The year I moved to Nottingham, to start my Articles, Woody Allen released his first masterpiece, Annie Hall. Co-starring Diane Keaton in the title role, critics all over hailed the film as the first complete integration of Allen’s comedic style with a consistent and coherent story.
I went to see it, a few weeks into my life in Nottingham. I think it was the first Woody Allen film I’d seen at all. It was followed by a number of re-releases in the cinema, in double-bills, each of which I watched, though I had to wait for Take the Money and Run and Play it Again, Sam on TV.
Despite the critics’ approbation, I didn’t find Annie Hall particularly funny. Indeed, given the expectations built up, it was actually disappointing, and his older films were much funnier (I had near hysterics at the opening shot of Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) when it dissolved from a pure white screen into a couple of dozen white rabbits hopping around.)
Time passed, as it does. That long ago, given that three years had to elapse before feature films could be shown on television and that videos were still a pipe dream by a man whose wife was typing up my files for me (didn’t know that until some years later), it was common for popular films to get a second release about six months later, and thus Annie Hall came round again in the November of 1978, and I watched it again.
The circumstances were unusual. I was back in Manchester for the weekend, to watch Droylsden in the FA Cup First Round proper, drawn away to Rochdale. The Bloods won the match and I came out of the ground feeling like I could run all the way back to Manchester, though practicality reasserted itself and I took the bus instead.
Back in the City Centre about six o’clock, I didn’t feel like just heading back for a quiet evening in so, being on my own, I decided to stop off for a film. There was nothing current that appealed to me, but Annie Hall was back, and I knew I could at least sit through it, so I bought myself a ticket.
This time round, I loved it.
What was the difference? Some of it was that I was in an elevated mood to start with, but most of it was that I understood it all this time. Between April and November, I had fallen in love.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. My first love had been a half decade earlier, when I had been 17: naive, immature, inexperienced, terrified of making mistakes and making the fundamental mistake of doing nothing out of fear. I had denied it to myself for years, trying to wipe the embarrassment from my memory.
And then I’d fallen in love again, equally unrequitedly, though this time it was due to external factors. But I was in love, enough so that I had been able to relax myself, to admit that my earlier feelings had been genuine and not some kind of dismissible puppy love (the amount of emotional energy I’d been using to repress that had been incredible, and I felt literally transformed by accepting the truth).
And watching Annie Hall whilst being in love, whilst having experienced those feelings, made the whole film understandable, gave me insight that opened up both story and jokes, made me laugh where previously ignorance had kept me silent.
The film is about the relationship between comedian Alvy (Allen) and the eponymous Annie (Keaton), who were then a real-life couple. It covers the beginning, the middle and the slow but inevitable end, when she goes off with Paul Simon. From the point of view of an unrequited lover, whose inamorata wasn’t interested in him as anything but a friend, there may have been nuances of which I wasn’t aware, but at the time I felt like I got pretty much everything, right down the middle.
And, with the exception of the serious one that nobody likes (not even the aliens in it) I was a regular for Woody Allen’s films in the cinema for most of the next decade. My last one was The Purple Rose of Cairo in respect of which I remember most the sober and serious atmosphere of the first twenty minutes or so of the film, until Jeff Bridges turns away from the plot of the film in the Depression-era cinema and speaks directly to Mia Farrow, in the audience, saying that she sure must love this film she’s always watching it. And he walks out of the screen and the cinema I was in erupted in a glorious gale of laughter which the film sustained from that point on.
Allen’s next film after this was the new one to be acclaimed his absolute masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters. For reasons I can’t recall, I didn’t fancy this one, and didn’t go to the cinema to see it. I have never seen a Woody Allen film in the cinema since, and when I did see Hannah on TV, I was by no means impressed by it. It fell even flatter with me than did Annie Hall, first time.
I haven’t seen any Woody Allen film, in any format, for a long time. Annie Hall belongs to my long ago novel in more ways than just the relationship inspiring understanding. I downloaded the film last year, but circumstances have prevented me from watching it until now.
Two scenes in particular stood out in my memory. One is the split screen scene that gives this post its title: Alvy and Annie’s relationship is slowly but certainly stumbling towards its conclusion and the mean time, each one is discussing the matter with their therapist. Alvy complains that they never have sex: three times a week. Annie complains that they are always having sex: three times a week. I have never actually had this as a direct problem (this is not a boast, just a reflection on incredible good luck) but the joke is simple but incredibly deep.
The other scene holds even more meaning for me.
Alvy and Annie have their final conversation as a couple, things slowly going wrong, the two heading in different directions even as they speak. The film goes on, showing Alvy not taking it very well. Suddenly, the scene switches to an artificial setting, two younger people, each superficially resembling younger Alvy and Annie. They speak the same dialogue as the early part of the scene we’ve just watched, a little stiffly, a little awkwardly. But, at the crucial instance, where the breach happens, ‘Annie’s dialogue changes. She gives in to him, does what he wants, preserves the relationship.
Before this, we know that we’re in a rehearsal room, that Alvy is sat over to one side, watching this performance, that it’s a play he’s written. Breaking the fourth wall, as he often does in this film, he addresses the audience, candidly confessing that he obviously wasn’t too proud to make things work in art where they didn’t work in real life.
But the real sting is that, from the moment the conversation goes in the ‘right’ direction, it ceases to be convincing, to be real or natural in any way. We don’t need to have seen the original to instantly realise that, from the moment Alvy forces his ‘Annie’ surrogate to respond against her natural instincts, she ceases to function as a believable person. For me, it’s the most impressive moment in the film, indeed in Woody Allen’s film career.
I’d like to credit Allen with all the layers I discern in that scene. There are many critics who, especially in later films, would argue strenuously that it was not intentional, but then that was the great thing about Woody Allen in those years. To me it was fully understood, inside and out, and it’s a lesson I took to heart.
When I came to write The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel, years later but dealing with the feelings that affected me when I saw Annie Hall that second time, I was too proud. I could have made things work for my character Steve, could have awarded him his Lesley in return for his being in love with her, but that’s not what happened.
Lesley wasn’t the woman I fell for but she was close enough in enough ways for it to matter inside, and it would have been false to have concluded the novel in any way different to how life had concluded things. I learned that from Woody Allen, which is why I hold Annie Hall in high esteem, even if I haven’t watched it in easily twenty years, or maybe more.
Rewatching the film after twenty years or however long it’s been, halfway back to when it was made, I only laughed occasionally, like the first time. Some of it is impossible not to laugh at: I knew it was coming but the sneezing the coke bit still had me roaring out loud. The scenes I’ve outlined above weren’t quite as I remembered them, but their essence was intact in my head.
But this time round, though I recognised the love in the relationship, how Allen made Alvy and Annie into a pair that you could understand loving each other’s presence, what I was most aware of was the incompatibility, the mismatch of this two that was always going to last longer than the things that brought them together. I’ve just had too much experience of seeing that to remain unaware.
In a way, it makes the film even greater, that Allen can show these two opposing forces blended into one relationship, so smoothly, that he can illustrate how great it is to be together with the only one you want to share things with, but that the places where the wavelength is not right, does not mesh, are the places that will endure. The sand and the rocks make an idyllic beach, but when the wide comes in, it’s not the rocks that wash out.
And I think, in a world where I have become sometimes unbearably negative that I no longer find Alvy’s negativity, Allen’s negativity towards everything to be as funny as I used to find it. They couldn’t have stayed that way, the targets in this film have been swept away by those forty years, the argument rendered invalid by time, but I’m only too aware of the utter self-centredness of Alvy’s running commentary, the ego that stipulates that only what I approve is worthwhile.
It’s still Diane Keaton’s film, though. It’s a wonderful performance, in every respect, and Annie Hall rightly made her a star. And she was ideal: an attractive woman who wasn’t unbelievably, film-star gorgeous. You believed that you could meet Annies playing tennis, and that they could fall for you. And you can get incredibly sad at the distance that grows between people when they stop being in love with each other. Which is worse, loathing or indifference? The final scene makes me think it’s the latter.
In the end, it comes back to that scene, when Alvy rewrites what wasn’t perfect for his own benefit and it doesn’t work. I’m working on the second draft now, having realised so many things that lie under the surface. I could make a plausible case, in psychological terms, for giving ‘myself’ more than I had, but I’d still know that it was wish-fulfilment. And wish-fulfilment doesn’t work: Woody Allen taught me that forty years ago, one November Saturday when I was young.