Of all the shiksa goddesses that Woody Allen created, none could top Annie Hall. “La-dee-da, la-dee-da…”
The first two or three times a fellow named Alvy Singer was mentioned in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall I blinked, wondering who the devil he was. It took me a while to catch on that he was the character Allen was playing, since it seemed so obvious that Allen was playing himself. To he sure, he describes the film, which he also directed and wrote (with Marshall Brickman), as a “romantic comedy about a contemporary neurotic,” so we mustn’t assume it to be autobiographical. But that’s an assumption hard to sustain: the picture opens with a rather extended monologue in which it seems that Allen (we haven’t yet heard of Singer) gives us a quick rundown on his life to date and some reassuring words about his present health. Then from time to time, he addresses us directly on developments in the story, is seen briefly in the tape of a Dick Cavett show and in general frequents the places and pals around with the people where and with whom one might expect to find Woody Allen. And is it so improbable that he sees himself as a contemporary urban neurotic? Pages from the life of Woody Allen, as “adapted by” Allen and Brickman; that might come close.
Annie Hall is a movie about “relationships”-with women, that is. Singer, as I shall call him, is a man of ingratiating vulnerability who finds them only too easy to form, but impossible to maintain. And though he ruminates a good deal about why this should’ be so, both to us and to his psychiatrist, it never dawns on him that the ease on the one hand may relate to the impossibility on the other. Allen, who otherwise resembles him only in stature, is like Chaplin in that what he shows you about the quality of contemporary life is marvelous, but his attempts to tell you what it all means is a bit dumb. You want to watch what he does and not listen too carefully to what he tells you. Annie Hall is made delicious by a succession of incidents whose wit derives from their precise but slightly heightened evocation of experiences we have all had (“we” in this case being especially those familiar with the upper middle class, Upper East Side sixties of Manhattan).
Singer displays Jewish paranoia, grim it New York Review sophistication, has achieved the high status goal of playing off-season tennis in a plastic bubble (he doesn’t shop at Zabar’s, which surprises me). Standing in a Third Avenue movie queúe, Alvy is driven mad by a loudmouth behind him who pontificates second-hand ideas on the aesthetics of film. Allen spoils that jest, though, by producing Marshall McLuhan himself from behind a lobby billboard to prick the bore’s balloon. The gag is too studied; it pricks the excellence of the observation. Other japes occasionally fail-there is a joke about Kissinger and Harvard that hasn’t been viable for at least five years-and invariably they are examples of Allen plotting to be clever instead of, trusting his instincts to get him where he wants to go. He also uses camera technique-split images, subtitles-to reveal what’s on the characters’ minds when they are saying or doing something else. That’s a bit heavy-handed for knockabout comedy (more Eugene O’Neill’s soft of thing), and is anyhow unnecessary for an actor/director who knows well enough how to make clear what he and his fellow players are thinking without hanging up signs. (Note his face when a young woman asks him if a crazy remark he’s just made is supposed to be funny.) Then, at the end, Allen appears again in monologue to tell the (deliberately) old yarn about the man who complains that his brother thinks himself a chicken. When asked, why he doesn’t have the unhappy lunatic put away, he says he would, “except that I need the eggs.” It’s that way about relationships, says Allen in conclusion; “we keep on having them because we need the eggs.” When, you’ve finished laughing, ask yourself what that’s supposed to mean.
Yet Annie Hall, for all its vagaries, is a funny, often touching, sometimes astute picture. It is about the desperate race to stay ahead of anonymity. Singer and his relationships jump into bed as readily as they jump into taxis, and then find that in fact they want to go different ways. Annie, the girl of the title (Diane Keaton), comes closest to traveling along with him. in town from the Middle West, she has that affliction of the painfully shy of carrying on hysterical dialogues with herself in a hopeless attempt to correct any unfortunate remark she may have made to the person facing her. The effect is to make shyness epidemic. But Alvy himself is not without tics; they are symptoms of his steel-tempered and ever available inferiority complex. (Fifteen years in analysis, he is quick to tell anyone who looks to be getting the upper hand.) When Annie sees how that works, she speaks straight enough and Alvy is on his own again. I don’t buy talk about egg-laying relationships, but I understand what Allen shows me about an ego looking for a place to put its little head. It gives substance to a film that is otherwise a shrewd putdown of success, Fun City style. There was a time when I thought Woody Allen was caught in the trap, as I saw it, of being the smartest, runtiest aleck in the neighborhood. But after The Front, and after Annie Hall, I suspect he’s on to more important things. He’s now 40, he tells us; he has time, he has quick eyes and ears, and a sardonic turn of mind. And Lord knows he has energy.