I can't tell you how many times I've stood in a movie queue and wished I could pull an expert from the crowd and say "would you tell this chump what an idiot he is?" (That way I don't have to do it myself!)
"Myself." Key word. Because that's the funny thing about Annie Hall (one of the funny things). It's not about "Annie Hall." It's about "Alvy Singer," and by saying that we're saying Woody Allen. It is a very rare thing to find a Woody Allen movie without the "Woody Allen" character in it. Even those movies where he doesn't appear, he's in it, portrayed by someone else: Mary Beth Hurt in Interiors; Mia Farrow in so many of his movies; John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway; Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity; Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And it's the rare movie of his that isn't focused—obsessed—with himself.*
At least that character is learning something in those movies, becoming wiser about themselves and the world. And it's amusing to see Allen view himself in a series of cultural mirrors—the reflection cantilevering through Bergman or Fellini, Chekhov or Tolstoy, German expressionism or Damon Runyon. At least, the character is learning and not fooling themselves. Much.
Which is the comedic conceit of this film—Alvy Singer is so self-involved that he can't abide an opinion opposing his own, whether from the guy behind him in line, or his girl-friend standing next to him. He's a little island of discontent in a sea of normalcy. But from his view, everybody's got a problem except him. So, he turns to the only sympathetic listener he has. He breaks the fourth wall to talk to us, the audience—we're here for him, right? But, it's clearly a fantasy—a dream-situation, not "life"—one that he has absolute control over, and he can pick and choose the participants, pull out experts at a moment's notice (and they'll agree with everything he says), make fun of the people who irritate him (while making fun of his own foibles and control issues) and still control the argument. He is captain of his fate and his life, whether he acknowledges it or not—at least in the flash-back structure of the film. It is about memory, after all. And we're all directors of our own memories.
Ain't movies great? Don't you wish life was like that?
The Set-Up: Annie Hall is a very episodic film about the love affair of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and Alvy Singer (Woody Allen). In this early scene, their relationship is already in trouble, and Alvy, on edge because of their tension, can't keep his opinions to himself about a man who can't keep his opinions to himself.
Man in Line: We saw the Fellini film last Tuesday. It is not one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure. You know, you get the feeling that he's not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say. 'Course I've always felt he was essentially a...a technical filmmaker.
MIL: Granted, La Strada was a great film—great in its use of negative imagery more than anything else. But that simple cohesive core...
Alvy Singer: I'm...I'm...I'm gonna have a stroke!
Annie Hall: Well, stop listening to him.
MIL:...you know, it must lead through an artist's work, leading from one to the other. You know what I'm talking about?
Alvy: (sigh) He's screaming his opinions in my ear!
MIL: Like all that Juliet of the Spirits or Satyricon. I found it incredibly indulgent. You know, he really is. He's one of the most indulgent filmmakers. He really is...
Alvy: Key word here is "indulgent."
MIL: ...and without getting, well, let's put it this way...
Alvy: What are you depressed about?
Annie: I missed my therapy. I overslept.
Alvy: How could you possibly oversleep?
Annie: The alarm clock.
Alvy: You know what a hostile gesture that is to me?
Annie: I know, because of our sexual problem, right?
Alvy: Hey, you...Everybody on line at the New Yorker has to know our rate of intercourse?
MIL: It's like Samuel Becket—ya know, I admire the technique, but he doesn't, he doesn't hit me on a gut level.
Alvy: I'd like to hit this guy on a gut level!
Annie: Stop it, Alvy!
Alvy: Well, he's spitting on my neck! You know, he spits on my neck when he talks!
MIL: And then, the most important thing of all is a comic vision... Annie: And you know something else? You know, you're so egocentric that if I miss my therapy you can only think of it in terms of how it affects you!
MIL: Weltanschauung is what it is...
Alvy: Probably on their first date, right?
MIL: It's a world-view...
Alvy: Probably met by answering an ad in The New York Review of Books; "Thirty-ish academic wishes to meet woman who's interested in Mozart, James Joyce, and sodomy." What do you mean our sexual problem?
Alvy: I...I...I mean, I'm comparatively normal for a guy raised in Brooklyn.
Annie: Okay, I'm very sorry. My sexual problem, okay? My sexual problem, huh?
(A man in front of them turns to look at them and turns away)
Alvy: I never read that! That was Henry James, right? Novel...uh, the sequel to "Turn of the Screw"? My Sexual...
MIL: You know what it is? It's the influence of television. Yeah, now, Marshall McLuhan deals with it in terms of it being a high, a high intensity, you understand? A hot medium, as opposed to a...
Alvy: What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!
MIL: ...As opposed to print.
Alvy (turns to camera): What do you do when you get stuck on a movie line with a guy like this behind you? It's just maddening!
MIL: Wait a minute! Why can't I give my opinion! It's a free country.
Alvy: He can give...do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren't you ashamed to pontificate like that? And...and the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan--you don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan's work!
MIL: Oh, really? Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called "TV, Media, and Culture," so I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity.
Alvy: Oh, do ya?
Alvy: Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. So, so there, just let me...let me...let me...come over here a second.
(Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan from behind a lobby standee)
Alvy: Tell him.
Marhsall McLuhan: I hear, I heard what you were saying. You, you know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong?** How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.
Alvy: Boy, if life were only like this.
Words by Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen
Pictures by Gordon Willis and Woody Allen
Annie Hall is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.
* I forget the movie, but one of the prototypical Allen lines is "What's wrong with masturbation? At least it's sex with someone I love!" ***
** The link on that line goes to—yes—a paper dealing with the subject of that confusing line.
*** In fact, it's Annie Hall.