The prospect of writing about Woody Allen has loomed large over my writing since the inception of this column last year for many reasons. First, I hold the non-unique position in considering him the greatest comedic director to ever work. Second, the last year has not been particularly friendly to Mr. Allen press-wise and I had little interest in stepping in those murky waters. However, it remains important that Allen is one of the most influential comedic directors and probably the most respected by the academy and The Academy and given that his new (not particularly inspiring seeming) film is coming out later this month, it seemed high time to say something about the importance of his work within the comedy film canon.
Of course, another factor in my decision to hold off on writing about Allen for so long is his intimidatingly complete body of work. Pinpointing an access point into his style is a daunting task. Does one attempt a career overview of an over 50-film catalogue? Should I focus on one period in his career, such as his early slapstick period, his 70s New York period, or his current European adventure period? Ultimately, I believe the best place to begin with Woody is with Annie Hall, his most well-regarded work, the film of his I first saw, and what can be considered the pivot point between Woody Allen the comedian and Woody Allen the filmmaker.
For it’s massive popularity and highly accessible and iconic central performance from Diane Keaton, Annie Hall, is surprisingly experimental in its film style. Allen makes no bones about his biggest inspirations — Ingmar Bergman and other European art filmmakers — which seems like an odd style reference for an American comic but in fact gives his work a stylistic freedom unparalleled by his peers. From the very first shot, Allen breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the viewer, a choice that is both alienating in that it establishes a non-linear narrative structure and welcoming in that it implicates the viewer in the choices the main character makes. From there, Allen makes a series of extradiagetic style choices that includes text on screen, an elaborate analog split screen set-up, and even animation to add a personal, whimsical, fun form of expression to what is both a fairly traditional and prototypically neurotic love story at its core.
Woody Allen uses a split screen two times in the film, both times to illustrate the differences between Annie’s waspy psyche and Alvy’s Jewish psyche. In the first, Alvy is at dinner with the Hall family, which is a well-lit, well decorated, neatly composed scene. The characters are all sitting symmetrical distances from one another, each has a place at the table, everyone seems relaxed except for Alvy. The split screen wipes in to reveal Alvy’s family, previously seen in their home underneath the roller coaster in Coney Island, in a dark, low-lit, crowded frame. The characters are sitting shoulder to shoulder, Mrs. Singer is serving over them, the table is crowded, the food is messy and the people unkempt. Annie’s mother and Alvy’s mother talk to one another through the split screen, discussing the differences in their homes.
In the second split screen, we see Annie on the left and Alvy on the right with the frame split directly down the middle. Annie sits erect in a modern therapists office, again well-lit, with a similar grey and off-white color palate as her family home. Alvy on the other hand lies in a more academic appearing therapists office, lit like a scene from The Godfather (apropos given that the films share a cinematographer in Gordon Willis). Like his family home, the cluttered office has a brown and black palette. Again, the characters on either side of the split screen interact with one another, this time responding massively differently to the same questions posed by their doctors.
The contrast and interplay are the two most important elements in the scene. The spaces appear to be completely different and opposing and the people occupying them have contrasting opinions about what is being discussed. To serve this importance, Allen made the choice to create the split scene set up in an analog set rather than in the edit. The sets are built next to one another with a black wall set in the middle and slightly off to the left with the camera set in the middle of the two, straight on. Through this set up, Allen was able to perfect the timing of his scenes in a way that shooting the two set ups separately would not have accomplished. The characters could see the opposite situations they were responding to and the lines places, paced, and timed expertly. The result creates a fascinating choreography in which two characters interact and comment on their unique experiences in a particular space or situation with the comfort of occupying that space but the ease of sharing a scene in person with another actor.
The visual bits that fill Annie Hall (as well as later works including Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig, Deconstructing Harry, etc.) such as text on screen, breaking the fourth wall, and animation could feel like tricks in a lesser work, but Allen commits so wholeheartedly to this experimental style that it actually makes the film feel more accessible and personal than a traditionally linear narrative might serve. Throughout his career, Woody’s willingness to speak directly to his audience through aggressively breaking the realism rather than hiding what he is trying to say in a-personal drama is what has made him a larger than his films character in real life. He projects such a vulnerability in his directing style that encourages his audience to laugh in the face of his characters’ motivations and neuroses.