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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ballard

Annie Hall: The Beginning of a Legacy

When the film Annie Hall opens, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), despairing over his recent breakup with Annie (Diane Keaton), begins with two jokes that not only drive the story, they lie at the heart of nearly the entire body of work of director Woody Allen, themes he has explored from a countless number of angles over the course of his long career.

An attraction for opposites

“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” Alvy uses this joke to define his adverse relationship with women. No matter what type of woman is in his life, Alvy will ultimately wind up longing for the opposite. When his first wife wants to make love, all he wants to do is talk about the Kennedy assassination. With his second wife, all he has on his mind is sex while she is only interested in intellectual dialogue.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine's character is married to the down-to-earth and reliable Hannah, but he is attracted to her more aimless sister, Lee. In the underrated Stardust Memories Allen's character vacillates between erratic women and one who is more grounded.

That aspect of his stories about our lifelong search for that special someone or that perfect something, which we believe will satisfy all our needs, sheds light on an eternal human conundrum. Once we attain the object of our desire (fame, money, a lover, a bigger TV), we come to find it isn’t enough, or not what we expected, or lacking in some way. There’s always something missing. We despair over our inability to find fulfillment in the people we choose and things we acquire because we fail to recognize--or refuse to accept--that this lack actually resides within ourselves, a bottomless pit of yearning that can never be fulfilled from without. You might say Woody Allen does not subscribe to the “You complete me” school of philosophy.

Existential clown

The other joke Alvy mentions in the opening is about two elderly women at a mountain resort. “One of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and in such small portions.’” This joke, according to Alvy, illustrates his view of life: “Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness. And it's all over much too quickly.” (Italics mine.) It can be a jolt to the system when you suddenly find yourself questioning the meaning of your existence, and facing the sobering realization that life is short and, perhaps, pointless. It’s a dilemma a precocious Alvy confronts in childhood and one that continues to haunt him throughout his life. In one hilarious scene a young, despondent Alvy refuses to do his homework after he learns that mankind is doomed because the universe is expanding.

A glimmer of hope

Toward the end of the film, Alvy reflects on the nonsense (or misery, take your pick) we put ourselves through while in relationships--“irrational and crazy and absurd”--and why we continue, time and again, to throw ourselves into the maelstrom. His conclusion: the fragments of happiness we sometimes achieve can elevate our hearts and serve as a temporary respite against the terror we face as human beings, mere mortals trying to come to terms with our finite existence. And in Annie Hall we are treated to a montage of those precious fragments--ephemeral and bittersweet--that Alvy and Annie shared during their time together.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen plays a character contemplating suicide. He finally decides against it when he realizes that yes, life is short, often painful, and seems to lack meaning, but the simple moments of joy one can glean from everyday living, however elusive, make it worth the effort.

Before we get carried away

In films like Annie Hall and Hannah, Allen appears to be saying, Yes, there is a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, there are instances when he will take things a step further and present a bleaker view, a hard reminder that there are two sides to this existential coin. Crimes and Misdemeanors concludes with the voice over of a philosophy professor who makes this humble and uplifting assertion: “Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfurling[ly], human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” However, not wanting to make it easy, or allow us to feel too warm and fuzzy after the final fade out, Allen creates a heartbreaking irony in that moment because those words of hope are spoken by a character who has committed suicide.


Since the beginning of his filmmaking career, Allen has not been afraid to make changes in his movies, even to the point of returning months later to re-shoot or re-edit some sections, or the entire film. The evolution of Annie Hall is a perfect example. It began as a stream-of-consciousness story about one man's attempt to make sense of his life, of which Annie was one part of the whole. The working title was “Anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure). In later interviews Allen revealed that the sections with Annie really stood out and made for a compelling narrative on their own. He and editor Ralph Rosenblum began to pare the film down, and Annie Hall was born.

The stream-of-consciousness approach remains integral to the telling of the story, however. In the beginning Alvy talks about “...sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind...and trying to figure out...where did the screw-up come?” The film depicts this sifting process through a kind of streaming, self-conscious scrutiny: the story jumping back and forth in time; Alvy breaking the fourth wall to speak to the camera; characters stepping into and commenting upon flashbacks; the movie suddenly turning into a cartoon. Alvy will even see Annie distance herself--literally--while he’s trying to make love to her.

An artist’s legacy

Annie Hall is the film that made Woody Allen a contender among the heavyweights of international filmmakers. His obsession with the foibles and frailties of the heart has led to a prodigious output that runs the gamut of human experience: Funny and sweet (Broadway Danny Rose, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy); Somber (Interiors, Another Woman); Unsettling (Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors); Bittersweet (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Annie Hall); Disturbing (Match Point); Nostalgic and heartfelt (Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters).

Given the diversity of his output, one wonders what Allen's overall view might be toward the human condition, this “cockeyed caravan” (to borrow a phrase from Preston Sturges, another comic genius of the cinema). Undeniably dark, melancholy, tentatively hopeful, though perhaps, ultimately futile.

Like the parable of the blind men who try to discern, individually, the makeup of an elephant, each only touching one part of the massive animal, we all are trying to make sense of the universe, and our place in it, from a limited perspective. The artist, locked into one subjective point of view like the rest of us, will lay his hands on several parts of the beast to get a fuller picture so that he might convey a broader, more expansive experience. And Woody Allen the artist, having explored the enormous conundrum of existence from a multitude of angles (with nearly one new movie released every year since the early 1980’s), has been able to share his own unique take, with humor and pathos, on what it means to be human.


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