Annie Hall review by Tom Blain
Im not sure how it happened. I was in my early 20s and rented Annie Hall one night on my own. I believe it was even a VHS copy. It was a late-night viewing and I wasnt impressed in the least and didnt understand what the big deal was all about. Here is a movie that won both best picture and best director over Star WarsSTAR WARS! The film that I grew up with as a child; a film that practically became boyhood religion. Beyond being a big hit, Star Wars changed the playing field significantly in terms of special effects and Sci Fi films. It became a phenomenon almost over night. And here was the dragon slayer Alvy Singer. Short, glasses, curly hair starting to bald, neurotic, with a distinctive nasally voice. This man has a hard time slaying mosquitos. Its hard to fathom that this movie about how a guy fails at a relationship is that better direction than blowing up the death star?
But then I watched again, with open eyes and discovered something that audiences in 1977 must have seen. The movie isnt about just one relationship, but more on that in a later paragraph. It is true that it traces the relationship of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. The time line is chopped up; we start essentially at the end as Alvy is recounting what a good thing he had with Annie. He addresses the camera and audience directly, explaining that his relationships were like that old Groucho Marx quote, I wouldnt want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
We flash back as far as Alvys childhood and even got as far as to step into his subconscious. Instead of merely telling of what happened one day in class, Singer steps back into the class as an adult and explains how the teacher is out of line for scolding a younger Alvy for kissing a girl. These are the first of many metaphysical gimmicks that are used in the film. And while I go as far as to call them gimmicks (because really each one plays out on its own as a tool from the toolbox of filmmaking), together they weave a very interesting fabric. They serve to not just play out the narrative greatest hits of our relationship as many films could do and have done in the past. Instead, they use these asides, these side-steps out of reality, to give insight into the minds of each character. Questions are asked on the street to people walking by who would never answer these questions with such honesty. Unspoken thoughts of characters are written as if they are subtitles from a foreign film. This is all placed in the film to take you into the head of people who are guarding their secrets, emotions, and insecurities.
So what makes this film so great is that its not just about Alvys relationship to Annie but its about so many failed (and even successful) relationships. The whole progression of the films releationship is played out with such sincerity; its hard to see a film since then playing through this so well. The awkward first moments give way to conversations where each person is putting up a front of how intellectual they are or can be. Then the first date is navigated. The relationship evolves into a euphoria that you never think will end. This part is easy for most films. But Annie Hall is adept at tackling the downfall of the relationship. A few quirks are discovered about each partner. Those quirks begin to grate on each other. Slowly each person drifts apart and out of love due to boredom or lack of interest. The flame is no longer burning as strong. And why? Because neither side is willing to concede. Neither side is willing to see the human flaws in the other. And that unwillingness becomes yet another flaw. And then the break up.
There is no war pushing these two apart. There is no great circumstance where they have to become two separate entitites; its just a simple chain of events and discoveries that causes their interest to wane. In the end, another stroke of genius, Alvy tries to get her back. He fails. She has it good in L.A., and its no longer held back by Alvys inability to get along with people. Alvy goes back home, writes a play, and gives it (and the filme) the Hollywood ending everyone expects. Obviously the audience knows that the ending is fake, but its still there being acted out in the film by stage actors prepping for their role. From the audience perspective, its obvious Alvy knows he missed out. Short cuts of previous scenes are flashed on the screen like fond memories. Annie Hall may not have been perfect, but Alvy will have a difficult time finding someone better.
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