Friday, April 20, 2012

Art Imitates Life

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen): Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat ... college.

When Woody Allen's name is mentioned, the listener probably thinks of many things.
  • A successful career directing movies and occasionally appearing in them;

  • a successful career prior to that as a Broadway playwright and a TV writer;

  • his somewhat soap operatic private life.

  • I know I think of many things when I hear Allen's name.
    But the thought that comes immediately to mind for me — and, I suspect, for many others — is of "Annie Hall," the movie that premiered 35 years ago today.
    I owe that, I suppose, to the fact that I was in the throes of my first real love when "Annie Hall" was making the theatrical rounds. Karen and I saw most of the movies that came out that year — the good, the bad and the ugly.
    Going to a movie was about the only way I could figure to get time alone with her so we went to see anything and everything. The really special movies stood out, of course, but there's no doubt that we saw some real dogs that year, too.
    "Annie Hall" was no dog. It wound up winning the Oscar for Best Picture, and Allen was named Best Director, although he wasn't there to accept the award. Instead, he was playing clarinet with his buddies in a jazz band in Manhattan, as he always did on Monday nights.
    I don't know how such a thing would be received today. In the late 1970s, it was seen as delightfully quirky. Of course, that was in the days before Allen's very public legal wrangling with longtime partner Mia Farrow — and the revelation of Allen's (in the words of a judge) "grossly inappropriate" relationship with her adopted daughter.
    I suspect the reaction would have been much less tolerant if Allen had made that film 15 years later.
    When"Annie Hall" hit the theaters, Karen and I hadn't started dating yet. That came along a couple of months later. But 1977 was a different time. Hit movies routinely spent several months in theaters. Video recorders weren't unheard of in private homes, but they were extremely rare so there was no rush for theaters to get rid of one movie to bring in another one, especially one as popular as "Annie Hall."
    Made on a $4 million budget, it made more than $38 million at the box office.
    My memory is that Karen and I saw that movie in the summer. We saw a lot of movies that summer. I think her father recommended it to us. He was (and, I assume, still is) a big fan of Woody Allen.
    I am, too, I guess, although I haven't seen all the movies he's made in the last 20 years. But, at the time that Karen and I were dating, I had seen most of his early movies, and I loved 'em all.
    "Annie Hall" had a similar sense of humor, but it was different from those earlier efforts, too. It was humorous like the others, but the humor was much more autobiographical, much more personal. I was at a time in my life when I appreciated personal irony and self–deprecating humor, and "Annie Hall" was loaded with both.
    That was obvious from the opening monologue, in which Allen looked into the camera, spoke directly to the viewers and said, "Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know; and such small portions.' "
    (I laughed so hard at that I almost missed the next joke.)
    "Well, that's essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly. The other important joke for me is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud's Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, and it goes like this — I'm paraphrasing — 'I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.' "
    Those were, Allen told the viewers, the jokes that had the most relevance to his adult life.
    I saw "Annie Hall" on the big screen twice, and it occurred to me, as I was watching it for the second time, that sometimes his brand of humor — and his deadpan delivery — went right over most people's heads.
    In his earlier movies, he could write pure slapstick and get away with it, but "Annie Hall" was much more cerebral. It was a thinking man's kind of humor.

    It still makes people think after 35 years. I guess that's the best compliment that can be paid to a film.