At the beginning of Annie Hall, after the credits fade out, we are stunned to see an image of Woody Allen himself in a medium close-up, speaking directly to the camera and by implication to us, the spectators sitting in the film audience. He is wearing clothing familiar to audiences who have seen him in his stand-up comedy routines or on late night talk shows—a tweedy sports jacket, a shirt but no tie, and his trademark horn-rimmed
glasses. (See figure 60.) He tells a joke about two elderly women at a Catskills resort. "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible," one remarks, to which the other replies, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions." Woody Allen then comments, "Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." He then goes on to tell a second joke the essence of which is "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." This joke, he claims, which he got from Groucho Marx, is the "key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationship with women." Next he comments on how he has just turned forty and he guesses he is going through a mid-life crisis. This leads to some defensive claims that he doesn't mind growing old ("I think I'm gonna get better as I get older"), a sentiment undercut by his vision of himself as "one of those guys with saliva dripping out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism."
The extraordinary and surprising aspect of this opening monologue (captured in one long, uninterrupted take) is that the audience is confronted in such an intimate way with the author of the film—its writer, director, and star. When he employs the first-person singular in his monologue, we all assume he is referring to his real self—the real Woody Allen, who in 1975 had indeed just turned forty. But Allen punctures our deliberately created illusion that we have been having an intimate chat with the auteur with the following line: "Annie and I broke up and I—I still can't get my mind around that." Subtly, the frame of reference has shifted. Before our eyes Woody Allen has become Alvy Singer, the character he plays in the film Annie Hall. As he begins to muse on the past in order to try to make sense of what went wrong, why he and Annie broke up, his speech takes on the kind of stuttering, pseudointimate tone that we recognize from episodes in his stand-up routines when he is musing about his life's difficulties. But now, we are listening not to Woody Allen but to Alvy Singer, whose occupation in the film turns out to be that of a stand-up comedian. In retrospect, Annie Hall's opening address from the very beginning can be read as one of Alvy Singer's (not Woody Allen's) comedy monologue routines. The screenplay of Annie Hall preserves the opening scene's deliberate conflation of Woody Allen and Alvy Singer. After the credits, the screenplay states, "Sound and Woody Allen monologue begin," but then indicates an "Abrupt medium close-up of Alvy Singer doing a comedy monologue."8
By seeming to speak directly to the audience in his own person at the beginning of Annie Hall, and then seamlessly sliding into his film persona, Woody Allen makes us hyperconscious of the relation between himself as a director or writer and the character he creates. At the same time, even though Annie Hall is nominally about a character Allen has written and created—Alvy Singer—we are made to wonder if this might not really be a film about Woody Allen. Allen gives us a number of reasons to think so.
First of all, the fact that Allen plays the title role dressed as himself, or at least, as the self that he has constructed for his stand-up comedy routines, plays into the illusion that we are seeing a first-person autobiographical film. In his biography of Woody Allen, Eric Lax points out that the clothing of Allen's stand-up and film persona is identical to the clothing Allen himself typically wears.9 The connection between Allen and his screen persona is further reinforced by Allen's giving Alvy a name similar to his own—Alvy is close to Allen, with the "y" taken from the "y" in Woody—as well as his own past profession of stand-up comic. The boundaries between life and fiction are further muddied when we see a clip of "Alvy" appearing on the Dick Cavett Show. I put Alvy in quotes because the clip we see is actual documentary footage of Woody Allen appearing on the show in 1975. In the reverse of what happens in the opening monologue, Allen turns his fictional persona back into his real self.
As if further to encourage the audience to connect his screen persona with himself, Allen gives Alvy some recognizable features of his own past relationships with women. Like Allen at the time he made Annie Hall, Alvy has been divorced twice. It was also well-known to audiences at the time that Allen had had an affair with Diane Keaton, the woman who plays the part of Annie Hall, and whose loss Alvy is trying to get over. In a further conflation of life and fiction, Diane Keaton's real name was Diane Hall. If you subtract the "di" from Diane, you get "An-e" Hall. Through these teasing references Allen creates the impression that Alvy Singer is a thinly disguised version of Woody Allen, who is using film as an instrument of self-analysis to figure out why he cannot have an enduring love relationship, and how he ever could have let someone as wonderful as Diane Keaton get away.
But most of Annie Hall is fiction. Allen's first working title for the film, according to John Baxter's biography of Woody Allen, was entitled "Anhedonia," a clinical term describing the inability to enjoy life.10 This version was based on aspects of Woody Allen's own life (and unused parts of it reappear in both Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), but he dropped much of the personal material in order to focus the film around Alvy's relationship with Annie, most of which is indeed fictional, made up by Woody Allen and his cowriter on the script, Marshall Brick-man. Alvy Singer's wives, as they appear in flashbacks in Annie Hall, bear little resemblance to Woody Allen's actual past wives, Harlene Rosen and Louise Lasser, and the character Annie Hall, despite the life and vitality given to her by Diane Keaton, has only a superficial resemblance to Diane Keaton the person. Nevertheless, when Woody Allen complained in interviews that people got it into their heads that Annie Hall was autobiographical and he couldn't convince them that it was not, he is being disingenuous. In Annie Hall Allen deliberately sets up the illusion that the film is a personal recounting of his life, feeding the hungry voyeurism of the film audience, while mostly presenting them with fiction.
Woody Allen, it would seem, knows something about voyeuristic desires. Throughout his career, beginning with his stand-up comic days, he has joked about his own fascination with voyeurism, the desire to look into the secret recesses of someone else's life. In Annie Hall he repeats a joke from an early stand-up comic routine about being thrown out of New York University during his freshman year for cheating on a meta physics final exam, because he looked within the soul of the student sitting next to him. In numerous other films, from Take the Money and Run to Deconstructing Harry, including Zelig, Another Woman, Alice, and Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen invites the film audience to peep into that most private of private realms in which people bare their souls—the psychotherapy session.
Within the fiction of Annie Hall, that Woody Allen is confessing all, is the fiction that Alvy Singer is baring his soul, confessing everything, as if to his analyst (for whom the movie audience stands in), in order to get to the bottom of what's wrong with him, why he can't accept himself, and why his relationship with a woman he still loves broke up. In this sense Annie Hall can be viewed as the film equivalent of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which also features a Jewish man with relationship problems who tells all in a series of flashbacks to his analyst. Philip Roth, of course, explodes Portnoy's belief that his confession is the truth about his life in the famous line, spoken by Portnoy's analyst, that concludes the novel, "Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?" Allen also calls into question the authenticity or adequacy of Alvy's confession, not only by having Alvy's self-analysis end inconclusively, but also by foregrounding the fictional, reconstructed quality of Alvy's memories of his past. Some of Alvy's flashbacks in Annie Hall are photographed in a realistic mode, heightening the impression that we are seeing literal images of Alvy's past—the scene in which Alvy and Annie battle with the lobsters comes to mind, as well as the scenes in which Alvy recalls incidents from his first two marriages. Yet the delightful originality of Annie Hall derives from primarily patently fictional metaphorical images, not from Allen's realistic presentations of moments in Alvy's past.
Like all good therapy patients, Alvy begins his search for the sources of his adult neurotic hang-ups in his childhood. "I swear I was brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn," he tells us. Then we see the literal image of a house with a roller coaster built over it (figure 61) and then a shot of Alvy as a child eating soup and reading a comic book as the house convulsively shakes, presumably because a roller coaster is passing overhead. Because of the bizarre nature of the image, we do not take Alvy's image as literal but as a surreal representation of a figure of speech. This is analogous to the process of the dream work as Freud describes it, in which abstract ideas (the latent dream thoughts) are transformed into the concrete visual form of the manifest dream.11 Interestingly, this strange construction was not a figment of Woody Allen's imagination, but a "found object." Woody
Allen had planned to base Alvy's childhood more literally on his own childhood until his set designer, Mel Bourne, drove him to see the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, which actually had an apartment built into it. "This is where Alvy grew up," Allen supposedly said. "We're going to use this."12 Woody Allen seems to have immediately understood that the image of a house built into a roller coaster was an apt image for the experience of a child who grew up surrounded by so much emotional turmoil that it felt like he lived underneath a roller coaster. Later in the film, Alvy, accompanied by Annie and his best friend Rob, go back into the past and witness one of Alvy's parents' crazy fights, which apparently were so unsettling to little Alvy that they shook the foundations of his security in childhood. (The memory of the fighting parents is one way in which Annie Hall could be considered autobiographical. Images of and jokes about fighting parents occur in many Woody Allen films, and Allen is quite public about their autobiographical basis.)13
Another example of an obviously fictional but emotionally apt image from Alvy's childhood is the image of Alvy's father directing traffic at a bumper-car concession. Not only is this a perfect image for conveying the idea that his father was not a very distinguished role model in terms of having a meaningful occupation (the one thing people do not need on a bumper-car ride is a traffic director), but it is also expressive of a father who failed miserably at teaching his son impulse control. Near the end of the film when Alvy runs amok in a California parking lot, smashing into several cars, images of Alvy as a child bumping into cars at his father's concession flash on the screen. As if to confirm that this vivid image of Alvy's past is not to be taken literally, Alvy confesses immediately before the images of his father at his bumper-car concession appear on the screen, "You know, I have a hyperactive imagination. ... I have some trouble between fantasy and reality."
In another telling distortion of the past, Alvy pictures his mother sitting at the kitchen table in Alvy's childhood home, vigorously scraping carrots (read, castrating mother) as she harangues him about his character deficiencies: "You always only saw the worst in people. You never could get along with anyone at school. You were always outta step with the world. Even when you got famous, you still distrusted the world." Interestingly, in this scene Alvy's mother appears as a young woman (the way his mother looked to him as a child), even though she is speaking from the perspective of the present, after Alvy has grown up and become famous. By putting the words of his mother in the present into the mouth of his mother from the past, Allen is suggesting that Alvy has heard the same message over and over again and thus has become fixated on the criticizing, castrating mother of his childhood.14 (In Allen's next film, Manhattan, the main character's work in progress is an expanded version of an earlier short story about his mother entitled "The Castrating Zionist.")
Alvy's fixation on his castrating mother comes up later in the film when Alvy complains that even as a kid, "I always went for the wrong women. . . . When my mother took me to see Snow White, everyone fell in love with Snow White. I immediately fell for the Wicked Queen." Allen then cuts to a cartoon image of Disney's wicked queen from Snow White, but with Annie's face and voice. (See figure 62.) Here, we are not being shown an image of the way Alvy experienced the wicked queen in Snow White when he was a child, but as he perceives her as an adult, now with the face of Annie. Alvy's making Annie, who has none of the qualities of the wicked queen, into such an imago reveals that Alvy has projected or transferred the frustrating qualities of his mother onto both Annie and the wicked queen. Here, the distinction between life and fiction totally breaks down, because both the people in life (Annie) and fantasy images on the screen
(the sexualized image of the wicked queen) are shown to be distorted by the fantasies we construct about each.
Allen not only demonstrates the way our experience of the present is distorted by our experiences in the past, but also the reverse—the way our knowledge in the present can reshape and reconfigure memories from the past. In a flashback from Alvy's grade-school days, for example, after a teacher scolds him for kissing a little girl, humiliating him in front of the entire class, suddenly we hear Alvy's adult voice answering the accusation: "Why, I was just expressing a healthy sexual curiosity." The camera pans over to reveal a grown-up Alvy sitting in the back of the classroom, authoritatively contradicting all charges against him. He goes on to counter the teacher's obnoxious ploy of invidiously comparing him with one of his classmates ("Why couldn't you have been more like Donald. Now, there's a model boy.") by directing Donald to reveal what he became when he grew up. "I run a profitable dress company," Donald replies. To underline the point that Alvy turned out better than his classmates, a number of other children also report on their boring or dubious futures— "I'm president of the Pinkus Plumbing Company"; "I sell tallises"; "I used to be a heroin addict. Now I'm a methadone addict"; "I'm into leather." Allen then cuts to a television screen that shows Alvy appearing masterfully funny on the Dick Cavett Show. By mixing Alvy's past with these glimpses into the future Allen provides little Alvy with an ally (his adult self) who defends him against the narrow-minded, puritanical teacher who was blind to his special qualities and talents. He also literalizes the fantasy many of us have that if we could only relive our childhoods, knowing what we know now, we would not have had to suffer so much.
Just as Alvy rewrites his past by bringing his adult self in as an ally against his overbearing teacher, in another flashback he inserts into his past the famous media critic Marshall McLuhan. Here his purpose is to take revenge on a pretentious Columbia media professor who irritates him with his know-it-all pontificating about Fellini and the theories of Marshall McLuhan as Alvy is standing in line at the movies with Annie to see The Sorrow and the Pity. When the professor protests that he has a right to his opinion because he teaches media studies at Columbia, Alvy summons McLuhan from behind a large movie poster. McLuhan tells the professor: "You—You know nothing of my work. . . . How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing." Alvy, after all, is narrating his story and he can conjure up anyone he wants in order to prove a point. Speaking directly to the film audience, he says: "Boy, if life were only like this!" Again we are reminded that what we see of Alvy's life is often a fantasy. He tells us his past as it felt, as it is remembered, as it is wished, through a creative rewrite of the script of his life.
Near the end of Annie Hall Alvy literally does rewrite the script of his life. Soon after the scene in which we see Alvy and Annie break up at a health-food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, we see Alvy, now a playwright, watching a rehearsal of his play in which this very same scene is reenacted. An actor who looks like Alvy and an actress who resembles Annie are arguing, using the exact words we have just heard uttered by Alvy and Annie. But the scene in the play ends very differently from the scene we have just witnessed in Annie Hall. In the film, Annie refuses to go back to New York with Alvy, and drives away from him in anger and disgust, leaving him at the curb ranting about the hol-lowness of award ceremonies in Hollywood, thus undercutting Annie's pride in all the awards for which her new boyfriend has been nominated. Alvy then gets into his car and begins smashing into the other cars in the parking lot, ending up in jail. In Alvy's play-within-the-film the scene is quite different. In contrast to Alvy in "real" life, the actor playing Alvy is in total control of his emotions. He says, philosophically (if a bit flatly):
"You know, it's funny, after all the serious talks and passionate moments that it ends here ... in a health-food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Goodbye, Sunny." At this point Sunny/Annie does not drive away, but cries, "Wait. I'm—I'm gonna ... go with you. I love you." "Tsch, whatta you want? It was my first play," Alvy says in another direct address to the film audience, apologizing for the forced and implausible happy ending. Unable to make things turn out well for himself in life, Alvy does so in art.
At one point in this scene, Allen does not photograph the actors reading his play directly, but instead shows us only their reflections in a large mirror with Alvy listening to them in the foreground in front of the mirror. (See figure 63.) Here the mirrored mise-en-scène underlines Allen's postmodern skepticism about art's, or language's, capacity to reveal an essential reality. Everything is a reflection of a reflection. The actors are only fragments in the mirror of Alvy's mind, just as the characters in Annie Hall are only fragments in the mirror of Allen's mind, in an infinite regression. In Annie Hall, we are repeatedly reminded that nothing is real.
At the same time, Alvy's happy ending to his play is carefully constructed by Allen to be a foil to the much more "realistic" or plausible ending of the film Annie Hall. While the scene in which "Sunny" declares her love for the Alvy stand-in may give an audience a momentary jolt of happiness, because we are conditioned to want couples who have separated to get back together, everything we have learned about Alvy in the film suggests that his relationship with Annie is impossible. After all, he defines himself in the film's present as being someone who would never join a club that would accept him as a member. If he did get Annie back, we can infer, he would quickly lose interest in her again. If they married and moved in together, she would be as suffocating to him as he would be to her. Woody Allen also broached the theme of reciprocated love bringing not fulfillment but suffocation in a darkly comic way in Love and Death. Boris pursues the rejecting Sonia throughout the film, but when he is finally rewarded with her love, instead of being jubilantly happy, he tries to hang himself. Whether Allen is suggesting that Alvy is too neurotic to love, and all the psychoanalysis in the world cannot help, or whether he is positing a malignant mechanism in the human psyche that dooms even the best relationships to failure, is hard to determine. The answer seems to be both. Yet we do not feel utterly dismal at the end of Annie Hall because Allen gives us the possibility of finding a kind of salvation, not in life, but in art. The pleasure of watching a brilliantly executed film about an inevitable breakup somehow mitigates the sadness of the ending in the same way that De Sica's technique in telling his story makes the loss of the bicycle bearable at the end of The Bicycle Thief.
While Alvy's happy ending for his play is facile and implausible, Allen's Annie Hall ends, if not happily, at least artfully. As Alvy begins to relate how after their breakup he and Annie did meet again, the voice of Annie singing "Seems Like Old Times" is softly heard on the sound track. Alvy relates that Annie has moved back to New York and has taken her new boyfriend to see The Sorrow and the Pity, the film that Alvy was always dragging her to see because of the importance and seriousness of its message. He calls this "a personal triumph," presumably because it suggests that Alvy is still alive in her mind: she has internalized his values. She has also left the shallow viciousness of Los Angeles to return to New York, another indication that Alvy's values have affected her life choices.
In keeping with the postmodern attitudes of skepticism and irony, Annie Hall, like so many of Allen's films, is less about love than about its loss or impossibility. But since this is a Woody Allen film whose main character is a stand-up comedian, Annie Hall does end with a joke. In the film's final monologue, Alvy relates the story of a man who goes to a psychiatrist complaining about his crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken. When the doctor asks, "Why don't you turn him in?" the man answers, "I would, but I need the eggs." Alvy compares the illusory eggs to the illusory hope people hold out that despite the irrational, crazy, absurd nature of relationships, maybe the next one will actually work out. Without that illusion, life would be too sad and lonely to endure. The implication is that all of us are like the man in the joke, who is clearly as crazy as his brother. We all need the eggs—the fictions or illusions which make life bearable. The bad news at the end of Annie Hall is that all we have to go on are illusions. Only in fictions (Alvy's play) do relationships end happily ever after. The good news is that life itself can be thought of as a work of art. Memories, the only traces left of lived experience, can be rearranged, rethought, and reinterpreted in the montage of our minds, as Allen/Alvy demonstrates brilliantly and entertainingly throughout Annie Hall. If the postmodern philosophers are right, and our lives are merely a compendium of fragmentary multiple fictions, Woody Allen's art seems to tell us that at least we are free to rearrange the parts until we come up with a better picture.
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