Sunday, August 13, 2006

Allen Analysis

There's an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.

-Alvy Singer, Annie Hall

From the opening moments of Annie Hall, the film is funny, familiar and touching. The above quote, the first joke Woody Allen tells in his opening monologue, has always rung true for me. Probably now more than ever before.

The film is filled with the misery and disappointments of life and love: An old woman walking down the street informs Alvy (played by Allen) that "love fades"; Alvy explains at one point that there are two people in the world, the "horrible" and the "miserable," and be thankful if you're only miserable.

I identify with the character, down to little details. The first scene, of a childhood Alvy visiting a doctor with his exasperated mother, is like a page from my own childhood. Could it be a lot of children out there worried about the "expanding universe?" When Alvy asks, "What's the point?" I realize I often ask this same question myself. I think the film is about answering that question. Or, perhaps saying there doesn't need to be a real answer or a real point. It just is.

Annie Hall has had real influence in my life. A viewing of it a few years back was critical in my decision to end a bad relationship. It isn't that I needed to see it to realize things weren't working. But, seeing the romance between Alvy and Annie Hall gave me a sense of peace (and final resignation) over my own situation. To paraphrase the film, what I had on my hands was a dead shark.

The best films always make me see something a little bit clearer in my life and myself.

In Allen's most significant work, he goes beyond his self-obsession and strikes a chord with the viewer. I think Annie Hall is the peak of his career, at least in terms of the prototypical Allen film. By that I mean any film where he's the star, playing his nerdy neurotic self and relating to other intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals-lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers on the street.

Those strangers often provide a punch line, and some wisdom:

Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?

Stranger: Yeah.

Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?

Stranger: Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.

Stranger: And I'm exactly the same way.

Alvy Singer: I see! Wow! That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something?

The first time I saw Annie Hall I was probably too young to comprehend what Allen was trying to get across. That the only truly happy people in this world are (perhaps) too empty to realize how complicated and difficult life (and relationships) can be.

It is an odd little scene, because Alvy is making a joke at the clueless couple's expense. But at the same time, he envies their ability to be happy and not worry and obsess over every little detail.

That said, it is very clear that Alvy is willing to endure the difficulties of life and relationships, that he wouldn't want the emptiness of the bland couple on the street. Allen's characters recognize the pain of life and in the end, they want MORE. Because when it comes down to it, the portions really are too small.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at

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