Woody Allen’s Annie Hall captures the full development of the director’s carefully constructed persona. Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Woody is also the eternal underdog; his story is undeniably funny, but also poignantly sad. Under the comedy lies a barely concealed truth, a healthy amount of the tragic. Over the years, Allen has become predictable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He has us laughing before we ever hear the punchline, because we know exactly what it’s going to be. Allen, like Chaplin, draws on his own life for inspiration, and always puts feeling into his movies, whether they are dramas or the usual romantic comedy. Alvy Singer is self-consciously a New Yorker, an egocentric intellectual, and an overly anxious, death-fearing paranoid comedian made in the director’s own image.
The film starts and ends with jokes, but we’re decidedly less likely to laugh by the end, because we recognize the truth behind the punchline. Alvy warns us in the beginning that life is “full of loneliness and misery and suffering and it’s all over way too quickly.” He also spells out his belief on relationships: he’d “never want to belong to any club that would have [him] as a member.” About an hour and a half later, he concludes that relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but we need the eggs.” What Alvy wants is something unattainable, and he’s an expert at making it unattainable.
“Those who can’t do, teach and those who can’t teach, teach gym. Those who couldn’t do anything were assigned to my school,” he explains. By elementary school, in 1943, Alvy had already discovered women. The teachers told him he should be ashamed of himself, but he knows he “was just expressing a healthy sexual curiosity.” Contradicting Freud, Alvy never went through a latency period. We meet his classmates, who now own profitable trust companies, have become plumbers, turned from heroin to methadone addicts, or are really into leather, respectively. As we return to the present tense, he admits he sometimes has difficulties extinguishing reality from fancy. That’s not hard to believe.
Alvy has always lived in New York. The country scares him, because he doesn’t like crickets, and sunny L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light.” Not that he has much faith in New York City, whose residents he is convinced are “looked on like left-wing communist Jewish homosexual pornographers,” which is what he sometimes thinks as well. Like Manhattan, Alvy is an island. He wants to find love and happiness, but doesn’t have much faith he ever will. When his relationship to Annie gets serious and she moves in, he still encourages her to keep her apartment, as a “free-floating life raft.” He has been seeing a therapist for “just fifteen years.” He can’t go to a movie if he misses the first minute, because that would be walking in in the middle. Politicians are a notch above child molesters. Nothing in life really seems okay to Alvy.
A wonderfully inserted split screen between Annie and Alvy’s families show exactly how different the two characters and their backgrounds are. Annie comes from a different world, is an outsider in the city, and looks like she “grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting.” She is “polymorphously perverse,” and a far cry from the other, painfully superficial, snobbish women Alvy has seen, who call things “transpledid” and describe sex as a Kafkaesque experience. Alvy’s relationship to the title character is seen almost entirely through flash-backs, and the attention to detail is what really sets the film apart from other romantic comedies. Far apart. Both Alvy and Annie are three-dimensional characters, with natural, although rarely rational, feelings and emotions, and sometimes black soap and spiders in the bathroom, or bugs and bad plumbing. They are real people, with problems and shortcomings.
Both Allen and Chaplin were quintessentially symbols of their time. Annie Hall’s style, as well as its content, is indicative of the seventies’ “new cinema.” A radical departure from the conventions of classical cinema, Allen’s film presents a loose, episodic structure, at once modern and postmodern. Asides right into the camera are extensively used. Strangers on the street share in Alvy’s conversations. Marshall McLuhan stops by. The plot is not exactly conventional, as in there’s not much of a plot to talk about. The director chooses instead to explore the complexity of his characters. Annie Hall is deeply personal, and passionately straightforward about love, sex, and relationships. Its ending is neither happy, nor sad, but inconclusive. We don’t know what will become of Alvy and Annie, but we are better off for having met them.