Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
Woody Allen probably has the longest lead time for a director between my having heard of him and my having seen one of the films he directed. I’m fairly sure I first heard of him when I was a kid, seeing his name come up on occasion in the Academy Awards (why I was watching the Oscars when I was too young to understand any of the films is a question I cannot answer.) Yet the first time I watched a film he directed was earlier this year, with Manhattan Murder Mystery. I admitted this oversight at the time and got some gentle picking on for it and some not-so-gentle pushing to check out Annie Hall. Of course, I knew something of what to expect from the film. I knew it was a romantic comedy, and by reputation an unorthodox one. And I knew Woody Allen would be playing a neurotic New Yorker, because — Casino Royale aside — Woody Allen is pretty much impossible to picture as anything else. What I wasn’t sure on was how well I would appreciate the humor.
Humor is one of the most subjective artforms possible. It’s based largely on assumptions and experiences, and these naturally are different for every person. Absurdism tends to translate well — hence the success of Monty Python — but other than that, it’s necessary for the audience to either already have a familiar reference point or to be given one. It’s why so many sitcoms are about an average family in an average American neighborhood; almost everybody is familiar with that situation. And just as naturally, writers are going to write situations and environments that they are familiar with. It’s why so many TV series, movies, and plays are set in New York City or Los Angeles; that’s where the people writing those series, movies, and plays are.
But it can lead to the humor becoming insular. There’s often an underlying assumption that everyone is familiar with the customs and quirks of N.Y.C. and L.A.; after all, everybody they know is. I think this is the reason I never got into the TV show Seinfeld; it had a very “New York” sense of humor about it. It was funny, but never hilarious, because it was always just a little bit unrelatable. Their neuroses were not my neuroses; their normal was not my normal. All too often these types of programs take for granted things I’ve never experienced. There are no 23rd-story apartments in my home town; there aren’t any third story apartments. I’ve never had to hail a taxi at rush hour; the local cab company, if I ever needed it, is strictly call-for-service. I do not know the claustrophobic stench of a subway tunnel; I don’t even know exactly how many hundreds of miles I would need to travel to find one. These different experiences aren’t bad things, and they’re almost always minor things, but they add up in small ways to put programs set in the microcosm of New York culture into the same category as programs set in other nations entirely. There are laughs to be had, and it’s a fascinating culture to watch, but it’s always just a little bit alien.
I wonder, though, if I might have appreciated that show about four neurotic New Yorkers a bit more if I had been well-versed in Woody Allen films. Because New York certainly has a strong presence in Annie Hall, but the humor is framed in a way that makes it more relatable. It’s a love story. A broken, fragmented love story about a relationship that we’re told right from the beginning has already fallen apart. Everybody’s had some form of relationship, doomed or not, and usually a fair mix of each. Not everybody has the same neuroses that Alvy (Woody Allen) or Annie (Diane Keaton) have, but we’ve all probably had some neurotic moments in a relationship. Allen shows these moments in multiple different ways during the film, from subtitling it with the characters’ thoughts, to having Alvy “interview” random passers-by to get their thoughts on his relationship with Annie. It’s as if each anecdote of their lives is a different experimental film. And though the story is told in bits and pieces and out of order — like a man’s rambling memories — we see the whole thing unfold, from their awkwardly cute meeting to the relationship’s eventual self-destruction as Alvy’s efforts to get Annie to grow into him cause her to grow away from him. Yet even most of the sadder moments involve some humor.
And along the way, it casually introduces New York City itself as a character. Not a major one, nor an intrusive one. Just a minor but recognizable side character. “Hi, I’d like you to meet my friend, New York. He’s a bit of a downer sometimes, but we grew up together, so we still hang out.” The city’s quirks are shown as a reflection of Alvy’s quirks. And as Annie spreads her wings to pursue a career in Beverly Hills, that city reflects hers. It’s not as deep as New York, and it’s surrounded by phonies. But it’s also more relaxed and more willing to embrace new things. By Alvy’s own admission, New York is stagnant. It’s shown a lot more briefly, but one gets the feeling that the Beverly Hills shown in Annie Hall is more pleasant than New York. But New York is a lot more Alvy, and one suspects more Woody Allen. There’s an autobiographical feel to the character of Alvy, which is seemingly confirmed when Alvy writes his first play — an idealized version of his relationship with Annie. The characters in the play get the typical cloying romantic happy ending, but as Alvy says in the opening, he and Annie broke up a year before.
It’s not a typical romantic comedy. It’s not a typical anything. It’s more wistful than hopeful, more apt to go for the smile than the laugh (though it does score a few of those.) It features character-expression techniques that are seldom used, and it uses several of them. It’s purposefully disjointed in its storytelling, giving the impression of somebody very meticulously pounding puzzle pieces into the wrong spaces. And somehow, it all works to create an enjoyable film, one that probably requires more than one viewing to fully appreciate, but which is certainly appreciable on the first outing.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.