The Twitchy Urbanite’s Guide to Love: Annie Hall

By Jess Wilton

There is already a “film note” that covers the fundamentals of Annie Hall 101—its importance as a turning point in Woody Allen’s career, its influence within the genre, autobiographical aspects, and much more. Therefore, for the benefit of all the shivering couples and forlorn singles who will be revisiting this masterful work of romantic comedy in anticipation of yet another Valentine’s Day, I’d like to approach the film as a twitchy urbanite’s guidebook for understanding men, women, and relationships. This may not sound like the most practical approach to life’s greatest mysteries, but it’s cheaper than therapy and easier than most forms of selfimprovement. I also suspect that many of us, model our lives and relationships after their favorite cinematic romances. And after all, if we can’t look to Uncle Woody for insight on life and love, where can we turn?

Working in no particular order, let’s begin with what Annie Hall can tell us about men. Allen’s Alvy Singer is, in fact, a caricature of a difficult boyfriend—he’s jealous, a little condescending, self-involved, sexually juvenile, possessive, passive aggressive and controlling. Nevertheless, the outlook for men is actually more positive than it initially appears. Alvy’s numerous flaws are only as prominent as they are because Allen has written him this way. It shows not only that Allen understands the credibility he’ll earn and the overwhelming appeal of self-deprecation, but also one also gets the sense that he is, in fact, self-aware. Capable of change, perhaps not—but awareness is crucial.

So if Alvy, as the most detailed example of a man in Annie Hall, is highly aware of his own failings yet incapable of addressing them, where does that leave Annie? She begins as an unformed, somewhat naive lost little girl, and evolves into a more assured, assertive woman, all the while defying the auteur’s attempts to define her. Annie Hall is a failed Pygmalion tale, in which the writer/ director/star, through analysis, encouragement, and education, attempts to shape the raw, unformed Annie in his own image. Instead, she develops into an autonomous, self-defining figure.

But even if Alvy can’t control her, Woody is the one who writes her words and actions. In this on and off-screen struggle for control over this character, it’s Diane Keaton who ultimately has the last word. Her performance expresses more life, more individuality, and more self-ownership than Allen has written into her character. Her expressions, antics, and gestures make her the focal point of each frame, even when she is only a small figure in an overwhelming Manhattan landscape. In an argument, even when Alvy has the advantage, Annie’s voice and carriage indicate she’s got the upper hand. Even her unconventional wardrobe, still mentioned from time to time in fashion blurbs, was culled from Keaton’s own closet. Thus Keaton, essentially playing herself as written by her ex, nevertheless owns the character. I’m not entirely certain what Annie Hall teaches us about women, other than that they mystify Woody Allen (or they did in1977), that he is willing to admit to that mystification, and that he adores women, especially this one.

Finally, there’s the puzzling issue of relationships, romance, and Annie Hall. How is it that we can put this film, in which two charming, but highly dysfunctional people ultimately can’t make it work, in the same lineup with Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story? Movie romance is traditionally about escaping the less-than-spectacular realities of our own love lives, but Allen chooses to showcase those human flaws that make relationships difficult, awkward, and infuriating. The easy answer is that these people make us feel good about ourselves, our partners, and our relationships. It generates the same sort of feeling, although it is not at all the same thing, as going to a high school reunion and seeing that the prom queen has put on more weight than you. I watch Alvy throw a jealous fit and squeeze my husband’s arm in appreciation. Or, because I believe this film to be open to multiple identifications and because I’m not chained to any antiquated bias of heterosexual monogamy, I look at Alvy and pat myself on the back for not trying too hard to own my partner, for not closing the channels of communication with my rampant narcissism, for not being too much of a nebbish to hold onto a good thing.

On another level, however, I think that the ingenuity of technique that Allen shows in this film holds its own lessons about relationships. Several of his artistic conceits—the non-linear narrative, his choice of cinematographer, and leading man (himself), violate conventions of Hollywood romance to such a degree that we’d expect not to react to this film in the same way we would to a traditional romance. After all, it’s nearly impossible to be raised within American culture and not hang onto some shred of a suspicion that really you’ve failed yourself, because the intensity of your love affairs doesn’t hold a candle to Scarlett and Rhett. And the key components of this myth of a higher plain of romance are all things that Allen does away with; how can an ideal romance not have a linear narrative? The characters must meet, then be kept apart through a series of unfortunate circumstances, and then be gloriously united; they should be far more attractive than us, and better groomed. They should dwell in bright sunlight and warmly lit salons, not under the skyscrapers and fog-drenched dusks of gangster films, and especially not bathed in the “Bourbon Street” glow of Alvy’s special red light bulb.

he genius of Annie Hall is that it replaces convention with equally powerful devices. Allen’s narrative, loaded with flashbacks, split-screen episodes, and repetitive violation of the third wall, encourages deeper connection with its least glamorous character. Even physically, although not exactly Paul Newman, Allen packed a remarkable amount of charisma and physical grace into his small frame. And the look of Annie Hall, the unmistakable character of New York, allows the viewer to engage with the film without being held back by the constraints of genre tradition. If it looks like a comedy, we’re supposed to laugh—but if it looks like a crime drama and sounds like something in between a stand-up act and a Bergman film, we don’t know what to do. The experience becomes more immediate.

Thus Allen creates romance from anti-romance, and, according to my premise, I must glean something about relationships from this somewhat obvious conclusion. There’s a series of flashbacks, towards the end of the film, in which Alvy recalls all the good times he and Annie had that illustrates my point best. Because of this topsy-turvy structure, we are able to appreciate this film’s romance in the moment. Life tends to be experienced linearly, and we rarely feel anything as deeply in the present as we do in retrospect or anticipation. Annie Hall reminds us that, while we may not sense it in the moment, we might all be living our own great romances–and all the while complaining about them to our shrinks.

Caitlin Written by: