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.