Friday, January 18, 2013

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

USA, 103 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Max von Sydow, Daniel Stern, Sam Waterston, Tony Roberts, Julie Kavner, Lewis Black, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Joanna Gleason

One of the best formulations I know of the appeal of the Marx Brothers is found late in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, his best movie of the '80s. In an implausible scene of suicide considered and averted (a Woody Allen staple even then), he makes the familiar case for Groucho and crew—inspired zaniness equated to life affirmation, that sort of thing. It is of a piece with the usual accolades for the Marx Brothers, and others such as Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Martin and Lewis, all that comedy of bygone times lost on me beyond certain undeniable quaint charms (e.g., Laurel and Hardy music). What's interesting to me, perhaps because I can't appreciate the Marx Brothers the way Woody Allen and so many others do, is how well it stands in as approximation of the way I feel about Woody Allen movies, and nearly as much as ever.

Even the bad ones validate ideals I hold dear—may even have learned in part absorbing Woody Allen's '70s movies—an irresistible vision of an urban lifestyle constructed around cultural markers and cityscapes, and at deeper levels identity, and ultimately alienation. Life, this self-absorbed and conflicted Woody Allen view seems to tell us, is about emotional connections, the rejection of commerce, and privilege, in about equal proportions. Or, as he puts it in Annie Hall, the world can be divided into the horrible and the miserable, and the best any of us can hope for is to be among the miserable. Which, in turn, is itself eternally belied by the easygoing roll and tumble of Woody Allen's jokes and situations, second nature by the time of Hannah and Her Sisters, enabling him in fact to pull off the rather remarkable stunt that I think distinguishes it.

Certain elements, which we may as well characterize as "feel-good" because that's how I take them, are constants in most Woody Allen movies: the loose approach and playful inventiveness, the sense of being (or pretending to be) at home with great works of art, from Mozart to Louis Armstrong to Willie Mays, and the tone that alternates abruptly between self-deprecation and chiseling passive-aggressive vibe. The pungent presence itself of Woody Allen, his performances, voice, words—the very presence so many find so noxious (a view I have come to appreciate over the years)—nevertheless provides a touchstone, even a comforting figure, across the broad swaths of imagination and creative energy his movies represent collectively.

It is as immersive in its way as anything the movies give us, this Woody Allen universe, raised to a new level in Hannah and Her Sisters by the sly, calculated way he begins to truck with improbable happy endings. This was the first of three remarkable movies by Allen, followed by Radio Days and Another Woman—a comparable performance on its own terms, to reach for the sports metaphor, to Michael Jordan's latter three championships. There is no other movie in Allen's entire career so clearly aiming for the fine balance and the complexity and simplicity of the final scene in City Lights (even as Manhattan, seven years earlier, had made the bigger play for updating the Chaplin classic whole), and damn, he did get close with Hannah and Her Sisters. "How ya gonna top that?" Mickey (Woody Allen) says to his wife Holly (Dianne Wiest) in that final scene. And then she does, with a perfect fantasy moment that reverberates still across certain indie quarters (consider Sideways), an ending that ought to break down even the most callous at least a little.

Along the way the jumble of pieces is handled expertly, with surprisingly confident rhythms of storytelling. It's a Gordian knot of a mess of a situation with the three sisters of the title, and numerous affairs, multiple generations, and two shared assignations, an intricate dance of human foible. Nothing Woody Allen had done in years at that point indicated he could pull it off, but he does. It never once gets lost in the detail, but simply proceeds with clarity and sense of purpose. Its remarkable screenplay is beautifully symmetrical in structure, starting virtually at the point it begins, with similar musical cues and shots of characters and even the same holiday, Thanksgiving, a brilliant choice itself. This may be the best Thanksgiving movie I know, in fact.

I suspect I may be making myself out to be an uncritical admirer and in many ways that's fair enough. But I don't have unmixed feelings about Woody Allen, and many of my problems with him actually started to crystallize with Hannah and Her Sisters. I'll start with music because, in terms of taste, going back to at least Annie Hall, I have always differed a good bit with him there. By all rights, I should regard him as a soundtrack artist on par with Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and other artists of the form. He's certainly good at matching album tracks to personal emotional moments. But I am not convinced, as he most outspokenly is, that everything worth saying in popular music was finished by 1959, nor that jazz and classical standards, however exquisite, can say enough in the perversely isolated way Woody Allen insists on using them. On top of that, the proto-Fox News tone of his endless complaints about any form of rock 'n' roll are a wall of hostility against which I find it difficult not to respond in kind. Or, to be perfectly clear about it, fuck Woody Allen and his antiquated taste.

Hannah and Her Sisters was also the first Woody Allen movie I remember noticing how old for the role he seemed. I was willing to overlook it because someone just on the wrong side of 50 could, plausibly, be caught up in the TV producer shenanigans in New York shown here, but my tolerance would never again be so generous, and Woody Allen's presence in practically everything from this point forward has always been a net downer. Other tropes getting old: the arch vocabulary of the dialogue (who ever actually says "contemptuous"?), the painful tin-eared jokes about pedophilia ("Don't you read the papers?" his character says to a network censor here. "Half the country is doing it"), the modern secular who shocks his bourgeois Jewish parents, the privileged New Yorker who can afford to indulge purity impulses and quit jobs to write a book and other such. Yes, some envy here on my part, no doubt. But isn't that also on some level what it is intended to provoke? People don't just imagine Woody Allen's hostility. It is also a constant.

Nowadays, in fact, Hannah and Her Sisters has to work harder than ever to overcome a lot of my general impatience with Woody Allen movies, all the problems I see with them more clearly than ever, their insularity and preening narcissistic impulses, and worst of all their endless sameness (which of course is their virtue when I am inclined the other way). Hannah is remarkably well done and winning every step of the way, and it certainly belongs on the short list of his best. Even if I feel compelled to apologize for liking him, I can also say that I found surprising new pleasures last time through (in addition to the usual ones) playing spot-the-player with John Turturro, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (looking straight off the set of Desperately Seeking Susan), Richard Jenkins, and others.

Top 10 of 1986
Looks like 1986 might be behind only 1980 and 1982 for me as best movies years of the '80s, which I don't think I had realized until I put together this list. That's a pretty amazing top 5. After about #6, my top 19 bunches up pretty tight, so titles that could as easily have bobbed in as out include: Aliens, Down by Law, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Jean do Florette (with Manon of the Spring, which I think I'd argue as a one-fer, though really need to see them again), Manhunter, River's Edge, Smooth Talk, and Stand by Me. I almost wish I liked River's Edge a little bit more so I could see Dennis Hopper in three titles in my top 10. Maybe another time. I should also say that I had a very hard time again with the last two picks for things I didn't like, whatever that might mean. (And also that yes, for the record, Peggy Sue Got Married is my #5 Francis Ford Coppola.)
1. Hannah and Her Sisters
2. Blue Velvet
3. The Fly
4. Something Wild
5. Sherman's March
6. The Sacrifice
7. Platoon
8. Hoosiers
9. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
10. Peggy Sue Got Married

Didn't like so much: The Color of Money, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, She's Gotta Have It, Sid and Nancy, True Stories

Gaps: Big Trouble in Little China, The Green Ray, Melo, Mona Lisa, Tampopo

Other write-ups: River's Edge


  1. Wow, over Blue Velvet? But you make the case. Great write-up. Do you like this one even better than Annie Hall?

  2. I would actually put Hannah and Her Sisters #3 on the Woody Allen list behind Annie Hall and Manhattan. For a long time Manhattan was my favorite movie. Annie Hall took over after the fall from grace in the early '90s, but a recent look at Manhattan really impressed me all over again. Thanks for listening to my Woody Allen noodling!