Annie Hall

On Film / Essays — Dec 4, 1990

Over the years I have had a recurrent nightmare in which I am summoned to a large, unfamiliar building in a middle-European satellite country (Bulgaria, perhaps) to tell the idea of Annie Hall to the Bulgarian Minister of Green Lights, or whoever he is. The guy heavily resembles Brezhnev on both his father’s and mother’s side and speaks no English and hasn’t had his lunch yet; and the deal is, I have to get him to approve the story; if he doesn’t, not only won't the movie ever get made, but I’ll be required to live out my life in a 1950s-style brown Bulgarian suit, working as a clerk in the Bureau of Cinematic Promises, a vast tomb in the basement containing millions of unproduced screenplays. The dream never really ends (my nightmares rarely have satisfying climaxes), it just kind of dissolves into a tighter and tighter push-in on the impassive face of the listener as my frantic, shrill voice-over cross-fades into the alarm.

None of the above is, of course, true (I never have nightmares, as I never sleep); nevertheless, the notion of taking the script of Annie Hall—or, more frighteningly, just the idea for the movie—to a rational studio head (never mind a Bulgarian) and requesting millions of dollars to realize it on the screen is sufficient to induce a kind of nightmarish panic, even years after the movie was made and released.

Talking to the camera? Breaking the fourth wall? Cartoons? Atrocity footage? Who’s your target audience—Solzhenitsyn? Come on, guys, what’s the story, what happens, who wants what? Where’s the action?

There is no rational reason why the movie should have been as successful as it was. It violates just about every formal rule of cinema (and, for that matter, drama) you’d care to bring up. The Greek unities? Hardly; the story moves around in time and place more than a Robert Heinlein novel. A strong antagonist, thwarting the main character at every turn? Not exactly. (The story, essentially a search for the answer to the question: “Why Did my Girlfriend Leave Me for Somebody Whose Values are the Total Opposite of Mine?” is not exactly the equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail or even the Lost Ark.) A compelling, intricate plot? Serviceable might be more appropriate. Stylistic consistency? OK, if you can find a word to characterize something which contains cartoons, voice-overs, direct-to-camera monologues and asides, subtitles, black-and-white archival footage, and special effects; not to mention the expected, naturalistic scenes of plot and character development. Plus which, nobody gets killed, nothing explodes, no car is seriously demolished (just a dented fender in the parking lot). The whole idea seems rather hopeless.

There were, mercifully, no pitches, no “input,” no meetings other than those between the authors. Woody's contract at United Artists (a company built on the refreshing premise that a certain amount of artistic risk is necessary in order to remain in business) allowed us the necessary leeway for our odd little conceit. It also didn’t hurt that our previous effort, Sleeper, had achieved a decent success.

How we actually wrote the script is a matter of some conjecture, even to one who was intimately involved in its preparation. I recall countless conversations on diverse subjects; dialogs pirouetting and leaping from the Holocaust to Bertolt Brecht to Henny Youngman to the Essential Nature of the Novelistic Form, specifically the Novel of Memory, and is there a Cinematic Equivalent; to why girls with very large breasts are always sexy no matter what.

I recall Woody saying, on one occasion, when I expressed some doubt about the commerciality of the project—which is to say, did we want to be associated with something that would bankrupt a very nice bunch of guys?—I recall him saying, wisely, that the only sure thing in life is that you shouldn't repeat yourself; that if you’re a real artist you have to take the leap, and if it turns out to be off a cliff, at least you can enjoy the view on the way down. Plus which, he added, the really breakthrough idea—the one truly worth doing—is never the one that seems sure-fire; it’s invariably the idiosyncratic idea; the one that’s never been tried before, the one you’re a little uncomfortable with. Like, I suppose, Godard with Breathless: the jump-cutting, violating accepted screen reality. Or Kubrick, with 2001, that strange, almost-plotless, oddly shaped space-mystery (with highly mixed reviews, let us not forget) which nevertheless turned out to be a watershed for twenty-five years of science fiction films. Plus which, he went on, the artistically original idea can also (though not always) be a commercial breakthrough. So, armed with this prophetic but scary insight, we plunged ahead.

As to the precise method of work and the contributions of the two authors: I tended at that time (over a decade ago) to be more deliberate, concerned with structure, symmetry, construction: form—the refuge of the novitiate. Woody would graciously endure my endless exhortations to logic and plausibility and then casually suggest that perhaps the way to get the character out of the room would be, say, to have him flap his arms and fly out the window.

“But people can't fly by flapping their arms like pigeons,” I’d reply, meaning it. The above exchange is rather half-baked and does no real justice to the scope of audacity of his particular imagination—and of course has nothing to do with Annie Hall—but countless exchanges like it taught me an invaluable lesson, which is, to paraphrase a line of dialog from the movie: you can be an intellectual and not have the foggiest notion of what’s really important. A movie like Annie Hall obviously doesn’t come from an adherence to Ibsenian structure; what it does come from is harder to pin down: a wildly original point of view, an intuitive grasp of what will work onscreen, a healthy impatience for what’s not entertaining, a rage against your basic Sacred Cows and a need, as Jerry Lewis once said . . . to puncture them.

The first cut of the film was, I recall, about two hours and fifteen minutes. The release print is 94 minutes, including titles and end credits. What was excised in the editing process was primarily material which, while funny (to the authors, anyhow), distracted from the emerging tale of Annie and Alvy and the pull their relationship seemed to be exerting on the story. The editing process became a search for how to use that relationship as a spine on which to hang all the other observations and material dealing with life as it was back then in New York, in the rosy 1970s. The surprising thing to me is, after viewing it again: it all seems intentional, each scene inexorably leading to the next; whole, inevitable in its style and rhythm. And with an emotional kicker that I’m not sure was ever in the script. And all this in spite of the deleted forty-five minutes—a tribute, I think, as much to Woody’s consistency as to Ralph Rosenblum’s editorial expertise.

One thing does seem clear after a decade: as a catalog of broken rules, the film seems less of a stylistic breakthrough than a summing up: of attitudes, styles of dialog, dress, even styles of cinema. In freezing these microscopically accurate embodiments of a particular sensibility, operating at a particular place and time, the movie earns, perhaps, some historical significance and a place in the Criterion catalog.