Sunday, February 06, 2011

Reflections on seeing "Annie Hall" for the millionth time

Last weekend I passed a movie theater with a flyer up about a Woody Allen festival, and figured, when in Rome. (When in Rome without TV or Hulu, all the more so!) I opted for the best of the bunch - "Annie Hall." Each time I see it, it's a totally different movie. The narrative structure works so that you really need to see it maybe two million times to remember what scene's about to come next, which helps.

-Subtitles! It starts to become clear how seemingly impossible to convey cultural references are summarized in just a few words. The opening joke, about women in the Catskills complaining that the food is terrible and there's not enough of it, is, for French audiences, about two mères juives. The Upper West Side is the quartier intellectuel. I didn't notice a whole lot of direct translation, and kept getting distracted by the way expressions were translated to convey a movie with a whole lot of (to paraphrase) reduction to a cultural stereotype to an audience unlikely to catch 99.99% of the references.

-It's not the "shiksa" fantasy I remembered it as being. It's not at all of a piece with Portnoy's Complaint, and I was wrong to speak of a Roth-Allen two-headed monster. Throughout the movie, it's never clear whether Alvy is more excited to be with someone from a world that would not (to paraphrase) have someone like him as a member, or annoyed by what he views as Annie's lack of intensity, her place somewhere at the middle of the spectrum between his "reduced to a cultural stereotype" intellectual ex-wives and the bimbos he tries to forget Annie with after the fact. It's actually a kind of poignant take on what happens when, in a city like NY, people of all different backgrounds can on the one hand seem to have everything in common, but on the other being so thoroughly the products of those backgrounds.

-The role of New York in the movie, the way it's discussed, ought to seem dated, given the difference between 1970s NY and the bankers' playground it's allegedly and not-so-allegedly turned into, but it doesn't. Maybe I was distracted by the fact that "Annie Hall" fashion is currently seeing a revival of sorts, making the clothes (Annie's, at least) seem current, but I don't think that's it. It's more that, with the delightful Mrs. Palin, we've in the midst of a revival of the idea that Real America can be distinguished from inherently suspect NY. Of course the fact that Alvy sees this as anti-Semitic, while his friend thinks he's paranoid, only confirmed for me that, though this is a classic of man-woman romance, I identify 110% with the man.

-The best scene is when Christopher Walken as Annie's brother explains his car-crash fantasy, then they're all of a sudden in a car with him. Best, because it's all just so exactly as he'd pictured it would be - pretty house, pretty mother, Jew-hating grammy - and then there is this WTF moment. Not merely that the family's 'not perfect after all,' but it's just so unexpected.

-The Halls struck me as more New England WASP than Midwestern. Which works in a way, because they're this kind of amalgam of Other from the perspective of someone who grew up in an argumentative-to-put-it-mildly Jewish family living under a roller coaster in Coney Island. While I've never been to Wisconsin, the Americana depicted seemed not of that region. The friend I went with is from more or less that region, however, and said that this family was, in fact, regionally plausible. So what do I know?


PG said...

I didn't know much about American Jewish culture when I saw "Annie Hall," so for me the greatest moment in the film is Alvy talking about the kind of people who *pontificate* loudly in public. When I first moved to NYC, I was so delighted to encounter an example of this on the subway; it gave me such a feeling of "I've eaten bagels and paid ridiculous rent, but now I know I'm *really* in Manhattan because I have seen what Woody Allen was talking about."

Again possibly due to ignorance about American Jewish culture, when I read Portnoy's Complaint in college it didn't strike me as at all showing Roth to be a Self-Hating Jew. So far as ethnicity went, it seemed very like something I could imagine some of my Indian friends writing; not exactly bringing credit on the race, but not a sign of seriously wishing to be another race. The book did strike me as very misogynistic, and I've never read anything else's of Roth's.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


To be a self-hating Jew (or self-hating anything else), as I understand the term, isn't about wishing one was something else, but seeing one's self as the glorious exception to the rule. To a self-hating Jew, the problem is all the other Jews, who are all narrow-minded, princessy, whatever the objections may be, objections either taken from societal bigotry or from internal criticisms.

Chris Petersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Petersen said...

Great post. Because I'm such a huge Star Wars fan I had always refused to watch "Annie Hall" because it beat out SW for Best Picture in 1977. But slowly and surely I became a Woody Allen fan and so eventually, if still somewhat reluctantly, watched "Annie Hall" and absolutely loved it. I can now say definitively that "Annie Hall" deserved to beat my beloved Star Wars at the Oscars that year.