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Annie Hall

Margaret Jordan, PhD
August 23, 2012.

            Annie Hall won four Academy Awards in 1978 in the categories of Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress, and it beat Star Wars for Best Picture.  This success established Woody Allen's credentials as a filmmaker with the Hollywood establishment, but it did not change his disdain for awards, reflected in his sarcastic reference in the film to an award for Greatest Fascist Dictator of All Time--Adolf Hitler, as he upheld his personal practice of not attending the awards ceremony.  Of all of Woody Allen's films, Annie Hall is the one that lingers for many of us as the standard by which we measure his other films.

            Woody has said that he wanted to tell a story from within, from the perspective of character and neurosis, rather than make a plot-driven film, which he considered old-fashioned.  He created the narcissistic character Alvy Singer, a man who has a great deal of difficulty enjoying life.  In fact, the working title of the movie was Anhedonia, which fortunately did not stick.  (Other suggested working titles were It Had to Be Jew, A Rollercoaster Named Desire, and Me and My Goy.) In Annie Hall, Alvy treats the audience as his confidante.  He first tells the end of the story--that he and Annie broke up--and the rest of the story is told from memory and retrospection.

            Before I go on to talk more about the film, it's important to say a few words about Woody Allen himself.  More that any other contemporary film director, he has inserted himself into his movies, but he has also insisted on a separation of his public and private selves.  He consistently denies in interviews that the characters he plays, or now has others play for him, such as Owen Wilson's role in Midnight in Paris, have any basis in his real life or personality.  While it is true that he has created a comic persona characterized by telling jokes and almost stuttering, which he does not do in private conversation, biographers have found a great deal of evidence for parallels between his personal life and the stories and characters he creates in many of his films, including in Annie Hall.  For the purposes of our discussion, his experience with psychoanalysis is important.  He first went to a psychiatrist at age 24, and within a few years his analytic visits had become a regular part of his life.  Although he may have had periods of interruption, it appears that he has never given analysis up.

            Woody has a love/hate relationship with psychoanalysts, as evident in public statements he has made about his own experience and in the depictions of analysis in his films.  He shows them as unable to cure their patients and as representing a waste of time and money, but also as necessary for help in dealing with loss of meaning and uncertainty.  This duality is represented in this film in the different depictions of Alvy's and Annie's analyses.  Hers makes progress and his does not.  He clearly appreciates Freud and uses his theories for insight into sexuality, inner conflict, and culture.  Let's look more closely at how he does this in Annie Hall.

            The film itself has the structure of the course of therapy.  It starts with where things are now:  "Annie and I broke up."  Then it quickly goes to Alvy's past as the background for the present, and the story is told in a nonlinear way.  We get a sense of Alvy's character right away, as we often do early on in therapy, but we need the childhood scenes, the adult Alvy's commentary on them, and the story of his and Annie's relationship to fill in the picture.  There is a blurring of reality and fantasy in the film that is very similar to the way these emerge in analysis, for example, in the depictions of Alvy's paranoia about anti-Semitism and its stark reality.

            After two failed marriages in which he struggles to feel sexually or emotionally fulfilled, Alvy is trying to have a relationship with Annie.  He pays for Annie's analysis, hoping that it will produce the woman who will meet all his needs.  Instead, analysis helps her develop into a more independent woman with a mind of her own, who is able to meet many of her own needs and find a man who can appreciate her for who she is, leaving Alvy to face starting again without her.  Annie Hall is really about breaking up, being apart, and never overcoming emotional dependence and need.

            Woody Allen uses visual images, such as the shaking house under the rollercoaster, and language to show instability and confusion in Alvy and Annie.  Their language is tentative and incomplete.  As Annie's character develops, she learns to use language much more effectively.  Her statements to Alvy toward the end of their relationship are quite a contrast to her inability to be articulate when they met.

            Finally, I want to comment on the relationships between Freud's theories and about dreams and jokes and Woody's way of constructing Annie Hall.  To quote Sam Girgus, a film scholar and professor at Vanderbilt, "The characteristics of dreams that originally inspired Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams to say 'the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,' are intrinsic to Allen's major films--symbolism, disordered narrative and time sequence, the separation of the senses, the condensation of complex, often contradictory, meanings and events into imaginary or distorted images, and the displacement of latent, inner realities by invented experiences that seem ludicrous or incredible until analyzed."

            In his book on a psychoanalytic theory of humor, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud wrote:

            We found that the characteristics and effects of jokes are linked with certain forms of expression or technical                    methods, among which the most striking are condensation, displacement and indirect representation....  Does
            not this agreement suggest the conclusion that the joke-work and dream-work must, at least in some essential
            respect, be identical?

            Woody Allen dealt directly, whether he was aware of it or not, with these ideas in Annie Hall in the scene where Annie tells Alvy about her analytic session in which she reported her dream about being smothered by Frank Sinatra.  Alvy does not want to understand the meaning of the condensation and displacement in her dream, although he cannot escape the dream's true interpretation that Annie feels he is smothering her.  Allen the writer has Alvy make jokes throughout this scene as a way of attempting to deflect his awareness of the painful truth of what Annie is saying to him and relieve his anxiety along the way.  Humor may provide relief, but it is based on pain.  Girgus said, "In Annie Hall Allen constructs scenes in a manner comparable to the formation of dreams and jokes so that visual, verbal, and literary signs function together to achieve a new complexity of meaning."

            To conclude my remarks this evening, I think it is clear that beyond the obvious joke-telling, witty dialogue, and physical humor in Annie Hall, Woody Allen brings skepticism about surface meaning and continuous reexamination and interpretation to his construction of his characters, their anxieties, and their struggles for love, integrity, and meaning.  And this is what we do in psychoanalysis, too.