I never understood people who criticize Woody Allen’s work for being repetitive or unsympathetic. Granted, a movie comes out every year and about 60% have very similar plots, 80% have identical speech cadences, and 100% are told from the point of view of an over-educated New York left-wing Jew.
What else do you want? That’s who he is, that’s who his characters are, that’s what he knows. And as much as I try to respect people with differing opinions, and as elitist as it may sound, I can’t help but feel that people who take issue with these aspects of his films don’t know how to watch movies. Like or don’t like an individual movie, because he has made a few stinkers, but take a step back for a second. Whether it’s films or books, we always see the events transpire through the narrator’s eyes. As the viewer/reader, we’re allowed to disagree with the narrator or place their point of view under suspicion. Seen this way, it is possible to love a movie with a contemptible narrator for its insight, or hate one with a lovable narrator for pandering.
Take it away, Chris Rock.
This is why I love most Woody Allen films. It’s cathartic for what I feel are the worst, most petty parts of myself. And I love them even more because they feel cathartic for him, so even when I don’t identify with the events of a particular film, I can respect the need of the artist to put as much of himself out there as he can. Yet despite this, I always had a little bit of trouble understanding Annie Hall…
But before we get to that, let me just emphasize that I’m firmly in the pro-Woody camp and I’ve never understood his detractors. I think the man’s a genius with one helluva work ethic. He’s released a film almost every year since the mid 1970s, and while he slips up a little bit more frequently in recent years (forgettables like Whatever Works, Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda), he still hits it out of the park while continuing to grow as a filmmaker (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris).
The first Woody Allen film I ever saw was Manhattan Murder Mystery. I was 10, and my family was visiting my uncle in Brooklyn. It looked, felt and sounded exactly how New York seemed to me. I didn’t get a lot of the jokes, but I understood the general humor of a group of all-talk-no-action New York upper-middle class intellectuals accidentally unraveling a mystery.
My love of everything Woody further cemented with Deconstructing Harry, the first one of his I saw in the theater. Funny, intelligent, analytical, literary and even a little tragic, it was the perfect thing for a budding teenage film critic to experience. Then there are the madcap sex comedies of the early 1970s – Sleeper, Love and Death, Take the Money and Run and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask). All of them genius, all utterly rewatchable.
Which brings us to 1977′s Annie Hall. It’s not Woody Allen’s first movie, but you could say that it’s the first of what has become the “Woody Allen movie” – and until this week’s viewing, one of my least favorite. Not anymore.
To say what Annie Hall is about would be useless, as there isn’t really a plot so much as evidence to support a point. It’s the story of a relationship with its own ups and downs, complete with little flights of fancy that tell us more about what’s going on in the narrator’s mind. Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) discuss, experience, debate, analyze, over-analyze, have sex, debate, break up, repeat. There are memorable scenes along the way where they’re animated, they break the fourth wall, we get subtitles to translate what they’re really saying to each other, etc.
My favorite scenes are when he stops strangers on the street for deeply personal advice and gets improbably insightful answers.
As a teenager, I’d always heard that Annie Hall is his one of his best, but I never bought it until rewatching it for this column. It just seemed like what the anti-Woody camp knocks him for – people talking unbelievably about therapists, kvetching about this and that, being so focused on - which it is. And then what they were talking about made no sense. Who the hell talks about these things in this way? When would a person ever say something like “You’re always projecting”?
What was I missing about Annie Hall? About 13 years of life experience, as it turned out.
Though most of the film serves as fodder for punchlines (and the sheer volume of words spoken is daunting), everything makes sense in the end. As much as the two really do love each other, Alvy never saw her as a complete person. He never objectified her or emotionally abused her, but he never appreciated her need to be a complete person on her own. He even goes so far as to state this at the end, in case you missed it.
Is it a bit hammy to outright explain the moral of the story at the end? Maybe. But when you’re Alvy Singer and you can’t get in the mood because you can’t stop obsessing about the inconsistencies of the Warren Commission findings, saying out loud something you already know can be an effective form of therapy. And that’s what the film feels like, therapy. It’s why the tangents and flights of fancy make sense, because he’s telling us the story but can’t stay on topic. He’s telling us because he needs to say it.
This is what adult relationships are like. We’re still as screwed up as we were as kids, but we have to treat it as a responsibility at the same time. You can’t just fool around when you have a free afternoon, you have to sit down and discuss your sexual hangups and what you think about children and death – which then goes on to kill the mood even more.
“Needing” someone seems so romantic – until you’re 40-something and are still using the people in your love life as a dumpster for all of your unresolved emotional problems.
Bravo, Annie Hall, for understanding that and being funny at the same time.
Comments: Set the mold for Woody Allen films and adult relationship comedies. Still holds up 35 years later through shifts in gender politics and comedic sensibilities.
Deserves to be in Top 100: As the Woody Allen film with the broadest appeal, certainly. I would have gone with Manhattan, but I won’t argue it.
Inspired: Any film with a narrator or that breaks the fourth wall, as disparate as Goodfellas and Wayne’s World.
Next Week: #30 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Last Week: #32 The Godfather Part II
AFI 100 IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY THE FINE FINE PEOPLE AT MOVIEWORKS BOSTON WHO HAVE A SHITTON OF MOVIES. IT’S WHERE I GET MY MOVIES FOR THIS PROJECT AND YOU SHOULD TOO.
BUY THE MOVIE HERE.
GO TO THE AFI 100 LANDING PAGE TO SEE MORE.
FOLLOW THE EXPLOITS ON TWITTER @DAILYFANBOY.