Annie Hall was the turning point in Woody Allen’s career and it remains its pinnacle. It’s his greatest, purest, and most personal foray. It elevated him from an undefined Chaplin heir to a unique comic artist, carrying his two defining characteristics, neurosis and sexual frustration. While the Academy’s apparent bias toward comedies is unfortunate, it is telling that this was one of the very few to win Best Picture. There is something transcendental about Annie Hall, not only in the context of Woody’s development as a filmmaker, but in the construct of the art form. Indeed, so much has been made about the significance of the film in terms of Woody’s path as an artist, that it is often forgotten how revolutionary this bittersweet tale of love found, lost, and botched again was.
For starters, Woody Allen fine-tuned the medium of cinema into a great conversation platform. Simply “chatting” with his characters or listening in on their conversations is as enriching an experience as attending any gathering of intellects. Allen further enhances the conversational aspects of his films by talking out to his audience, often by breaking the fourth wall. It’s fun in most of his films, but in Annie Hall it is also important. He begins the film talking straight out to the audience, sharing some, by now, iconic jokes about the Catskills and not wanting to belong to certain clubs that provide insight into the mind of his Alvy Singer. But the most important confession from Alvy is that he “has trouble separating fantasy from reality”. It is essential that we know to question the reliability of Alvy’s version of the break-up with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). It is easy to forget this as practically the whole film is based on his perspective of a relationship gone badly.
Knowing that the entire film is essentially a one-sided recollection, it is now important that we get to know what kind of person Alvy Singer is. He is neurotic and confused; blame that on his childhood spent living beneath a Coney Island rollercoaster. Alvy Singer is the Woody Allen character that stapled his career. He balances anxiety with intellect and a taste for art with a need for sex and psychoanalysis. Of course, Annie Hall wouldn’t work any other way. It’s the story of a failed romance through the eyes of Woody Allen.
Still, Annie Hall is surprisingly frank, especially for a film so infused with autobiographical elements. One of the most commendable traits in Allen’s work and one that he shares with the great comedians is his fearless approach to self-deprecating humor. From the start there is little mystery as to why Alvy and Annie broke up. They are both, in their own ways, insufferable.
Annie Hall exemplifies one of Woody’s most glorious tenants. His films make us smarter while indulging us. We laugh and, in this case especially, we grow pensive. We gather a lot of esoteric references that, if we don’t grasp immediately, we are inspired to learn more about. Has there been a more effective introduction to the work of Marshall McLuhan?
“Intellects can be brilliant,” Alvy groans at one point. “But not have a clue about what’s going on.” This is one of Woody’s virtues. He has a brilliant mind, but his material is never “pontificating” (what he accuses an obnoxious movie-goer of being) and it never feels elitist. Borrowing a lot form comic masters such as Groucho and Keaton, his humor is universally accessible, while also stimulating.
The way Annie Hall is told, as chronologically jumbled memories of the relationship, allows for many wonderful bits. The lobster invasion in Annie’s kitchen hints at what the Alvy-Annie relationship looked like at its best. On their first meeting at a tennis court, they almost look like different people from who they are when their relationship ends. Annie is still a shy Midwestern girl newly arrived in New York, eager to flirt with the thrills of the big city. Alvy still has his nerves under control and actually takes command of the conversation. We can understand why they are attracted to each other.
Then, however, we start seeing hints of their love crumbling. They start subtle but become so obvious until the two are unsalvageable. There is, for instance, an amusing bit in which Alvy visits Annie’s WASP-ish family, in which Alvy’s paranoia goes hilariously out of control. We start understanding that the two come from different and irreconcilable worlds. If there is one thing to lament in the sequence is that Alvy’s very funny encounter with Annie’s psychotic brother Duane (a young Christopher Walken) is way too brief. Opposites attract, but Alvy and Annie should not be together. Annie is initially shy but is happy in life. Alvy blurts out a lot of babble, but his emotions are a wreck.
Allen makes clever use of cross-cutting to illustrate their jump from bliss to chaos. In one scene they are kissing by the Brooklyn Bridge at nightfall in the immediately proceeding scene they are arguing over her decision to move in with him. Their quarrel opens up a can of worms. “You don’t think I’m smart enough to get serious about,” Annie fears. Allen uses other techniques; including split-screens depicting Alvy’s and Annie’s family lives and their talks with their respective shrinks.
Much of what happens between them is Alvy’s doing. He gives her a talk about love and is then shocked when she wants to move in with him. He pushes Annie to take college classes but becomes jealous of her friendship with her professor. Alvy’s behavior is self-destructive but at least he knows how to put his depression in comic perspective.
As far in advance as we can see the end of Alvy and Annie’s romance, it is still a little sad to see it go down. There are good times between them and a glimpse at some of the other women Alvy dates afterwards proves that there was something special about Annie Hall. We are left with a conflict. We know that these two cannot be together and yet we enjoy being in their joint company.
The music producer played by Paul Simon and his posse are representative of the world that Annie Hall wants and Alvy needs to stay away from, they are heading in opposite directions. Allen’s split screens do more than contrast, they explore the reasons for the break-up.
In truth, both Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are fascinating people individually. But their respective character flaws cancel each other out. That’s the story of so many real-life relationships and nobody knows this better than Woody Allen. Both within the context of the film itself and externally, Annie Hall is art imitating life. In the end, Alvy (and Woody Allen by extension) practically admit to having manipulated the imperfections of real-life heartbreak into a narrative. Alvy’s famous last punch-line is worth all the self-help books when it comes to understanding adult relationships. We are touched by it because it rings so true.