Paul Clark is the sort of cinephile I aspire to be. If there's a film out there with artistic merit worth noting, there's a good chance that not only has he seen it, but he has probably written something insightful about it. One of the first online critics I met when I began this crazy enterprise about three years ago, Paul has his own delectable blog, writes kick-ass articles for The Screengrab, and is the brains behind The Muriel Awards, a killer series of awards for online critics that I've been lucky enough to participate in.
Paul's film of choice is "Annie Hall," Woody Allen's 1977 classic comedy about the trials and tribulations of romance.
I suppose the first thing that really struck me about "Annie Hall" when I saw it for the first time in high school was what it wasn’t. From the time I pulled it down from my parents’ video shelf and popped it into the VCR, "Annie Hall" didn’t feel like the normal Hollywood love story. Coming of age in the 1990s- the heyday of Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan romantic comedies- had led me to associate onscreen relationships with gorgeous stars, contrived and gimmicky stories, and posh worlds that bore almost no resemblance to the one I knew. But "Annie Hall" was no "chick flick." I liked that the characters looked and acted like people I might run into in real life (if only as the parents of friends), and that Alvy and Annie weren’t thrown together by the plot but simply drifted into each others’ orbits, introduced through friends.
In addition, I appreciated that "Annie Hall" was a movie about intelligent people. In most Hollywood movies I’d seen up to that point, smart people tended to be computer nerds or shady government scientists, or Basil Exposition types brought in to explain stuff for all the idiots in the audience. By contrast, the characters in "Annie Hall" would talk about great books and music, and make references to history and popular culture. I certainly didn’t get all of the references at the time- I’d heard of Marshall McLuhan (thanks to my AP Government teacher), but mentions of Ben Shahn and "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart" flew right over my head. Still, I enjoyed the fact that I wasn’t being talked down to by the movie, and I looked up the stuff I didn’t get for future reference.
But most of all, what I really responded to in "Annie Hall" was the relationship. Unlike most leading men I could relate to Woody Allen, since he was intensely verbal and neurotic, and certainly not one of the "beautiful people." I only hoped I could be as funny as Allen was back then, but like the character he played here- and elsewhere- I was never quite comfortable in my life, or in my own skin. It’s been said that if you watch enough movies you’ll end up seeing yourself onscreen, and it was good to see a character who seemed a lot like me falling in love in a time when I couldn’t even manage to land a girlfriend. Even the fact that he and Annie didn’t wind up together felt right to me, like a confirmation of my own fatalistic worldview where relationships were concerned. Perhaps guys like us weren’t meant to get the girl in the end, after all.
In the years since then, I must have returned to it two dozen times at least, finding new sources of pleasure upon subsequent viewings. I remember that it took my several viewings to really get wise to the inventive chronology, reportedly a salvage job by Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum in order to take a murder-mystery storyline out of the film. "Annie Hall" bounces back and forth freely in time, but it never makes a fuss about it, and even if the movie doesn’t progress in chronological order, it nonetheless feels like Allen shows us the trajectory of the Alvy/Annie relationship. In addition, the film’s structure allows for some inspired cuts, none more so than the hilarious occasion when two consecutive scenes are linked by the use of the word "showers."
And make no mistake, "Annie Hall" is still hilarious, no mean feat for a film I’ve watched this many times. I recently watched "There’s Something About Mary" for The Screengrab, and I found that the shock of that movie’s laughs had worn off, they’d stopped being funny. This only clarified a suspicion I’ve held for years- that while ordinary comedies lose their appeal once you know the laughs are coming, the truly great ones (and make no mistake, "Annie Hall" is one of the greatest) only get funnier. It’s almost like I can make myself laugh by remembering the joke that’s coming, then laugh again when the joke actually plays out onscreen, and finally laugh a third time out of relief that it played as well as I’d remembered. How else to account for the fact that I start howling every time I see Alvy sneeze in the cocaine? The downside to this familiarity is that if anything is off in a favorite scene it can be something of a buzzkill, as when I caught Annie Hall on the big screen once only to discover that there were no subtitles in the immortal balcony scene.
Now that I’m older, I no longer hold the same bleak view of my romantic possibilities that I did back when I first saw "Annie Hall." But being in a real, sustained relationship for the first time in years has made me better equipped to appreciate what a masterful job Allen (assisted by cowriter Marshall Brickman) does of portraying a relationship onscreen. Annie Hall is almost certainly my favorite big-screen love story because it doesn’t bind its lovers to a plot. Rather than jumping between big, emotional scenes in their relationship, Allen also shows Alvy and Annie talking, hanging out, having deep discussions, and just enjoying their time together. True, the relationship doesn’t work out in the end, but this isn’t because of narrative contrivances designed to pull them apart. They merely drift apart on their own, which is just the way it goes sometimes. "Annie Hall" isn’t just one of the funniest movies I know; it’s also one of the wisest. - Paul Clark