Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Annie Hall (#58)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Favorites - Annie Hall (#58)


After a five-month hiatus, THE FAVORITES will now run daily until it concludes with the #1 entry on November 6, nearly four years to the day after the series began.

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Annie Hall (1977/USA/dir. Woody Allen) appeared at #58 on my original list.

What it is • After about a decade crafting his "early funny ones" - light-hearted but socially-savvy comedies with as much desire to be "realistic" as a Chaplin fantasy and as much room for sentiment as a Marx Brothers farce - Woody Allen...matured. I use that word hesitatingly, but as an artist there can be no doubt Annie Hall develops his early themes in new, fascinating directions, both narratively and stylistically. Despite its bouts of whimsy, the comedy is very much anchored in the real world, specifically the relationship travails of hip, youngish New Yorkers in the mid-seventies, a distinct, unusual, and - let's face it - attractive milieu and zeitgeist. Alvy Singer (Allen) is a neurotic, wisecracking, Jewish comedian dating the eccentric, wacky, WASPy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). A podcast I was listening to recently dismissed her as "the first manic pixie dream girl" but I'd more charitably note that Annie Hall subverts and reverses many of those tropes even as it establishes them (in some ways, the film is more about the life-altering intervention of a "neurotic leprechaun nightmare boy"). The presentation of this story is both more disciplined and more in step with Allen's creative early work; despite the naturalistic setting, he isn't afraid to deploy many of the same devices and self-referential gags he featured in the sci-fi dystopia of Sleeper or the cartoon communist dictatorship of Bananas. But these frequent departures from reality are much more than non sequiturs. They build character and expand the narrative. See the interactive split-screen therapy sessions; the subtitles showing embarrassed thoughts behind sophisticated chatter; an out-of-body spectral Annie rising from the bed to coldly observe herself having boring sex; an animated Snow White pastiche with Annie as the Evil Queen and Allen as a hectoring dwarf; Marshall McLuhan stepping into a movie theater to correct an obnoxious theatergoer (okay, maybe that one's just a one-off gag but I love how it anticipates the advent of Twitter celebrity tag-ins). The film beat Star Wars (among others) for Best Picture, and while Oscar's yearly selections often miss the forest for the trees, Annie Hall still feels fresh and original (but also a wistful time capsule) nearly forty years later.

Why I like it •
I haven't mentioned it yet, but Annie Hall is also hilarious. There are a huge number of laugh-out-loud moments and the film is here for them as much as for its clever, dazzling form. Another quick list: some of the moments that crack me up every time are Christopher Walken's calmly anxious monologue - and especially Allen's calmly "wtf" response; the in-the-street interviews ("I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say" "And I'm exactly the same way"); and, in the cinematic expression of a New Yorker cartoon, a young Jeff Goldblum telephoning for a mantra. Annie Hall was one of those movies I expected to admire and maybe enjoy, but humor tends to age more than any other quality so I didn't expect to find it all that funny. The poignancy of the characters and situations are an added bonus, and Annie Hall remains my favorite Allen film, among other reasons, because it doesn't indulge in the false, vaguely smug happy ending he's often drawn to (aside from the play-within-a-movie, whose "these are supposed to be him and Diane??" casting/line readings hilariously predict his use of Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci a few decades later). The film is also less self-indulgent (and self-excusing) than many of Allen's other works; or maybe it's just more cagey in its celebration of Alvy's wannabe Pygmalion. Either way, it strikes the perfect balance between a completely personalized point of view - the film opens with Alvy speaking straight to the audience - and a refreshing ability to see the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uproarious in all its characters.

How you can see it • Annie Hall streams on XFinity StreamPix, is available for DVD rental on Netflix, and can be rented digitally on several sites as well. I reviewed it as part of a larger piece on Woody Allen in the early 2000s (and re-published that analysis here in the early days of my blog). I included a clip at 1:08 in "'Neath the Marquee Moon", a chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. I also discussed the film - and other Allen classics - at length in my epic interview with critic Alex Sheremet, author of a recent critical study on the writer/director.

What do you think? • Since nobody has been taking the bait with these closing questions, I'll keep them to a minimum. Please note, however, that you're always welcome to respond - even years later. How do you compare Annie Hall with Allen's earlier and/or later work? What's the funniest sequence? Which films do you think most notably bear its influence years later?

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Five months ago: Dekalog (#59)
Tomorrow: Casablanca (#57)

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