Annie Hall is a movie I couldn’t have reviewed earlier, when I first saw it, because I knew I didn’t really have a good handle on it. I feel I can review it now, because I have a bit of a better handle on it. Now that I do feel I have a better handle on it, I kind of wish I could go back in time to when I didn’t, because I think I liked it better then. I don’t think it’s just because it seemed more mysterious and skillful back then because I didn’t think I had a handle on it, but because earlier on in my life I was just more willing to go along with what any accomplished filmmaker might put in front of me. Now I feel I’m just a little bit more confident in saying that even though I appreciate the film, Allen’s character just bugs me.
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is a comic who is going over his relationship with the love of his life, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), and trying to figure out where it went wrong. This conceit of a reminiscence allows the “plot” to flow pretty freely, jumping around the significant remembrances without having to stay too close to an actual storyline. This third (!!) time around it’s actually a bit easier to see a storyline develop though, and it’s a pretty simple one. Alvy and Annie meet in New York, fall in love, move in together, get into funny situations, argue about the same stuff over and over again, break up, get back together again, etc etc… The film moves through a lot of material pretty briskly; it’s clear that whatever gets on the screen is pretty important.
This film had me thinking of another 70s best picture nominee (though it didn’t win like Annie Hall did), All that Jazz. It reminded me of that film in that its about an artist using his art to detail and recreate pieces of his life so that he might understand them. In that film it’s choreography and musical staging, but here it’s comedy. I would argue that like All that Jazz, the main character’s tendency to view life as not disparate from art is what gets them into trouble in their personal relationships. I don’t feel that this film makes the argument as strongly as All that Jazz does, but without getting into too much armchair psychology it seems to me that Alvy’s constant joking is what gets him into trouble. While the comic touches and tricks are what make the film rewarding, Alvy comes across as a bit insincere or remote in relation to Annie sometimes and I wonder if the couple had not been living in a comedy and talked about their problems more directly, we might not be watching a film about a doomed relationship. But then these characters wouldn’t be who they are, and there would be no film at all.
I do really like all of the tricks Allen the director pulls out in this film though, far more than I like the overall themes or either of the characters. There’s the famous Marshall McLuhan scene, where Alvy silences an obnoxious theater goer by producing the actual intellectual that he is referencing. It’s a great scene not only because it’s hilarious, but also because it breaks the fourth wall as Allen walks directly up to the camera and starts talking to it, then magically pulls McLuhan out from behind a movie poster, all in the same take. Multiple times in the movie we see characters looking at scenes of themselves in the past and commentating on what’s going on, or their imaginations of what happened in the past. We see Annie have an out of body experience (literally), subtitles that translate the characters words into their inner thoughts, and there’s even an animation sequence. I don’t super care the tone of the movie, but I have to admit, the form is pretty magnificent.
Last, but certainly not least, is the contribution of the prince of darkness himself, and Allen’s frequent collaborator, Gordon Willis. Though at first glance the cinematography might seem unimpressive, given Allen’s tendency to just have all the action play out in a wide shot with a static camera, I just couldn’t get over the quality of the images here. I did just watch it on TCM at home, but I suppose the last time I saw it in less than idea circumstances. Annie Hall is actually a very beautifully shot movie; I had just never realized it before. It’s hard for me to describe, but the images have a soft and gauzy (not Virgin Suicides gauzy but perhaps approaching that) quality that I really appreciated this time around.
I might not be able to appreciate the Allen character that much anymore (I remember finding this movie hilarious when I first saw it in high school), but I did have a greater respect and understanding for what the film is doing this time around. That might make it a little less enjoyable (I sort of feel about Allen how Allen feels about that movie theater guy in the McLuhan scene), but no less impressive. I really do love all the fourth wall breaking and the comedy about how you tend to remember things in a way that proves your point, not necessarily how they actually were. I like a lot of the technical aspects of the film as well, and I like how the story comes together, but my personal taste has me not really liking Allen himself so much.
For better or for worse, the 50th Academy Awards disagreed with me on some level. Annie Hall, the rare romantic comedy that wins best picture, took home four Academy Awards for the year of 1977. It beat out The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, and The Turning Point for best picture, while Allen took home best director, Diane Keaton won best actress, and best screenplay. It only lost out on best actor for Allen, which I can’t complain too much about (Richard Dreyfuss won for The Goodbye Girl, eh). I honestly can’t get too worked up about Annie Hall vs. Star Wars, Star Wars is fine without the Oscar and Empire is better anyway (Star Wars did end up taking home a bunch of technical awards). And what about the cinematography category, you ask? Hard to argue with Vilmos Zsigmond winning for Close Encounters, though it is a shame Willis wasn’t nominated. I’m pretty okay with Annie Hall winning overall, but here are some of my other favorites from the year if you aren’t: Close Encounters, Altman’s 3 Women, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
“I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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