Film School in 93 Minutes

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall

Even for his die-hard fans (those unlucky souls who actually paid good money to sit through The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending and Celebrity), Woody Allen has become something of a cinematic anachronism — a filmmaker who continues to churn out movies despite having run out of interesting stories to tell and interesting ways to tell them. Sure, he still manages to come up with a Match Point every now and then, but that entertaining update of Crimes and Misdemeanors didn’t find him breaking any new ground. Watching other recent efforts like Scoop or Melinda and Melinda, filled with lazily framed master shots and haphazard cutting, you’d never guess that Allen was, for many years, one of American cinema’s most inventive directors. As far back as his second feature, 1971’s Bananas, he was proving himself a unique comic voice, opening that rambunctious comedy with an assassination sequence that’s narrated in full play-by-play mode by sportscaster Howard Cosell.

Another memorable Bananas moment is the Bergmanesque dream sequence involving a group of black-robed monks attempting to parallel park a crucified Allen. While this scene is played for laughs, it’s also very precisely directed — a marked contrast to the looser, almost amateurish style of the rest of the film. Allen, who regularly cites Ingmar Bergman as an influence, had obviously studied the director’s work enough to know the kinds of shots the Swedish master himself might use in such a scene. (Allen would go on to perfect his Bergman impression in Love and Death, the best of his “early, funny” comedies, and Interiors, decidedly not a laugh riot.) He accomplished a similar feat the following year in his anthology film Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) , which featured a “chapter” about the female orgasm filmed in the style of late ’60s/early ’70s Italian cinema, right down to the jazzy score, the shaky zooms and the Antonioni-like use of empty space. Once again, this was intended as a goof, but as a piece of direction it’s strikingly close to the real thing.

If Allen began his career as a talented mimic, by the end of the ’70s he had blossomed into an innovative filmmaker in his own right. Who can forget the beautiful black-and-white photography in Manhattan, shot in collaboration with ace cinematographer Gordon Willis? Those postcard-perfect images present a romanticized vision of New York that serves as an effective counterpoint to the movie’s embittered characters. 1983’s Zelig is another striking achievement, with Allen seamlessly inserting himself into newsreel footage years before Robert Zemeckis had Forrest Gump meet John F. Kennedy. (He also accomplished this difficult technical feat on a lower budget, and without the benefit of computer technology.) Over the next decade, Allen would continue to experiment with his visual style, bathing the streets of Rockaway Beach and the rooftops of Times Squre in a nostalgic glow for 1986’s Radio Days, going handheld for 1992’s Husbands and Wives, and breaking out Godardian jump cuts for 1997’s Deconstructing Harry.

And then there’s Annie Hall, a movie that holds a critical place in Allen’s filmography, and not just because it won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977 (one of the few times that a comedy has taken home the big prize) and is frequently counted amongst the greatest romantic comedies of all time. This is the picture that bridges the two halves of his career, the wild-and-crazy comic and the serious filmmaker. Watching it, you can sense a director gaining a new confidence in his skills — even more impressive when you take into account the haphazard way the movie came together. Annie Hall began its life as a zany murder mystery, but as Allen and his collaborator Marshall Brickman worked on the script, they realized that the mystery angle was a dead end and shifted the focus onto the relationship between neurotic New Yorker Alvy Singer and chipper Chippewa Falls refugee Annie Hall (played by the director’s then-muse Diane Keaton). It was during the rewriting process that Allen devised some of the film’s key formal elements — such as its fragmented narrative and spare use of music — ideas he would continue to refine during production and in the editing room.

Viewers coming to Annie Hall for the first time may find themselves to be too busy laughing to realize what a technically sophisticated film it is. Technique was certainly the last thing on my mind when I first saw the film as a teenage movie buff; all I knew at that point was that I had just seen the funniest movie ever made. It was only upon repeat viewings (and there were many) that I began to look past the jokes and paid more attention to the way Allen told the story. This fascination with Annie Hall coincided with my growing interest in studying the art of filmmaking; as I consumed more movies and books about movies, I noticed that many of the techniques I was reading about and observing elsewhere could be seen in Annie Hall. In this way, the movie became a kind of small-scale film school for me. Because it played this instrumental role in my cinematic education, and because it’s a film I can watch over and over again without getting tired of, whenever I’m asked to name my all-time favorite film, I can reply without any hesitation whatsoever: “Annie Hall.”

I can’t tell the story of how I fell for Annie Hall without talking about how I fell for Woody Allen, or, to be more specific, the Woody Allen he played in his movies. My first Allen film was Bananas, which I saw when I was 15. As soon as Woody (or, as he was called in that film, Fielding Mellish) appeared, I knew that I had found a new screen idol. It wasn’t just that we were both bespectacled Jewish nerds; what made him a hero in my impressionable eyes was that he never let his nerdiness stop him from going after something he wanted. For me, the Woody character’s defining moment comes in an early scene in Bananas when he tries to ask out a woman he works with. After psyching himself up in the hallway outside her office, he moves to open the door ... and the knob comes off in his hand. Despite this setback, he swaggers into her office, still clutching the doorknob. Really, there’s no reason for him to go through with it; he’s already blown his chances at getting that date, so he could easily turn around and flee. Naturally, the woman turns him down, but the rejection wasn’t important. What mattered was that Woody remained confident in the face of overwhelming defeat. (Besides, he landed a hotter girl by the end of the movie anyway.) Few things boost a geek’s ego more than seeing another geek persevere and even triumph despite his awkwardness.

Thrilled at having found this great geek hero, I immediately set about watching every Woody Allen film I could get my hands on. As fate would have it, I followed up Bananas with Annie Hall; as much as Fielding’s misadventures made me laugh, Alvy’s story had me in hysterics. From the moment his former grammar school classmates stared into the camera lens and told us where they were now (“I sell tallises”; “I was a heroin addict, now I’m a methadone addict”; “I’m into leather”), I was under the movie’s comic spell, and as soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it again. For my birthday that year, my parents enrolled me in the Columbia House movie club and Annie Hall was the first film I ordered (along with This is Spinal Tap — it was a two-for-one deal). As soon as the tapes arrived, I popped Annie Hall in the VCR and readied myself to crack up all over again. But something was different this time around. While I still laughed in all the same places, I also realized (rather belatedly, I know) what a melancholy movie it was. When the film was over, I found myself wondering why Alvy’s deep sadness didn’t register with me before. Was I too busy laughing? Had I grown more observant in the span of a year? Did it have something to do with the fact that I was going through a bout of typical adolescent angst due to an unrequited crush? And the million-dollar question: could I still consider it a comedy or was it really more of a drama? This was the first time that I could remember having such a different experience with a movie on a repeat viewing. So I decided that I would make a point of watching Annie Hall at least once a year, to see if it continued to change and also to find out if there were other things about it that I had missed the first time around.

Cut to 1995. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had just arrived in Hong Kong, where we were living at the time, and as with every other movie buff who came of age in the ’90s, it became an instant favorite with me. It wasn’t just Tarantino’s fanboy-friendly dialogue that got my then 17-year-old heart pumping; it was the confidence with which the film shattered traditional storytelling conventions. Obviously, I know now that Tarantino wasn’t the first person to employ a fragmented, elliptical narrative, but at the time it seemed revolutionary. So imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch Annie Hall again — and realized that Allen had done the same thing two decades ago! As Alvy informs us in his opening monologue, he’s in the process of sifting the “pieces” of his failed relationship with Annie through his mind and the story subsequently unfolds as a tapestry of memories, which aren’t necessarily in chronological order. The first time we meet Annie, for example, it’s in a scene that takes place towards the end of their second attempt at coupledom. We don’t see their first meeting until almost a half-hour in, and even after that, the arc of their relationship isn’t always presented linearly. Speaking with Stig Björkman for the book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen remarks that he chose this structure — which represented a significant departure from his earlier pictures — because it gave the film a “very free feeling.” When you watch the movie, you’re never quite sure where Alvy’s memory will take you next, but, the fragmented narrative presents us with a more complete picture of this relationship than we might have seen in a traditional film. Letting the audience know in advance that Annie and Alvy are doomed allows Allen to bypass the usual will-they-or-won’t-they question that serves as the engine for most romantic comedies. After all, this ultimately isn’t a movie about two people who fall in love; it’s about two people who are already in love, but are coming to the realization that they just aren’t right for each other.

Alvy’s role as the film’s narrator was the element I focused on the next time I saw Annie Hall in 1996. I was returning to the movie having just watched Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, another mid-’90s hit that did for unreliable narrators what Pulp Fiction did for elliptical narratives. Just as Suspects asks you to question what Verbal Kint is telling you, you can’t watch Annie Hall without wondering whether Alvy is giving us an accurate depiction of his relationship with Annie. These are all his memories; we don’t necessarily know that Annie would remember their time together in the same way. If we lay out the film’s timeline linearly, he’s telling us the story not long after she shot down his marriage proposal, which gives him plenty of motivation to portray her in a negative light. From the opening monologue, he’s cajoling us to see things his way, insisting that he’s not a “depressive character” (an assertion that we quickly learn isn’t true) and that he’s objectively trying to figure out “where the screw-up” came.

Alvy’s desire to control our perception of the film’s reality further manifests itself in the scenes where he breaks the fourth wall and appeals to us directly. The most famous example of this device involves a pontificating professor and a well-timed cameo by Marshall McLuhan, but there’s an even more revealing moment that occurs later in the film. In this scene, Annie has just come home from her first appointment with a psychiatrist and tells Alvy about all the progress she made during that single hour. Their conversation concludes with the following exchange:

Annie: You know something? I don’t think I mind analysis at all. The only question is, will it change my wife?

Alvy: Will it change your wife?

Annie: Will it change my life.

Alvy: Yeah, but you said “Will it change my wife?”

Annie: No, I didn’t. I said “Will it change my life?”, Alvy.

Alvy: You said “Will it ... ” — wife. You said wife.

Annie: Life. I said life!

Alvy [to camera]: She said “Will it change my wife?” You heard that, because you were there, so I’m not crazy.

Although this appears to be a minor scene, it’s arguably the most important moment in the whole movie. In eight lines of dialogue, Allen addresses the fallibility of memory. Did Annie actually say “wife” instead of “life,” as Alvy claims? Or is this a case where he has misremembered something and doesn’t want to own up to it? It’s obviously of huge importance to him that we accept his version of events, hence his insistence that “[we] were there.” He realizes that if we were to doubt him in that moment, it would render the rest of his story suspect as well. I’ve thought about this scene a lot over the years and what it implies about Alvy’s trustworthiness: to his credit, he doesn’t edit out the memories that portray him in an unflattering light. And by the end of the film, it sounds like he’s made peace with this part of his life. So inevitably I keep coming back to the not-very-original conclusion that the truth most likely lies somewhere in between.

Not all of my viewings of Annie Hall yielded such fertile food for thought. Sometimes I watched the film just to study how Allen employed a specific technique. For example, Annie Hall features a number of impressive long takes, most notably a conversation between Alvy and his buddy Rob that takes place about five minutes into the movie. The sequence begins with a wide shot of a Manhattan sidewalk; we hear Alvy and Rob (or, as they call themselves, Max and Max) talking to each other but neither man appears to be in the frame. Then off in the distance at the other end of the block, we spot two figures walking towards us. As they come closer, we can see that it’s them. The camera remains in a fixed position as they walk into a mid-shot, at which point it dollies back, following them for a few moments until they exit the frame. Later on, there’s a lengthy scene between Alvy and his first wife Allison (Carole Kane) in which Allen’s camera makes a smooth 360-degree pan around their bedroom. (This shot is echoed in a later scene where Annie first invites Alvy up to her apartment and regales him with a story about her narcoleptic relative.) In Björkman’s book, Allen talks about how he approached Annie Hall as a chance to experiment with long takes. “Most of my latest pictures are just built up on long, long master-shots,” he adds. “I got away from shooting any kind of coverage years ago. It just seems more fun and quicker and less boring for me to do long takes.” (Of course, one could make a very convincing argument that his preference for master shots eventually turned into a crutch.)

Another striking thing about the film is its use of a largely diegetic soundtrack. Unlike all of Allen’s movies up until that point, there’s very little music in Annie Hall: no peppy riffs play over the opening credits as in Bananas or Sleeper, and when we do hear a song, the source is always visible onscreen: a car radio, a film score. or somebody’s singing voice. The absence of a conventional soundtrack distinguishes Annie Hall from the majority of romantic comedies made today, which all too often follow the Cameron Crowe model of overstuffing a movie with music to the point where it drowns out, rather than amplifies, the emotional weight of a scene. “I was just experimenting,” Allen told Björkman. “If I did that same film today, it would probably be full of music.” If that’s the case, let’s be thankful he made Annie Hall when he did.

While my annual viewings of Annie Hall continued through high school, as I moved on to college and then out into the real world the tradition slowly fell by the wayside. (Not that I went out of my way to avoid the film; in fact, on our honeymoon, I dragged my wife to a screening of the movie at a small repertory theater in Paris. Fortunately, she’s a fan of Ms. Hall as well so she didn’t need a lot of persuading.) Before sitting down to write this piece, I pulled the disc off the shelf — my well-worn VHS copy having long since been replaced by the bare-bones DVD edition — and watched it all the way through for the first time in several years. I can’t say that I experienced any major revelations, apart from the fact that I was able to recognize all the Manhattan locations immediately now that I’m a veteran New Yorker. Regardless, it was great seeing the movie again; I realized what a terrific film Annie Hall is and how much fun it is just watching it. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking and inventive and inspiring, and I keep coming back to it because all of us need a film like that in our lives.