“Artists are divided into those who create their own inner world, and those who recreate reality. I undoubtedly belong to the first—but that actually alters nothing: my inner world may be of interest to some, others will be left cold or even irritated by it; the point is that the inner world created by cinematic means always has to be taken as reality, as it were objectively established in the immediacy of the recorded moment.” — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time
This week’s film was another brilliant salvage operation. It began as a two-plus hour movie titled Anhedonia, a sprawling tour through the life and mind of its narrator/protagonist. When principal photography wrapped, the director came to a terrible conclusion: the film did not work. It meandered; it lacked any structural coherence. Undeterred, he and his editor set to work, tossing out almost half of the footage, including the main plot of the script. The film that emerged from this intense surgery went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet with so much of his original vision left on the cutting room floor, the director — Woody Allen — declared the film a failure and a disappointment. As our title character would undoubtedly say, “La-dee-da, la-dee-da.”
Annie Hall (1977) follows comedian Alvy Singer [Woody Allen] as he sorts through his memories of the eponymous Annie [Diane Keaton]. From their first meeting to their final break-up, Alvy re-examines each moment, asking, “Where did the screw-up come?” Along the way, we glimpse other aspects of Alvy’s life: his childhood in Brooklyn, his two failed marriages, his career as a writer and stand-up comic. Annie Hall is not a film about objective reality, but the subjective experience of it.
The film doesn’t let us forget this for a moment. Alvy constantly breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience when he gains new insight into an old situation or wants to justify his behavior. In one infamous scene, he and Annie are waiting in line at the movies. When the man behind them will not stop blathering about Marshall McLuhan’s media theories, Alvy first appeals to the audience, then brings in McLuhan himself for a rebuttal. “Boy,” Alvy says, “If life were only like this.”
Such devices usually serve to distance us from a film. If we’re constantly reminded that what we’re watching isn’t reality, we become less invested in the story and its inhabitants. Annie Hall uses these fourth wall breaks to a different, paradoxical effect. The film represents Alvy’s attempt to get some perspective on his life. As he steps back, we go along with him; we watch the story unfold at a slight remove. At the same time, Alvy’s commentary provides such a clear view of his consciousness that we’re drawn into his subjectivity from the beginning. We care more about his relationship with Annie, because we’re experiencing it from the inside.
“A piece of music can be played in different ways, and can therefore last for varying lengths of time. Here time is simply a condition of certain causes and effects set out in a given order; it has an abstract, philosophical character. Cinema on the other hand is able to record time in outward and visible signs, recognisable to the feelings. And so time becomes the very foundation of cinema: as sound is in music, colour in painting, character in drama.” — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time
The subjective nature of Annie Hall is further emphasized in the cinematography, particularly its use of long takes. A 2002 study found that most American films of that era had average shot lengths of about 3-5 seconds. Annie Hall, on the other hand has an average shot length of more than 14 seconds.* Nearly every scene in the movie is filmed as a single continuous shot.
This is significant on two fronts. Consider, first, Tarkovsky’s concept of a shot as a segment of time. If the film as a whole is Alvy’s journey back through his memories of Annie, then each scene is a moment in their relationship which has particular resonance for him. We see each of them as a continuous event unfolding from a single viewpoint. Were the shots framed and edited more conventionally, with various angles spliced together, that singular perspective would be lost. Moreover, a series of quick cuts might suggest that something was being edited out. Instead, each moment plays out to its full, carrying all the weight Alvy ascribes to it. And it feels more real.
The use of long takes also means that Alvy and Annie are usually onscreen simultaneously. In most films, conversations are presented in what is called shot/reverse shot. Each speaker is shown separately, allowing us to consider the individual performances. Often there’s a subtle [or not so subtle] air of conflict inherent in these scenes as the conversation ping-pongs between the opposing shots:
In Annie Hall, however, we almost always see Alvy and Annie together.They move as if in a dance, bouncing off each other organically. There’s no his side and her side. This is a partnership, not a power struggle:
By way of contrast, look at the scenes that are done as shot/reverse shots. In each one, there’s some kind of tension — the caution of a new romance or a flash of hostility. Alvy and Annie meet when their friends invite them to play tennis. Afterward, the conversation plays like a continuation of the tennis match. Annie makes an awkward bid for connection; Alvy reacts with confusion, pointing out her inconsistencies. Serve, return, volley. Eventually, she gives him a ride to her apartment. On the terrace, we resume the shot/reverse-shot pattern. As the two discuss Annie’s amateur photography, subtitles appear, revealing their inner thoughts and hidden agendas. They’re feeling each other out, trying to impress, trying to sense the other’s motives. It’s not so much a tennis match this time as a chess game.
Later, we fall into shot/reverse shot in brief moments of tension within scenes which otherwise play out in longer takes. They argue over whether Annie should keep her apartment — “a free-floating life raft” — when they move in together. They argue about attending a party after one of Annie’s nightclub performances. Finally, when Alvy goes to California to convince Annie to return to New York, the whole meeting plays out this way. Alvy wants Annie to come back to New York, and says they should get married. Annie likes California, and says she wants to be just friends. The framing emphasizes that they’re at cross-purposes. They keep talking past each other. Eventually everything boils up into confrontation; Annie walks out.
The most interesting use of shot/reverse shot is near the end of the picture. Earlier, we’ve seen Alvy and Annie on vacation, attempting to cook live lobsters. The lobsters have ended up on the floor. One crawls behind the refrigerator. Alvy’s afraid to pick them up. Hilarity ensues. Like most of Alvy’s other memories, this plays out in a single take, with each character occasionally moving out of frame, but generally sharing the screen. Unlike the other scenes, this one is shot with a handheld camera. The unsteady camera emphasizes the chaos of the scene.
After the break up, Alvy is despondent. In what’s probably more of a fantasy sequence than reality, he seeks advice from strangers on the street. An elderly lady suggests he go out with other women. “I tried,” Alvy says, “but it’s very depressing.”
We cut to the kitchen of the same vacation home, with Alvy again trying to pick lobsters off the floor. He asks his date to give him a hand, and we cut to a reverse shot of her, watching from the far side of the room, nonplussed. There’s no connection between them, a fact further emphasized by the framing of the individual shots. Alvy struggles with the lobsters in close-ups; the woman seems far removed, leaning against the sink in a medium shot. Most telling, his shots are again handheld, while hers are filmed on a tripod. He’s desperately trying to recreate his past experiences. She’s on a different plane entirely.
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” — Charlie Chaplin
At the end of the movie, Alvy resumes his narration. Annie, it turns out, eventually did move back to New York. They met for lunch, laughed over old times and then parted ways — maybe forever. It’s an ending that could come off as depressing, heart-breaking, even. Instead, it’s achingly poignant. We’re strangely uplifted. The secret lies once again in the cinematography.
When the two bump into each other outside the movie theater, the scene is shot just this side of an extreme wide. You can barely tell the two of them and their dates apart from the other pedestrians on the street [Alvy’s date is apparently played by a young Sigourney Weaver, but one ant in a trench coat looks pretty much like another]. Their lunch meeting, meanwhile, is shot looking into the restaurant through a window. There follows a montage of key moments from their relationship — the lobster incident, people watching in the park, kisses by the waterfront — but take a closer look. Several of these snippets are not the footage we’ve already seen. These tiny variations suggest they might be from Annie’s perspective. Or it may be that Alvy has finally gained the perspective he so desperately wanted. Back on the sidewalk, they shake hands and share a quick kiss. We watch from inside the restaurant as first Annie, then Alvy leaves the frame. We watch the traffic fly past on the otherwise deserted street as Alvy observes philosophically that relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd,” but in the end, most of us need those connections to survive.
A key transition has taken place since the opening monologue. Alvy’s no longer focused only on his break-up with Annie, his unhappiness. His attention has turned to the wider world, to the universal human needs for love and companionship. He’s reconnected to the world. With its final shot, Annie Hall invites us to do the same.
On deck: A psychedelic western kicks off a month of fantasy to stave off those winter blues…
* See Roger Ebert’s retrospective review, also from 2002.