The International Writers Magazine
: A Woody Allen Primer - Part Two

A Woody Allen Primer - Part Two - Annie Hall (1977)
Robert Cottingham

‘‘The horn- rimmed clown heading...for heartbreak along a bright trail of one-liners.’ Philip Stock.

To his contemporary audience Annie Hall (1977) appeared to be a striking departure from the comic stance Allen had taken in previous films.

By recognising 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 Annie Hall.

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 subjective memory.

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 can’t 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 film’s 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 girl.)
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 a yo-yo.)
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?)

(Four Films.....39)

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 (1998)

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 conventional rules.
WA: I did the same thing in Husbands And Wives too. Because you can do it. If it’s natural for the scene and the character, it's just fine.

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 there’s anyway I can disabuse people of the notion that I’m the character in my films I’ll do it..’’ Woody Allen.
We have seen, through the interrogation of the little man myth in Annie Hall, that emphasizes the creation of identity intrinsic to autobiography, Allen’s 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 Allen’s actual achievement.

The examination of Allen’s films that I have undertaken highlights the development of Allen’s awareness of how the media and the public conceive of him, and in turn, how he is ‘’presenting’’ himself’’ Thus allowing Allen’s 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 Allen’s 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 Allen’s work as being as much an escapist, creative and fictional force as film itself.

Woody 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 Film Programme

Part One here


© Hackwriters 1999-2005 all rights reserved