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Anatomy of a Scene #8: Annie Hall

September 17, 2013

“What I would give for a large sock with horse manure in it.”

Early on in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the biopic of George M. Cohan (actor, writer, director and songwriter of such songs as “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”), we see the 13-year-old Cohan (Douglas Croft) play the title role in a comedy play called Peck’s Bad Boy, along with the rest of his family. In the excerpt shown in the movie, Cohan’s character gets the better of a store owner (throwing vegetables at him) and, initially, the neighborhood beat cop (doing the same), until he’s finally subdued. Just as the policeman is about to hall Cohan off to jail, his parents come in, paying the owner for the damages, assuring the policeman Cohan is really a good boy, and making him promise to behave. Cohan promises, but turns to the audience and says, “But I can still lick any kid in town.” After the play is over, Cohan, who’s been acting conceited offstage (telling his father (Walter Huston) he’ll feed him his lines, wondering why all the stagehands are surprised at how good he was, and telling everyone how easy acting is), gets the message some people are waiting for him outside. Naturally, Cohan assumes they’re press, and eagerly goes outside, only to discover it’s actually a group of neighborhood slum kids who saw the play and are eager to see just how tough Cohan is. They swarm him and beat the crap out of him.

The main point of the whole sequence, of course, is to show Cohan’s egotism and how it gets him into trouble (and, as we see later, he doesn’t immediately learn his lesson; he insults a booking agent who doesn’t recognize him, and it costs his family a job). But it also speaks to something else. Throughout the history of film acting in Hollywood (and America in general), the audience has tended to grab onto a particular image of an actor or actress (especially a star), and not only want to see that image on-screen to the exclusion of almost anything else (unless the actor/actress is successfully able to play against type and widen their image), but also want to assume the role and the person playing it are interchangeable. If you’re a tough guy on-screen, you’re supposed to be a tough guy off-screen; if you have a charming personality on-screen, you’re supposed to be just as charming off-screen (in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman quotes an anonymous source who claimed Cary Grant was convinced he was no longer charming), and so on.*

Woody Allen, throughout his career, has fallen into the same trap. Those who don’t automatically think of him as being a child molester (and maybe even those who do) think of him as endlessly neurotic and self-consciously intellectual, thumbing his nose at anything not considered highbrow.** Though he has talked about, and admires, such European filmmakers as Bergman and Fellini, and has no use for most modern popular culture, except some movies (he hates rock-n-roll and doesn’t watch TV shows), Allen has often insisted he’s not the intellectual people think he is. When he’s not working, Allen says he’d rather watch sports (or films or news) than anything considered highbrow, and in recent years, he’s even admitted as much as he loves Bergman’s films, he doesn’t think they’ll have any more lasting value than Bob Hope films (which he loves equally; Allen has often admitted much of his persona comes from Hope). Some might think Allen is protesting too much, especially since, in later films, the only things his characters seem to discuss are such “highbrow” pursuits as literature, classical music and the opera (I can’t remember, for example, if sports has come up in a Woody Allen film since Mighty Aphrodite). However, it’s also true Allen has poked fun at intellectuals – or people who fancy themselves as intellectuals, at any rate – throughout his films and in his short pieces for The New Yorker. For me, this came through memorably in my favorite scene in my favorite Allen movie; the movie theater scene in Annie Hall.

Arguably his best-known film (for a long time, it was his highest grossing film, and it won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Actress for co-star Diane Keaton), it’s also Allen’s most personal, loosely based on his childhood, his stand-up career (in the scenes where he’s performing stand-up, he’s actually performing material he used to do at the time), and his brief off-screen relationship with Keaton (they had broken up by the time Allen made Annie Hall – the title comes from Keaton’s real name – but remained good friends). The movie jumps around in time (as befitting a memory piece, since at the beginning, Alvy (Allen) talks about how Annie (Keaton) had just broken up with him), so by the time of the movie theater scene, Alvy and Annie’s relationship is already in trouble. Annie’s late to meet Alvy for a movie Alvy really wants to see (Bergman’s Face to Face), and while Alvy’s waiting, he’s recognized by people off the street who’ve seen him on Johnny Carson, so he’s already in an irritable mood. She, in turn, is having issues of her own (which we find out about later), and she can’t believe Alvy won’t go into the theater just because the film already started two minutes earlier (when he explains he has to see a movie from start to finish because he’s anal, she scoffs, “That’s a polite word for what you are”). Reluctantly, she lets Alvy drag her to see Marcel Ophuls’ Holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, even though she’s not in the mood, and that’s where the scene (at what was then the New Yorker theater) takes place.

After an establishing shot of the line inside the theater, Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum jump cut to a medium shot of the same line, so we can clearly see Alvy (who’s on the left side of the line), Annie (who’s to his right), and the couple immediately behind them. The man directly behind Annie (Russell Horton) starts telling his date about the new Fellini movie he saw, which he claims isn’t one of Fellini’s best. While Alvy visibly (if quietly) seethes in front of him, the man (dressed in a suit, while Alvy is dressed more casually) goes on about how and why Fellini is overrated. Alvy, more and more agitated, turns to Annie and tells her he’s going to have a stroke. Annie tells him not to pay any attention, but Alvy points out the man is “screaming his opinions” into Alvy’s ear. The man goes on to say while he thinks La Strada was good because of Fellini’s use of negative imagery, he finds Fellini’s other films (Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon in particular) to be “incredibly…indulgent. (Fellini) really is an indulgent filmmaker”. “The key word here is ‘indulgent’,” Alvy mutters, and Annie tells him again to cram it. At this point, Alvy finally asks Annie what’s bothering her. It turns out she overslept and missed her therapy. Alvy thinks this is a hostile gesture towards him, and Annie, also irritated, loudly and sarcastically replies, “I know, because of our sexual problem, right?” As the man behind them reacts to that briefly, Alvy asks her to keep it down, wondering why everyone in line has to know about it (their “problem” is he wants to, she doesn’t).

Just then, the man behind them starts to talk about Samuel Beckett, and how Beckett’s work doesn’t hit him on a gut level. Alvy, who rolls his eyes again at what he’s hearing, turns to Annie and mutters, “I’d like to hit this guy on a gut level” (my favorite line of the scene). Annie again tells him to stop it, and calls Alvy out for only thinking about how the fact she missed therapy affects him. As the man behind them starts to talk about something else, Alvy gives a brief glance backwards to the man and his date, and speculates to Annie, “They probably met through an ad in the New York Review of Books; ‘Thirty-ish academic wishes to meet woman interested in Mozart, James Joyce and sodomy.” Changing subjects, Alvy asks Annie what she meant by “our sexual problem”, as he considers himself comparatively normal for someone from Brooklyn. Annie’s finally had enough, and apologizes loudly, “Okay, my sexual problem!” This time, other people in line turn to look at them, and Alvy, who hates public scenes, tries to cover by pretending she’s talking about the sequel to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. As Annie rolls her eyes, the man behind them goes on about the influence of television, and quotes Marshall McLuhan calling it a “hot medium”. Alvy – who mutters, “What I would give for a large sock with horse manure in it” – has reached his breaking point; he steps out of line, walks up to the camera, and starts talking to us:

Alvy: What do you do when you get stuck in a movie line with a guy like this behind you? I mean, it’s just maddening!

Man: (he walks over to Alvy when he hears this) Wait a minute! Why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country!

Alvy: I mean, d…He can give you…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, M-Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan’s work!

Man: Oh, 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 you?

Man: Yes.

Alvy: Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.

At this point, Alvy walks over to his left to the sign near the concession stand, and the camera follows (though we briefly see the man’s confused expression). Alvy produces Marshall McLuhan (as himself), who’s been standing behind a sign, and after Alvy prompts him, McLuhan says to the man, “I heard what you were saying. 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.” As the man looks on in shock, Alvy, who’s standing in between the two and has been glaring in triumph at the man this whole time, turns to the camera and says, “Boy, if life were only like this.”

One of the remarkable things about this scene is, except for the brief cut at the beginning, and the brief tracking shot near the end, the camera stays in place the whole time this scene plays out. This was the first of eight films Allen made with famed cinematographer Gordon Willis. While Willis is best known for being dubbed as the “Prince of Darkness” (the theater isn’t brightly lit, but Willis doesn’t go overboard the other way either), he’s also known for wanting to keep things simple (which he has said is often misunderstood) from a visual standpoint, especially when it comes to moving the camera.*** It might seem amateurish to hold this scene for so long, instead of breaking it up with cuts, but Allen and Willis know what they’re doing here. One of the points of the scene is, except for the brief point where a few people react to Annie screaming, “My sexual problem!”, no one notices what’s going on. Even when Alvy breaks the fourth wall, the only one who reacts is the man he’s insulting. Granted, since Alvy is basically telling this tale, it’s all in his head, and he’s possibly wishing no one else notices, but in truth, having been in lines like this, this is how most people in line in New York City behave. And if you cut away, you’d lose the contrast between the relatively calm demeanor of the man talking (even though he’s often gesturing with his hands) and the way both Alvy and Annie use body language to convey their irritation. Finally, while the scene of course represents a wish fulfillment – who wouldn’t want to drag in their favorite writer (or director, singer/songwriter, artist, and so on) to take down someone you felt was completely misinterpreting their work? – the fact Allen and Willis again do it so simply makes it even funnier (Allen originally wanted Fellini and then Luis Bunuel, but neither were available).

Now let’s get back to my point about Allen and intellectuals. The fact this scene takes place right before a screening of a foreign-language documentary might lead some to think that Allen’s insistence he’s not really an “intellectual” to be fatuous (the fact Alvy originally wanted to see a Bergman picture doesn’t help, either). But this isn’t the only time Allen takes a dig at intellectuals. Later in the movie, we flash back to Alvy’s marriage to his second wife Robin (Janet Margolin), where they’re at a party with professor and writer colleagues of Robin, while Alvy would rather watch the Knicks game, and in fact sneaks into the bedroom to do so. He rails against having to trade “fake insights” with people from “Dysentery” (he jokes that’s what’s resulted from a merger between Dissent and Commentary), while she wants to know what’s exciting about watching pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop, and when he tries to pull her onto the bed to make love, her horrified reaction is, “There are people out there from The New Yorker! What will they think?”. Also, on one hand, Alvy is encouraging Annie to take adult education courses, but then at the same time will denigrate with them (although that has as much to do with Alvy’s relationship issues as anything else). It’s also true, of course, Allen takes aim at other targets throughout the film, including, of course, his bete noires of L.A. and pop culture (though in the case of the Rolling Stone reporter played by Shelley Duvall, it at least sounds like either co-writer Marshall Brickman, or Duvall herself, came up with most of her dialogue, instead of Allen’s idea of what Bob Dylan is like). Allen may not measure up to the image of “an intellectual for the people”, as critic Ryan Gilbey once put it (in It Don’t Worry Me, his appreciation of 70’s American movies), but in his best work, he’s able to both indulge in his intellectual pursuits and mock them at the same time, and also show there’s more to him than the on-screen persona he’s created for himself.

Just imagine if the argument had been while on line to see this instead.

*-While Miley Cyrus’ recent performance at the VMA’s would have gained notoriety and caused a certain amount of tut-tutting no matter what the circumstances, I suspect a huge part of the backlash came from the fact she started out having a “wholesome” image from her days at the Disney Channel, and no one who started out there was supposed to know what “twerking” was, let alone do it.

**-When the media was playing up his eccentricities – such as his dislike and fear of animals, boats and the country – during his trial, my mother scoffed that anybody who’d watched his movies would know all that.

***-You can see this in an earlier shot, where Alvy and Rob (Tony Roberts) are walking towards the camera while arguing, and they start off from way in the background; Allen has joked he tries to have one shot like that in all of his movies as an homage to Willis.

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