Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Annie Hall - Woody Allen

From the favourer: "Annie Hall was Woody Allen's first attempt at adding dramatic heft to his trademark comic-intellectual schtick, and it remains one of his most popular films. I love its wonderful freewheeling style, which mixes Borscht-belt wisecracks, literary allusion, pointed satire, and absurdist humour with a genuine, gentle sweetness. Also, Diane Keaton is brilliant in the title role."

For quite a long time, I was convinced I didn't like Woody Allen films (especially the ones that had Woody Allen in them). The few I watched  in my early 20s made me really anxious. Having first given up, and then later given some of his other films a go, it seems my initial opinion was influenced by an unerring skill for (unknowingly and randomly) picking films where Allen's neurotic acting manner had reached such critical mass that it took him almost the entire film to finish a sentence.

So when the favourer nominated Annie Hall as his favourite film, I was...cautiously optimistic.  I won't lie, this optimism was in part influenced by the facts that I was really hungover from the dinner party the night before, my 3 year old son had just left to go to his dad's place, and the favourer suggested watching Annie Hall just before we went to buy fish n chips for dinner. But I don't think my brain was fried.

Annie Hall charts Alvy Singer's post mortem of his failed relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and several women before and in between. In a standup-style piece to camera at the very start of the film, Alvy quotes Groucho Marx's line "I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member." This, he informs us, sums up his relationships with women.

In the following "nervous romance", we're taken back through Alvy's relationships with several women, each of them somehow serving their purpose for different phases in Alvy's life. The film was initially intended to be a murder mystery, but later the murder-related scenes were cut out and the film re-created without them (though the leftover was to form the basis of Murder in Manhattan). Annie Hall, played by a wonderfully wide-mouthed, slacks-and-tie-wearing Diane Keaton, is the centrepiece of his neurotic relationships with women: why he lost her, why he tried to win her back, why he couldn't, and what that means for his life and the nature of relationships in general.

Also, it's really, really funny.

Diane Keaton is, to put it bluntly, fucking brilliant in this film. She's so irritating and gorgeous and gushing and endearing and awkward and it's hard to not just blindly accept her character as a real person. And really, she's the only point-for-point character match for Allen's anxious, dominating presence on-screen. She also has finally explained why my mother has exclaimed, for as long as I can remember, "Well, la-di-dah!" at various points throughout my life. Small mysteries: solved.

I'm a big fan of breaking down the fourth wall, if it's done well, or at least surprisingly. It's why Haneke's Funny Games is one of my favourite films, even though it's a bit heavy-handed in what it wants to say. (I may be have been the first person to draw parallels between Funny Games and Annie Hall, for which I both apologise and wave cheerfully.) The gags in Annie Hall are right up my proverbial - from split scenes starring Alvy and Annie's past families (apparently filmed simultaneously in a studio with a dividing wall), to flashbacks in Alvy's classroom where child students speak about their future lives (watching an 8 year old state somberly: "I like leather" made me snort potato cakes out my nose) and the teacher argues with adult Alvy about his juvenile attention to female fellow students. In one of the most pleasing meta scenes, Alvy and an annoying amateur film critic step both out of a cinema queue and the scene to argue over the latter's loud filmic pontificating over Fellini and Marshall McLuhan, and Alvy brings McLuhan himself out to weigh in on the debate:

I read a review recently that said the Balzac/Fellini/McLuhan references wouldn't have made the cut these days, as no modern watcher would get the references. This makes me a bit sad. While I got the first two, I had to look up the latter, and if anything it increased my enjoyment of the film. Why do we have to know everything in advance, or be catered to as the lowest common filmonenator?

I will note one thing that confused me about this film. Where are the boobs? The women often have lovely bottoms, and prominent nipples, but boobs? NO BOOBS. Were boobs out of fashion in the late 70s?

What I loved most about this film, which I think adds to the hilarity of the funny parts, is what the favourer has noted as the genuine sweetness of Annie Hall. As Alvy notes in his Groucho Marx quote at the start, this whole film is about how he can't accept what is right for him at the time that it happens. He rejects acceptance of happiness at each turn, and then chases it in the lost glory of lovely Annie. He can solve this, in his way, with a joke, but it's a bittersweet joke and a sweet-sweet memory. As his last narration says:

'I realised what a terrific person she was, and...how much fun it was just knowing her; and I...I, thought of that old joke, y'know, the, this...this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, he doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs." Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and...but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us...need the eggs."

Woody Allen films still make me anxious, but films like Annie Hall highlight the contradictory and necessary nature of relationships in such a funny, inventive, and tender way.

If you won't belong to the club that will have you, you'll have to be willing to keep to yourself. And speaking personally, I need the eggs.

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