofy, it moves along at an almost breathtaking clip, and it’s extremely funny. Some say it’s his first primarily “verbal” film, but Sleeper, his most technically accomplished film to this point, despite its preponderance of visual gags, had an equally witty and literate script, as did Love and Death.

There’s no doubt, still, that Annie Hall represented a sort of explosion, and it remains the watershed moment for Allen, arguably the point when he ceased being a comedian and became a film director. We can’t escape how much the themes of Annie Hall played a part in this, for yet again, Sleeper proves a dramatic foreshadowing; it just so happens that Annie Hall is about something so simple as a budding, developing, flourishing, then declining relationship between a young couple over the course of we’re never exactly told how long, we only know how it feels. In a trick that seems indebted to Allen’s earlier, hyperkinetic films, the story foregoes chronology, but it’s hardly a series of vignettes — instead it uses the techniques acquired in the earlier features to find a way to tell this story through emotional crescendos and memories, the way we actually experience our personal relationships and impressions of them. It’s hard to overstate just how influential Annie Hall would prove to be, but we can’t help wishing it were even more so, its self-critical analysis of this love affair and breakup are so smart and sad and vivid. For all its tomfoolery and Allen’s constant temptation to break tension with a sharp one-liner (something else the film eventually mocks), this remains one of the great romantic films made in America because its understanding of the way in which couples connect, relate, love, and fall apart is so salient and undiluted.

Interestingly, said romance was a mere subplot in Allen’s script for the film, which was initially an ambitious undertaking that encompassed, depending on whose account you trust, Bergman-like drama and/or a whodunit that was lopped off by Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum (who, it’s often said, virtually shaped the movie as we know it) to eventually become Manhattan Murder Mystery. We’re left with the ancillary material, including charming flashbacks to the childhood and early family life of Alvy Singer, Allen’s central character and a clear real-world embodiment of the nebbish figure he created in his stand-up, as well as clever and ruthless deconstructions of his earlier relationships that manage somehow to both make ridiculous jokes of them and render their palpable pain in three dimensions. It’s hard to imagine Annie Hall as anything but the film we know, so seamless is its movie logic and so immaculate is the writing, but when you watch carefully you can sense how a much more expansive narrative has been condensed to create it. What seems to have happened is that Allen filmed a universe of the ideas he and Marshall Brickman had, and Rosenblum pared them down to their emotional essence.

The Godardian experiments, like subtitles for characters’ thoughts, the split-screen trickery, Gordon Willis’ eye-popping photography, the changes of characters’ appearance according to POV, a brief animated sequence and the invited intrusion of the real world into the film’s narrative, stand out for the first-time viewer, but it’s things like Annie’s first botched attempt at a conversation with Alvy, the tension of his fixations oppressing her, and the resigned, anticlimactic breakup that stand out in the mind the longest. No matter how vulnerable we all are about what we recognize of ourselves in the film, though, quiz us and we’re likely to think first and foremost of Allen sneezing in cocaine (an accident), Annie’s literal detachment from sex, Christopher Walken’s wild-eyed night drive, and the endless parade of classic lines about “sex with someone I love” and “two or three times a week” as the perfect manifestation of the film’s equal affection for truth and ridiculousness, never sad for long without being funny, or vice versa.

For me, the film’s most telling moment — later rhymed by a vital sequence in another of Allen’s masterpieces, Manhattan — comes late in the run. Having enjoyed a believable bonding experience with Annie in a chaotic afternoon of cooking lobsters, he attempts to duplicate it with a new girlfriend, only to witness how her normalcy, her absence of a synchronicity with both his true self and his affected self — “are you making a joke?” — completely deflates his excitement. This scene alone says more about the nature of adult relationships and their larger meaning in our lives than a year’s worth of modern Hollywood romcoms. And it says something as well about the Woody Allen persona as an egged-on function of a heightened reality, hence about movies themselves. It’s as if Alvy Singer is this concoction and Annie adored the action and business of it all and agreed to play a part in his whirlwind, and it’s only through her belief in him that he could exist — to, in turn, entertain us.

It seems almost trite to mention the grandness of both lead performances, but Allen is wonderful, the best he’d ever been up to now, in some ways the best he’d ever be. Diane Keaton, though, is staggering; her reading, physical and verbal, of every scene she’s in is note-perfect, the character she created funny and surreal and vividly there in a sense seldom afforded the totems and waifish figures of love interests in film comedies. Theirs is a complex, multilayered relationship, and the two characters are extremely intricate as well, but hers especially — and Keaton’s contribution adds immeasurably to what’s already in Allen and Brickman’s script. By the end, we know just who Annie is and why Alvy fell for her, and that final lament of his about being sad that it didn’t work out but so glad that they got to be together for a while? I’m not sure any one line in any movie sends me into tearful hysterics quite like that one. It’s perfect, a kind-natured and loving sendoff to a human being, and a deep thesis to a film that plucks at our preconceptions and hearts as well as any. It’s the funniest of all heartbreaks, the most devastating of all comedies.

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