Essential Films: Annie Hall (1977)

I think we’re all familiar with the genre of the rom-com: two people start out separate, and then they meet and slowly come together. the rest of the film is devoted to exploring the relationship as it progresses, and the suspense for us lies in whether or not they stay together at the end. Despite how formulaic this genre may seem, there really are endless permutations and variations that can be applied here, and every once in a while, you get a film that really illustrates the best of what the genre has to offer. One thing that sets the romantic comedy genre apart from your typical romance film is, well obviously, the comedy. But trying to alleviate the tension and anxiety of the couple by adding humor can often go too far, resulting in stories that risk becoming too cheerful and too shallow to feel genuine. So, for me, the best romantic comedies are those which are able to properly balance the humor with the real problems that people go through in relationships. Annie Hall remains one of the first and one of the best examples of a film successfully balancing the bittersweet ups and downs of the modern relationship. At the time of its release, it was unconventional for a romance movie, mainly because at the end the guy doesn’t actually get the girl. But it was also unconventional for a comedy, because there’s a certain kind of melancholy which underlies the film’s jokes. “While Annie Hall includes many jokes, the jokes often contribute a tragic element of characterization or feature as part of a tragic twist to the romantic narrative.” Throughout the course of their relationship, main character Alvy Singer and his girlfriend Annie Hall exhibit signs of paranoia, obsession, depression, and so forth, and while the film finds particularly funny ways of portraying this, it never allows the humor to detract from the reality of the characters’ struggles. It goes without saying that this is, on all accounts, a Woody Allen film. In addition to writing and directing the film, Allen also starred alongside his ex-girlfriend Diane Keaton, meaning that, in a sense, the two were basically reenacting their own past relationship within the film. Now, in many ways, Annie Hall marked a distinctive shift in Allen’s style and his career path. Allen himself comments that, “in Annie Hall, [he] had reached some kind of a personal plateau where [he] felt that [he] could put the films that [he] had done in the past behind [him] and [he] wanted to take a step forward toward realistic and deeper films. It was a real turning point for [him] in every way. From then on, [he] really counts Annie Hall as the first step towards maturity in making films.” When i first watched the film, I was a bit underwhelmed because like many of the audiences who originally saw it, I was introduced to Woody Allen’s work through his earlier less serious films, which were more focused on his particular brand of ridiculous surreal humor. So when Annie Hall took a more subdued tone, I didn’t really know how to react. But over time, my respect for the film quietly grew, and when I watched again, knowing this time what to expect, I was better able to recognize the film’s genius. One of the easiest and most tempting ways to recommend a film is to compare it to another film, and that’s actually how I was going to start this video: introducing Annie Hall by comparing it to its modern successor that was clearly inspired by it, (500) Days of Summer. But the problem with this method is that sometimes the friend you’re talking to hasn’t seen the film that you’re using as a reference point, and similarly, I don’t know how many of the people who are watching this have seen (500) Days of Summer. Nonetheless, I think it’s good to examine some of the differences and similarities between these two films as a means of drawing attention to what makes Annie Hall so distinct as a story. Like (500) Days of Summer, Annie Hall is structured as the non- chronological reflections of a man on a past relationship, and both films also employ various fantasy sequences and unexpected camera tricks to create some really funny unexpected and memorable scenes. But while (500) Days centers on the divide between expectation and reality, Annie Hall goes a bit further. In this scene, Tom’s delusions about his relationship with Summer dissipate, and he becomes aware of his false expectations. But Annie Hall isn’t just about expectations vs. reality; it’s about a problem with perception vs. reality, and it’s about how the main character’s desires influence that perception and how his more deeply ingrained psychological problems influence those desires. Early on in the film, Allen’s character Alvy comments on his own struggle with this: “You know, I have a hyperactive imagination. My mind tends to jump around a little and I have some trouble between fantasy and reality.” This comment serves to establish the film’s very fluid sense of reality. The fourth wall is very often broken and characters often intrude upon memory, and memory and fantasy frequently intrude upon reality, always for an unexpected comedic effect. But all the film’s clever imagine spots aren’t merely there for the humor; they also reinforce the more serious divide between truth and perception, and it’s the connection here between humor and theme which keeps the varied style of the film’s jokes from seeming incoherent. But the film doesn’t simply address the problem of delusion on the individual level; it also hints that Alvy’s problem might be more universal, that maybe we all delude ourselves a little bit in our relationships with others. “In fact the dichotomy of the real and the ideal, addressed by Allen through the implied difference between documentary and fiction, was part of solving the problem of why human relationships can be so difficult… Annie Hall is, in some sense, a testimony on the tendency of an entire culture to deny and deceive itself.” It’s important here to focus on the original working title for the film: “anhedonia”, which literally means the inability to feel pleasure. This is what Allen essentially believes is wrong with his main character. As soon as Alvy has what he wants, he loses interest in it, and this prevents him from being able to maintain stability in his relationship with Annie. He becomes paranoid that her desire for him is fading, and in response, he overreacts. He fears that the happiness he’s experiencing is the result of his own delusion, and thus he creates a delusion of misery to live in instead. These psychological elements of the film are important because, well, the film places an emphasis on psychology. Psychoanalytical therapists are omnipresent in the film, and Alvy himself is obsessed with trying to psychoanalyze himself, filtering back through his memories at the film’s beginning and trying to figure out where things went wrong. This explains the film’s stream-of-consciousness structure. In the early minutes of the film, the scenes are linked by Alvy’s train of thought: one memory leads to another which leads to another, all linked not by the passage of time, but by words or ideas which connect them. “…a series of cold showers.” “Max, my serve gonna send yuh to the showers early.” “Right, right.” Unfortunately, a subject that has to be discussed when analyzing any Woody Allen film is Woody Allen himself. To say that he’s become a controversial figure over time is a bit of an understatement. When an artist is controversial, the default response of critics is to try to find a way to distance or separate the work from the artist, which honestly doesn’t make much sense, because good or bad, there is always a connection between the artist and the work he produces, and despite how much we believe that the two are different, trying to find the similarity will better help us understand the artists and their work. Some people are disillusioned when they discover that the lovable on-screen Woody Allen is, in real life, kind of an asshole. But for me it’s been easier to reconcile him with his creative output because I’ve always seen the characters that he plays as assholes as well. Present in all of them is a preoccupation with sex, death, and the self… “I’m obsessed with death. I think. Big subject with me. I have a very pessimistic view of life; you should know this about me if we’re going to go out, you know, I feel that life is is divided up into the horrible and miserable: those are the two categories. You know, the horrible would be like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, cripples, I don’t know how they get through life, it’s amazing to me, you know, and the miserable is everyone else. So when you go through life, you should be thankful that you’re miserable. Because you’re very lucky to be miserable.” …that all contributes to a personality which is on the whole very narcissistic. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy watching his films. I think he’s one of the funniest men to ever grace the screen. But despite his wit and his wisdom about life and relationships, it’s still easy to see Allen himself falling into the same psychological traps that his characters fall into; the traps of self-centeredness, of being blind to the needs of others. I don’t think that it’s wrong to pick apart Allen’s own mind and the mind of his character simultaneously, because he invites it. On many occasions, he has remarked that many of these characters closely resemble himself. I think it’s particularly telling that in this film the character is a Jewish New York-based comedian, much like Allen himself at the time. In the film, then, Allen is acknowledging his own shortcomings, but as we see from his own life, being aware of your shortcomings doesn’t always mean being able to move past them. So, without pardoning his mistakes, we have to recognize that they are a part of not only his personal identity, but also his artistic identity, just as his work serves as a testament to his talent and intellect in his life behind and apart from the camera. “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it’s real difficult in life.” So what is the final message of Annie Hall? We know at this point that the film’s main focus is about addressing the problems that we all have in distinguishing between perception, desire and reality in the realm of modern relationships. But so far I haven’t said anything about what kind of solution film offers in response to this problem, if any. I think that Allen’s solution lies in the film’s ending, where we are shown a montage of their relationship. Here, as his journey through his memories is finally coming to a close, Alvy is realizing that the time he spent and the memories that he’s gained have made the experience worth it, because in the realm of memory, time is, in fact, irrelevant and moments are suspended in time, isolated indefinitely. it may sound cliche, especially now that I’m essentially repeating the same message from last week’s review, but maintaining a positive perspective on life requires accepting the bad with the good, and that, despite the cost, there’s something in us which compels us, some part of us that needs the companionship that another human being can provide. Throughout the review, I’ve tried spoiling as few jokes as possible because many of the jokes really only work in context, when you have the weight of the drama propelling them forward. Also because, as I discussed in my Airplane! review, the unexpected is the essence of comedy, and there are so many unexpected little gags throughout the film that I couldn’t bring myself to ruin the surprise. But in the end, despite how varied and hilarious and coherent the film’s comedy is, I hope I don’t need to use the comedy to convince you to see it, because despite being a particularly smart and inventive film, it’s also a profound one and, if you’re willing to give it a chance, a very emotionally moving film, too. “Like, I would want to actually have, like, a very great life and to, like, know that it was fake. Like, that that would make the steak taste better to me, it’s like, a computer put work into stimulating this so that I could taste it.” “And it still sucks…”


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