The International Writers Magazine: A Woody Allen Primer -
Woody Allen Primer - Part Two - Annie Hall (1977)
horn- rimmed clown heading...for heartbreak along a bright trail
of one-liners. Philip Stock.
his contemporary audience Annie Hall (1977) appeared to
be a striking departure from the comic stance Allen had taken
in previous films.
and utilising the public interest in his persona, Allen created a film
that explores how individuals perceive their own history. Annie Hall
is as much an examination of autobiography as it is the story of Alvy
Singer. Operating on various levels the film both amuses and challenges
the viewer. Allen develops the sense of playful self-reflexivity that
had inhabited his previous films into an exploratory force, examining
narrative structure and the construction of identity through the past.
For Annie Hall Allen developed the technique of internal and
external referentiality employed in Play It Again Sam. In that film
Allen's character is a film critic obsessed with Humphrey Bogart, who
appears in fantasy sequences to offer terse relationship advice. The
self-referential use of Bogart allows Allen to externalise the character's
women anxieties. The film's use of Casablanca highlights something of
the pressure that the media exerts on the individual to conform to a
certain type. Felix feels he must operate just as his hero does, and
the fact that he cannot is a constant disappointment to him, only abated
by the sense of his own self worth that he gains from a brief but rewarding
romance with Linda (Diane Keaton).
In contrast to Allen's pointed use of Casablanca, his subsequent
targets, Tolstoy in Love and Death, and Kubrick's A Clockwork
Orange in Sleeper, are used more for their comedy potential. Allen's
integration of secondary material, derived from the external world,
into the fictional context of Annie Hall, however, returns to and extends
Play It Again Sam referential technique to develop deeper themes.
Once again Allen's use of other cinematic works clearly reveals aspects
of characters: Marcel Ophul's The Sorrow and the Pity serves
not only to illustrate Alvy's fascination with death, but also, in its
recurrence in the film's closing scene, the influence he has had on
Allen's integration of material taken from his own experiences has been
interpreted less successfully. The parallels between Allen's real life
and Alvy's operate around the Barthes derived notion of Allen as a popular
cultural myth. Accepting the myth I described in Chapter
1 allows the conflation of Alvy and Allen to succeed, and thus enables
the conclusion that the film is autobiographical to be reached. Conversely
the highlighting of narrative construction and subjectivity by Allen
within Annie Hall indicates the false nature of myth. The film literally
shows an identity, Alvy Singer, being created and manipulated on screen
in a similar way that autobiographers construct their protagonist. Furthermore,
Allen signals the separation between his roles as director, screenwriter
and actor through the use of scenes that alert the viewer to an exterior
manipulation of events. These tend to be the more fantastical occurrences
within the film, such as Alvy's surrealist procuring of Marshall McLuhan
to win an argument in a cinema queue. The filmic nature of the scene
is revealed in Alvy's direct-to camera comment - 'Boy, if only life
were like this!'' (Four Films. p.16) Allen, then, uses the platform
of Annie Hall to show his audience that he is not the little man.
A clear indication that Alvy is a construction emerges through an analysis
of Annie Hall's narrative structure. The story is of the film is presented
through Alvy's idiosyncratic perspective; indeed he physically narrates
certain scenes. In order to achieve this degree of narrative subjectivity
the film would have to have been assembled with a clear focalising character
established in the minds of the entire crew. Functionally, the focalising
character of Alvy Singer has to be clearly and carefully constructed
so as to be clear to all those involved in the production of his view
of the world in the film.
The extensive construction of Annie Hall's plot can be understood in
reference to Genette's theories, who clarifies the conditions for subjectivity
and objectivity in literature in his essay ''Frontiers of Narrative''.
Genette reminds us that pure narrative ''is defined by the absence of
any reference to the narrator..... The events are set forth chronologically,
as they occur .... (Selden ed. 365)'', narrative is therefore entirely
objective. Discourse, in contrast, is the subjective presentation of
events, indicated by ''the slightest adjective that is [a] little more
than descriptive, the most discreet comparison, the most modest perhaps....
(366).'' Genette's principal aim is, then, to reveal that all utterances
or writing are authored and therefore subjected to a specific perspective.
Annie Hall is clearly discursive in nature; the entire structure of
the narrative is engineered by Alvy. Indeed, the events of Alvy's and
Annie's relationship, in Genette's terms, 'the narrative', are so altered
by the subjective 'discourse' of Alvy's narration that the film becomes
less a straightforward romance, than a representation of Alvy's attempts
to understand himself; and specifically where he has failed with Annie.
Interestingly, continuing with Genette. In the case of Annie Hall
there was no initial narrative to be disrupted. The form of the film
is therefore particularly sophisticated; Allen expresses a partially
imaginary story through the created voice of Alvy. This story, however,
is presented fractured and reconstructed into a non-linear presentation.
Annie Hall may be seen, then, to comment on the nature of storytelling
itself; in a supremely reflexive manner Allen is indicating to the audience
that they are both watching a fiction, and constructing their own fictions
everyday. Annie Hall is perhaps, then. constructed precisely to discuss
the narrative structures of autobiography, that are so dependent on
The clearly subjective tone of Annie Hall can be seen as a manipulation
of the classical autobiographical position that Renza identifies, Allen
present us with a character, Alvy, attempting to understand his past.
Annie Hall is a misleading title since it is much more about Alvy Singer
than it is Annie Hall. The film is a search for Alvy's identity in reference
to Annie Hall, thus the film opens, close to it's chronological end,
with Alvy attempting to understand why his relationship with Annie failed:
... Annie and I broke up and I-I still cant get my mind around
that. You know, I-I keep sifting the pieces o' the relationship through
my mind and-and examining my life and trying to figure out where did
the screw-up come, you know, and a year ago, we were...tsch, in love.
You know, and it's funny, I'm not the morose type. I'm not a depressive
character. I-I, uh, (laughing) you know, I was reasonably happy kid,
I guess. I was brought up in Brooklyn during World War 2. (Four Films
of Woody Allen, 1983, p.4)
In the film that follows then, Alvy is essentially attempting to make
present his past, and this proceeds in an entirely arbitrary plot. The
sequence of events is not chronological, we know from the outset the
story's end. Allen is able to construct a film sequence which works
on associations rather than cause and effect. Thus, we first see, not
simply Alvy at school, but as an adult, with an adult's perception of
what it was like. We see the compressed time span in the projection
of their future lives upon his classmates. This type of self-referential
assessment of the past in light of the present is coherently expressed
by Barrett John Mandel, whom Renza quotes:
As long as I live, my past is rooted in my present and springs to
life with my present... I cannot fully give my past to the page because
it flows mysteriously out of the incomprehensible moods of the present.
And as new moods come upon me, my past comes upon me differently.
Quoted by Renza, p.271-2. Olney Ed.)
Thus Annie Hall begins, as Dawson observes, with Alvy attempting
to understand himself through two philosophical jokes. The first, about
old ladies complaining about the terrible food that 'comes in such small
portions' is resonant again and again; it represents the paradoxical
difficulty of life and the yet the need for it. The second, deriving
from Groucho Marx, emphasises Annie's need for individuality in their
relationship which leads her to intellectual development through the
film and perhaps finally drives Annie and Alvy apart.
As I have suggested, by choosing to commence his film in such an unorthodox
manner Allen appears to be inviting an autobiographical standpoint.
The scene appears to draw upon the persona Allen had created by prior
to Annie Hall, initially it is as though we are speaking directly to
Woody Allen - Comedian', attempting to find out something of his true
self behind the performer's mask. For a short time, then, in thee opening
moments Allen suggests the type of link between author and protagonist
that Elizabeth Bruss perceives as the key to literary autobiography,
and its principal obstacle in film. Bruss describes these crucial phenomena
as the unity of ''speaking subject and subject of the sentence (Olney
ed. 301)''. Indeed, Allen describes the opening of Annie Hall to Bjorkman
as a deliberate merging of fact and fiction, utilising exactly the kind
of curiosity a celebrity characteristically produces in the public to
present a more engaging film;
BJORKMAN: The film starts very abruptly with you addressing the audience....
This gives the film a touch of immediacy and directness.
ALLEN: Right, it sets up the idea of the film. I felt distinctively
that a picture where I address the audience directly and talked about
myself personally would interest them, because I felt many of the people
in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted
to talk to them directly and confront them. (77)
The film's opening is contrived and reflexive. It's not Alvy Singer
who is addressing us, but Woody Allen. Allen deliberately presents a
very narrow controlled image that achieves the difficult autobiographical
narrative position Bruss describes. Initially, Allen pushes the audience
to read the film as autobiographical - little onscreen leads an impression
of the fictional nature of the film, all that can be seen
The film's following scenes of Alvy's childhood at the fairground, school
and in the doctor's surgery have a far more traditionally cinematic
quality to them. We are aware, as opposed to the films opening,
of their constructed nature, a fact made clear when the adult Alvy appears
in the classroom with his classmates and his younger self. These opening
scenes have a tendency to push the viewer away from reading the film
as autobiography and rather a study of autobiography itself. Two things
are evident in the school scene. Firstly the highlighting of the narrative
perspectivism seen throughout the film; we clearly understand that Alvy
is re-reading his past from his narrative present. Secondly, the scene
visualises the debate regarding the disjunction between fantasy and
reality that dominates autobiographical theories. This is particularly
pertinent to Allen due to the myth that has grown up around him, constructing
him to the public as a mirror of the little man of his films. Placing
two versions of Alvy in the same room breaks the conventional realism
of cinema, visually revealing autobiography's tendency's to re-read
the past and present in a different light through the mediating perspective
of the future.
In his discussion with the teacher the older Alvy recalls and interacts
with his past in light of recent difficulties with Annie. He almost
represents his school as being at the root of his problems. Tellingly,
Alvy's reflections about his schooling are not about his intellectual
development but on his social interaction, which has more bearing on
the narrative present.
Cutting to an occasion more recent to Alvy's narrative present, Allen
develops the fantasy/reality theme through showing Alvy and his friend
Rob walking towards a distant camera along a quiet New York street.
The shot thus evokes the distant observational quality of documentary.
Initially the form of the shot suggests that audience should accept
the truth of the situation, such is its simplicity in contrast to the
contrived nature of those representing Alvy's childhood. It is however,
pointedly constructed, its aim being to cause the viewer to listen closely
to the language of the scene which is of considerable importance. Additionally,
the ostensibly straightforward nature of the shot may suggest that the
more recent events recorded in autobiography are more reliable, for
those are experienced by a consciousness closer to the autobiographer.
Continually then, we see Allen engage with the subject of autobiography
on multiple levels.
Thus Allen establishes the importance of naming in the representation
of the self and our understanding of each other. Indeed, this notion
pervades the film, expanding the fantasy/reality theme. Girgus develops
a theory that Allen's language is representative of a more everyday
experience rather than a traditional Hollywood model. Allen's screenplay
embraces all of the uncertainties and hesitations, incorporating the
inarticulate stuttering, repetition and stalling as well as the clear
words. Examples range from Annie's ''la-de-da's'' (31) and Alvy's creation
of the word 'lerve' (47) to express his feelings, to the inconclusive
nature of Marshall McLuhan rebuke that Girgus observes; ''You - you
know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong'' (35).
Allen's script reads less as learnt lines than an attempt to represent
a truer reflection of how people really speak.
Despite its emphasis upon the failure of language in the real world,
however, Allen's inclusion of McLuhan somewhat contradicts the realism
of the scene. The audience is reminded that Alvy's experiences are being
constructed by Allen and his collaborators from an exterior position,
and that life is not really as it is shown ''in the movies''. Allen
then reminds us that the film is a construction, that we are aware that
he can manipulate events from an exterior position is significant for
it reveals the designed nature of autobiography as opposed to the chance
of reality. This disparity between the filmic projection of reality
and Allen's is never clearer than the scene at Annie's apartment, where
the subtitles highlight not only arbitrary nature of language, but also
its failure to deal with sex and love. Allen illustrates this by projecting
on screen their inner thoughts that would perhaps emerge more readily
in the traditional Hollywood romance; undermining the conventions of
the genre to comic effect:
ALVY: So did you do those photographs in there or what?
ANNIE: Yeah, yeah, I sorta dabble around you know. (Annie's thoughts
pop on the screen as she talks: I dabble? Listen to me - what a jerk.)
ALVY: They're... they're....they're wonderful, you know. They have...
they have, uh ... a.... quality. (As do Alvy's: You are a great looking
ANNIE: Well, I-I-I would-I would like to take a serious photography
course soon. (Again, Annie's thoughts pop up: He probably thinks I'm
ALVY: Photography's interesting, 'cause, you know, it's-it's a new art
form, and a, uh, a set of aesthetic criteria have not emerged yet. (And
Alvy's: I wonder what she looks like naked?)
As in literary autobiography, however, this device of adding a second
perspective to a previous experience reduces the realism of the scene.
Despite the personal nature of autobiography we are always acutely aware,
as we are in Annie Hall, that the perspective we are given is
not objective, rather it is the subjective view of the autobiographer,
Alvy in this case; thus we are less likely to accept simply what we
are presented, than we are with the less conspicuously manipulative
narrative structures of conventional film. Indeed, the subtitles almost
act in Brechtian terms as an alienation effect, reminding us that what
we are watching is a fictional construction, in other words, the constant
battle between fantasy and reality extends out to the audience.
Through the duality of the scene, Allen reminds the viewer of his presence
exterior to the film, we are conscious of Allen the scriptwriter as
his words physically appear projected on the cinema screen.
It is therefore difficult to reconcile Allen's claim in conversation
to Stig Bjorkman that he ''wanted the audience to experience this with
me. That was the impetus for doing the picture to begin with. (82)''
with what he presents us on screen with Annie Hall. The film
frequently attempts to expose its fictionality, deliberately presenting
material in order to provoke discussion regarding the autobiographical
nature of Allen's work. It may be that we experience the film with Alvy,
clearly, however, as I have shown Alvy is not Allen, but a particular
representation of his persona.
That Allen includes material from his own life, inviting comparisons
between himself and Alvy, is undeniable. The extent to which these comparisons
are useful, or in anyway illuminating is clear. Allen uses the film
as a medium to tease out the reasons why these comparisons are drawn,
and in doing so he allows the audience to see the difficulties involved.
He shows us how language fails, myth operates, and most importantly
the ways in which we all construct our own identities. By showing Alvy's
search for the truth of his own life Allen shows both how we cannot
really understand another person, least of all an enigmatic celebrity,
and importantly how autobiographical works in that it never purports
to be definitive or illuminating. Rather it highlights the difficulties
and doubts involved in self-representation that Allen will return to
again and again.
Deconstructing Harry is probably the most revealing film Allen
has made. In many ways its a reconstruction of Bergman's Wild Strawberries,
in which an aging professor takes a journey to receive an honorary award
and confronts his past in a series of wistful, Proustian memories. The
film's elaborate structure, in which we see the fictional characters
who closely resemble their real-life counterparts, make it a piece of
meta-cinema. As Baxter writes, 'Relentlessly self-revelatory, cynical,
spasmodic, it used comedy to achieve an effect close to the black farces
of nineteenth century Russia. If Gogol had applied his mind to a biopic
it might have looked something like this.'
Allen says he didn't want to act as Harry, only taking the role as a
last resort after others turned it down. The model for Harry, he maintains,
is Philip Roth, to whose life that of Block's bears some similarities.
According to Santo Loquasto, they envisioned more of a Norman Mailer
- type, an unreconstructed, priapic unreconstructed id, fucking prostitutes,
drinking heavily and with an addiction to pills. For all Allen's protestations
that the film is not autobiographical, one can't help watching the film
and not be reminded of Allen. Like Harry Block, Allen has had three
wives (not including Soon-Yi), six shrinks. The preoccupations with
analysis, prostitutes, young women, lost children, are all paraded before
us with a weary truculence, much as in the opening scene, taken from
one of Harry's books but rooted in (his) fact, when Ken and Leslie,
his brother-in-law, make love in the kitchen while their blind grandmother
in law watches, thinking they're mixing cocktails. This was one of the
most problematic scenes for many viewers because it seemed to show sex
as separate from love, which Freud suggests can be bad for one's well
being. No wonder, then, that the most popular sexual act of this film,
and the two that precede and follow it, is oral sex. More specifically,
fellatio, which allows the man to dislocate himself from the act in
the sense that he is being fellated - the woman undertakes the passive
role because she is subjugated, dominated by the man. In a sense the
act of fellatio can be seen as a means by the man to phallicise the
coitus, because all attention is focused on the penis.
Almost as troubling for some critics was Allen's treatment of Judaism.
His character is accused of anti-semitism by his sister because of his
negative portrayals of Jewish characters in his novels. The film actually
shows Allen's distrust for all religions. When his sister rebukes him
for bringing shame on 'my people' he answers that she should be concerned
for everyone, not just those of her denomination.
The film is the most controversial of Allen's career. It has been condemned,
in various sources, as being misogynist, misanthropic and pornographic.
Whether it's any of these things or not, it's certainly frank. Block
is unapologetic about his feelings for his ex-wives, his teachers and
his romantic rival, his best friend Larry (Billy Crystal), whom he recasts
in his fantasies as the devil. And his great, unabashed appreciation
of whores is shown to the fore. Asked why he has put prostitutes in
so many of his films, Allen says,
'Quite simply because they are tremendous people, very strong symbols
of society, a little like the Mafiosi and gangsters of Coppola or Spielberg.
Dostoevsky depicted them in his novels, Fellini in his films. They are
the women who add color to life but who are always considered, here
as less than nothing, destined to be punished by humiliation or death.'
(P.52, Baxter, 1999).
Quite right. Prostitutes have existed in society since time immemorial,
whether streetwalkers turning tricks for a fast buck or high class-courtesans
earning a fortune pleasuring aristocrats, politicians and powerbrokers/.
Their contribution to society is vital yet never acknowledged. And as
Allen explains, they have exerted a fascination not only for their customers
but also for artists of the highest caliber, whether it is Manet's painting
or Bunel's erotic fantasia Belle du Jour.
One of Allen's best comic casuals for the New Yorker was The
Whore Of Mensa, a Raymond Chandler pastiche about Private eye Kaiser
Lupowitz nosing out a network of educated prostitutes who offer something
more exotic than sex; intellect. 'For a hundred, a girl will would lend
you her Bartok records, have dinner, then let you watch while she had
an anxiety attack. For one fifty, you could listen to FM radio with
twins. For three bills you got the works; a thin Jewish brunette would
pretend to pick you up at the museum of modern art, let you read her
Master's, get you involved in a screaming quarrel at Elaine's over Freud's
conception of women, and then fake a suicide of your choice. The perfect
evening, for some guys.
Allen's fascination for prostitutes has existed since early on in his
career. In a shot omitted from Sleeper, Allen looks down at a reclining
female robot and enquires, 'did a bellhop send you to my room in the
Dixie Hotel? The Purple Rose of Cairo and Shadows And Fog
both contain scenes set in a brothel. In Husbands and Wives,
Sidney Pollack finds relief from his sexless marriage to Judy Davis
in the bed of a hooker with 'a mouth like velvet'. Allen's sportswriter
in Mighty Aphrodite tracks down the mother of his adopted child
to find she's an airhead hooker and porn actress. In 1991, asked to
contribute to a Campari commercial, he proposed one set in a brothel,
which the company rejected as being 'too sexy.
It is in Deconstructing Harry that prostitutes occupy the most
important position. The Allen character is a middle-aged writer blocked
in his life and his work and called, with heavy irony, Harry Block.
He routinely relies for sexual gratification from prostitutes. 'Tie
me up, hit me, give me a blow job,' he orders, confident that he will
be obeyed without question. No hooker would undergo a religious conversion
in the middle of a relationship, like his ex-wife, or run off with a
smooth rival, like his much younger girlfriend. They offer sex without
guilt, remorse or strings. Desperate for someone to hold his hand while
he is awarded the doctorate from his college, Harry persuades Cookie
to stay the night and drive upstate with him the next day. As the disastrous
day unfolds culminating in the death of his friend and his arrest for
the kidnapping of his son, Cookie alone remains cool, calmly organizing
the journey, counseling Allen on his social solecisms, calming him down
from an anxiety attack.
When he's not lusting after prostitutes, Allen characters are invariably
seeking out sex with models, actresses or porn stars. The thrill of
sensational sex is more alluring than sex in a loving relationship,
with all its attendant feelings of loyalty and expectation.
Allen relinquishes the conservativeness of much of his earlier work
in favour of a more provocative, edgy and confrontational aesthetic,
which can be seen in the opening scene of Block's sister -in-law Lucy
repeatedly arriving at his door in a windstorm, a scene that is the
apotheosis of Sandy Morse's penchant for jumpy editing, we see his life
over and over again, from every conceivable angle. Indeed, much of the
film is edited in a jumpy edgy manner. Talking to Bjorkman, Allen explains
the reasons for this:
SB; In that scene you continue this very abrupt editing. We see you
stand up by the pillar, having your glass of whisky, and then you cut
to Judy Davis in exactly the same position. This is something which
say, ten, twenty years ago would have been forgiven and against all
WA: I did the same thing in Husbands And Wives too. Because you can
do it. If its natural for the scene and the character, it's just
Allen goes on to say that 'content dictates the form'. With drama, Allen
can get away with breaking the rules. But with comedy, he must shoot
in a straightforward and conventional way, otherwise the joke is lost.
Like in other films, Deconstructing Harry is told from the subjective
viewpoint of the writer, through his short stories and novels. The film
shows how characters are manipulated and distorted; first we see the
'real' characters and then the actors playing them in Block's stories.
Invariably the actors in the fictional elements are more good -looking
and glamorous than their real-life counterparts. Harry can manipulate
the characters in his stories but he cannot control real life. He has
to make peace with his demons. At the end of the film Harry has learnt
that he has to know himself. He has to put his life in order before
he can write about himself again. In doing so, he is perpetuating his
own myth. Doing
A student says to Harry, 'I like deconstructing your work because the
characters seem sad, but underneath they're really happy.'' This is
a continuation of the theme Allen employed in Manhattan, where
the characters create neuroses to keep them from the more important
issues of life. Also, this viewpoint helps us to come to an understanding
of Allen' work as whole: his characters may lie, cheat and betray each
other, but underneath it they are all more or less good people.
If theres anyway I can disabuse people of the notion
that Im the character in my films Ill do it..
We have seen, through the interrogation of the little man myth in Annie
Hall, that emphasizes the creation of identity intrinsic to autobiography,
Allens undermining of the fimic modes of communication in his
Rose films, and finally an examination of the narrative perspectivism
of autobiography in Deconstructing Harry.
All four films broadly point towards the fact that the project of creating
an autobiographical film is impossible. Allen demonstrates his understanding
of the reasons why his work is considered autobiographical, and i9n
doing so questions them. We have seen the assumptions involved in reaching
the conclusion that Allen is attempting to represent his life in film.
Largely these presuppositions are based on the myth of the little man,
which whilst appealing in its apparent ability to unify the cultural
sign of Woody Allen auteur-comedian with the work he produces, involves
taking only the merest of glances at Allens actual achievement.
The examination of Allens films that I have undertaken highlights
the development of Allens awareness of how the media and the public
conceive of him, and in turn, how he is presenting
himself Thus allowing Allens influence to be seen
as operating both internally and externally to the films he creates.
The realization that Alvy is constructed before us as we watch Annie
Hall pushes us to to a position whereby it becomes clear that Allens
films are not so much an attempt at autobiography as an attempt to visually
theorize, and illustrate the techniques of autobiography.
Autobiography is finally represented in Allens work as being as
much an escapist, creative and fictional force as film itself.
Allen Primer Part Three - Broadway Danny Rose to Purple Rose of Cairo
© Robert Cottingham - July 2005
Robert is a recent graduate of Portsmouth University Creative Arts and
all rights reserved