The frustrating thing about being a Woody Allen fan, particularly these days, is the sheer volume of his output, and the unfortunate lack of quality control; one has to sit through an awful lot of mediocrity in wait for those wonderful, supremely idiosyncratic moments of sheer genius that we all know he is capable of. For all of his intellectualism, and over-indulged love of the zany, he is at heart a romantic: a director, writer and sometimes performer of genuine sweetness, as evidenced more recently with the wonderfully lovely likes of Sweet and Lowdown and Everyone Says I Love You. But it is safe to say that he will never, never make a more achingly touching film than his 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall, a timeless treasure always worth revisiting for its wit and wisdom on life, and love.
By 1977 Woody Allen was already an established director, as well as on-screen personality. But to what degree did his performances reflected his own actual character? In his capacity as screenwriter, to an extent all of the characters in his films are manifestations of his personality. A more modern and obvious example of this would be Quentin Tarantino – the characters in his films all seem to share his world view and speak his highly idiosyncratic dialogue, ending up with his cameo performances (as himself) being in the absurd position of being less Tarantino-like than everyone else’s, thanks to his terrible acting.
So Allen, even off-screen, is ever-present in his films, and even non-Allenophiles could at least semi-accurately identify a ‘Woody Allen’-like persona. But these up until this point in his career had been situation-based comedies, whether the Cuban Revolution satire Bananas (1971), dystopian hijinks of Sleeper (1973), or the Russian Napoleonic ‘epic’ Love and Death (1975). Within these, his persona was present, but its juxtaposition to historical contexts somewhat limited the feeling that his protagonists could be any way autobiographical.
Allen had delved into quasi-autobiography before; the Herbert Ross-directed adaptation of his stage-play Play It Again, Sam (1972), though transplanting him from his beloved New York to San Francisco, felt the closest to home – his neurotic, self-doubting, film obsessed Allen Felix character more than partially based on himself. But Annie Hall represents the first real foray into this territory, playing with the audience’s prejudices about his personality, while at the same time having a brutal honesty about the nature of relationships, specifically that between he and one-time beau Diane Keaton.
It is the worst-kept secret about the film’s that its title is representative Keaton herself – her real surname is Hall, and close friends of her would call her ‘Annie’. That Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is largely representative of his supposed persona would then suggest that the film’s content is based on fact. But is this a true self-reflexivity, or a kind of perverse directorial manipulation? That entire books have been written on the subject illustrates that this is a debate that will inevitably rumble on, especially as Allen remains tight-lipped on the subject of any of his previous films.
But to get too entangled in this messy argument is really to miss the true joys of the film. Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s Citizen Kane (another film with controversy about its supposed biographical content). It is technically daring; fourth-wall conventions fly out of the window, Allen addressing the camera directly, appealing to the viewer, a trick borrowed from Groucho Marx which would be later copied in the likes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and High Fidelity (2000). Characters eavesdrop into, and sometimes even wander around, each others’ flashbacks. In one sequence, the film shifts into a Snow White-like cartoon, affectionately apeing Disney ideas about happily-ever-after stories, again a device which will be taken up later by the likes of Tarantino and Almodóvar. Like Kane, that the film is technically innovative is not immediately noticeable on first watch, as it seems to all flow with such ease.
One key development, in relation to Allen’s prior more slapstick work, was the use of noticeably longer than standard shot lengths. Roger Ebert has clocked the average shot length as being 14.5 seconds, considerably higher than the contemporary average of approximately 4-5 seconds. Long takes are traditionally the preserve of the art-house circuit, and it is particularly noteworthy for a romantic comedy to try to venture into this territory. The effect is to slow down the pace, but also to allow the viewer to become more familiar with locations and situations. In the extraordinarily emotional montage of scenes at the end of the film, accompanied with Keaton’s singing of Seems Like Old Times, we remember those moments they shared together so much more vividly because of the slow, patient way they were shot.
Ultimately, Annie Hall feels true to life because we can all somehow relate to it; the ups, downs, thrills and troughs of relationships are universal to us all, as is the sad melancholy of reflecting on things in life that didn’t quite work out the way they should have. Alvy Singer is inspired to writes his first play, where the main character manages to reclaim his Annie Hall in the end, something that Alvy, and of course Woody, never manage to do. Allen continues to make films at the rate of about one per year, some good, some terrible; sometimes I wonder what makes him continue, but then I think that maybe he just needs the eggs.