My Favorite Movie — Annie Hall

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My favorite movie, for about thirty plus years now, has been Annie Hall. For the record, these are my ten favorite movies, in alphabetical order: Annie Hall, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather, The Graduate, Hannah and Her Sisters, A Hard Day’s Night, The Maltese Falcon, and Manhattan. I would not argue that these are the greatest films ever made (although I would certainly submit that Casablanca and The Godfather are right there), nor would I disagree that Annie Hall is not Woody Allen’s greatest achievement, as Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors are much more emotionally complex. But it is my favorite movie of his, and since Woody Allen is my own personal movie god, it is my favorite film of all time.

To my recollection, the first Allen film I saw was a double feature of Take the Money and Run and The Front (which he starred in but did not write or direct). The former is perhaps his purest comedy, a gag machine that just doesn’t quit, and the movie that most people are referring to when they talk about his “early funny movies” (that and maybe Sleeper or Bananas). My indoctrination into the cult of Allen came through his prose. When I was about 15 I was browsing one day in my local bookstore (the Little Professor on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan) and was attracted to the bright yellow cover of Without Feathers, his collection of “casuals” published in the New Yorker. I was hooked. His surreal humor so synced with my own that I treated that book like a Bible. I still have it, though it his held together with masking tape.

All during high school I copied his style in my creative writing, and became known as being such an Allen fan than I was tapped by the high school drama club to direct his play Don’t Drink the Water and thus I was on my way as a theater geek. But it was Annie Hall that pushed me into the status of cinema geek.

Ironically, I didn’t see Annie Hall in its initial theater run. I didn’t go to too many movies in those days without my parents. The movie came out in March, 1977, just after we had moved to New Jersey from Michigan. Thus I didn’t see it until it premiered on HBO in March, 1978. After the first time I watched it, I was transfixed. I watched it every time it was on HBO–perhaps a dozen times that month. I have seen it at least twenty times since then, most recently last night. I have seen it on a big screen a few times, once or twice in college, and once at a theater in Greenwich Village that ran a double feature with Manhattan, surely the most blissful three hours I could possibly spend in a movie theater. In those days before VCRs, I even set up my cassette recorder in front of the TV set and audio taped the movie, so I could listen to it every time I wanted.

So what is that I respond to so much about the movie? Well, it’s amazingly fucking funny. Almost every line is a laugh line, opening and closing with old Catskills jokes. There are also moments of sublime surrealism in some of his jokes. I think the best sequence starts with Alvy Singer’s (Allen, of course) date with Rolling Stone reporter Shelley Duvall. She asks him if he caught the Dylan concert. He responds, “I couldn’t make it that night. My raccoon had hepatitis.” The joke is then pushed when Duvall asks, “You have a raccoon?” and Allen wiggles his fingers and says, “A few.” Then, cut to them in bed, and Duvall tells him as a lover he is “Kafkaesque.” She also apologizes for taking so long to finish. He replies, “I think too much of a burden is placed on the orgasm.” She thinks he’s quoting someone, and asks, “Who said that?” He says, “I think it was Leopold and Loeb.”

He’s then called away to Annie (Diane Keaton), from whom he is separated. She is having a crisis because there is a spider in her bathroom. He finds a copy of National Review and asks, annoyed, why she didn’t get William F. Buckley to kill the spider. Then, finding black soap on her sink, wonders if she’s joining a minstrel show.

In addition to the unrelenting humor, Annie Hall marks Allen’s maturation as a fillmaker. Much of the credit goes to editor Ralph Rosenblum and cinematographer Gordon Willis, who would enjoy a long collaboration with Allen. To start with, the film is told non-linearly, bouncing from Alvy’s Brooklyn boyhood, growing up underneath the Coney Island roller coaster, to his early days as a comedian, through his first two marriages, to the complete A to Z relationship with Annie. The film also has some extremely long takes–the average length of a take in the film is 14.5 seconds, compared to the average 4.5 seconds. With that knowledge, I watched the movie last night with an eye out for that. Consider the first narrative scene, with Alvy and his friend Rob (Tony Roberts), walking down the street. They start in extreme long shot, almost invisible to the eye, but slowly walk forward, as Alvy lists subtle acts of anti-Semitism he’s experienced, until they are in full frame.

Then there’s the scene in which Alvy’s obsession with the Kennedy assassination interferes with his sex life with first wife Carol Kane. I had never noticed before, but that scene, perhaps two minutes long, is in one long take, and ends with the camera zooming in on Alvy, who talks to the audience.

Allen frequently breaks the fourth wall in the film–he starts and ends the film by doing it, and even does it during the context of actual scenes, such as when he turns to the audience and asks them to clear up a disagreement with Annie. This brings the viewer into a more intimate mode with the character. There are also other unusual aspects of the film. In a scene in a movie line, an annoying man claims he knows all about Marshall McLuhan, so Allen produces McLuhan himself from behind a poster to refute him. Allen uses split screen, animation, subtitles to reflect what characters are thinking, and a technique used by Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries by having characters visit themselves in past situations. I think the best use of this is when Allen recalls his penchant for kissing girls in first grade, despite a little girl’s declaration that even Freud spoke of a latency period. Allen represents himself in two ways–himself as a young boy, and himself as adult, seated at his old school desk. The scene ends brilliantly with Allen wondering what his old schoolmates are doing today, and the child actors stand and recite: “I used to be a heroin addict, now I’m a methodone addict,” or “I’m into leather.”

Above all Annie Hall is a romance, and one that belongs to Diane Keaton. Although Allen and Keaton were previously an item, this is not autobiography, though Keaton’s real last name is Hall (and she did have a Jew-hating Grammy Hall). Keaton has repeatedly said that she never uttered the phrase “la-de-da” until Allen wrote it for her. The film was originally called Anhedonia, a psychological condition that prevents the sufferer from experiencing pleasure, but the choice of calling it after Keaton’s character indicates how strongly she carries the picture. She is a fully-developed character, not an idealized version of a girlfriend, and its her endearing awkwardness that grows into self-confidence, while Alvy Singer does not grow, that is the spine of the film. Allen’s decision to just train the camera on her and let her sing “Seems Like Old Times” is something of a tribute to her as an actress. Of course, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress (the film won Best Picture, Allen won Best Director, and he and co-writer Marshall Brickman won for Best Original Screenplay).

I’ve held this picture in high esteem for so long it feels like a part of me. On one of my first trips to New York City while I was in college I made a pilgrimage to the site of the last shot, which happens to be on Columbus Avenue and 63rd Street, across from Lincoln Center (at the time a restaurant called O’Neal’s Balloon was there; that’s where Alvy and Annie have their last goodbye). I can tell you about the soon-to-be-famous actors who were in the movie, such as Christopher Walken as Annie’s weird brother, Jeff Goldblum as an L.A. guy who has forgotten his mantra, and, very briefly, Sigourney Weaver as Alvy’s date when he runs into Annie and her date, going to see The Sorrow and the Pity. I’ve also, as I’ve become more educated, understood more of the jokes–it took me a while to figure out what Alvy’s second wife meant when she said she had a headache “Like Oswald in Ghosts“–that required understanding the plays of Henrik Ibsen.

Though Annie Hall isn’t as visually stunning as Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters, it has its moments, especially a scene at twilight, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, when Alvy and Annie first declare their love for each other. Allen says that love isn’t a strong enough word: “I lurve you, I loave you, I luff you.” I feel the same about this movie.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

9 responses »

  1. So much excellence in this post…
    Love the small anecdotes, like the book being held together with masking tape. I love how you tie the movie in to so many parts of your life and how the movie has grown stronger with each new thing you’ve learned about the movie through your own increasing knowledge. So awesome how much you know about this movie (you even go into the length of the edits!) and you even end the post with one of my favorite sayings of all time: “I lurve you”. That line…like spanish fly for the women.

  2. I agree with filmman – I enjoyed reading this.

    Woody Allen is one of those things in life, like tea and beer, that I wish I liked more than I do.

  3. Woody Allen is one of those things in life, like tea and beer, that I wish I liked more than I do.

    I feel the same way about jazz, wine, poetry, and opera.

  4. Yes yes, I’m glad you know what I mean.

    I’d say wine also, except that I’m fairly convinced that wine snobbery is one big cultural fraud. I suspect that very, very few people could reliably distinguish between good wine and bad wine in a blind taste test.

    I definitely agree about poetry, though. But then again, I’m not really the type that’s infatuated with wordsmithing in general – I’m not one to appreciate someone’s command of the language if I can’t appreciate the content of what they’re saying. So the only real use I have for poetry is its ability to describe feelings that are hard to put into words.

  5. To bring this full circle, Allen wrote a story that appeared in Getting Even called “A Little Louder, Please” about an intellectual, well, let me quote: “And yet, with this much perception dripping from me, like maple syrup off waffles, I was reminded recently that I possess an Achilles’ heel culturewise that runs up my leg to the back of my neck…Pantomime. It hit me with sinus-clearing clarity. Here was the chink in my cultural armor–the only chink, to be sure, but one that has plagued me since childhood, when a dumb-show production of Gogol’s The Overcoat eluded my grasp entirely and had me convinced I was simply watching fourteen Russians doing calisthenics.”

    He wins tickets to the theater, and “unable to get a date on only six weeks’ notice,” gives the extra ticket to his window-washer, Lars, “a lethargic menial.” The narrator discovers, to his horror, that the program includes some pantomime, and has trouble following it. But everyone is laughing around him. “Even the obtuse Lars was wiping tears of joy from his face with his squeegee. But for me it was hopeless; the more I tried, the less I understood.”

  6. I’m a big fan of this film. As JS says, there are probably more sophisticated and complex Allen films but this is probably the most enjoyable one that I’ve seen of his.

    I don’t think all of it works (e.g. the cartoon bit falls a bit flat) but it’s mostly a delight. Loved the segment showing Allen’s parents, that bit when they’re arguing over whether it was right to sack the woman for stealing still makes me smile when I think of it. Would’ve been great to see more of them.

    Tony Roberts gets overlooked when this film is analysed – is very good foil for Allen. You can see why Allen’s character detests him, but also that he’s a good friend.

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