Friday, April 20, 2007


Touch my heart — with your film

NOTE: Ranked No. 25 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
I'm not certain what year it was when I first saw Annie Hall, which turns 30 years old today, but I do remember the circumstance. I was still in grade school and a local TV station was showing it late one Friday night. I decided to watch, though I'd never seen a Woody Allen film at this point and all I knew was that this was the movie that stopped my beloved Star Wars from winning the Oscar for best picture. I thought it was funny and I liked it, though it would take years for me to truly appreciate all of its charms and jokes (and about the same time before I finally admitted that yes, the best picture had won for 1977).

"I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable."
Alvy Singer

It seems odd to me now how strongly I identified with the Woody Allen persona when I was young. Sure, I was funny and cynical, but I certainly wasn't middle-age, Jewish or a New Yorker and I hadn't endured a series of painful relationships. Hell, I was in grade school, really I had no relationship experience at all (though like Alvy Singer, I too never had a latency period). I think a great deal of my identification with Alvy came with the way I was introduced to him and, by extension, Allen: With him talking directly to the screen (i.e., me) and telling two funny jokes about relationships that seemed to make perfect sense to me even at the time. ("And such small portions" and "I would never belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member" seemed to ring particularly true to even my young self.)

Even the gags I didn't truly get upon first viewing (such as the classic Marshall McLuhan moment) were still funny, whether you knew who McLuhan was or what he stood for. The funny thing is that when I re-watched Annie Hall prior to writing this piece, I realized for the first time that the blowhard standing behind Alvy and Annie in line actually is right about Fellini being overly indulgent in terms of films such as Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon. I could go on endlessly repeating the famous lines and memorable scenes, but I'll try to refrain myself as much as possible on the chance that some people who read this still might not have seen Annie Hall.

Instead, let me just recount some of the many reasons I love this movie. First and foremost, there is Diane Keaton in her Oscar-winning role and at her most effervescent as the charming, infuriating mess that is Annie Hall. Allen always has worked best when he has had a talented muse to center his films around. Keaton was his first great one, Mia Farrow his second. Now, Allen flounders, since Soon-Yi can't fit that bill and, as much as I like Scarlett Johansson, I don't believe she can fill that void either.

Then there are the hilarious flashbacks to his childhood though they could be anyone's childhood, to some extent). Who didn't think many of their classmates were jerks and idiots and who didn't have run-ins with teachers that you just knew intuitively didn't quite have enough on the ball? That attitude extends to adults as well (I still laugh every time Alvy describes intellectuals as people who can be completely brilliant and still not know anything). Then there is this: "Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you'll understand. Sometimes when I'm driving... on the road at night... I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The... flames rising out of the flowing gasoline," which may well be the first in a seemingly endless series of great Christopher Walken movie monologues in his role as Annie's brother Duane.

Annie Hall marks the transition of Woody Allen's filmmaking from his flat-out early comedies (most of which are still priceless) to his ventures into other realms. (Allen once famously said that Annie Hall was hardly his , more like his . Who knew how right he was?) As great as Annie Hall was and still is, it really just laid the foundation for some of his greater works to come such as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even if he's been in a cinematic slump for awhile, with a few exceptions, his work from 1977-1989 is astounding.

With Annie Hall, he also experimented with the medium, not in any remarkable ways really, but still in ways that impress, from the scene where subtitles translate characters' inner thoughts, to frequent, contrasting split screens and even an animated sequence. Unlike many films from the 1970s, Annie Hall seems fairly timeless (though you do have to gulp when Alvy is outraged to learn that Annie pays $400 a month for a lousy Manhattan apartment. Those were the days...) As Roger Ebert once wrote about Citizen Kane, that film's structure is such that no matter how often you've seen it, if you come in after it's started, you are never quite certain what scene comes next. Annie Hall works much the same way. While Annie Hall above all else is a comedy (and one of the rare times the Academy saw fit to honor a comedy), Alvy Singer does, if you look hard enough, share some superficial similarities to Charles Foster Kane. Both men are described as islands unto themselves and both just want to be loved, though Woody Allen got to speak frankly about sex in a way Orson Welles couldn't be allowed. ("Don't knock masturbation — it's sex with someone I love"; "As Balzac said, 'There goes another novel.'"; "That's the most fun I've had without laughing." Alvy also has his sexual prowess described as a "Kafkaesque experience," which the woman played by Shelley Duvall insists is a compliment.)

In Alvy's final joke, again spoken directly to the audience, he tells of a man who tells a psychiatrist that his brother thinks he's a chicken. The doctor asks why the man doesn't turn him in, to which the man replies, "I would, but I need the eggs." We need eggs such as Annie Hall and I still hold out hope that Woody Allen can rebound with some more great films before his moviemaking career ends, but even if he doesn't, he's left us more than enough quality eggs with which to cook some tasty cinematic omelettes.

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It's one of those films that never loses its appeal - perhaps not the best film Allen ever made, but probably the warmest, and in many respects, his most personal. It may also be his most addition to those you mentioned, there are some great one-liners directed at Los Angeles ("They don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows"...."I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.") You really can make a case for Woody Allen as the greatest comedy writer in the history of film. Just not lately.
It's getting funny that everyone lately who praises Annie Hall feels compelled to specify that it isn't his best film. I'm always half-tempted to argue that it is (not only his best film, but very nearly the best American film - that's right, ever!), but that usually means I have to argue against things like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Hannah and Her Sisters and I just couldn't bring myself to do that.

Also my candidate for the funniest one-liner ever in a movie is Shelley Duvall's summation of sex with Alvy. I wish Shelley Duvall could still turn up at random in movies and turn in the kind of pitch-perfect performances she did in the 70s. The same way I wish Woody Allen could still one day soon make another movie that is half-relevant to life and love (and of course, sex and death). But you're right, Ed - we should be eternally grateful to Allen for them gorgeous things he *did* contribute to cinema in his high period.
I think Woody also deserves props for being so prolific -- even once you add in the less than stellar offerings it's a pretty solid filmography all told and so many auteurs of his calibre work far less frequently.

i love Woody. I'll keep seeing his movies every year and just deal the highs and lows.

my feeling in regards to his best:
manhattan give or take purple rose of cairo. most undervalued: husbands and wives
Like Nathaniel (thanks Nat!), I find "Husbands and Wives" to be very underrated; it is essential Woody Allen, and (imho) his last truly great movie.

Therefore, the only thing that I would change in your lovely reflection would be that his period of astounding work extend through 1992.

Thanks Edward!
Woody's Annie Hall meant a lot to me growing up. It romanticized New York (in fact, New York will always be a Woody Allen movie to me). It also gave voice to my own schmiel-y feelings about art and culture and women. Over the years, it hasn't held that potency. And it probably wouldn't even be in my all-time Woody Top 5: Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Manhattan, Love and Death and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. Thanks, EC, for remembering this important date.
Duh! My absolute favorite Woody: Zelig.
While Alice was pleasant enough, it felt like leftovers (a trend that has become far too common of late) and Shadows and Fog was nearly unwatchable. Aside from Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives didn't really work for me, though a lot of it, coming out soon after his ugly breakup with Mia, seemed cruel, especially in the way he portrayed her in the film. Since 1989, the only films I've truly liked were Manhattan Murder Mystery (which still was fluff), Bullets Over Broadway (the closest he's come in the post-1989 time period to making another great one) and Match Point, which at least started to signaled him regaining his footing, though Scoop sent him backward once again.

P.S. Shamus, I wrote about Zelig last week, in case you didn't see it.
Great post, Ed. Allen found charm in breaking hundreds of screenwriting rules and you've got to love him for that. Personally, I love the scene with subtitles and subtext. And the many transitions, too, were great, like, for example, the build-up of how much Annie's family will love him and cut to the quiet, uncomfortable, disapproval during dinner.


I think you nailed one reason why Annie Hall remains so fresh. The pacing and structure are such that you never remember what scene is coming next.
is this the last time a true comedy won best picture at the oscars? does "forrest gump" fall into this category, too?
I would think Shakespeare in Love would count as a comedy and be the most recent.
I really enjoyed your post about Annie Hall and Woody. It's funny, but I saw my first Woody Allen film when I was about 12, but I could totally relate to Woody on some weird level too (and I'm female even and was raised in a semi-Catholic home). I think he just seemed so real to my young movie loving mind at the time that I discovered him. He was very unlike most movie actors and his comedy was just so honest.

My first Woody Allen film is still my favorite - Stardust Memories. Obviously I'm in the minority since most people seem to dislike Allen's homage to Fellini but I really really love it.
Annie Hall is one of those movies that, among other things, reminds me of why I love New York.
A good film ... I just never could get into Woody Allen. It's something to do with the way he talks or something. He just sends shivers down my spine.

However, I liked "Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," so what do I know??
Blogger has crapped out again and odds are if you are looking at this post at this point, the art is now empy boxes with red Xs, which Blogger still refuses to acknowledge or fix. Sometimes the pictures reappear, other times they don't. My apologies for Blogger being run by such incompetent twits.
Excellent article/blog. I really think that Annie Hall is his best film. Especially if you look at how it is now known as the Godfather of the Romantic Comedy, even though there isn't much romantic about it. I do have to say though, I wish people would give more credit to some of Allen's work in the late 90's CELEBRITY, DECONSTRUCTING HARRY and SWEET AND LOWDOWN. I believe if these films were made by up and coming filmmakers they would be thought of in a better light. I too think HUSBANDS AND WIVES is vastly underrated.
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