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Any other year and I might chuckle at the timing of a re-release of Annie Hall. If you’re hoping to target Woody Allen’s core audience, you could do worse than Christmas. Film Forum might as well have ordered Chinese, stuck a fan in the lobby, and propped open the theater doors — a bat signal for bored Jews biding their time till the stores reopen.
Christmas 2017 is perhaps the last possible moment that Park Circus could issue this restoration onto theater screens. It’s not just that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of Allen’s most widely appreciated movie, a comedy about the failed romance between nebbishy TV writer Alvy Singer (Allen) and his shiksa goddess, aspiring singer Annie Hall (an exuberant Diane Keaton). Two months after the New York Times and the New Yorker broke the truth about Harvey Weinstein, opening the floodgates to a torrent of revelations about some of Hollywood’s most powerful and beloved men, it’s debatable whether audiences still have an appetite for Allen’s films — or, at least, a willingness to celebrate them in public. (His latest, Wonder Wheel, has not lit the box office on fire.)
Of all these powerful and beloved men, Allen is the one who’s perhaps enjoyed the benefit of the doubt the longest while doing the least to dispel the fog of misgiving that has come to surround his output. Years after Allen left Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom he married in 1997 (they began their relationship in the late 1980s, when she was a teenager and he was in his fifties), critics continued to wax poetic about the triumph of Manhattan, Allen’s 1979 black-and-white affair in which he cast himself as a forty-two-year-old man dating a seventeen-year-old girl. In 2017, writers still feel comfortable praising Allen’s work with only the odd parenthetical blemish indicating the director’s messy “personal life.”
Allen, of course, denies any connection between his life and his work; in 2015, he told NPR, “I never see any evidence of anything in my private life resonating in film.” This is ironic, for Allen is the godfather of blurred lines, and in many ways Annie Hall set the standard for a now-familiar mode of comic confession, an effective collapse between the character and his creator. The film’s opening, in which Alvy delivers a rambling monologue straight to the camera against a blank backdrop, owes a debt to Allen’s early career as a pioneering stand-up comedian who helped encourage the trend toward a less showy, more personal and conversational style of delivery. “I have some trouble,” Alvy tells us in this opening, “between fantasy and reality.”
As a kind of realist fantasy of a mid-century, middle-class Manhattan bubble, you can’t do better than Annie Hall. The pillow talk (“Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience”), the party chatter (“I forgot my mantra”), the portrait of neurotic New Yorkers who read The Second Sex in bed and mill through book-lined Upper West Side apartments — for all these reasons, Annie Hall has remained indelibly fixed in the canon of American cinema. It’s a great send-up of the kinds of people who do a lot of, in the words of Joan Didion, “emotional shopping around,” yet never seem to have jobs to go to or appointments to keep other than with their analysts.
And yet, in retrospect, Annie Hall looks more aspirational than satirical, a kind of catalog for the idle, self-absorbed masses with money to burn. For my grandparents and their friends, Allen’s contemporaries, it was simply the truth about being Jewish in the 1970s. Allen taught a generation of Jews how to laugh with the post-Holocaust paranoia that was, thirty years out, still just below the surface of Jewish collective memory. For them, there’s no irony whatsoever to Alvy’s dragging one girlfriend after another to see a four-hour Holocaust documentary. The scene when, over dinner with Annie’s WASP-y Wisconsin family, Alvy has a vision of himself through her Grammy’s eyes — as a bearded, Orthodox, payot-sporting Jew — was positively cathartic for that generation, validation of a neuroses that dare not speak its name.
The movie hums with neurotic energy, flitting from scene to scene like a fidgety patient free-associating on the couch. Alvy is a mess, but Allen the filmmaker doesn’t indulge Alvy the character’s worst impulses, at least not without a challenge. In back-to-back scenes, we see Alvy encourage Annie to take college courses — and then, months later, Alvy disparage her when she does, insinuating that her professor is only interested in her thoughts because he wants to sleep with her. Allen’s onscreen persona is a stock type that has become ubiquitous in the decades since Annie Hall, a character that probably owes a greater debt to Alvy Singer than any other: the lovable schmuck, the asshole who’s our asshole. Allen has the good sense to put the movie’s most deplorable line, about sex with sixteen-year-old twins (“Can you imagine the mathematical possibilities?”), in the mouth of another character.
So, too, Louis C.K., in I Love You, Daddy, his professed homage to — and interrogation of — Allen, declines to give himself the film’s ickiest role. C.K. had been hounded for years by rumors of sexual misconduct — rumors that were confirmed on the eve of the film’s release, which was then canceled. He cast John Malkovich as the sixty-eight-year-old renowned director with a reputation for taking an undue interest in teenage girls, and himself as the concerned father of one such girl. Annie Hall is a precursor to the now-standard model of creating a sitcom around a comedian’s stand-up material and onstage persona. Jerry Seinfeld did it with Seinfeld, Louis with Louie, which often explored the title character’s shame and inability to control his impulses, and even included a scene in which Louie forces himself on a woman. Unlike Seinfeld, Allen and C.K. baldly inserted material into their work that, in retrospect, looks a lot like confession.
Timing is everything, in comedy and in life. If the allegation, dating to 1992, that Allen molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan Farrow had surfaced in the wake of the Weinstein stories and the #MeToo movement, it’s hard to imagine Amazon Studios going forward with its theatrical release of Wonder Wheel, or a rep cinema promoting a festive holiday screening of Annie Hall. Then again, it’s hard to imagine Allen would still continue on, business as usual, and yet here we are.
In 2017, we’ve witnessed the often-disastrous results of blurring the line between jokes and serious statements, between fact and fiction, between person and persona. The good stuff is marbled through with the bad, so if you want your tax cuts, you’ll have to put up with racist fearmongering and climate-change denial; if you want Matt Taibbi’s important book on Eric Garner, you’ll have to accept his history of misogynist bullying under the guise of political satire. If you want Diane Keaton charming her way from Manhattan to L.A. (“La-di-da!”) in a tie and vest, you’ll have to endure ninety minutes of Allen’s shtick, too — along with everything we’ve learned about the man in the years since Annie Hall won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
At the end of the film, Alvy talks to the audience again, this time in voiceover. “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life?” he muses. Tell me about it. Still, there are moments when we have the chance to get it right in life, too. This Christmas, I think I’ll order in.
Written and directed by Woody Allen
December 22–28, Film Forum