Annie Hall (USA, 1977, Woody Allen)
Will Woody Ever Grow Up?
Ben and I exchange pleasantries about Woody's masterpiece.
can't tell you what this film meant to me, growing up in Regina, surrounded by goys, my dad from Brooklyn, my mom a runnaway from Hitler, all of her people resettled in New York. Not just another movie. I've been quoting half the dialogue for so long now, I didn't even remember where I had picked it up originally.
This time I could see how brilliantly written, performed, shot and edited it is. The final scene, showing them saying goodby on a steet corner, long shot through the window of the cafe they had themselved sat in before, and then it lingers there after they both are gone, even after the last narration is done - did he steal this from some picture from the black-and-white era? - invention or tribute, the force of it knocked me out; it is us, the audience, who have been left alone, sitting in a coffee shop, wistfully wondering what went wrong.
I bet he stole the shot from Bergman. Who else? It sure sounds like a scene out of a Bergman film.
Here's what I wrote about Annie Hall for Apollo Guide back in the '90s:
"Casual filmgoers often think of Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Manhattan as interchangeable. Both films arrived on the scene in the late 1970s when Allen was arguably at his creative peak; both are set in, and sing the praises of, Allen's home berg of New York; both are underpinned by similar subplots and minor themes; and both are neurotic romantic comedies that revolve around bittersweet relationships that dwell uncomfortably on the apparent impossibility of finding lasting love.
However, while Manhattan is a contemplative and sensually sumptuous film, it is much more romantic than comic. On the other hand, Annie Hall is unrelentingly hilarious, with the sweet romance between Alvie (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) often taking the back seat to a steady stream of punch lines. Regardless of which you think is superior, even an Allen-basher would have to admit that these are two of Woody's best works.
Structurally, Annie Hall resembles a Fellini film (Amarcord, 8 ½) in its biographical honesty and slyly comic picaresque quality. Annie Hall's symmetrical yet non-linear narrative flows according to the emotional whims of the narrator, a thinly disguised Woody Allen surrogate named Alvie Singer. As Alvie recounts the arc of his relationship with Annie Hall, his self-deprecating revelations (Alvie's fifteen years of therapy reveal him to be, among other things, paranoid, neurotic, self-doubting, self-absorbed, xenophobic — about anything that's not New York — and anally retentive) draw us empathetically into this romantic fable. Alvie's obsession with the gradual deterioration of his beloved New York and absolute loathing for anything Californian provide the psychological setting for this tale of modern love amongst the ruins. Annie, the object of Alvie's desire, is a jangling ball of nerves, a figure so skittish and scattered that it's easy to see why she needs to smoke dope before bedding a partner. Their imperfections, so cleverly skewered in Alvie's series of devastating one-liners, make them both appealingly human.
As Allen documents Alvie's personal and romantic failures, he allows Singer the opportunity to occasionally intrude on the film, and break the fourth wall in order to comment sardonically on the foibles of those around him. He is particularly irritated by the faux intellectualism that surrounds him in The Big Apple. In one classic scene Alvie pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a playbill to upbraid an obnoxious moviegoer who persists in loudly sharing his ill-formed opinions about the movies – and McLuhan – with everyone around him. However, since Alvie is just as hard on himself as he is on others, his criticism feels just and not condescending.
Mid-film, Alvie informs us of Allen's purpose in the film – to arrange the events in his life so that everything will make sense and perhaps turn out well – also stands up as a definition of comedy. That Allen is able to do this in a film of such raw-nerved honesty is admirable. That he is able to also make a film that is so incessantly funny is remarkable."
I am curious to see if Manhatten is funnier than I remember. Because Annie Hall was for me this time more poignant than I remembered. Here lies the difference between the 17 year old then and the 45 year old now. Besides, like I told ya, I've been using material from AH my whole adult life, so hearing it again from my teacher was not such a funny lesson this time.
SUCH a funny lesson. STILL funny man. I still laughed plenty, because as you point(ed) out, it is relentlessly humorous. The remarkable thing about this is that it happens not purely as a matter of content. It's not just that the dialogue refuses to become sentimental, instead consistently setting up funny bits and one-liners. That the jokes are super and that the story is resonating with semi-autobiographical content certainly enriches it but this is not why the film is excellent. The film is excellent as a FILM because Allen is able to use cinematic techniques to tell a story - not so much in accordance with the conventions of filmic narration - as in accordance with the conventions of stand-up comedy. What makes AH great is the way the sensibility of the talking gagman is given visual expression. In other words, the point-of-view, monologue construction, verbal timing - in short, the delivery of stand-up comedy - is transposed by Allen into cinematic form. The meat-and-potatoes of this in terms of shots and editing is masterful enough, but Allen pours gravy on top with all those visual tricks; the subtitles, split-screens, cartoons. Taken merely in their own right, these spashes of gravy are just sight gags but viewed in the context of the film as a whole they are "props" as used by the guy standing on the stage yammering away at us.
Hence, and with all due respect, I think you get it backwards when you note that Allen "allows Singer the opportunity to occasionally intrude on the film, and break the fourth wall." Sure, the fourth wall is only occasionally broken, but it is wrong to think that Singer intrudes on the film, occasionally or otherwise. For the film IS Singer talking. So, rather than Singer intruding on the film, it makes more sense to say that the fourth wall intrudes on the film of Singer talking. Remember, he is just standing there speaking directly to us at the very beginning - fourth wall not at all. This is key. The film starts out as a stand-up routine and takes off from there, but it never stops being a stand-up routine. The fourth wall of drama, indeed, even the characterizations required by drama, shit, the very story itelf - all are devices exploited by the routine just as cinematic technique is used for the delivery. In AH, Allen makes film serve stand-up, not vice versa, and this is what makes it a magnificent film and a work of high comedic art. It is also what makes AH his masterpiece, not Manhatten or anything else, because after it is all said and done and much to his own chagrin, Allen is not Bergman, and his Muse is that of the stand-up comedian... or at least it still was when he made AH.
Good call. Annie Hall as romantic comedy passed through the digestive tract of a stand-up comic is a pretty good starting (finishing?) point for discussing this film.
As for whether or not Woody still has that spirit in him, the trailer for his latest (Scoop) is encouraging. Ian McShane is a ghost trying to inspire Scarlet Johanson to investigate a murder, with Woody "acting" as her nervous nellie sidekick. I actually had a couple of laugh out loud moments during this one. Fingers crossed, and all that.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Kung Fu Hustle (Hong Kong, 2001, Stephen Chow)
I love this movie! At one point I called it Bruce Lee meets Mad Magazine. Not bad for an old guy, not up to speed and never into the genre to begin with, but still, Entertainment Weekly on the box wins with "Kill Bill meets Looney Tunes." It's the second half of the equation that makes it work for me, of course. I know there have been many decades of call-and-response between Hollywood action flics and Hong Kong chop socky and I realize that both camps have often incorporated jokes into the goings-on. I don't know Stephen Chow's pedigree but in this film the humour comes first and full-throttle from what I assume is WITHIN, unlike Tarrantino who cracks wise on the side and provides campiness from WITHOUT. (I never even bothered to watch part two of Kill Bill; I know, I know, you said I should.) Chow is poking fun at himself and his, whereas Tarrantino is the outsider, all affectation and adoration. I could develop this but where's the fun in that? The point is KFH is an over-the-top parody, a total spoof and it works for me because I am not a fan of Kung Fu movies.
On the other hand, it could be argued that fans are even more likely to dig KFH because they are so familiar with the conventions being skewered. On this ticket, it was Jacob who noticed that such and such a bit was taking off on The Matrix and so on. (Hey, even I noticed the blood tidal wave from The Shining.) I was pleased to read that the choreographer involved was the same expert behind said film as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Talk about humour from within! Related to this technically, and what especially tickled my fancy, the CGI (Monica named the abbreviation for me) effects on amphetamines. I touched on this pet peeve of mine just recently in my A Very Long Engagement review but it was the film Hero that instigated my critique and KFH is received by me as validation. Look at how silly it is to take this combat seriously, the film says, "this combat" in Crouching Tiger, Hero and all the rest of it. Anti-materialist, superhero stupidity. I laughed out loud.
The good news is that nobody's priorities are spared. So stock characters and typically authentic settings and whatever else are lambasted to the hilt. I have to admit that this tred on my own cherished toes insofar as Kurosawa - particularly in his cowboy guise - seemed to be taking a tweak or two. Ditto for The Lower Depths with respect to the courtyard community ruled by the Dragon Lady landlord. But hey, I remember this stuff from the operas of the Mao period too and even then I was thinking that it all needed to be sat down on a whoopi cushion. No doubt, I am just bringing my limited associations to the culture. Easy to do from the Western angle too as Tong-like gangsters do their nice little MGM dance routine. Speaking of which, one of my favourite moments is when some guy has a knife to the neck of some girl in a tableau with a poster of Astire and Rogers behind them. The message is loud and clear.
It's funny! The look of the would-be Hannibal Lecter super-killer alone. It's not often that a supposedly zany, wacky, etc. action comedy achieves such consistency and pacing. They ususally get bogged down in plot details and character business plus just plain unfunny dialogue and stunts. KFH never drops the ball of schtick it kicks around so fast. It's hardly coming out of the Word-y Allen school but there are a bunch of hilarious lines. Most of all, though, it is often brilliantly shot. Not just the choreography and the CGI story-boards and the fast cuts. The slow panning, the boom angles and the tracking through the sets, it's all very well filmed by guys who can do a fight scene like Fred and Ginger dancing.
It's a wonderful film, isn't it? The comp to Kill Bill and Looney Tunes is pretty accurate. I think Roger Ebert also drew on comparisons to Buster Keaton. All of which is to say, a film drawing from a deep well of FUN.
As for Chow himself, he's not just the writer and director of the film, he's also the star, and one of the score's composers, which makes him some sorta Asian Orson Welles, i guess. I've only seen one other Chow film, Shaolin Soccer, which is just as irreverent and wacky as KFH, though perhaps not quite as polished. Grade-wise, a B plus to KFH's A. But he's certainly onto something, as he jumps into the genre of choice with clear affection for those he is about to skewer, and a complete understanding of the conventions he is going to be toying with.
Still, unlike you, I don't see that much difference between the QT and Chow. Both clearly LOVE the genres they are mocking, and both have obvious skills as filmatists. I do believe that QT is capable of stepping aside and getting "inside" his subject matter, as he embraces enthusiastically all of the conventions of 70s chop-socky films, and the "wink wink" aspect is evident more in the personality of the director than in the film (I'm talking about Kill Bill 1 and 2 specifically) itself. For an even better example of how QT can immerse himself into a genre film, take a look at Jackie Brown, which is a pretty much selfless valentine to the literature of Elmore Leonard and the films of black filmmakers in the 60s and 70s like Melvin van Peebles. It mebbe a question of degree, as Chow's affection is perhaps more "pure of heart" in his approach to the material--he purposefully humbles himself throughout his films (the two I've seen), and chooses for his heroes the most unlikely figures. Chow's films appear to be works of a singular sort of passion. He's satirizing his subject matter, sure, but he's also full of adoration for it. More importantly, Chow really seems to like people; even some of his odious characters are appealing at some level. Take the synchronized dancing sequence of the axe-men early in the film as a prime example of this sorta peculiar affection. On the other hand, while I don't doubt Tarantino's passion for his work--I mean, can there be any doubt that the guy really loves movies?--I'm not sure he has the same passion for people.
Anyways, we clearly agree that Chow is a talented filmmaker, a fellow worth keeping our eyes us, so it may or may not be good news, depending upon whether he's still got something fresh to say about this genre, but I hear that Chow is working on KFH 2 as we speak.