FILM: Annie Hall
“ I do not want to be part of any club that would have me as its member,” quotes Woody Allen from Grouch Marx in the opening scene of what is considered to be his career defining film, Annie Hall. With this single dialogue, Woody Allen, the master filmmaker succinctly defines the neurotic persona that he immortalized on screen in films after films, year after year. Allen who until then was making comedies as an extension of his career as a comic artist and writer for TV felt the urge to explore deep and Annie Hall happened.
The screen image of Allen in all his films is considered autobiographical, and rightly so, but it is Annie Hall that explores his real life relationship with Diane Keaton, the leading lady of the film. Keaton’s real name was Diane Hall, while Annie was her pet name. So, Annie Hall is Diane Keaton’s name who was Allen’s partner for some years.
The film won four top Oscars, viz. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Diane Keaton, in 1977. Annie Hall had unbelievably trounced George Lucas’s, Star Wars, in the Best Film category, no mean achievement by any yardstick considering the place that Star Wars occupies as a modern myth.
Neurotic is a character that is physically mature but mentally immature. Allen is a quintessential New Yorker. His sardonic articulation of urban angst and accompanying neurosis makes his screen character an archetype of the modern man, in search of meaning of life.
A fierce intellectual, Allen has drawn criticism from those who choose not to look beyond Hollywood. Allen himself despised American Cinema all his life. His is a more European sensibility. Fellini and Bergman are the makers he deeply admires and Jean Luc Goddard is the man he hangs out with. No wonder America is skeptical of his talent. The yanks consider Allen “un-cinematic” because his films are prolonged conversations and they cannot be further from truth. It is Woody Allen’s sheer expertise over film dialogue that makes his talking in films so cinematic. And Annie Hall is great exposition of a modern relationship delineated through dialogue. Allen proclaims that dialogue in cinema is more challenging than silence.
Alvy Singer, a forty-year-old twice divorced, neurotic, intellectual Jew and a New York stand-up comic artist, reflects on the demise of his latest relationship, to Annie, an insecure, flighty, Midwestern WASP (White Angle Saxon Protestant) and an aspiring nightclub singer. Unlike his previous relationships, Alvy believes he may have worked out all the issues in his life through fifteen years of therapy to make this relationship with Annie last, but such is not the case. Annie and Alvy part ways after sharing an apartment and Alvy’s attempts to nurture other relationships fail miserably. Annie and Alvy come together again but after a trip to Los Angeles, the two realize they are not meant to be together. They meet one last time at the upper west side of New York, where Alvy accepts love is necessary for neurotics and Annie feels it was just like old times but the two have moved on.
Woody Allen broke all conventions of film language with Annie Hall. He begins the film with a long take of him looking directly into the camera. Therefore, Allen breaks the “fourth wall” and sets the tone and premise of the film by paraphrasing the Groucho Marx quote and drawing a parallel between life and a “small portion” of a badly cooked dish, which despite being unpalatable gets over too soon. Life and death have been Allen’s biggest preoccupation. Mortality renders life and love meaningless. Woody Allen was heavily influenced by Jean Paul Satre and like him questioned the notion of eternal love, while searching for it.
Throughout the film, Allen breaks the narrative flow by coming out of an ongoing scene and addressing the audience, an alienation device put to brilliant use and in synch with his brand of humor. Annie Hall, boasts of some extremely long takes while Keaton and Allen exchange dialogue bordering on the absurd. It stood out in American cinema as a film with the longest average shot length than any other film of its time. It is all the first time that Allen did not use background music. The film had only source music. He attributes this as a tribute to Ingmar Bergman, under whose influence he was at that point in time.
Psychoanalysis and Freud were other two loves of Woody Allen’s life, but in Annie Hall even psychoanalysis fails to provide reason. Perhaps, there cannot be any reason. Though people tend to label Annie Hall as a romantic comedy, Allen actually uses humor as opposed to comedy to express his concerns about the “tragedy” that life is. The quest of love is a failed one and people, in this case Annie and Alvy inevitably find themselves in a predicament not of their making.