ANNIE HALL (1977)

AnniehallposterThe bad news has been confirmed by researchers from Scotland’s Heriot Watt University: watching romantic comedies is bad for our love lives. This validates the therapists who tell anecdotes about frustrated individuals coming in expecting to encounter in life a quasi-magical special person who will know their desires and feelings innately, without being told. We all know the familiar rom-com formula that has been an industry staple since the golden age of Hollywood: two people meet in the most novel of circumstance, they go through a phase of misunderstanding or mutual hostility before realizing how right they are for each other and achieving True Love. A successful template for a movie plot, yes, but as the researchers point out, it can distort our perception of reality and belie the hard work of communication and the development of trust and rapport that characterize successful relationships in reality. But people love their romantic movies! So what to do?

Perhaps this blogger can suggest to the Scottish researchers an antidote of sorts: 1977’s Annie Hall. In it, the protagonist, Alvy Singer, contemplates his failed relationship with the title character and we follow him through a series of remembrances in his attempt to make sense of it all. These vignettes aggregate to tell the story of a romance that follows an arc much more similar to real world relationships, but is nonetheless funny and ultimately heartbreaking.

Also, the guy who made it turned out to be a despicable deviant.

It’s really hard to watch this for the first time as someone who has great disdain for Woody Allen. The film is an easy, pleasant, enjoyable watch, but I couldn’t turn my brain off entirely to its creator. I found myself at times wishing we were seeing the film more through the eyes of Annie, played by Diane Keaton.

Annie is charming and likable – I especially found myself feeling for her in the first scene in which we see her singing in a nightclub. The bulk of the club goers speak over her, are visibility disinterested, and create a fairly demoralizing environment. Maybe I just find this easy to relate to as a musician myself. I think back on the times I poured my heart into practices to play a dreary sports bar for two people who were semi-conscious.

Unfortunately, I could also relate to Annie in her first meeting with Alvy, in which she is quite possibly the most awkward woman of all time. I’d love to see this exact same film with her serving as primary narrator. I can use my imagination and own experience to think of what she might have said, though.

When we enjoy art or culture, we want the creators to be something special, exemplars of virtue whom we can love as much as the creation. We wish them to be heroes. This is not realistic, long for it as we may. I’ve made peace with the fact that creative people are just people, with shortcomings and dark sides of their own. Allen, I admit, challenges this position for me. He is- depending on whom one believes – either a fellow with a rather unseemly personal life or a truly evil perpetrator of sex crimes. I’ve seen a few of his films and liked them quite a bit, but I think one of the reasons I haven’t trodden deeper into his catalogue is my distaste for the man. The fact that his work so often directly addresses sexual and romantic relationships makes it all the more difficult to overlook his sordid personal life.

This is sad because I find quite a bit to like about him, or perhaps I should say make me wish I could like him, apart from the fact that he makes work that is very funny, creative and often touching. His other great love, traditional jazz, finds its way into his movies. Like our previous entry’s subject George C. Scott, Allen has shown disinterest in awards shows, despite frequent nominations and (obviously) one big win. His perennial rationale for skipping Oscar night is his standing Monday night engagement playing clarinet with a jazz band in New York. I admit having the stirrings of something like respect for this: a man who resists being the object of veneration in his industry’s biggest circle-jerk, begging off on the grounds of that being his night to play out with an obscure jazz ensemble.

Then there is the strong association he has with place – his hometown, New York City. Annie Hall plays out as much as a love letter to the City of New York as to Ms. Hall. If this doesn’t seem significant to you reading this in the second decade of the 21st Century, remember this is 1977 we’re talking about here. This was a time when NYC was in a graveyard spiral of urban malaise, desperation even. Contemporary movies like Taxi Driver and The Warriors portray it as the urban hellscape, a place where hope has gone to die. But in Annie Hall it is a setting for romance. This movie even addresses and laments the shift in cultural center of gravity to Los Angeles, but champions New York as the place for discerning, thinking individuals. As a die-hard for my own hometown, I can relate.

There are just so many great scenes in Annie Hall. In creating a romantic comedy that rejects the boilerplate text for the genre, it works by allowing us to see ourselves in it, rather than carry out some sort of onanistic wish fulfillment exercise. It is a world where people on a date struggle to find something to talk about without embarrassing themselves, where sex is not consistently spontaneous and balletic, and where people simultaneously love and annoy the hell out of each other.

I suppose I’ll single one scene out that I found particularly effective. Early in the movie Alvy and Annie are on vacation, trying to cook some lobsters. It’s a little difficult to pin down how far into the relationship they are. The movie jumps around in chronology at points, implying the recollection of memories by the central character, but some cues hint at it being early on. The lobsters have gotten loose and are crawling across the kitchen. But what comes across clearly is the heady thrill of falling in love. Dinner is turning into a disaster, but the scene is more about how excited they are to be with each other and with each other’s quirks. Later, after parting ways with Annie, Alvy is shown in the same lobster-pandemonium scenario with another woman, but there is no fun or excitement; she doesn’t get his jokes. Try as you might, you just can’t recreate the magic. And on a comedic level it leaves us wondering, has Alvy improbably just happened to drop the lobsters in that same kitchen with his new lady friend? Or has he deliberately contrived to reenact this episode that he had experienced with his last girlfriend?  It’s hard to say which is the more absurd.

I sure hope my blogging compatriot simultaneously loves me even when I annoy the hell out of him! I am with Mouse on Allen’s catalogue – I’ve avoided it on purpose, perhaps having seen one of his other films once on a plane. There was a moment in Annie Hall that, because of his personal history, was particularly uncomfortable for me. When he is visiting Los Angeles, a city he despises in comparison to his beloved New York, he catches up with an old friend. At one point, he actually calls him and interrupts the man’s escapade with “twins – 16!” Hearing an adult man talking about having sex with sixteen year old twin sisters in a Woody Allen film was something I could not shake. It detracted, and bothered me for the rest of the film.

I was still moved by the movie, though. In fact, at the end, when we see the montage of all the beautiful memories the couple shared, I kind of lost it. I started thinking about all of our lives, and what it would look like to see our histories through that kind of editing. The frustration, misery and drudgery of the partnership is washed away and we see only the sublime. It made me feel sad about their demise. He won’t meet another Annie, but I daresay it occurred to me that she might find more happiness elsewhere. Sad but true, given his simultaneously dreary and neurotic nature.

That’s the problem with a guy like Woody Allen; you very well may enjoy his work, but some part of you will always be scanning for signs of the darkness you know was inside him all along. That aside, I was able to enjoy coming back to this movie very much, and in fact I may be checking out some of his movies that I haven’t seen yet. Maybe I can find a way to steal them so at least he doesn’t get any money.

And wait, how did I get this far without pointing out that Star Wars was among the runners-up? Annie Hall is more overtly cerebral and so more easily passes as “art”. But Star Wars truly redefined what it means for a movie to be “big” and initiated a cultural phenomenon that continues to this day. This is a real apples to oranges call. One could argue that Star Wars is a truly realized cinematic work in which heterogeneous concepts from fantasy and film are reconstituted to create an entirely new universe. It seems a little tough in retrospect to justify relegating Star Wars to also-ran status. But then again there never was an Annie Hall Holiday Special.

I’ll leave it at that, because I have to go sit with my copy of Alfred’s Self-Teaching Adult Piano Course and attempt to play “The Entertainer” over and over, to prep Katy for our next movie.

Ooooh, I can’t wait! I am eager to both hear this song and see this next film. And so – onward!

Also nominated in 1977:
The Goodbye Girl
Julia
Star Wars
The Turning Point

Next film: THE STING (1973)

 

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