Annie Hall isn’t a Valentine’s Day movie, though I always watch it on Valentine’s Day. It’s not a romantic comedy, though in some ways it solidified the premises of the genre. It won Allen his only Oscar for Best Director, though it’s arguably not his best film (try to argue the point with a fan of Hannah and Her Sisters if you want to have a stroke). It’s one of the funniest movies ever made, even though it doesn’t exactly make one hopeful about the prospects of ever having a “healthy” relationship. And like so much of Allen’s work, if it’s a love song at all, it’s dedicated to New York.
And so on.
Criticism of Allen’s eighth directorial effort has become a series of clichés and one-liners. How can we complicate those clichés to understand how the work enriches our understanding of love/sex/self/relationships? The work’s NY-centric humor, idiom of relentless self-reflection, and gleeful self-consciousness of itself as a film distinguish it from so many of our own moment’s generic portrayals of romantic love. It can also make Annie Hall seem like a relic of a different time — when Manhattan lay in ruins; when references to the Borscht Belt had cultural purchase; and when most of the country (not just Rick Santorum’s campaign staff) thought that all New Yorkers were “left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.”
But the film’s ambivalence about love — and its arrival at this ambivalence by way of Allen’s best articulation of a neurotic worldview — continues to make it compelling. It takes seriously a question that far too few movies will consider touching: if garden-variety relationships take such hard work and have the capacity to hurt us so badly, then why do we bother at all?
Or as young Alvy Singer puts it to his pediatrician: “What’s the point?”
Annie Hall begins with a shot of the adult Alvy (played by Allen) against a blank yellow wall, foregrounding the kind of direct audience interaction that will repeat several times during the ensuing ninety minutes. He leads with two Catskills-quality jokes that serve as a frame for the narrative and as a pithy summary of his (and our) fundamental neurosis. With a sigh of resignation, Alvy delivers the punch line for the second, which he suggests represents the “key” joke of his adult life: “I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”
The line embodies a nagging paradox that both motivates and inhibits all relationships. We pick partners whom feel we deserve, and then expend a ton of psychic energy wondering if we’re good enough for them. To make it harder for ourselves, we then wonder what — given our own insecurities, bald spots, penchants for leather, unsophisticated Midwestern roots, whatever — could possibly be wrong with them that they would ever settle for us. The film suggests that this narcissistic perspective represents not a depressing ailment for which we can find a cure, but rather the basic condition of love’s possibility. “Don’t knock masturbation,” Alvy jokes, “It’s sex with someone I love.” At bottom, the film asserts some variation on this idea: that love of another has to rest on love of oneself.
According to this line of reasoning, we fall in love thanks to our capacity to love ourselves. We stay in love only if we have the capacity to place some of our self-love in the trust of another person.
Repeated interruptions of the narrative to address the viewer reinforce this thesis (which Alvy rightly attributes to Freud), reminding us that movie watching itself constitutes a kind of narcissistic endeavor, in which we attempt to insert ourselves in the place of characters. The film produces constant moments of self-recognition: places where we groan because we’ve screwed up relationships in the exact way that Alvy does. Allen chooses these instances to address the viewer, catching us staring into the broken mirror of the screen.
When Alvy fights with his first wife, he turns toward the camera and asks us pleadingly, “Why did I turn off Allison Portchnik? She was beautiful. She was willing. She was real intelligent.” In this instant, he seems to be asking why we screwed up our previous relationships. It feels accusatory, the question too painful to confront, because the only answer we can offer is “I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know!” A definitive answer to the puzzle of why relationships fail can elude us, but an obsessive pursuit of that answer can paralyze us.
Of course, it’s the pursuit of this answer that drives the plot of the movie. Annie Hall isn’t a love story; rather, it’s a long breakup story — or to modify New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s description of the film, it’s the autobiography of a breakup. At the end of Alvy’s opening monologue, he tells us, “Annie and I broke up and I — I still can't get my mind around that.” The film immediately establishes itself as a dissection of a failed romance, and so we watch for cracks in the relationship even as Alvy and Annie meet over tennis, speed around Manhattan in Annie’s VW, exchange I “luff” yous on the East River, and fly back and forth across the country.
Along the way, a creeping question begins to assert itself as a central thematic concern: “How does any relationship ever end up working?” The answer can be just as evasive. In this sense, Annie Hall defies the logic of so many romantic comedies: that it makes sense on some level to desire the love and affection of another human being. And, moreover, that things happen for definite reasons; that they’re meant to be; that we’re waiting to find the right someone; that our problems have definite solutions in the arms of someone else; and that our relationships succeed or fail based on some eHarmony-esque calculation of compatibility.
Allen demystifies these banalities, arguing that ordinary real life, take-out-the-recycling, sheets-sharing, airport-pick-upping, Malick-enduring (God, the things I do) love has to accept indelible flaws without trying to correct them. It’s not about “putting up with them” (this too seems like a cliché), but rather requiring them as constitutive of a functioning relationship. Love becomes a question of finding someone who doesn’t make you feel self-conscious about the psychic bullshit that you bring to the dinner table, movie theatre, bedroom, etc. (not that you get over any of it — but that you can deal with it). And this proves to be where Alvy fails.
Throughout the film, Annie (played, transplendantly by Diane Keaton) repeatedly laments, “You don’t think I’m smart enough!” Alvy typically responds with something like, “Hey don’t be ridiculous.” Here, he can’t take his own advice. He might not think Annie is an idiot, but even if he doesn’t, he’s accusing her of being crazy — which seems worse. If the relationship fails for any one reason, it might be that Alvy can’t accept either Annie’s insecurities, or support her as she finds a way to work through them.
Instead, he remains isolated in his own neurosis, unable to continue to entrust his love to a changing Annie, whose departure for Los Angeles brings about the film’s climax. Recognizing Alvy’s unwillingness to accept changes around him, Annie tells him, “You're like New York. You're an island.” She turns the film’s LA-phobic perspective on its head: New Yorker-ness becomes the obstacle to love.
If the movie ended there — if it became a problem of distance, both figurative and geographic — Annie Hall might fall victim to the trap of suggesting that, well, Alvy is a New Yorker and Annie is an Angelino, and that’s that. But Annie moves back to New York, and Alvy has to come to a different conclusion, a different kind of punch line. None of it — relationships, commitment, affection, desire — makes any sense at all. We keep reaching for one another, not because we want to necessarily, but because we need to. Not because it’s good for us or because we’re meant for someone else, but because even if we get hurt over and over again, the alternative is to wake up on Saturday and eat eggs by yourself.
And we’d really rather eat those eggs with someone else.
A-J Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago. He writes The Humanist blog at The Motley Fool and has contributed to The Millions and Bookslut. He lives on Chicago's Northwest Side.