Pop culture is the folk culture of the modern market, the culture of the instant, at once subsuming past and future and refusing to acknowledge either.
– Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces
I heard commentary and dissent merged to form dysentery.
– Woody Allen, Annie Hall
About a month ago while gearing up for a cover piece on the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ culture-shifting album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it came to my attention that one of my favorite films was celebrating its 40th anniversary; Woody Allen’s masterwork, Annie Hall. Released in April of 1977, unlike most of his movies at the time which had a limited but dedicated following, it would, much like Sgt. Pepper’s, come to define a generation and influence countless filmmakers working in almost every genre. It would transform the concept of the romantic comedy and lift Allen from comedian turned filmmaker into one of the most celebrated auteurs of the era.
Up until that spring Allen had mostly dabbled in comedic efforts filled with pithy one-liners and classic pratfalls centering on a singularly damaged nebbish character that juggled a myriad of trepidations through several bizarre scenarios. Annie Hall crystallized this concept in the guise of a couple; Allen’s comedian/writer, Alvy Singer, and photographer/singer, Annie Hall, played with quirky ennui by Diane Keaton, who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Both characters drift towards middle age anxious, lonely and spiritually lost in the greatest city on earth, which was then in the throes of its own spiritual decay; economic collapse, a spectacular rise in crime, while also capturing an underground esthetic in music, art and social upheaval. (Annie compares Alvy to New York; a damaged, isolated island.)
The expanse of the city, which reflects the anxieties of the times; sexuality, friendships, fame, insecurities about the decay of the culture, and the analytical, intellectual and religious failures to fill the voids of people unaware of their conditions, also allowed Allen to profess his professional and personal affection for his then lover, Diane Keaton, who had already built a solid résumé with Allen on Broadway (Play It Again Sam) and films (Sleeper, Love and Death).
Although dripping with Pygmalion ironies and doomed from the beginning, Alvy and Annie’s relationship reveals the deeper truths in the insecurity of the dating world circa mid-’70s (Alvy insists that he and Annie kiss in the middle of their first date to avoid nausea later), especially among the more cynical that came to discover that compatibility with the world was enough of a chore without trying to balance it with the vagaries of love. In one brilliantly devised scene, both Alvy and Annie idly chat about photography while subtitles of what they’re actually thinking appear beneath them.
In this way and more Annie Hall is a romantic comedy like Moby Dick is a book about a whale. The love story is merely a backdrop for the deeper themes in the film; specifically its satire of urban life in the latter part of the American century in which a stop-gap generation straddled between two clashing eras—the Great Depression/WWII and Rock and Roll/TV—deal with the loss of self beneath angst, guilt and self-absorption. The city, as the people who inhabit it, is overloaded with the illusions of contentment in artistic statement, psychoanalytical theory or status symbol myopia. “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re leftwing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers,” muses Alvy to a friend. “I think of us that way, sometimes. And I live here!”
To that end Annie Hall is illuminated by period touchstones and a plethora of cultural references that bridge the generational gaps. In a recent viewing (apologies to my wife, who has seen it at least 50 times since I’ve known her) I counted 47 direct references to authors, book, films, gangsters, rock stars, politicians, magazines, movie stars, etc. These include music (“Seems Like Old Times”—overly sentimental mid-century romanticism—to a flaccid reference to Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”), commentary (a disjointed argument about the Kennedy assassination to Marshall McLuhan magically appearing as himself to settle an argument about his work), and film (Alvy repeatedly drags Annie to see a film about Nazi atrocities, The Sorrow and the Pity).
Annie and Alvy are a microcosm of their times; turning the focus of their fears and aspirations inward and convincing themselves that there must be more to life, or more to the point, the terrifying notion that life may not have any point at all. Alvy skillfully explains to Annie early in their relationship that he divides people into two categories; “miserable” and “horrible” and that they should be happy to be merely miserable. An early flashback shows the childhood Alvy Singer bemoaning the expanding universe to avoid doing homework. Later Annie, who at one point is reading a book about sexual mystique while refusing sex with Alvy, is taken in by the Hollywood quick-fix culture of celebrity, macrobiotic foods and peace mantras.
This search for personal enlightenment ends in dissatisfaction with the inability for the characters to discover the simple joys in merely being, never mind being together; a theme Allen would mine for years in subsequent films. He would originally title the screenplay Anhedonia, which is the inability to experience pleasure.
Co-written with comic writer, Marshall Brickman, Allen unfurls a 1970s over-analytical, paranoid, self-absorbed version of many of the classic Hollywood “goofy boy meets quirky girl” memes, providing Allen’s tried-and-true nebbish character a foil in Keaton’s wonderfully off-beat use of language (her sentence-trailing “La-di-da” as a nervous tick) and fashion (her penchant for off-the-rack, ill-fitting gender-neutral togs), and charming naiveté; all of which Keaton already had in her arsenal that inspired the screenplay.
For all its memorable lines and ingenious obliteration of the “fourth wall” (Allen opens the film speaking directly to the audience and throughout breaks the scenes to comment on the action) Annie Hall continuously resonates with me and I believe future generations for its honest portrayal of cultural isolation; its protagonist, Alvy Singer, is a man out of time (not quite making the “greatest generation”—too young to fight in WWII—and too young to be a Boomer), who walks the fine line between being obsessed with death and an almost anthropological infatuation with life. Allen intuitively reflects the plastic glamour, the false political narratives and seemingly failed 1960s revolutions of free sex, drug experimentation, and anti-hero worship of the late 1970s.
Annie Hall is a film about its time and timeless; a weird kind of magic trick that all great art manages to pull off. It struck a chord among East Coast intellectuals, Middle America and Hollywood glitterati like few films before or since, especially ones made by Woody Allen. It was news, did fine box office in the time of the blockbuster from Jaws to Star Wars and won numerous awards including four Oscars for Best Screenplay, Director, Actress, and Best Picture. Today it tops several romantic comedy lists and continues to inspire the genre while remaining incredibly relatable, even if it is becoming harder for us to admit it.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.