[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
In Annie Hall Woody Allen has created his most personal, most serious, most painfully funny, and best film. The first three don’t necessarily imply the last, but in this case that’s the way it works out. The concern with the interrelation between comedy and pain—a transformation of the earlier Allen’s more prosaic concern with love and death—is the center of the film, as it is the center of the life of standup comic Alvy Singer, Allen’s thinly disguised portrait of himself. The simultaneous egocentricity and self-denigration implied in Allen’s portrayal of Singer—and, indeed, in Allen himself—is summed up in his delivery of a classic joke in his opening, Bergmanesque monologue. Like most of the jokes Freud cites in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, it’s not the kind of joke you laugh at: “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would have me for one of its members.” True, Allen’s throwaway style evokes a chuckle; but for Alvy Singer there is more painful truth in this paradox of a joke than there is comic hilarity. It’s actually the second of two jokes that open the film, the first being an even less laughable one about life being ugly, miserable, depressing, and all too short.
The proposition that life is both agonizing and dear is sustained throughout. When record entrepreneur Tony Lacy invites Alvy Singer to a party that promises to be “very mellow,” Alvy declines, explaining, “When I get too mellow I ripen, and then I rot.” The vision of life-vs.-death pervades everything (“All the books you ever gave me had Death in the title,” girlfriend Annie Hall complains), and the double-layered vision is reflected emphatically in the film’s imagery. Alvy was born and raised in a house underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island: superficial joy on top of nervous depression: corrosive death gnawing at the underpinnings of assertive life. Alvy’s comedy—and the play he writes about himself and Annie near the end of the film—is his response to pain, and it is a fantasy response. The play ends the way Alvy wishes the real relationship with Annie had climaxed. Elsewhere he casually produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a theater lobby sign to refute the bullshit artist in the ticket line who pontificates about McLuhan without knowing his work. “If life could only be like this!” Alvy tells the camera, acknowledging and embracing his own dependence on a fantasy of a world that will reaffirm and justify him and his ideas. In the film, people on the street don’t mind being stopped by Alvy to give their point of view, or elucidate their corner of the world; and many of them seem to have information and understanding to which he is not privy, though they are happy to share it with him and offer advice.
This is the film’s most insistent image of Singer’s egocentricity: a world that circulates around him and is concerned for him: the fantasy of every alienated man in a crowded world. It’s important that the McLuhan encounter takes place in a movie theater ticket line, because movies have a lot to do with Alvy’s fantasies and his way of ordering the world in his imagination. As Alvy and Annie watch scenes from their youths—in the same way that the spirit of Bogart watched Allen Felix’s (Woody Allen’s) life in Play It Again, Sam—a theater marquee reads The Misfits. Repeated visits to The Sorrow and the Pity reaffirm Alvy’s conviction in a world filled with Jew-haters. His suspicions about California as filled with weird cults are confirmed by another marquee: House of Exorcism / Messiah of Evil. Early in the film the cinematic device of subtitling is used to express, in Strange Interlude manner, the gap between Alvy’s and Annie’s real self-doubts and anxieties, as their audible conversation continues a relatively empty discussion about photography. In a parallel scene late in the film the atmosphere is repeated, but this time we hear them think before they speak, and are impressed and amused when they speak out loud and quickly manage to say exactly what they mean; they have matured as people, even if their relationship has ripened into rot. “A relationship is like a shark,” says Alvy. “It has to keep moving forward to live. What we have is a dead shark.”
Even the wildest comedy has a way of wedging itself into the resonance of emotional truth. When Annie drops a bag of lobsters and they crawl all over the kitchen floor, Alvy (and Woody) has a comic holiday, tossing away one-liners as he gets delightful mileage out of his fear of touching the creatures. Annie meanwhile is snapping photographs of the ordeal, and later, after they have broken up and she, in her loneliness, has called him to her apartment at 3 in the morning to get a spider out of her bathroom, the photos are seen on the wall behind Alvy, like a ghost from the past. We connect the lobsters and the spider, and understand both the comedy and the desperation with which Alvy and Annie try to cement their relationship. Later still, when they have split for good, Alvy is advised to date other women, and immediately the lobster scene is repeated, just as before, but with a different woman in Annie’s place; she doesn’t see the humor of the situation, nor the humor of Alvy. To him, the point is clear: who but Annie can understand him so well? He is ready to fly to California to ask her to marry him; but even this seems ultimately self-serving, especially when we recall that Singer is a man with two failed marriages already behind him. The role he has played in Annie’s self-realization has been crucial—but is it presented to us by Alvy/Woody as a record of love and pain shared, or as a self-congratulatory record of his Pygmalion-like achievement? (Is it Allen’s directorial eye and our identification with Alvy Singer that makes us love Annie Hall? Or is it Diane Keaton’s brilliant performance that makes us know what she is like, and what loving her is like?)
Alvy’s/Allen’s egocentricity becomes subject and style of the film: the way he occupies the frame, his obsessions, his view of himself, his inability to consider anything except in terms of himself (“I had to miss my analysis today,” says Annie, “and all you can think of is how it’s going to affect you”). When Allen intercuts a brief shot of Alvy-as-Orthodox-Jew (complete with beard and payess) between two shots of Annie’s notoriously anti-Semitic grandmother looking his way, it’s not anything so simple as Alvy-as-Grammy-sees-him, but more like Alvy-as-he-sees-himself-imagining-how-Grammy-sees-him. It’s this way throughout the film. In showing us Alvy Singer, Allen seems really to be showing us his vision of himself. We become Alvy in the film—not so thoroughly that we can’t admire Annie’s independence from him, but just enough to see that the film’s subject is not a woman named Annie but a man’s involvement with himself. That recognition is central to the comedy and the seriousness that so affectingly coalesce in Annie Hall.
Allen’s framing reflects this. It’s him against the world, and every time he walks out of the frame, he makes sure he leaves it empty, or at least emphasizes (by a cut, or a long pan) the distance between himself and what he has left. In the last shot, when Alvy/Woody walks away from us as Annie walked away from him, the world that remains, however superficially cluttered it might be, is emphatically empty. The encouragement of the green WALK sign that inherits our attention at that moment is undercut by the fact that we don’t really focus on it, aren’t drawn to it with the kind of inevitability that should be there if the attention we had for Allen is to be passed to something else as solid. Instead our eyes wander to passing cars, trees, storefronts: it’s an appealing street scene, but we realize how alone with it we are, and how thoroughly we have become Alvy Singer.
I was skeptical when I walked into the theater to see Annie Hall. I had read too many reviews about how personal, honest, and sensitive the new Woody Allen film is. I didn’t want that; all I wanted from Woody Allen was for him to make me laugh, and keep doing it better and better. “All right, Allen,” I said, “show me.” He did. He made me laugh—and gave me a hell of a lot more to take home besides. I’m grateful.
Direction: Woody Allen. Screenplay: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Editing: Ralph Rosenblum.
The players: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Paul Simon, Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken, Donald Symington, Marshall McLuhan.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow