erik lundegaard

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Annie Hall (1977)

Best comedy of all time? Sure. Best romance of all time? Maybe. How about greatest non-sequitur? In the opening monologue, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is talking directly to the camera about having just turned 40:

Written by:
Woody Allen
Marshall Brickman

Directed by:
Woody Allen

Starring:
Woody Allen
Diane Keaton
Tony Roberts
Carol Kane
Shelly Duvall
Paul Simon
Christopher Walken
Sigourney Weaver

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor (Allen)

Academy Awards:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress (Keaton)
Best Screenplay

Quote:
“A relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

"I think I'm going to get better as I get older. I think I'm going to be the balding, virile type, you know, as opposed to, say, distingued gray. Unless I'm neither of those two. Unless I'm one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag raving about socialism. Annie and I broke up and I still can't can't get my mind around that."

Annie Hall is the subject his mind comes back to unbidden. His next line is "I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind..." and in essence that's the film: the pieces of his relationship with Annie, and his own life, chronologically jumbled. How important is the non-linear form of the film? I don't know. At first viewing it certainly makes you sit up and pay attention but some of the transitions are overly facile: Alvy telling his frigid second wife, Robin (Janet Margolin), "I'm going to take another in a series of cold showers," which leads to the next scene: his friend "Max" (Tony Roberts), informing Alvy, "My (tennis) serve is going to send you to the showers early." What's the connection there? The word "showers"? Is that how the mind works?

The relationship between Alvy and Annie is of the Pygmalion variety: She blossoms under him and then past him. He encourages her growth — buying her books, telling her to take adult education courses — and then tries to stifle that growth. "Do you think we should go to that party in South Hampton?" she asks. "What do we need other people for?" he answers. He wants her, she wants more. They seem doomed from the start. The first time we see them is near the end of their relationship: the fight outside the movie theater. The next time we see them is at the pinnacle of their relationship: the lobster scene. What a man wouldn't give to make Annie laugh the way she does here.

Confession? I first saw Annie Hall when I was an impressionable 14 year-old, and for whatever reason the great loves of my life have tended to be like Annie Hall. I don't know whether to thank Woody Allen for this or slug him. I don't even know how influential the movie has been in my romantic choices. Did Annie Hall lead me to these women or did these women lead me back to Annie Hall, to appreciating it on a deeper level? All I know is that Diane Keaton as Annie is my cinematic ideal. On their first date, Alvy says "Give me a kiss," and her response is, "Really?" There's a level of innocence and excitability that's endearing. "Would you like a glass of chocolate milk?" she asks when she calls him over at 3 a.m. to kill a spider in her bathroom. "It's really good chocolate." Afterwards, he finds her on her futon, crying, and she knocks his shoulder with a feeble punch before telling him, "I miss you." She's vulnerable, and her vulnerability is accentuated by Woody Allen's direction. She's not the center of the frame, she's in the lower, right-hand corner. It doesn't hurt either that the other women in the picture don't exactly win us over. Shelly Duvall's Rolling Stone reporter, with her hilarious post-coital comment, "Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience." Or — better — the woman in Lobster Scene II, which is the best cinematic example of the futility of trying to resurrect lost love. The woman looks great — nice legs in short-shorts — but as the lobsters crawl around the kitchen she just stands there smoking. "You're a grown man," she says. "You know how to pick up a lobster." Alvy deflects this veiled insult with a joke that she doesn't get (brutally) and the camera holds on Alvy's stunned, sad face. Afterwards Alvy stares out at Manhattan (an island, Alvy's geographic counterpart) and walks away. It's a lonely shot and it reflects Alvy's feelings without Annie. Annie was fun, and most women — most people — are not.

Annie Hall is not a perfect film. Some of the jokes are dated ("I was at an Alice Cooper thing where six people were rushed to the hosptial with bad vibes"), as are Annie's comments about "grass." For a movie I consider one of the best romances ever made, Alvy is not that romantic a guy. He foists his opinions and himself on her. She really could do better but we still wish she wouldn't because Alvy is us.

In the end, what makes Annie Hall work is the comedy, most of which is as fresh as the day it was written. The childhood scenes are perfect. How is Woody Allen able to imbue tragedy and comedy in the same line? "I'm President of the Pinkus Plumbing Company," one young boy says, followed by another, who comments, "I sell tallises." It's funny and sad at the same time: these young boys lives already circumscribed; the burden and boredom of adulthood already weighing on their innocent faces. "It's never something you do," an old woman carrying groceries tells an adult Alvy. "It's how people are. Love fades." It's a sad thought — maybe the saddest of all — but here it's imbued with humorous magic because it's part of Alvy talking to New York and New York talking back.

Best romance? Best comedy? Close to the best movie ever made.

—December 9, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard