Annie Hall

I’ve fantasized for a good twenty years now about Anhedonia, the 140-minute workprint of what eventually became Annie Hall. The original title of the project–which seems in its reflexive analysis of Allen’s public persona to have been intended as something akin to an essay film–referred to an inability to experience pleasure. As unseen movies go, it has a lower pedigree than Tod Browning’s London After Midnight, Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, or Orson Welles’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons; the few who have seen it would agree that the released version was infinitely superior. But it’s tantalizing, because Woody Allen in 1976 and 1977 was such a formidable comic.

The film was hatcheted ruthlessly in the editing room, stripped of prime gags and elaborate set-pieces. The elevator tour of Hell, with a walk-on by Richard Nixon? Gone. The scene in the Garden of Eden, where Alvy gives the man upstairs some unheeded advice on human anatomical design? Deleted. As editor Ralph Rosenblum tells it, the cuts included “some of the freest, funniest, most sophisticated material Woody had ever created.” And still the finished film is crammed to bursting with great jokes. It’s an embarrassment of riches. The impact of the final cut is sweetened, no doubt, by the methodical focus on a single throughline from the original edit: rising-star comedian Alvy Singer meets daffy small-time torch singer Annie Hall, falls in and out of love with her. Still, I wonder at the rambling, unhinged philippic the movie could have been and almost was.

The story of the making of Annie Hall–its transformation from stream-of-consciousness auto-analysis and cultural critique to bittersweet love story–is partly the story of Allen’s transition from literate, self-deprecating jokester to introspective, self-aggrandizing romantic. It would be wrong to fault Allen’s early, funny films for a lack of ambition. As comic vehicles, recursive portraits of the perennial schlemiel, his slapstick farces were just about perfect. But Annie Hall expanded that canvas to incorporate real wisdom alongside the punchlines. Whatever expansive personal statements the Anhedonia script might have promised, the finished product is a delicate valentine, constructed from tiny vignettes assembled in non-linear fashion and bridged by flimsy threads–throwaway overdubs, hasty pick-ups, even an animated Snow White parody–that make unlikely, seemingly random connections like synapses firing off as a potent sense memory triggers an expected reverie.

Annie Hall is full of riotously funny material–Alvy’s struggle to cook a lobster, his midnight arrival at Annie’s place after she complains of a spider in the bath, or his running commentary as he interviews for a job with a desperately lousy comic. (It’s startling to think of the material that was almost lost to history–the hugely effective sequence where brother Duane Hall, played by Christopher Walken, confides in Alvy a kind of death wish involving a highway crash languished on the cutting-room floor until Allen found the nerve to reinstate it late in the editorial process.) As a map of a human consciousness, with a narrative that shoots freely forward and backward in time, Annie Hall can be disorienting.

It doesn’t come close to settling down into a conventional narrative until two-thirds of the way in, when a leisure-suited record producer (Paul Simon, then the leading troubadour of American divorce songs) approaches Annie after a singing gig and she hears the siren call of show business. Here, there’s a cut to a great reaction shot where Woody’s face betrays an unusual demeanour–suddenly, he doesn’t evince discomfort or smug superiority as much as muted panic. It’s a moment of rare vulnerability in the character. He knows he’s in trouble, and viewers, too, realize what sort of narrative gears have at last started turning.

From here, the picture moves at breakneck speed–probably too quickly. Annie is ready to move to Los Angeles, but Alvy can’t stand the thought; the resulting rift separates them physically as well as emotionally. She leaves, he chases after her. It’s too late. The closing scenes are punctuated by jokes, though the hilarity is decidedly muted. In a final gesture, Alvy writes a stage play in which the Annie character really does follow the Alvy character back home from Los Angeles. “What do you want?” he asks the audience. “It was my first play.”

This move into a sensitive storytelling mode represented new territory for Allen, who freely admitted that Annie Hall–which won four Oscars and forever changed the definition of “romantic comedy”–was not the movie he intended to make. Allen paid his dues as a comic, and the film opens on a plain-vanilla note that seems to affirm a belief in the stand-up monologue. Annie Hall delivers on the promise of that first speech, delivered directly to the camera, in which Alvy struggles not only to reconcile his deep dissatisfaction with life and fear of death, but also to find a romantic mate who won’t disappoint him–somebody who shares his disdain for television and the entertainment industry, his fascination with human misery, and his rapacious sexual appetite. In the end, the film finds its payoff only by returning to monologue. The final “we need the eggs” riff that seals the deal as Annie Hall cuts to credits? That was a last-minute stroke, recorded off-the-cuff in a single take and dropped into the film a couple of hours before a preview screening.

Allen’s grouchy wisecracks induce chortles throughout, but they also claim territory for Allen’s meta-character, an alter ego the auteur has nurtured on screen for decades. In the film’s most celebrated gag, media theorist Marshall McLuhan makes a cameo when Alvy produces him in a movie-theatre lobby, where he proceeds to berate the opinionated windbag standing behind Alvy in line as a know-nothing academic. The boorish, overbearing intellectual is, of course, a staple of Allen’s oeuvre, making his latest appearance in Midnight in Paris, and Annie Hall is where Allen started aggressively positioning his screen persona as a tasteful populist railing against Ivory Tower pretensions that impede the appreciation of great art. (This is also a time in Allen’s career when he agreed to lend his likeness to the character of “Woody Allen” in a King Features Syndicate comic strip.) And while it’s often noted that “Annie” was a common nickname for Keaton, whose original surname was Hall, fewer critics have pointed out that if you discount the “V,” “Alvy Singer” is a stone’s throw from being a partial anagram of Allen Konigsberg, the director’s given name. Allen has insisted the film isn’t meant to be autobiographical, but trust what he does, not what he says.

If Annie Hall pointed a way forward, Allen’s dramatic follow-up, Interiors, represented, in its obvious mimicry of Ingmar Bergman films, a too-earnest indulgence of his inclination towards emotional resonance. His subsequent Manhattan was, however, the nearly perfect culmination of that impulse. Allen says today that he was embarrassed by Manhattan–in the epic PBS documentary on his work that debuted last year, he claims that he begged United Artists to bury it. Can he possibly be serious? Or is his purported embarrassment merely another useful character trait for “Woody Allen,” the artist ironically ashamed of his masterpiece?

I should admit this: When I’m being honest, I know that of all the films I saw during my formative years as a young boy and adolescent, only two of them influenced me enormously, shaping my fantasies and informing my tastes. The first was Star Wars, and although I certainly won’t turn down the occasional snort from that particular flask, I believe I’ve crawled most of the way out from under that affliction. The second was Manhattan, and I’m not sure I’ll ever shake it off. At the age of 15, Manhattan sold me on the advantages of New York City, the charms of 18-year-old Mariel Hemingway, and the benefits of self-awareness.

It also spoiled me for recorded performances of Rhapsody in Blue. Only the New York Philharmonic arrangement heard here will do. Rhapsody doodles its way into the soundtrack from square one, in an opening sequence that sets an abridged version of the piece against a cascade of gorgeous widescreen images of New York City. Shot in monochrome by returning cinematographer Gordon Willis, the impeccably selected tableaux together build a dizzying, amplified panorama of city life. They depict lovers on a balcony, a gay pride march through the West Village, a jittery, cab’s-eye view of the city streets. As the Gershwin builds to a crescendo, Allen (and his editor, Susan Morse, now graduated from her assistant status under Rosenblum) hold for an extended moment on an overhead shot of Yankee Stadium swarmed by baseball fans, a subway train passing close by in a composition that suggests the city as an independent, self-aware organism, or at least a collection of breathtaking clockwork machinery.

Then, as a final, syncopated, cascading piano solo brings Rhapsody to a close, Manhattan’s opening montage concludes with a long shot of fireworks over Central Park, the city skyline a gleaming, screen-filling backdrop standing in celebration of itself. The craftsmanship of this passage is unmistakable, its romantic sweep unparalleled. It’s both statement of purpose and sensory celebration, seduction and orgasm. This is one of those movies that deserves a standing ovation before the end of the first reel.

Allen is present in voiceover during these introductory scenes, and there’s a tad more distance here than in the monologue that opens Annie Hall. What we hear during the Gershwin montage is the voice of Isaac Davis, an aspiring novelist trying on a series of increasingly overheated prose styles to convey his enthusiasm for the city. This is more of Allen’s self-deprecating shtick, of course, but it gets a huge laugh because the line “Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat” is such perfect counterpoint to Allen’s public image, and also because that joke, which has to do with the gap between the character Isaac’s high-flown estimation of himself and the low, self-defeating helplessness of his actual behaviour, is key to the entire film.

Following its overture, Manhattan starts in the midst of a conversation about art. Isaac is at Elaine’s, then a celebrity-friendly hotspot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), Yale’s wife, Emily (Anne Byrne), and Isaac’s 17-year-old girlfriend, a high-school student named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Yale makes a case, sensibly, that one of the functions of art is as a way to work through subconscious feelings. (He could be vocalizing a critical response to Annie Hall.) Isaac responds with some guff about courage, raising the question of whether anyone at the dinner table would have the stones to jump in and save a man drowning in the East River. It’s clear from context that this exchange represents a long-running argument between the two men, but Isaac immediately defuses his own contribution with a wisecrack: because he can’t swim, he never has to face this key moral issue.

While Isaac is an exasperating character, he’s far from unlikeable. In fact, he’s an absolute hoot, especially in the celebrated sequence where he’s introduced to Yale’s mistress, Mary (Keaton again), and reacts with a furious disdain to the couple’s habit of consigning luminaries like Van Gogh, Heinrich Boll, and, horrors, Ingmar Bergman to an imaginary Academy of the Overrated. “You don’t want to leave out Mozart, I mean, while you’re trashing people,” he cracks. And of course nobody else here loves New York in quite the same way Isaac does. Brilliantly, the film captures his state of mind by rendering Manhattan on screen the way he sees it: as a cosmopolitan wonderland brimming with history, feeling, and drama. Although Manhattan comes in for criticism regularly for its somewhat blinkered view of New York City (white and well-off), it would never occur to me to complain that Allen’s singular vision doesn’t reflect the “real” New York City. It represents a distortion of New York, yes, but a handsome one that shimmers with beauty and sadness.

There are a lot of empty spaces up on that wide screen, and Allen and the great Willis segment the frame in ways that show how easy it is to become isolated in the big city and how fragmented city life can seem. Manhattan‘s visual scheme favours strong verticals that place the characters in small, boxed-in spaces, emphasizing their internal lives. An early scene that takes place in Isaac’s apartment shows him to be a man of fairly impressive means, residing in an immense, high-ceilinged piece of Manhattan real estate that features a spiral staircase on the right-hand edge of the frame, stretching upward towards even more living space. Isaac and Tracy are small in one corner of the picture. It recalls similar spaces in Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, large and luxurious yet ominous in their fundamental emptiness. When Yale breaks up with Mary in a sidewalk cafe, the frame has more than enough room to contain them, but they’re pressed up uncomfortably against the frameline and the darkness beyond, suggesting the awkwardness of their situation and the uncertainty that comes with the ending of a relationship.

The technique is used to exceptional, and hilarious, effect in a single shot that has Isaac, Mary, Yale, and Emily attending a symphony concert. The scene takes place once Yale and Mary have split, leaving her free to take up with Isaac. Isaac squirms uncomfortably; Yale shifts his eyes nervously in his direction. Mary seems mainly to be lost in thought, but also to be agitated by Isaac’s agitation. Emily, meanwhile, is oblivious–but there may be something telling in her frown of concentration. It’s an amazing image, its concept elevated by three terrific comic performers showing how time spent with our most-loved friends and companions can become a torture test.

Meanwhile, the dialogue in Manhattan, comic and otherwise, is phenomenal in conception and delivery. Isaac and Mary fall in love after they take refuge in the Hayden Planetarium, soaked and dishevelled from a sudden cloudburst. “You were so sexy,” Isaac recalls later. “You were soaking wet from the rain, and I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion with you.” That’s one of the great come-ons of all time.

Beyond the one-liners, Manhattan is emotionally effective because it’s honest. Though its famous shot of sunrise over the 59th Street Bridge became shorthand for the sensation of falling in love over a long, lazy date, less celebrated scenes brim with discomfort. It hurts to see Isaac cut Tracy loose at a soda fountain (of all places!), insisting that she would be better off with boyfriends of her own age–not because he’s wrong, but because he’s right for the wrong reasons. He’s not dumping Tracy because he knows he’s a dead end for her, but because he believes he’s found something better. This makes him especially clueless in addition to an asshole. In contrast, Tracy is so sensitive and defenseless that it hurts. (Hemingway’s Oscar-nominated performance is exceptional in this regard.) Age differential aside, Tracy is just what Isaac needs. Her genuineness deflates his pretensions and her youth and vitality tear up his front as a middle-aged crank.

Anyway, Manhattan’s ending scene is a stone classic–it’s spirited and honest and hugely sad and completely satisfying, all at the same time. Realizing too late what a good thing he had, Isaac tries desperately to ring Tracy up before she leaves for an extended stay in London. Unable to reach her, he hits the streets, first staggering a little and clutching at a lung, then hitting the kind of stride Allen himself used to in his days on the track-and-field team as Isaac races across town, “Strike Up the Band” urging him on. He finds her in the lobby of her building, with just enough time to say goodbye. (Tellingly, the film’s soundtrack has segued to “But Not For Me.”) Begs her to stay. But it’s too late.

He says he fears something he likes about her will change. “Six months isn’t so long,” she tells him, correctly, as “Rhapsody in Blue” begins to well up again. It doesn’t take. (At this point, Isaac isn’t worried about six months so much as the rest of his life.) “Not everybody gets corrupted,” she says, with a wryness that notes his tendency to believe the worst of others. Finally, she tries a direct appeal: “You have to have a little faith in people.” Only then does Allen allow a small, sheepish smile to creep across his face. Nevertheless, he’s troubled. He has enough faith in her strength and her goodness to know that once she goes, she won’t return, at least not to him. He can barely meet her gaze, and his head bobs around a little bit, the tough New York nebbish’s face-saving substitute for the incoherence of tears.

SMASH CUT TO: The Manhattan skyline, as Gershwin and the Philharmonic roar back at full volume. Sunset over the Upper West Side, apartment buildings looming over Central Park. And, finally, a distant view of buildings flanked by the towers of the George Washington Bridge followed by the cut to credits. The film’s opening sequence was funny, stirring, and beautiful, but this brief cascade of images kills me every time I see it. It’s not that Manhattan has an unhappy ending, per se. It has the ending that it needs, the one Tracy needs, the one that says life will go on. Tracy will find happiness. For Isaac, it’s a different story. There’s nothing he can do now but say goodbye and sleep in the empty bed of his own making.

For almost thirty years, I’ve held fast to a belief that Manhattan is one of the greatest films ever made, with a final passage that’s truly devastating. With that, I offer a footnote on the tricky relationship between the character, the auteur, and the public persona that is “Woody Allen.” I must confess to being less impressed with Isaac’s behaviour as an adult than I was as an adolescent. In particular, the power imbalance between a forty-something artist and a bright young high-schooler makes me substantially queasier as I approach my own 44th year on this planet. I appreciate that, as intoxicating as Manhattan is, Allen seems to regard the character he portrays with some disdain, showing exactly how poorly he treats people and to what selfish ends. Yet he also romanticizes that behaviour. Isaac is a loser who’s so successful he can take a year off from his job to work on the great American novel–a middle-aged milquetoast who’s a formidable chick magnet, a motor-mouthed neurotic with whose every stated opinion Allen himself is in fairly obvious agreement. Is the film part confessional? Reading up on my Manhattan lore, I was honestly a bit shocked to learn that Isaac’s relationship with Tracy was apparently inspired by a real-life affair that saw Allen involved with a 17-year-old high-school student, actress Stacey Nelkin. If anything, this information makes the film seem more impressive as auto-critique. I’d like to think that Nelkin sees Manhattan in part as Allen’s apology for being such a shit. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Annie Hall and Manhattan are the first two titles from Woody Allen’s classic period to arrive on Blu-ray (they’re branded as part of “The Woody Allen Collection” on the jacket art, so more are presumably on the way). I wouldn’t call either presentation revelatory, but both films have enjoyed an unadulterated transfer to HiDef, retaining a natural grain structure without exhibiting evidence of overzealous noise-reduction or detail-wrecking edge-enhancement. (I saw the occasional hint of fringing around high-contrast edges, such as Allen’s white shirtsleeves, but I wasn’t convinced that it was digital noise rather than simply artifacts of the optics in use at the time.) These discs adroitly reproduce the iconic, evocative cinematography of Gordon Willis, but Manhattan, which was shot using 35mm cameras with anamorphic lenses, is a more impressive showcase. The first generation of video transfers of Manhattan had a low-contrast, shades-of-grey palette that was superseded in later reissues by a much more contrasty, shadowed image with deeper blacks, and it’s the latter timing of the film that’s reflected here. Some shots may have you squinting into the picture, wondering if your system should be reproducing more detail in the inky blacks, but Willis didn’t get the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” for nothing.

When it comes to audio, both discs get solid marks for the quality of their DTS-HD MA tracks. Dialogue is clear and bright but not overly brittle (as is sometimes the case with films of this vintage), while the Gershwin tunes come through gorgeously. There are spots in each film where Allen clearly opted for the feeling of a line reading over the aural legibility of same, and these discs offer the best representation to date of the occasional mumbled rejoinder or swallowed syllable, even in cases of overlapping dialogue.

That said, there are two issues. First, and most alarmingly, certain Blu-ray players have trouble keeping synch in certain scenes of Annie Hall. I have no idea how many systems are affected by this; my nine-month-old Sony PlayStation 3 suffers especially badly in the opening monologue, where the audio looks to be as much as a half-second out of synch. In other scenes, the sound sometimes drifts out of synch, sometimes by only a couple of frames. I’ve found enough online reports of synch issues with this disc–mostly from PS3 owners, but also from at least one Panasonic BD-35 user–to convince me it’s a real problem, but the studio doesn’t seem to have responded yet. (My guess is they’re sitting on their hands after the West Side Story recall, hoping the backlash isn’t heavy enough to force them to re-press another BD any time soon.)

The second problem is that these discs are encoded with 2.0 audio tracks (FFC boss man Bill Chambers reminds me this is standard practice for pretty much all studio releases except those from Warner). Damnit, monaural sound should be encoded in 1.0, so that it emanates from your centre-channel speaker–which is almost by definition the one engineered for dialogue reproduction–by default. A good home-theatre receiver will allow you to steer the sound to two or more speakers, should you want to go that route for whatever reason, but it’s much more difficult to instruct a receiver to mix a two-channel soundtrack so that it comes out through the centre channel. ‘Nuff said.

On the plus side, MGM has mostly fixed the problem that really wrecked Annie Hall‘s subtitle gag on its previous DVD edition. I still find the yellow, electronic subtitles jarring in this context (at least compared to the groovy ’70s font that was used for exhibition prints), and their timing appears to be slightly off, but the actual text thankfully wasn’t appended with closed-captions this time around.

This being Woody Allen, extra features are nearly non-existent. All we get for the two films are their respective theatrical trailers, though I do give the studio points for transferring them in high-definition when good arguments probably could have been made for pinching pennies by upconverting some old SD versions of them. The quality of the source material isn’t great, but the HD resolution makes the trailers look about as good as they ever will.

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