Thursday, 9 December 2010

Annie Hall

22. Annie Hall (1977)
Dir: Woody Allen


If I was ever forced at gunpoint to name my favourite director of all time (thankfully an unlikely scenario), there would be several names vying for the honour. Hitchcock, Kubrick and the Coen Brothers would all be strong contenders and I'm almost certain that my continuing inability to rank the achievements of these geniuses would result in my fatal shooting. However, if someone placed a gun to my head and ask me who my most personally important director was, I'd be out of that absurd life-threatening situation in a second, the time it would take me to speak the name of Woody Allen.

Roger Ebert described the film as "just about everyone's favourite Woody Allen movie" and this seems to be a fair assessment. From the moment I first saw 'Annie Hall', I fell in love with Allen's comedic and directorial style. 'Annie Hall' was crucial in establishing both of these. Allen's films up to that point had largely been wacky, episodic comedies which mixed his famous one-liners with hit-and-miss slapstick. The likes of 'Love and Death' (1975) saw him maturing within this stylistic framework but Allen wanted to move towards something with more narrative weight. Although 'Annie Hall' is usually cited as the first of Allen's more emotionally mature works, I would point to 'Play It Again, Sam' (1972), Herbert Ross's film of Allen's stage play, as a notable precursor. Although there was still some slapstick, this excellent film marked a shift towards more realistic, realtionship-based material as Allen's character awkwardly wooed Diane Keaton. When Allen returned to this approach he kept the same leading lady but set about perfecting the formula.

The result was 'Annie Hall', a film that will always be incredibly special to me and which I try to watch at least once a year. Focusing on the relationship between neurotic stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and the titular Annie (Diane Keaton), 'Annie Hall' uses voice-over narration, flashbacks, fantasy sequences, split-screen, broken fourth walls and even animation to examine the progress and ultimate implosion of a love affair. This barrage of techniques was a crucial factor in whetting my appetite for cinematic invention and I credit 'Annie Hall' with being one of my introductions to cinema as something more than just entertainment. All of which ignores that fact that 'Annie Hall' is very, very entertaining. In replacing broad slapstick silliness with a greater amount of dialogue, Allen has crammed his film unbelievably full of hysterical one-liners and charming interchanges. The characters are constantly talking; to each other, to their therapists, even to us. 'Annie Hall' is a very verbally busy film.

But it's not all about jabber. 'Annie Hall' is set against the gorgeous backdrop of 70s New York. New York is an important part of the majority of Allen's films and his love of the city is there on screen for all to see (it would be even clearer in the classic 'Manhattan' a couple of years later). Presented in warm, autumnal colours, 'Annie Hall's New York is one of the most emersive film experiences I have ever encountered. We visit cinemas, diners, colleges and apartments right alongside Alvy and Annie. The fact that Alvy occasionally turns to the audience with thoughts and observations makes us feel even more as if we're there (this trick is used most neatly in a scene involving an argument, in which Alvy momentarily tries to get us on his side before turning back to Annie and not acknowledging us for the rest of the scene).

'Annie Hall's ingenious structure mirrors the working of the human mind. The film opens with Alvy against a plain background, talking directly to us about his breakup with Annie. "I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind", he tells us, at which point we cut to the first of many flashbacks. The rest of the film takes place in Alvy's head, providing a visual accompaniment to his reminiscences. Sometimes he lets his emotions and desires get the better of him ,affecting the reliability of the account. This is most famously evident in a hilarious scene in which Allen humiliates an irritating pseudo-intellectual in an argument about Marshall McLuhan by producing Mr. McLuhan himself, after which he observes "Boy, if life were only like this!"

It's hard to pick a favourite scene of moment from 'Annie Hall'. Oft chosen scenes include Annie and Alvy's disasterous attempts to make lobster in which we see what a good time they have together, a moment which becomes a bitter reference point later in the film when Alvy tries to recreate it with a new lover, and the recounting of Alvy and Annie's first meeting, which involves a tennis match, a hair-raising car journey and drinks in Annie's apartment, where subtitles inform us of the real meaning behind those first uncertain flirtations. My favourite scene, however, is probably the moment in which Annie calls her now ex-lover Alvy over to her house at 3am to kill a spider. It's loaded with romantic subtext, violent moodswings, extraordinary one-liners and one of the few moments in 'Annie Hall' where Allen revisits his slapstick past, as Alvy clumsily wields a tennis racquet.

Allen has admitted on several occasions that he's not really an actor but in several of his films he gives very good performances and 'Annie Hall' is the peak of his thesping achievements. As Alvy Singer, Allen cemented his trademark neurotic character upon which he would play numerous variations for the rest of his career. The one-liners are all delivered with the usual impeccable timing but Allen achieves more with Alvy, tapping into his frustration, longing and anger as well as his lighter qualities like an absurist sense of humour and his palpable love for Annie, creating a fully rounded character. He received an Oscar nomination for his trouble but the acting honours went to Diane Keaton, whose extraordinary turn as Annie won her that year's Best Actress Oscar. Keaton convinces totally as she portrays Annie's transformation from sweet, nervous innocent to experience-hungry academic with extreme subtlety. It's an even more remarkable performance given the scattershot structure of 'Annie Hall', which must have demanded that she snap into any stage of Annie's emotional and intellectual journey on demand. Keaton is also very beautiful at this stage in her career and her iconic suit and tie outfit became a fashion trend amongst women upon the film's release.

While the focus of 'Annie Hall' is very much on the central couple, Allen also fills the film with hilarious little cameos. Frequent Allen collaborator Tony Roberts is brilliantly unusual in the third lead role as Alvy's best friend Rob. The deliberate pacing of his delivery and the dry nature of the lines he is given make him an agreeable counterpoint to 'Annie Hall's speedy tempo. Famously appearing in a one-line role is a pre-fame Jeff Goldblum (with Sigourney Weaver also putting in an early appearance as a non-speaking extra) and Truman Capote features briefly for the purposes of an in-joke, but the most inspired piece of small-role casting is musician Paul Simon as music producer Tony Lacey. Simon gives a strange, smarmy performance that shows a real flair for character comedy.

'Annie Hall' kicked off Woody Allen's career as a director to be reckoned with. Its enormous success with audiences and critics alike (it won the 1977 Best Picture Oscar, beating 'Star Wars'. Hooray!) gave Allen license to push on with his dramatic work, resulting in classics such as 'Manhattan' (1979), 'Hannah and Her Sisters' (1986) and 'Crimes and Misdemeanours' (1989) to name but a few. Although he seems to have rather lost his touch in recent years, Woody Allen has more than earned his place in the canon of great directors, with 'Annie Hall' his glowing pinnacle. The greatest director of all time? I'd have to say no. The most important director in my own intellectual and emotional development? A resounding YES!


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