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“Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.” — Tolstoy

With Annie Hall, Woody Allen fashioned a substantial work indicative of his serious artistic goals as a filmmaker of indelible worth and considerable depth. Previously, Allen had made films with only visual gags and one-note jokes, which reduced their intellectual affectation to a minimum in terms of their relation to the viewer. In 1977, Allen finally came into the fore of American cinema with his deliciously bittersweet film entitled Annie Hall. The film is at once deconstructive and postmodern in terms of its style, depicting a stream-of-conciseness tone poem dedicated to the quandary of maintaining romantic relationships. In short, the film posits the following: while romantic relationships may at times seem painfully superficial and overbearingly laborious, the rewards of intimately connecting with another human being — even for mere moments — are immeasurable. The film conveys said thesis via its utilization of cinematic language innovations, which are crafted by both deft cinematography and tight editing.

Alvy Singer breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the audience.
Opening Shot: Alvy Singer breaks the proverbial 4th wall and speaks directly to the audience.

The film itself focuses on the romantic relationship between the character of Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, and the character of Annie Hall, who is played by Diane Keaton. For all intents and purposes, the film plays like a ninety minute recollection spoken during a therapy session with a psychoanalyst. The film opens with a two minute monologue, during which Alvy Singer laments his discontentment with romantic relationships to the audience. This opening shot is multi-layered in terms of its functionality. Firstly, the shot indicates to the audience that Alvy will be periodically speaking directly to audience members. In other words, the borderline between story and audience will be consistently violated and sidestepped. Secondly, the shot conveys an air of autobiographic authenticity in terms of its content, indicating the line between artist and character will be purposefully blurred by the director himself. Lastly, the shot — due to its two minute running time — prepares the audience for the utilization of cinematic language that is highly unusual for a comedy (i.e., long takes, which are typically reserved for foreign dramas and highbrow art house fare).

After the above monologue, the film goes forward full-throttle with its storytelling, all the while using flashbacks, animation, voice-over narration, and split-screen cinematography. In his book entitled The Reluctant Art of Woody Allen, author Peter J. Bailey states that Annie Hall is permeated with “scenes in which realistic cinematic rendering is sacrificed to the expression of a different sort of truth” (37). Unlike most films, the scenes in Annie Hall are linked together in an associative fashion, as opposed to a causal fashion. In other words, the thoughts or reflections of a particular character trigger scene transitions that directly relate to the words spoken by the character in question. An example of the this type of linkage is as follows: when the character of Annie defends her position of abstaining from sex with Alvy during a particular scene, she mentions his old flame Allison. Consequently, Annie’s words trigger a flashback sequence that deals with how Alvy met — and subsequently broke up with — Allison. Due to these associative transitions, the film can be viewed as having a stream-of-consciousness quality that links scenes of reality, fantasy, and recollection and turns them into a single coherent narrative.

Alvy makes the ultimate retort in the form of Marshall Mcluhan.
Mixing fantasy with reality: Alvy makes the ultimate retort in the form of Marshall Mcluhan.

An example of Allen mixing reality, fantasy, and recollection can be seen in the New Yorker theatre-line sequence. In the book concisely entitled Loser Take All, author Maurice Yacowar describes this scene as a striking example of the “liberties that Allen takes with narrative convention in Annie Hall” (180). The sequence consists of Alvy bickering with Annie, as well as making disparaging comments about the pompous moviegoer behind him in line. The scene turns into a verbal debacle when Alvy directly addresses the audience in order to seek refuge from said snob, who happens to be a Columbia university professor. Alas, the snob confronts the audience as well. Consequently, Alvy is forced to produce Marshall McLuhan, who represents the point of contention between Alvy and the collage professor, out of thin air.

After close examination, one can ascertain that several planes of reality are at work during various parts of the previously mentioned sequence. Firstly, everything that occurs after the opening monologue of the film can be deemed recollection by default. Accordingly, this scene in and of itself functions on the level of self-reflexive reality first and foremost. Secondly, the scene typifies normal story-line reality in that it is a scene within a movie in which the characters depicted exist in “real-time.” Lastly, the scene becomes an inspired comic flight when Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a theatre standee in order to “win” the argument with the collage professor. In short, this sequence is emblematic of the effortless way in which the film moves from one plane of reality to another. According to book succinctly entitled Woody, From Antz to Zelig by Richard A. Schwartz, the scene illustrates how Allen utilizes narrative interruptions in order to “generate humor and highlight certain truths simultaneously” (18). In the case of this scene, Allen pokes fun at the intellectual rancor of higher education while simultaneously propelling the primary story-line of the film forward.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton on the set of Annie Hall.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton on location while shooting the movie line sequence of Annie Hall.

Although the intermingling of fantasy and reality are regularly mentioned in any given treatise on Annie Hall, one commonly overlooked device of cinematic narration is the film’s consistent utilization of long takes. Appearing for the first time in Annie Hall, Allen later fully integrated the use of long takes into his work, thus making it a distinctive element of his cinematic voice. In Woody Allen on Woody Allen by Stig Björkman, Allen himself states that “most of my pictures are built up on long, long master shots. I got away from shooting any kind of coverage years ago” (79). In terms of Annie Hall, the most memorable (and obvious) of these long takes consists of Alvy and his friend Rob — both of whom refer to each other as Max — walking along a Manhattan sidewalk while Alvy gives examples of his recent run-ins with anti-Semitism. The take commences with a seemingly empty shot as extras occasionally pass by the camera’s view. Suddenly, two tiny dots slowly emerge from the distance as both Alvy and Rob get closer and closer to the camera. Finally reaching the camera’s position of stasis, the two continue to walk as the camera tracks along with them.

Another example of a long take occurs during a flashback sequence as Alvy pontificates on JFK assassination theories in order to avoid having sex with his then companion Allison. The camera starts out on both Alvy and Allison and then proceeds to follow Alvy around the room in a circular fashion. The uninterrupted take spans the entirety of the room as the camera makes a rather subtle 360 degree movement, which finally ends with Allison entering the frame as Alvy continues his diatribe. The take itself ends with Alvy once again addressing the audience by directly looking into the camera. Such long takes compliment the content of the film. In other words, the bickering and verbal abuse that takes place within the context of a romantic relationship are best captured through the utilization of long unbroken takes. Thus, Allen utilizes long takes as a method of molding the narrative in order to offer commentary on Alvy’s romance with Annie. The traditional Hollywood method of shooting a particular scene, which consists of cutting amongst master shots, two shots, and single shots, is used only sparingly in Annie Hall.

From 1977-1985, Gorden Wills and Woody Allen collaborated on a total of 8 films.
The Dynamic Duo: From 1977 to 1985, Woody Allen and Gordon Willis collaborated on a total of 8 films.

All in all, the dozen or so long takes in the film are indicative of Allen’s choice of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose skill as a cameraman is only surpassed by such luminaries as Sven Nykvist. According to Julian Fox’s Woody: Movies from Manhattan, “Gordon Willis…helped, more than anyone, to shape [Allen’s] specific visual style” (19). In allowing his scenes to develop in merely master shots via long takes, Allen displays the confidence and maturity of his cinematic idol Ingmar Bergman. While critics commonly cite Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini as having a direct influence on the work of Woody Allen, many of Allen’s films also have an affinity with the works of other key filmmakers as well. For instance, the cinematic device in Annie Hall of having an actor speak directly into the camera was made famous by the French New Wave in general and the work of Jean-Luc Godard in particular (e.g., Breathless et al). Moreover, the multi-layered narrative reality of Annie Hall is similar to the surreal worlds depicted in the films of Luis Buñuel (e.g. Belle de Jour, etc.).

At the denouement of the feature, Annie and Alvy have dissolved their romantic relationship, yet still remain friends. During the film’s final sequence, Allen frames the narrative of the film by continuing the monologue Alvy commenced at the beginning of the picture. Through voice-over narration, Alvy intimates his final thoughts on the human folly of romantic relationships as the film concurrently shows us a visual montage of all that has gone before. Specifically, this montage juxtaposes the sad and happy moments of the relationship between Annie and Alvy as seen during the progression of the film. The last shot of the film shows Annie and Alvy saying goodbye to one another after having a friendly lunch. After exchanging pleasantries, the two leave the frame in opposite directions.

In the end, all that remains is the empty frame, filled with memories and bittersweet pathos. According to Woody Allen by Nancy Pogel, this empty frame conveys that there are “no sure resolutions, no pat answers, just the ongoing process of life itself” (95). With Annie Hall, Woody Allen reminds modern moviegoers why intimate relationships, while seemingly facile, are important to pursue. When reflecting upon the artistic relevance of Annie Hall, one may be reminded of the old adage expressed by Spinoza: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. (Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.)”

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One thought

  1. Annie Hall is a masterpiece, Woody’s first and probably his best. It’s rare that a film with such a sardonic lead can be this charming. Ultimately, that’s the truth it reveals, “we need the eggs” and all that.

    I agree that the long takes bring a lot to the table. They aren’t in full force yet, but they are definitely one of my favorite Allen hallmarks. In a way it provides fodder to the haters who would characterize his films as stage plays that happen in front of a camera (this mislead group may be mostly in my own mind, I’ll defend him anyway). But really, it takes genius to place a static camera on a scene for three minutes and patiently allow the performances to affect the audience.

    The other thing I take away from Annie Hall is that for all its pretense and its focus on technique and craft, it remains incredibly accessible. Rarely do Masterworks of Cinema work just as well as date movies. Annie Hall knocks it out in both respects.

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