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Since this week we’ve been talking about character and about the ways in which characters can be evoked on film, I’d like to make a point about the role that setting plays in the construction of characters, since I think that, out of all films I’ve had a close look at, Annie Hall is the best example of how physical geography can literally map the psyche of a text’s protagonists. Allen’s script employs setting as one of the key elements contributing to our understanding of the characters and their motivations. Specifically, setting functions in three principal ways in Annie Hall. Firstly, it works as a device of characterization, shedding light onto the protagonists’ anxieties, drives and rationales. Secondly, and in close relation to this previous function, it exposes the points of conflict stuttering the relationship and the obstacles inherent in the lovers’ personalities that will ultimately render their romance unfeasible. And thirdly, setting works to develop and reinforce the overriding themes prevalent in the entire film, commenting on such notions as authenticity – of both lifestyle and culture –, mortality and the stifling antagonism between hedonism and anhedonia.

As is the trademark of Woody Allen as an auteur, in this film too New York City is the setting that undoubtedly steals the scene. Graham McCann argues that in Woody Allen’s films, New York functions as “an extension of his own psyche”( Graham McCann, Woody Allen: New Yorker. London: Polity Press, 1990, p. 11), and Annie seems to support this parallel when she accuses him in Los Angeles that he is “incapable of enjoying life… I mean you’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like an island unto yourself.” Alvy’s high culture pretensions and his limited range of interests mirror the characteristics of the city he adores, but provide an inadequate match for Annie’s breadth, curiosity and liveliness. His inability of “enjoying life”, forthrightly identified by Annie, is moreover seen by his best friend Rob precisely as a product of living in the Big Apple.

Alvy could never respect the Californian lifestyle because living in L.A. is too easy and thus goes against his philosophy of upholding one’s moral duty for anhedonia and difficulty, a quintessential attraction of New York. Here, the weather is always fair, the girls are easy to go to bed with, there is no garbage, and even from a gastronomical perspective, L.A.’s mashed yeast contrasts heavily with the struggling live lobsters of the Big Apple. This inauthentic lifestyle also comes into conflict with another theme that Alvy considers fundamental to his intellectual make-up: the issue of mortality. Alvy could never feel content in a culture so subjugated by the denial of death – in Los Angeles, people eat health foods and protect themselves from alpha rays to avoid getting old, which our protagonist deems not only artificial and inauthentic, but also morally and intellectually condemnable.

The third significant geographical setting that completes the spatial discourse of Annie Hall is Wisconsin, home to Annie’s WASP-ish, “healthy” and “very American” family. As a split screen comparison between Annie’s quintessentially Midwestern family and Alvy’s intrinsically Jewish counterpart reveals the diverging behaviors and modes of interaction characterizing the two clans, one cannot help but wonder whether the fact that the two protagonists were molded by such strikingly different environments is a surmountable obstruction, or whether this scene is a foreshadowing of the eventual mismatch inherent in their upbringing and formation.

Thus, the dichotomous and symbolically rich settings that weave the spatial framework of Annie Hall are essential to the film’s success in depicting convincing portraits of the two complex personalities that inhabit its world – therefore, setting explicates their psychological make-ups while simultaneously commenting on the ultimate destiny of their relationship. In fact, the three main settings in the film are themselves typified to such an extent that it would take little imagination to view them as distinct characters. Uri Margolin defines character essentially as “storyworld participant” (66) and, seen from this light, it can easily be argued that the three main settings of the film, with New York as an obvious case-in-point, by way of transforming the protagonists and impacting the outcome of their relationship, can be said to participate in the storyworld as inanimate characters. For Prof. Grindon’s American Film Genres course, we read an article by David Grote in which the author classified the characters in romantic comedies according to three types: the Innocent, the Fool and the Scoundrel, and argued that most romantic comedy protagonists fall into one of these three categories (David Grote. “The Comedic Tradition.” The End of Comedy. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1983, p. 39-48). Based on this perspective, it is indeed really interesting to think of the settings not only as distinct characters, but perhaps even as the three character types that Grote argues are emblematic of the romantic comedy. As follows, the Midwest, the heart of the orderly, well-off WASP countryside far from the tumult of the city, can be seen as the Innocent; Los Angeles, with its garish pop culture buffoons, mantras and anti-sun helmets can be considered to be the Fool; while Alvy’s dear New York, street-smart and pretentious, savvy and exclusive, is a natural at playing the role of the Scoundrel


While Annie Hall is definitely one of my favorite films of all time – and very special for me because it was precisely this film, due to its ingenuity and formal audacity, that made me want to go into screenwriting – reading Rosenblum’s account of the editing process just made me regret that I am only seeing a part of what I could be seeing… The descriptions of the scenes that were cut out sound so funny and great, that I feel they would have added to the charm of the film, rather than burden it unnecessarily, as Rosenblum and Marshall Brickman seemed to think. Perhaps I just hold this opinion because I’ve always been a Woody Allen fan, and for me, more Woody is always better than less Woody, but it’s just a pity that this footage seems to be lost and cannot even be enjoyed as DVD extras or special director’s cut editions or in any other way that this new DVD technology now enables us to view it.

I also think it’s insightful to consider the specific content of the scenes that were cut out. Most of them tread heavily on psychoanalytic ground, appearing in the form of fantasies and dream sequences infused with phallic references and allusions, but even beyond that, from an ideological point of view, what makes these scenes stand out is their highly controversial and daring content. A conversation with God about the female orgasm? An tour of Hell led by the Devil himself? A faux sci-fi movie about the blacks invading white communities and making white women faint? This is all really sensitive subject matter, and appears to be much more controversial than all the other scenes that were included in the final version. One counterexample here might be the cocaine scene, which is indeed a rather scandalous topic, but in the same time it might seem a lot more scandalous to us now than it did to movie-goers in the 70s.

It was interesting to watch Annie Hall once again with Margolin’s discussion of character in mind. I’m sure that everybody would agree that it is definitely the originality and poignancy of the characters that made Annie Hall such an enjoyable and enduring movie, and I think this is mostly due to the very personal nature of the film. While Margolin makes it clear that any character, whether inspired by a real person or not, is a fictional creation as soon as it becomes part of the process of storytelling, Annie Hall is an interesting case to consider, due to the inextricable links between the main protagonists and the actors who embody them. The film’s extraordinary formal ingenuity is therefore paralleled by a very peculiar relationship between actor and character : first of all, audiences familiar with Woody Allen will undoubtedly recognize the actor’s quirky personality and neurotic psyche in the character of Alvy, who moreover is by profession a comedian in the storyworld, just like Woody Allen himself in real life. Furthermore, as we discussed in class, audiences going to see the film in theatres in the 70s were generally aware of the real romantic relationship between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, and it is rather natural that if two real-life lovers share a romance on screen, the actor/character boundary becomes eroded. Moreover, Allen even takes this a step further, when the onscreen characters of Annie, Alvy and Rob are transformed into cartoon characters, in Alvy’s cartoon fairytale fantasy – thus, the real Woody Allen becomes Alvy Singer who becomes cartoon Alvy, while the real Diane Keaton becomes Annie Hall who becomes the cartoon queen, in a wonderful sort of tertiary representation, if we can call it that without appearing pseudointellectual like that film professor in the theatre queue.

I find the concept of reflexivity extremely interesting in the context of film narration, and I definitely hope we will be exploring this more as the semester progresses. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the various degrees of reflexivity that a certain narrative style can exhibit, and how sometimes the difference in degree lies in subtle elements like performance or framing.

None of the three films we have seen so far is overtly reflexive in regards to its medium (like Woody Allen is, for instance, in Annie Hall) by downright disrupting the filmic illusions in such a direct fashion, but nevertheless they do present subtler signs of narrative reflexivity. Delicatessen seems to me like the most reflexive of the three – that is to say, it does seem to assume the presence of a viewer or spectator for whom the action unfolds. A clear example of this, I think, is the final rooftop scene where the couple is playing music on top of the building: the spatial setup of the scene and the direct gaze of both actors indicate that they somehow acknowledge the spectatorship of an external observer, thus calling attention to the act of “telling” or narration – such examples could be considered diegetic moments in an otherwise predominantly mimetic film. Simple Men presents examples of reflexivity in the actors’ performances and in its “theatrical” quality that we were talking about in class. Since the mise-en-scene and the actors’ performances evoke the medium of theatre perhaps even more than film, the presence of the spectators is, in a way, subtly alluded to, and relies necessarily on the audience’s familiarity with a variety of presentational styles. And finally, perhaps the least reflexive film, in spite of its formal diegetic style, is Stranger than Paradise because, although the editing undoubtedly calls attention to film’s artificiality as a medium of narration, the storyline itself, given its monotony and anti-sensationalism, almost derides the mere idea of an audience – it is almost as if the characters are saying “so what if you’re watching? We’re not going to put on a show for you, we’ll still watch TV in silence and play Solitaire for hours, because that’s what we’d whether you’re watching or not.”

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