Friday, September 20, 2013

Annie Hall (1977)

USA, 93 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Woody Allen's record collection
Editors: Wendy Greene Bricmont, Ralph Rosenblum
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken, Russell Horton, Marshall McLuhan, Dick Cavett, Jeff Goldblum, Shelley Hack, Sigourney Weaver, Truman Capote

A lot of things that Woody Allen is good at—tormented narratives shattered by revision, pieces playing just so where they land, tender ruminations buoyed by comfort music and nostalgia and surprising jokes, and streaming patter of gags, to name three—arguably found their best homes in Annie Hall. The fine points of this very fine picture, the easiest and most obvious movie of the year I've had to pick yet and maybe ever, is a very long list as it also includes that indelible chemistry with Diane Keaton, that wonderful self-flattering feeling of grown-up sophistication in the cultural markers (from Groucho to Kierkegaard), that certain casting touch that goes down to the smallest roles, and being so funny generally. But you get the point. It is arguably both the best movie Woody Allen ever made and the best Woody Allen movie ever made, which are not necessarily the same thing.

So what to say? It's going on 40 years now and the template that Annie Hall established for romantic comedy has positively dominated since then, replacing the slightly shopworn screwball model, which had gotten to be a little stuffy or inane or both since its own heyday. Woody Allen brought more genuine emotional engagement to the enterprise and obviated the whole idea of matrimonial happy endings, replacing them with the much more expedient joys and frustrations of connection (or lack thereof), which in turn grounded and made it more appealing. Remember (spoiler alert), Annie Hall does not have a "happy ending." As Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) mentions in the first minutes of the picture, the breakup is already in the past. Yet it rarely leaves me anything less than happy, tickled, pleased as punch, or downright joyful. It has a very good energy, as the saying goes, from beginning to end.

There's always trading in trivia, courtesy IMDb. Diane Keaton was born Diane Hall, and went by "Annie," for example. You probably already knew that. The working title was Anhedonia, but Allen couldn't convince the producers to go along with it—that intrigues me both because the first two syllables mimic the ultimate title and because "anhedonia" is the last thing I would associate with anything to do with this particular movie. More: The first cut ran an additional 50 minutes. Marshall McLuhan was not Allen's first choice for the famous inspired cameo—he first approached Federico Fellini and Luis Bunuel. The winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest is actually Truman Capote. The average shot length is 14.5 seconds. Danny Aiello and Brooke Shields both had parts that didn't make it into the final cut.

And more: Allen remains mostly disappointed with Annie Hall (also Hannah and Her Sisters, which tells me anyway what I need to know about how much credence to give this), telling interviewer Eric Eisenberg just last year, "The relationship between myself and Diane Keaton was all anyone cared about. That was not what I cared about.... In the end, I had to reduce the film to just me and Diane Keaton, and that relationship, so I was quite disappointed in that movie."

It was originally conceived as more of a murder mystery (perhaps accounting for much of that original extra 50 minutes). For whatever reasons, Allen dropped it but finally developed the thread for 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery, which interestingly, by circumstance, involved working again with Diane Keaton, who stepped in after Mia Farrow pulled out during the welter of the tabloid scandal.

Now I want to say a few words about Diane Keaton here, because she really made that latter movie, it's one of the few sparkling points for me in Allen's filmography since 1980 and the last great movie he made. And a lot of that, it's plain to see there and certainly in Annie Hall, is how good Diane Keaton is and how good she makes Woody Allen on film. It's a chemistry they have, they just draw it out of one another. Love and Death is worth seeing for that alone—I think it's his best straight comedy. She is the star of Annie Hall and Annie Hall is the landmark movie's most interesting character by far. She not only nails a certain upper Midwest personality type, but more broadly a whole way of being alive and sensible in the '70s, which was not an easy decade to navigate. Oh and also plus, the camera loves her.

Pieces of Annie Hall have systematically been torn away and imitated and grown cliché, and then enjoyed revitalization themselves again—several times over now. Did you see Frances Ha yet? Did you see (500) Days of Summer? Did you see When Harry Met Sally...? It is also a tremendous technical achievement, in terms of editing and shot setups. I love, for example, those long static street scenes with the line of the street running from lower left to upper right, which start as voiceover conversations until finally, long minutes later, the characters emerge within the frame, walking down the street, approaching the camera, which then begins tracking back with them once they are in medium. I love the ruminating nostalgic passages too, remembering Brooklyn and his childhood and family. Allen is very good at this type of filmmaking, as he would demonstrate later in Radio Days, but here it is casually sprinkled in for effect, powered by an energy of discovery.

Ultimately, I think, that may be the single greatest pleasure of Annie Hall, which is saying something. It brims with the energy of discovery. Examples: Opening and closing on jokes that are stale yet canny and resonant. Opening on Alvy Singer addressing the camera directly. Putting the rememberers in frame with the memory, and then enabling them to interact, sometimes in sly, nuanced ways. Allen is comfortable, and bold, with theatrical "fourth wall" exercises, and he's pretty good as well in Annie Hall at turning that fourth wall edgewise for cinematic split-screens, which are scattered across the film, used in slightly different yet always perfectly apt ways. It's also a really beautiful bittersweet romantic story, poignant and touching, and very funny too. A great one, that's all.

Top 10 of 1977
I think the glories of the decade may be more in the past starting with 1977, though the year certainly has some very bright flashpoints in the first three (or four) on my list, which is not even to start on the problem of Star Wars. I ended up relegating Star Wars to the "didn't like so much" category even though it is the only Star Wars movie that I like at all, and actually sometimes have liked very much. Call it blessing with faint censure. It's just that kind of year. I don't see that many significant gaps but by the lower echelons of my top 10 we are into recent finds and sentimental favorites, and meanwhile I kind of like some of the movies in the "didn't like" list. Even I can see that Between the Lines is not really that good. That leads me to believe it's just a weak year. Your opinions?
1. Annie Hall
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
3. Saturday Night Fever
4. Suspiria
5. 3 Women
6. Looking for Mr. Goodbar
7. Slap Shot
8. Killer of Sheep
9. The Kentucky Fried Movie
10. Between the Lines

Didn't like so much: Fun With Dick and Jane; Julia; Martin; New York, New York; Star Wars

Gaps: The American Friend; The Duellists; The Goodbye Girl; Hitler: A Film From Germany; That Obscure Object of Desire


  1. Nice to see Suspiria on the list, even though I can barely remember it. Same with Between the Lines. 3 Women, I do remember, and like. Off the top of my head, the only 1977 movies I'd rank above Annie Hall are Close Encounters and Aguirre the Wrath of God. 1977 movies I find interesting but aren't in your post: F for Fake, maybe The Hills Have Eyes.

  2. Hills Have Eyes! Forgot all about that one -- it's a gap, still have to see. I have Aguirre for '72 even though it didn't make it here until '77. I thought F for Fake was '75 but IMDb sez '73! Both great movies.

  3. I love this film, definitely my favorite Allen picture. I think it avoids the smugness that subtly sneaks into the masterful Manhattan (even as it's subverted) and suffuses Hannah and Her Sisters (in which it is not subverted). That said, I chose Star Wars as my favorite movie of '77 I suppose simply because it seems fit to honor the childlike yet visually sophisticated, good-spirited popcorn flick somewhere and Star Wars pretty much renders all the follow-ups redundant. 3 Women & Close Encounters, also excellent. That said, '77 is a bit of a dip down from '76 - whose heights would probably never quite be scaled again in American cinema (though I'm partial to '84, its greatness is of a more esoteric sort).

  4. Yes, I definitely agree that '76 was a stellar year -- did not really add it up until recently. Have a feeling 1970-1975 may be similarly strong, but we'll see.