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Posts Tagged ‘Annie Hall’

Looking back at the awards shows of previous years can be an odd experience sometimes – films which are regarded as classics today barely feature, while mocked and derided movies turn out to have done much better than you could have imagined. Perhaps oddest of all are the critical darlings which have slipped out of the bounds of popular memory entirely.

I was glancing over the Oscars handed out for 1977’s crop of movies and all these things went through my head – one of the most-nominated films, winning a raft of prestigious awards, is something called Julia, which I’ve never heard of. John Travolta is a Best Actor nominee for Saturday Night Fever. The biggest winner overall, if not in the major categories, is Star Wars (although – and most people would laugh at the notion now – it was in the frame for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay, too).

I mention all this because I recently re-watched Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which was one of the real winners that year – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and so on. I belong to one of those DVD-rental schemes where they send me three or four discs a month from a list I’ve registered with the company. I have very little control over what actually gets sent – there’s supposedly a ‘high priority’ flag, but I added it to King Kong Lives for about three months and nothing happened – so sometimes there is the odd surprise, such as a movie I added without really thinking about it turning up eight months later. I have to confess that the prospect of actually watching Annie Hall again didn’t really enthuse me.

Annie-Hall-Poster

And then I sat down to watch it and found it utterly winning, much funnier and more affecting than I remembered. Allen plays Alvy Singer, a successful comedian, who across the course of the film recounts the details of his relationship with the eponymous character (Diane Keaton). There isn’t a great deal more to it than that – they meet, they get to know each other, he supports her in her career as a singer, they have various issues, separations and comings-together, they grow apart and finally split up for good.

Of course, it’s not the story but how you tell it, and much of the film’s charm and sparkle comes from how it is structured and how it approaches the material. Most of the film is a series of snapshots, initially out of sequence, rather than what you might call a fully-connected narrative. A defining feature of the film is the way in which it plays games with the language and grammar of film, opening a scene very naturalistically before suddenly going off at a fantastical tangent – such as in the famous moment where Allen starts talking to the camera during a squabble with someone in a cinema ticket queue, and wheels on Marshall McLuhan to settle their argument. The wit and invention of the direction are sustained and impressive.

Then again, this being a Woody Allen film, wit is part of what you expect. For a film called Annie Hall, it isn’t really about Keaton’s character, but Allen himself – he’s the first person on screen, he’s in virtually every scene, and the narration is his. And Allen’s character and Allen himself seem almost indistinguishable – they’re both New Yorkers, neurotic comedians, and so on. Given this, it’s irresistible to wonder how much of this film is the story of Alvy and Annie, and how much that of Allen and Keaton themselves.

Certainly this film is suffused with a level of emotional maturity and genuine feeling almost wholly absent from any of Woody Allen’s previous movies. This is obviously a major step in Allen’s development as a film-maker, possibly the defining step – but at the same time the film is still much of a piece with his earlier work. Keaton and Tony Roberts both appeared in several previous films, while the sense of humour is virtually seamless. This film may be Allen at his most quotable – ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love,’ ‘I cheated in my metaphysics exam – I looked into the soul of the boy next to me’, and many more. But there is subtler, character comedy too – Christopher Walken (credited as ‘Wlaken’ in the credits) pops up for a priceless cameo as Keaton’s flakey brother – and Allen’s ruthless lampooning of the vacuity of West Coast life is also very funny (‘I forgot my mantra,’ reveals Jeff Goldblum in his one-line cameo).

As funny as Annie Hall is, it’s the film’s wistful tenderness and sense of regret that really makes it memorable and satisfying. These days, every time Allen releases a movie which is more than half-decent, it has become customary to hail it as a return to form. The only problem with Annie Hall is that it shows just how brilliant a film-maker Allen can be when he really is on form, and nothing he’s done in recent years comes close to the quality of this movie.

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