Monday, June 13, 2011

Annie Hall (1977)

          Whether it’s viewed as the climax of Woody Allen’s early career as a self-deprecating comedian or the beginning of his later career as a serious filmmaker, Annie Hall is an extraordinary piece of work. Among many other things, Annie Hall is Allen’s first attempt at a Big Statement, simultaneously a deep exploration of one specific relationship and a microcosmic study of relationships in general. Furthermore, the picture contains two of the most vividly sketched characters in ’70s cinema, both of whom are fictionalized versions of the actors playing them: Annie Hall, the eccentric singer portrayed by Diane Keaton, and Alvy Singer, the neurotic comic portrayed by Allen.
          To the filmmaker’s great credit, neither character gets off easily, because both are depicted as fascinating people capable of infuriating behavior—and both are shown to be almost pathologically incapable of subverting their identities into the collective identity of a couple, despite being very much in love. (Allen had a lengthy real-life affair with Keaton, his costar in a string of beloved ’70s films.) Yet the bond between Alvy and Annie isn’t the film’s only romance; Annie Hall illustrates Allen’s devotion to the island of Manhattan by creating several hilarious fish-out-of-water scenes depicting Alvy gasping for air whenever he’s taken off the bedrock of New York City.
          The bits of Alvy disastrously trying to cook lobsters in a beach house and trying to drive in Los Angeles are tiny comic masterpieces, just as the interaction between Alvy and his sitcom-producer pal, Rob (Tony Roberts), articulates Allen’s contempt for the assembly-line approach to creating Hollywood pabulum. Some of the most vivid material in the picture involves Annie’s WASP family, particularly the unforgettably funny/creepy scenes of Annie’s brother, Duane (Christopher Walken), giving a speech about vehicular suicide—and then taking a terrified Alvy for a car ride.
          As the title suggests, however, the movie’s most memorable invention is Annie herself, a character so individualistic she inspired a fashion craze as women tried to mimic Keaton’s offbeat wardrobe of repurposed men’s clothing. Whether you find Annie appealing or irritating is a matter of taste, but it’s impossible not to appreciate moments like the scene in which Annie magically leaves her body during sex because she’s bored.
          Beyond Allen and Keaton, both of whom are at their very best, Annie Hall features a deep well of colorful actors in supporting roles, from featured performers Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane, and Paul Simon (yes, the singer-songwriter) to bit player Sigourney Weaver, who makes her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screen debut at the end of the picture. Yet perhaps the funniest mini-performance in the picture is given by author Marshall McLuhan, who appears in a quintessential Allen moment: As Alvy waits in line at a theater, listening to a windbag pontificate about McLuhan’s media theories, Alvy wishes he could set the guy straight, so he yanks the real McLuhan from behind a poster, upon which McLuhan says to the windbag, “You know nothing of my work.”
          It’s a given that Allen’s movies aren’t for everyone, but Annie Hall winningly sets his intellectualism, narcissism, and neuroticism into a palatable framework by dramatizing the perils of being opinionated about everything; in a very important way, Annie Hall is the Allen movie for people who don’t like Allen movies, since it depicts the inability of a character very much like Woody Allen to comfortably exist in everyday life.



Peter L. Winkler said...

Duane (Christopher Walken) delivers his brief monologue about wanting to steer his car into another in the opposing lane to Alvy in his bedroom, before the scene where he's driving Annie and Alvy at high speed in the rain in his Porsche.

By Peter Hanson said...

Oops! Sometimes the fingers type a bit faster than the brain thinks. The error's been fixed, and thanks for letting me know...

Tommy Ross said...

The great thing about Woody is he makes films for himself, making him a true artist. He does it not to try and make a hit or a formula, nor to make money, but because as an artist he has to create. It's purely by luck and chance (one of his favorite subjects to pontificate) that we land up with occasional hits like Annie Hall or the recent Midnight In Paris. If you're a fan, it's just another film, and case in point, his latest To Rome With Love got totally dogged by critics. I happen to think it's brilliant, like most of his work.