Saturday, March 22, 2014

Stubs - Annie Hall

Annie Hall  (1977) Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, Collen Dewhurst. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Produced by Charles H. Joffe. Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S.  Color. Romantic Comedy

In a career filled with peaks and valleys, Annie Hall represents a very high point in the career of Woody Allen. One, some would say, that he has never really topped. While he has expressed disappointment in the final film, it represents an arrival of sorts. After an early career of  “funny ones”, Allen finally made an adult film, rather than an adult comedy. Always the darling of critics, Annie Hall represents Woody Allen being considered a serious filmmaker for the first time in his career. The winner of Best Picture for 1977, he has done good work since, but not necessarily better.

Great films take the viewer places they don’t expect while not disappointing them about the destination when they get there. Annie Hall is a stream of consciousness, taking us back and forth in time and from one side of the country to the other. We travel with Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) back and forth to various points in the character’s life searching for clues as to what led to his break up with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). And we travel from New York to Los Angeles and back.

The film opens with Allen breaking of the fourth wall. While Annie Hall doesn’t invent this, seeing Alvy Singer talk directly to the audience about trying to understand what had happened to his relationship with Annie makes an immediate link with the viewer. It’s sort of like he is talking to you like you’re a friend.

Woody Allen as Alvy Singer directly addresses the audience at the beginning of Annie Hall.

Flashback to Alvy’s childhood where his concern about an ever-expanding universe makes him complain that there is no point to homework. Alvy then discusses his sexual curiosity as a child and we’re treated to a visit back to his old school. As neurotic as Alvy may be, he has fared as well as any of his classmates, one of which is into leather and another who has gone from being a heroin addict to a methadone addict.

Alvy Singer interacts with students from his elementary school.

Flash forward to Alvy, now a popular stand up, appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, a popular talk show of the day. Alvy tells Dick, whose other guests include a Navy admiral, that he’s 4P, which means in the event of war, he’s a hostage. 

Next, Alvy’s mother, in the past, addresses her son in the present, saying he always mistrusted the world. As if to illustrate, we’re shown Alvy talking and walking with his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) about the anti-semitism he encounters every day. To illustrate, he recounts planning lunch with some executives from NBC, hearing them ask “Jew eat?” instead of “Did you eat?”

Alvy discusses perceived bigotry with his best friend, Rob (Tony Roberts).

Rob, calls Alvy “Max” and vice versa, suggests that they get out of New York and move to Los Angeles, where there is no prejudice. But Alvy doesn’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.

Alvy is waiting outside a theater for Annie when an obnoxious and unrelenting fan recognizes him. Annie finally pulls up, saving him from what he refers to as the cast of the Godfather. But because the movie playing at the theater has already started, Alvy begs off. He can’t go in after a movie has started. They end up in line to see The Sorrow and the Pity.

Alvy is approached by fans who won't leave him alone.

They’re arguing, which we learn is nothing new. In line, some professor (Russell Horton) is talking loudly to his date about the indulgence of Fellini. Alvy has a hard time keeping quiet until the professor harps on the work of Marshall McLuhan, who at the time was viewed as the founder of media studies and is perhaps best known for the saying, “the medium is the message”. Tired of hearing this guy blather on, Alvy attempts to correct him and when that doesn’t work pulls the real Marshall McLuhan from the side to tell the professor that he’s full of it.

Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan out of line to tell off a professor (Russell Horton).

Back home Annie and Alvy go to bed, but there is no interest in sex. Instead Annie starts talking about Alvy’s first wife, Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) and their first encounter at a political fundraiser, where Alvy reduces her to a stereotype: “New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual”. Already married, Alvy and Allison stop having sex when Alvy can’t stop thinking about the Warren Commission report about the JFK Assassination, but Alvy realizes he’s doing that to avoid intimacy with Allison. Alvy realizes that he lost interest in Allison and couldn’t desire a woman who desires him in return.

Alvy's first encounter with Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) who will become his first wife.

The film then moves to one of the film’s best-known scenes. Alvy and Annie are enjoying each other in the Hamptons while trying to cook lobsters, who are still very much alive. Alvy has trouble with putting them into the boiling water, even letting one of them crawl away behind the refrigerator. Alvy plans to scare it out with a bowl of clarified butter.

Annie (Diane Keaton) threatens Alvy with a live lobster.

We then go off to examine one of Annie’s previous romantic relationships. In what will become a trademark of the film, Alvy and Annie are shown talking about the action that is going on in front of them, as if they are physically present in the past themselves. We watch as Annie kisses her high school boyfriend in front of a movie theater and later, in college, has a relationship with an overly-dramatic Jerry.

This transitions to an examination of  Alvy’s second marriage to Robin (Janet Margolin). She is the sexual opposite of Allison. Intellectual to the point of being cold, Robin rebuffs Alvy’s clumsy attempt to initiate sex while they’re at a party. But she can’t with other intellectuals in the next room. Later, we see that she is unable to have sex if there is even the slightest distraction, like a car horn on the street. Robin tells him that her analyst thinks she should move to the country to resolve her sexual problems, but Alvy doesn’t want to leave the city.

Alvy would rather watch basketball than talk to second
wife Robin's (Janet Margolin) intellectual friends.

Later, Alvy meets Rob at a Manhattan athletic club to play tennis. Rob continues to call Alvy “Max”. They once again discuss Alvy’s anti-semitic paranoia and the stereotyping of New York. Rob uses the situation to reaffirm his belief that things would be different in California.

Then we’re witness to Alvy’s first meeting with Annie. They have just played doubles and Annie attempts to make small talk with Alvy, even offering him a ride home. Annie is anything but a good driver as she drives her convertible VW recklessly through the city. Finally parking so far away that as Alvy remarks “We can walk to the curb from here.”

The first time they meet, Annie invites Alvy up to her apartment.

Annie invites Alvy to her apartment. On the walls are Annie’s bleak black and white photo portraits of her family. She offers wine and they talk about books and family. On the balcony, Allen uses subtitles to show what the characters are really thinking as they make small talk. Alvy asks Annie out and accompanies her to a nightclub singing audition in front of a restless audience. Afterwards, on the way to dinner, Alvy kisses Annie so they can relax about it and get the awkward goodnight kiss over with and digest their food.

The small talk between Annie and Alvy is captioned with what each is actually thinking.

After they make love, Annie lights up a joint to relax. Next Alvy takes Annie to a bookstore to buy her two books about death, which is a very important topic to Alvy. We’re treated to vignettes from their nervous romance: their sitting in Central Park and commenting on the passersby and with Alvy telling Annie that he “lurves” and “loaves” her, in her response to telling Alvy she loves him.

Alvy introduces Annie to his obsession with death.

Most of the rest of the film settles in on examining the relationship between Alvy and Annie that we know is destined to fail. Annie moves in with Alvy, but he insists she keeps her own place as sort of a lifeboat from commitment. She also complains that Alvy doesn’t think she’s smart enough for him, always pushing her to take adult education classes, which he defends.

Later, when the couple is on vacation, Annie can’t and doesn’t want to have sex without pot. But Alvy insists, but Annie gets bored and has an out of body experience wanting to do something with her mind while Alvy has her body.

Flashback to the beginnings of Alvy’s career. He is being asked to write material for a comedian (Johnny Haymer) that he thinks is “pathetic”, so he decides to do stand up. We then see him on stage at the University of Wisconsin delivering a monologue about being thrown out of school for cheating on his metaphysics exam. “I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” Backstage, while Alvy is signing autographs, Annie tells him she is “starting to get more of the references” in his jokes.

As part of the trip to Wisconsin, Alvy and Annie go to visit her family. Annie’s family is so WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) that Alvy is convinced Grammy Hall (Helen Ludlam) is a  “classic Jew hater.” Alvy imagines a conversation between his parents and Annie’s to illustrate the difference between their cultural upbringing. In another one of the film’s best sequences, Annie’s brother Duane (Christopher Walken) opens up to Alvy, confessing his desire to drive into the headlights of oncoming traffic right before he is to drive Alvy and Annie to the airport in stormy weather no less.

Christopher Walken plays Annie's brother Duane and makes the most of his small part.

Back to New York and Alvy runs into Annie on the street and she accuses him of spying on her and they argue. There is a flashback to a month earlier when while unloading groceries, Annie tells Alvy about a dream she discussed with her therapist. In it, she is suffocated by Frank Sinatra, which the therapist says is a stand-in for Alvy Singer and that he is fearful of commitment. The therapist wants her to come five times a week. Back to their street encounter, Alvy tells Annie that “Adult education is junk”

Alvy goes up to strangers on the street trying to find out their secrets to a successful relationship. Of course, they don’t have the answer, but that doesn’t stop Alvy from searching. He decides his current problems stem from his early life. The film has an animated sequence in which Annie has been transformed into the evil queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A cartoon version of Rob enters and tells him that he’s found a new girl for Alvy.

Alvy stops a strange couple on the street to ask their advice
on a happy relationship. The woman is actress Shelly Hack.

Alvy goes out with Pam (Shelley Duvall) an odd, skinny reporter for Rolling Stone accompanying her to see a guru a la the Maharishi. Despite the awkwardness of their date, they still end up having sex, which Alvy doesn’t seem to enjoy. But he gets a call from Annie and goes over to her apartment to kill a spider. They reconcile and vows never to break up again.

Alvy endures an awkward date with Pam (Shelley Duvall).

By now Annie’s singing talents and fortunes have improved. She plays a successful engagement. We see her singing “Seems Like Old Times”. Afterwards, she is approached by Tony Lacey (Paul Simon), a successful musical performer who is there with his entourage. Lacey congratulates her on the show and asks if she records. Alvy, sensing competition begs off Lacey’s invite to go with them to Jack and Angelica’s (Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston for those too young for the reference, were once a couple). Alvy says they have “that thing” and can’t go.

In another use of split screens, we see dueling therapy sessions and see how each couple differently views their relationship. Sex two or three times a week is viewed as “constantly” by Annie, but as “hardly ever” by Alvy.

Woody Allen once said and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing here, that when he got stuck on a script he would write something funny. The next vignette in Annie Hall is one of it’s best known. Alvy and Annie are at another couple’s apartment, talking about their impending trip to Los Angeles at Christmas for an Awards show when the other man brings out a box with cocaine in it. He asks Alvy if he would mind scoring some for him. But when Alvy sniffs a little bit, it makes him sneeze and sends the remaining coke flying.

On to L.A., where they are reunited with Rob and attend a party at Tony Lacey’s house. Alvy gets stage fright, for some reason, so he has to cancel out of the Awards show. But things get worse for the couple. On the flight back to New York, Annie and Alvy realize separately and then together, that they’re relationship no longer works and as Alvy describes it is a “dead shark”. They break up.

Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) shows Alvy and Annie around his Hollywood home.

Back in New York, they start to split up their possessions, including books, including Catcher in the Rye and the Death books Alvy bought her. And Annie sorts through his political buttons which run the gambit from Impeach Eisenhower to Impeach Lyndon Johnson and even impeach Ronald Reagen, who had only been governor of California by this time. Alvy and Annie agree that nothing lasts forever and they can just as easily get back together.

Moaning about missing Annie, Alvy comes across a bystander who tells him Annie’s in Hollywood living with Tony Lacey. Another stranger asks if he’s jealous. Alvy tries to move on with his life and tries to recreate the fun he had with Annie. But when he tries to cook Lobsters with another woman, she humorless about his clumsy attempts.

Alvy then flies to Los Angeles to try and win Annie back. They meet at a health food restaurant, where Aly orders sprouts and mashed yeast. When Annie shows up, Alvy tries to propose marriage, but Annie enjoys her life too much and accuses Alvy of being incapable of enjoying life. While Annie refuses to go back with Alvy, she does credit him for helping her find herself.

Alvy meets Annie at a health food restaurant on Sunset Blvd.,
but can't convince her to come back to New York with him.
But Alvy’s day doesn’t get better. When he tries to leave the parking lot, the rental is too big for him and he crashes into the other cars. When a policeman arrives, Alvy nervously tears up his driver’s license. He ends up in jail, where Rob bails him out.

Back in New York, Alvy watches two actors act out lines from a play he’d written, which mirrors his relationship with Annie. The big difference is that when the Alvy-character proposes the Annie-character come back to New York, she accepts.

Alvy writes a play wherein his character wins back the Annie character.

But the story isn’t over. Alvy, with Signourey Weaver on his arm, runs into Annie, who has moved back to New York and is dragging some guy to see The Sorrow and The Pity, which Alvy takes as a personal triumph. They meet again for coffee and talk and we’re treated to a montage of scenes from their relationship backed by Annie’s rendition of “Seems Like Old Times.”

Alvy with a date (Sigourney Weaver) run into Annie
dragging some guy to see The Sorrow and The Pity.

Alvy uses the old joke about the man whose brother is a chicken as a metaphor for relationships in general. When the doctor asks the brother why they waited so long to treat him, he replied: “we need the eggs.”

There are many elements that we see used over and over in Woody Allen films. In the beginning, he’s talking about Annie to us the viewer. But countless Woody Allen films seem to start with people gathered in a restaurant swapping stories about someone, which leads us to the main part of the film. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Whatever Works (2009) come to mind as examples. His affection for New York, which would blossom in Manhattan (1979) is on display here. He speaks about psychoanalysis in the film with a dual edge, Allen should know since he spent 37 years in psychoanalysis. The use of flashbacks to illustrate the present state of the character was used as far back as Take the Money and Run (1969), wherein we see Virgil Starkwell (Allen) playing cello in his high school marching band to illustrate Starkwell was always a bit out of step with everyone else.

As I believe I wrote in my review of Hannah and Her Sisters, there is always the Woody Allen character, the one that speaks for the writer/director. In this case, it’s Woody himself. And as always, the character Alvy Singer seems to be drawn from Allen’s own past, more so than maybe in any other film. He is a former writer (Allen worked on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows); did standup (which Allen did before making movies). Even the relationship with Annie seems to mirror what we think was a personal relationship Allen once had with Keaton, though it was over with years before Annie Hall.

The writing is what makes this film so good. I once had a discussion with a professor at the New York University film school, during my admissions interview, in which he alleged that there was a lot of Marshall Brickman in Woody Allen’s best work. He was defending Simon (1980) a failed solo comedy effort from Brickman. When I had said Brickman could have used a little more Woody Allen in Simon, he countered that Allen used  Brickman. And then told me he had worked on Simon, which was a bit of a sucker punch.  I think time has proven me right, though. Marshall Brickman has not had the career or gained the respect that his writing partner has.  But I did not gain admittance to NYU’s film program, so I guess you could call it an intellectual push.

Music seems to play an important part in Woody Allen’s film of this time. Manhattan is pretty much a music video for the work music of George Gershwin. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Bobby Short’s rendition of Cole Porter’s I’m in Love Again is played off one of the sister’s love for punk rock. In Radio Days, the songs from the era fill the movie soundtrack. In Annie Hall, Seems Like Old Times a 1945 song written by Carmen Lombardo and John Jacob Loeb, is used throughout the film. Annie sings it in her nightclub act and it’s used effectively at the end to give them film a wistful quality.

This film was an eye-opening experience for Allen fans and for moviegoers in general. Nothing he had done up to then had prepared anyone for Annie Hall. While his films seemed to be getting more serious; compare What’s Up Tiger, Lilly? (1966) to say Love and Death (1975), there is a level of maturity that is miles above that in Annie Hall.

Woody Allen is an acquired taste for some. I feel bad that I sort of lost track of his career for a while, not seeing several of his films in theaters for various reasons. Over the years, Allen became a movie-making machine pretty much cranking out a movie every year. It’s quite a feat, but sometimes the films would seem like they were based on first drafts. He worked alone and sometimes his work suffered because of it. Maybe he needed someone like Marshall Brickman more than I admitted to that NYU professor.

Annie Hall shows what Woody Allen is capable of as a filmmaker and while some of his movies, like Hannah and Her Sisters, might be more inviting, they are really never better than this one. Everything came together for him on this film. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once.

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