Sunday, June 11, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
Woody Allen’s 1977 film, which won the Oscar, (beating out Star Wars), is a portrait of the artist as an alienated man. Allen exhibits this outsider predicament through the story line, but also with various cinematic techniques. In real life, Allen, and in the movie, his surrogate character, Alvy Singer, are powerless to satisfactorily interface with the world around them. So, they use art in an attempt to control their lives, and try to make a connection to others.
Right from the beginning, Alvy breaks the “fourth wall,” escaping the confines of the plot, and speaks directly to the audience in an attempt to explain his take on existence. He notes a joke about two women at a place in the Catskills saying how the food was lousy, with one of them further commenting that the portions were small. Alvy says that is how he views life – “full of loneliness and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness. And it’s all over much too quickly.” So, despite his emphasis on the negative, he admits that he doesn’t want to give it up, that there is still something worth living for. That turns out to be, mostly, romantic relationships. But, at the same time he confesses that he doesn’t have the qualities needed to connect with others, and his feelings of inadequacy cause him to quote Groucho Marx, or whoever made up the line, which says, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.”
The movie skips around in time, reflecting Alvy’s stream-of-consciousness. He says that he has a hyperactive imagination, so his mind jumps around a lot. This is the character’s psychological explanation for the non-linear story line. But, the non-sequential telling of events also stresses that what we are seeing is a work of art, with the artist having the god-like control over his invention that a person cannot exert over his or her life. At the conclusion of his opening speech, which is set at the end of the story about to be told, Alvy notes that he has broken up with Annie (Diane Keaton, in an Oscar-winning performance). Even though this tale is humorous, we know from the beginning that this story, despite the artist’s power to manipulate events, does not end with the principle players living happily ever after, because Allen does not want to present a film with a rosy mindset.
Alvy says he is not a depressed individual, but this assertion is undercut by his youthful fixation on the death of the universe, since it continues to expand, and eventually will “break apart.” He has stopped doing his homework, and his mother brings the boy to the family doctor, who offers a normal way of dealing with impending doom, which is “to enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” The doctor’s name is “Flicker,” which undercuts his advice by emphasizing the lack of persistent stability in the universe. (Could the name also conjure up the term for a movie, a “flick,” implying that a film only can deliver momentary enlightenment or happiness?)
This feeling of a lack of security in a turbulent world is symbolized by Alvy growing up in a house built under a Coney Island roller-coaster, the vibrations of which cause his home to shake. Add to the housing situation, we have the additional image of his father running the bumper car ride. Thus, instead of going with the flow of human traffic, Alvy continually collides with the outside world.
Alvy’s outsider personality makes him always at odds with others. As a youth, he saw his fellow students and teachers as inferior. He says that the teachers didn’t fall into the category of those who can’t do, teach, because they “couldn’t do anything.” By placing Alvy as an adult conversing with school age children, Allen depicts the distance Alvy felt between himself and his classmates. For instance, Alvy had sexual impulses toward the girls long before puberty. But, Allen’s technique also shows how we remember the friends we have lost touch with, frozen in memory snapshots of the past, as we wonder what has become of them.
Alvy has conflicting forces working on him. On the one hand, he wants to be accepted and admired by others, but on the other side, he can’t get over his feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, which make it difficult to accept recognition of his talent, and make him discredit those who either express praise or seek a romantic relationship with him. When fans of his comedy stand-up routines approach him, he distances himself by pretending not to be himself, and then by degrading their attention, calling them mafia types (cast members from The Godfather) or lower-class workers. But, he also tries to dismiss those who appear higher in the intellectual social strata than himself. His second wife, Robin (Janet Margolin), associates with New York intelligentsia at a party, and instead of trying to connect with them, Alvy goes off to the bedroom, now identifying with the blue-collar mentality, by watching the New York Nicks play. When Robin enters the room, Alvy, out of sync with the occasion, wants to have sex with her, saying the mind can “lie” but the body always tells the “truth.” Here, he values non-thinking physical urges over what he considers pseudo-intellectualism. In short, he always makes himself the odd man out. (He may find himself at odds with either the educated or working-class groups in the city, but he also shuns the suburbs, with its unsettling insect sounds and moths caught behind window screens).
The famous scene which demonstrates not only the suspicion of others promoting their mental abilities, but also the contrast of art with real life is the one where Alvy and Annie wait in a movie theater line. Behind them is a man who negatively critiques the works of film directors Allen admires. The audience connects with Alvy having to endure a know-it-all loudmouth. The man then mentions the work of Marshall McLuhan in the field of communication theory. Alvy then steps out of the verisimilitude of the story and again addresses the audience along with the man in line. Alvy then mixes true reality into the film by bringing the real McLuhan into the movie frame, who then tells the man in line that he knows nothing of his work. Alvy then says to the camera “Boy, if life were only like this.” Alvy literally does not fit in within the “realistic” parameters of the story, so Allen, the artist, allows his stand-in, Alvy, to escape the “plot” of his life, which he finds hostile, and exist in an unscripted world which accommodates his point of view.
Because Alvy feels that society excludes him, he sees himself as a victim, Thus, he finds comfort in embracing anti-establishment conspiracy theories. Because his Jewish background provides historical proof of persecution, he suspects anti-Semitic references in the speech patterns of others; he hears “Jew,” when someone says, “D’you.” He fears that the rest of the country considers him and his fellow New Yorkers to be “left-wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.” He interrupts lovemaking with his first wife, Allison (Carol Kane), because he can’t get the conspiracy argument against the lone gunman theory concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy out of his head. However, Allison, rightly says he is just using this preoccupation to avoid being intimate with her. His outsider mindset won’t allow him to believe that she would want him.
Alvy is even alienated from his own profession. He can’t stand the guy who wants to hire him to write jokes for his pathetic act. So, he decides to deliver his comic material himself by doing stand-up (the way Allen did in real life). When he goes out to Los Angeles to meet his transplanted New York actor friend, Rob (Tony Roberts), he is appalled by his use of a laugh track on his TV show, which points to the diminishment of art when success is achieved too easily. Alvey says Rob should be doing plays in New York’s Central Park. Rob says he acted in the park, and was mugged, thus justifying his Hollywood lifestyle. (The fact that Alvy can’t even connect with a male friend is implied by the fact that Rob keeps calling Alvy “Max,” instead of his real name). When Annie says how clean it is in LA, Alvy comments, “That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away; they turn it into television shows.” He also rants against the narcissistic award-giving of Hollywood, saying that they would give a trophy for “Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolph Hitler.” (Of course, Allen was not present at the Academy Awards ceremony to accept his writing and directing Oscars for this film). For Alvy, Hollywood presents a clash of conflicting architectural designs, and is a place of inauthenticity, where Christmas music plays amid rows of palm trees while one constantly drives, and never walks, anywhere. It is a place where restaurants offer unappetizing meals consisting of sprouts and “mashed yeast,” and the town literally renders him nauseous. Allen satirizes the city’s fleeting interest in a succession of fads by having Jeff Goldblum (in an early movie appearance), calling someone to ask for help because, “I forgot my mantra.” Alvy, never feeling comfortable anywhere, can’t handle the “mellow,” or, content ways of LA dwellers, which, for him, leads to a mentally vegetative state. He says, “if I get too mellow, I ripen, and then rot.”
So why does the loner Alvy, at least to a greater degree than with others, establish a bond with Annie? Because when they first meet, she looks more like an outsider than he does. She is awkward in her speech as she tries to show her interest in Alvy. Visually, she doesn’t conform, her male clothing colliding with her feminine identity. She drives badly (as we see later, so does Alvy). And, like him, she is uncomfortable when someone praises her. For example, when he compliments her on her singing, she looks like she wants to run away. Allen cinematically emphasizes their mutual inability to express themselves with another person by putting subtitles on the screen which show the hidden meanings behind their spoken words. Another noteworthy episode shows the two trying to cook lobsters. Here, they are awkward. but they are accepting of each other’s ineptness, and can laugh and enjoy their alienation together. They sit and have fun watching people walking past them, making up their backstories. (Observing one man, Alvy says he wins the Truman Capote look-alike contest. It is, in fact, Capote, as Allen again intermixes realistic storytelling with artistic manipulation). Alvy feels comfortable exposing Annie to his bleak, off-putting view on life, taking her to a bookstore, and buying her works dealing with death. He tells her that he sees life is divided, “between the horrible and the miserable.” The horrible consist of “terminal cases,” and “blind” and “crippled” people. And, “the miserable is everyone else.” So, he tells Annie, “you should be happy you’re miserable,” because that’s the luckiest one can be in the world according to Alvy.
But, Alvy’s inability to feel at home even with Annie surfaces. When she wants to move in with him, he resists, saying that her apartment allows them the independence that is missing in cohabitation. But, conversely, he wants to keep her on a leash for himself, not wanting to go to parties with her, which might cause Annie to connect with inhabitants of the rest of the world, who he would rather avoid. He says to her, “What do we need other people for?” He may feel closer to her than anyone else, but he keeps trying to change her, urging her to take adult education courses. He sees this advice as helping Annie grow intellectually, but she feels that Alvy is judging her for not being smart enough for him. When she does take courses to improve herself, he acts hostile as she becomes more assertive and independent. He now reverts to his anti-intellectual stance, calling the courses “mental masturbation.” Annie responds by saying masturbation is a subject Alvy excels at. Alvy then delivers the line, “Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Very funny, yes, but also revealing. It stresses his separateness, his inability to share true emotional intimacy with another. He never really says that he loves Annie. He seems to only get satisfaction from himself. Even in Alvy’s animated fantasy, he can’t achieve bliss with another, as Annie becomes the wicked Queen, and they have the same arguments they have in his real life.
Allen visually reveals their estrangement by having Annie project an out-of-body ghostly version of herself as she and Alvy start to make love. It illustrates how emotionally detached from him she has become. When the two are in respective therapy sessions, Allen uses the split screen technique to show the opposing takes on their sexual activity: she sees three times a week as having sex “constantly,” while he sees it as occurring “hardly ever.” She tells Alvy that she discussed a dream she had with her therapist which involved Frank Sinatra smothering her. Her therapist said that she subconsciously substituted Sinatra for Alvy, whose last name is Singer. Thus, the implication is that Alvy is trying to stop Annie from evolving.
After a previous noisy, distracting singing engagement, Annie performs to an attentive audience. After her set, a music producer, Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) approaches her and offers her a chance to record in California. Of course, Alvy is against it, but they do go to LA. She enjoys Lacey’s company and his entourage. She and Alvy decide that they have grown too far apart, and separate when they return to New York. Alvy delivers one of my favorite lines from the film. He says that a relationship is like a shark: it has to keep moving to exist, and “what we got on our hands, is a dead shark.” When they divide up their things, Annie gives Allen his political buttons, which are against every president, except Kennedy, in his lifetime. Humorous, but also a telling reminder of how long Alvy has felt estranged from mainstream American life.
He finds out that she is living with Lacey (Allen said he wanted Alvy to lose the girl to someone shorter than himself to emphasize Alvy’s lack of self-esteem. This is a man who already said he was one of the few men who suffers from “penis envy”). He goes out of his comfort zone, and flies to LA. He even drives to meet Annie at a restaurant, and his lack of automobile skills is evident in his halting maneuvers. When they meet, he now asks her to marry him, hoping to get her back. Annie sums him up pretty well when she says, “You’re incapable of enjoying life. You know that? I mean you’re like New York City … You’re like this island unto yourself.” (One of the possible titles for the film was “Anhedonia,” which is the inability to get pleasure.) Alvy seemed to consider New York as the black sheep in the American family, so it is fitting that he identifies with it so much. As he attempts to drive away, he keeps whacking into things. We get images of his father’s bumper car ride. So, from the beginning of Alvy’s life to now, he keeps slamming up against the world around him.
Alvy writes a play based on his relationship with Annie, but he has her coming back to him at the end. Alvy tells the audience, it was his first play, and one wants things to come out perfect in art. But, Allen, who has shown us how as a filmmaker he can bend his art to his wishes, is experienced enough to know that this story would seem inauthentic if it had the typical movie happy ending. He does say that he met Annie again later on. She had moved back to New York, and dragged her new boyfriend to a viewing of the Sorrow and the Pity, the anti-Nazi documentary, a fact that makes Alvy feel he had a positive influence on Annie. They have a good reunion, as we view shots of their past experiences together, with Annie singing “Seems Like Old Times.”
The movie ends as it began, with Alvy addressing the audience. After his meeting with Annie, he tells a joke about a man whose brother is crazy because he thinks he’s a chicken. He doesn’t commit him because, he says, he needs the eggs. That is how Alvy now thinks of relationships, because, “they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd … but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us, … need the eggs.” So, even though he is a confirmed outsider with self-esteem problems, and sabotages all his social involvements, he feels compelled to keep trying to connect with others, for those few “good times.”
The next film is The Talented Mr. Ripley.