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Through intense visuality and the complex connections among various characters, Woody Allen in Annie Hall suggests an inextricable connection between geographical location and identity in terms of class, religion, politics, and interpersonal relationships. Within the film, key characters are presented, defined and developed for the audience through both where they exist geographically in 1970s America and how they perceive other locations culturally. From depicting this intersection between location and identity in society, Allen delivers a personal overview of regional differences in this period.
Allen’s character of Alvy Singer is largely defined both by his upbringing in Brooklyn and his proud self-identification as a Manhattanite. Young Alvy’s early anxiety is shown in a scene with his mother in a doctor’s office, where he explains his fear that the entire universe is inexorably expanding towards dissolution. This is the first instance of Alvy’s cosmopolitan attitude: even as a child, he contemplates the entire universe itself and reaches a conclusion about life based on far-off cosmic events. Furthermore, a contrast is established between Alvy’s broad, abstract thinking and the relatively down-to-earth parochiality of his mother, who insists very matter-of-factly, “What has the Universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!”
In his adult life, Alvy — as well as the film — exhibits an ambivalent attitude towards New York, poking fun at it but ultimately cherishing the city. In the first scene with adult Alvy, we see him kvetching to his best friend Rob about anti-Semitism. Rob turns the conversation to California, suggesting that his friend move to Los Angeles, an idea Alvy dismisses, saying, “I don’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” Yet in the very next scene, Alvy’s irritation with New York becomes apparent. Waiting for Annie outside a theater, he is pestered by two rude men in leather jackets who, despite not entirely recognizing Alvy, ask for his autograph and loudly exclaim, “Alvy Singer over here!” Alvy insults them as urban yokels, saying, “What is this, a meeting of the Teamsters?” and, to Annie once she’s arrived:
Alvy: I’m standing with the cast of The Godfather.
Annie: You’re going to have to learn to deal with it.
Alvy: Deal! I’m dealing with two guys named “Cheech!”
Later, while the two wait in line for tickets, Alvy is irritated by a loud intellectual talking to his date. About them, Alvy remarks, “Probably met by answering an ad in the New York Review of Books. ‘Thirtyish academic wishes to meet woman who’s interested in Mozart, James Joyce and sodomy.'”
Alvy’s aggravation with elements of New York is starkly contrasted by the spirited love of the city that appears through various stylistic elements in the film. Despite these irritating background characters, the Manhattan of Annie Hall is filled with interesting people and innumerable possibilities for interpersonal contact, which the film eagerly explores. To prove a point in the ticket line scene, Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan out of the ether. Truman Capote strolls through the famous Central Park people watching scene as Alvy remarks, “There’s the winner of the Truman Capote look-alike contest.” At one point in the film, Alvy, troubled by his break-up with Annie, surreally culls advice and personal information from complete strangers walking down the street. An old woman explains to him, “love fades,” about which Alvy ponders, “love fades? God, that’s a depressing thought.” Much like Coney Island to young Alvy, Manhattan to adult Alvy seems like a playground, as he plays strangers like mental soundboards to work out his romantic anxieties. Underscoring this view: at the end of the scene, Alvy even stops a mounted policeman, a little ornament of the city, in the middle of the street to casually pet his horse. While Brooklyn isn’t expanding, Manhattan certainly is — inwards, through these fantastical, seemingly infinite possibilities suggested here.
Even more striking is the intense visual focus the city itself receives in the film. Allen’s propensity for long shots and creative compositions often provide wide, beautiful views of Manhattan which put the city at the fore. In the early scene where Alvy and Rob are walking, the two appear within the frame very far in the background, steadily moving towards the camera while the viewer is treated to a stationary view of a tree-lined sidewalk. After Annie and Alvy leave the club during their first date together, they stroll down a dimly-lit sidewalk remaining in the left side of the frame as the camera pans to follow them. The lighting of the storefronts complements the action. At the beginning of the shot, Annie is distressed about her performance as they walk in front of stores lit by bright, reddish hues; Alvy ameliorates her then stops to kiss her in front of a store illuminated by cool, blue light. Indeed, their relationship is often characterized emotionally by this New York backdrop. Alvy tells Annie, “I lurve you,” as the two caress on a dock at evening with the Brooklyn Bridge lit by a festive row of green lights prominently featured in the background. They share the frame with the unmistakable feature of one of the bridge’s stone towers. In an iconic shot which appears on the film’s release poster, Annie and Alvy, decked in white, share drinks on a terrace behind Annie’s apartment, flanked by a seemingly endless series of overlapping beige and brown apartment buildings separated from the two future lovers by a row of bright red and pink flowers. In his filmmaking, Allen nearly fetishizes 1970s Manhattan by giving it such great prominence, and this aura rubs off on the film’s players.
The troubling identity crisis Alvy experiences in the film is neatly complemented by this broad duality. Alvy’s remark in the opening monologue, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have me as a member,” mirrors this love/hate relationship with Manhattan. Alvy considers himself a member of the cognoscenti in New York, yet at a cocktail party with his ex-wife Robin, he mocks his fellow urban intellectuals: “You know, it’s one thing about intellectuals, they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on.” Alvy appears supremely comfortable in New York, and refuses to even consider moving to a place like Los Angeles, mercilessly criticizing it in contrast to the open mind Annie keeps when the two visit in the third act of the film. At his house party in L.A., Tony Lacey tells the two, “you’re still New Yorkers,” to which Alvy replies, “Yeah, I love it there.” He is, for all intents and purposes, a “true” New Yorker, one who both a product and an embodiment of the city and its culture.
Alvy’s own attitudes and speech help reinforce this relationship between location and identity in the film. When meeting his future first wife for the first time at an Adlai Stevenson rally, he characterizes her thus:
You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.
The syntax of this line is significant. Alvy calls Allison “New York” and “Central Park West,” as if these place names by their very selves could function as descriptive adjectives imparting a certain quality on that which is being modified.
Similarly, Alvy often metonymically characterizes others in relation to their individual locations. Poking fun at passers-by in Central Park, he calls one man, “Mr. Miami Beach” and says of a flamboyant-looking pair of men, “They’re back from Fire Island.”
In fact, Alvy very attraction to Annie is in no small part colored by her unique charm, which Alvy constantly attributes to her having grown up in a small Midwestern town. Annie, an aspiring singer who moved to New York in her adulthood, peppers her speech with cute expressions unfamiliar to Alvy. One famous example is this piece of dialogue which appears early in the film as the two walk on a beach in the Hamptons:
Annie: Well, la-de-da!
Alvy: La-de-da. If I–if anyone had ever told me that I would be taking out a girl who used expressions like “la-de-da”…
Annie: Oh, that’s right. That you really like those New York girls.
When Annie mentions “Grammy Hall,” Alvy, exasperated, remarks, “What did you do, grow up in a Normal Rockwell painting?” Alvy eventually derisively calls these phrases like “neat” and “keen” her “Chippewa Falls expressions,” in reference to the rural Wisconsin town where Annie grew up. Despite not having any particular knowledge of this place, Alvy doesn’t shy away from stereotyping Annie’s childhood experiences there:
Annie: [discussing her ex-boyfriends] There was Dennis from Chippewa Falls High School.
Alvy: Dennis-right, uh, uh … local kid probably, would meetcha in front of the movie house on Saturday night.
Yet Alvy enjoys a certain admiration of this life, despite his frequent condescension. When he ultimately visits Annie’s home, he delivers this soliloquy directed at the audience:
I can’t believe this family. Annie’s mother, she really is beautiful. And they’re talking swap meets and boat basins, and the old lady at the end of the table is a classic Jew hater. And, uh, they, they really look American, you know, very healthy and… like they never get sick or anything. Nothing like my family.
Interestingly, Alvy thinks that Annie’s family in Wisconsin typifies America, and that by contrast his own family in New York does not, as if one part of the country could even encapsulate the culture of the entire whole. On the matter of how America perceives New York, Alvy says this to Rob in a separate sequence:
Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks down upon New York like we’re, we’re left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way, sometimes, and I, I live here.
The idea of location producing identity is reinforced by similar parallels. In Chippewa, Alvy is shaken by a conversation he has with Annie’s flannel-shirted brother Duane, who delivers a dark monologue about contemplating suicide, which begins, “I tell you this because, as an artist, I think you’ll understand.” This line sets up a comparison between Duane and Alvy. Duane’s halting manner of speech calls to mind Alvy’s own anxious stutter, and Duane, who appears to be somewhat of a dullard, suggests that he too has artistic attitudes on a level in which he can only relate to a fellow “artist” like Alvy. Perhaps, then, Alvy and Duane are simply products of their locations: where Duane sees swap meets, Alvy sees Bergman films; while Duane caulks holes, Alvy visits his analyst.
A similar parallel exists between Annie’s and Alvy’s grandmothers. Grammy Hall appears cold, austere, and very offended by Alvy. There are various hints in the script that help explain Annie’s grandmother’s point of view. When Annie and Alvy are meeting for the first time, Annie exclaims with some surprise, “You’re what Grammy Hall would call a ‘real Jew!'” as if Alvy were some exotic creature of the East Coast. Additionally, when Annie’s grandmother observes Alvy at the dinner table, she envisions him as an Orthodox Jew. The implication is that Grammy Hall, as an elderly anti-Semite raised in the Midwest, is very unfamiliar with Jews and views them as dangerous outsiders. Similarly, Alvy tells Annie in another scene that his own grandmother never gave him gifts, as she was “too busy getting raped by Cossacks.” She too, then, was a product of her circumstances, vastly different geographically from those of Annie’s grandmother.
By the third act of the film, Rob has moved to Los Angeles, where he’s seemingly been transformed by his new location. When the film revisits him as the plot follows Alvy and Annie’s trip to the West Coast for an award presentation, Rob has become very sexually active and invigorated by the atmosphere in L.A. When Alvy and Rob spy a girl at a party, Alvy remarks, “She’s a ten, Max, and that’s great for you because you’re, you’re used to twos, aren’t you?” After picking Alvy up from prison, Rob dons a ridiculous helmet, and Alvy remarks, “Max, are we driving through plutonium?” Rob, in his final lines of the film, responds, “Keeps out the alpha rays, Max. You don’t get old.”
Meanwhile, at the end of the film, Alvy elicits a strong, bitter antipathy towards Los Angeles harkening back to his conversation with Rob at the start, where he first disparaged the notion of moving to the West Coast. He criticizes L.A. as a barren, cultureless wasteland. Visually, Beverly Hills presents a great contrast with Manhattan. We see wide roads lined with tall palm trees on broad, grassy lawns instead of small, sparse street trees built into gray sidewalks. Christmas decorations are set up in front of houses in this warm, snowless climate. The eclectic architecture contrasts with the regularity of Manhattan brownstones; on this, Alvy sarcastically remarks, “Yeah, the architecture is really consistent, isn’t it? French next to Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese.”
After Alvy and Annie have broken up for the last time and Annie has moved to Los Angeles, Alvy returns and meets her at an outdoor cafe in an attempt to get her back. Annie says she won’t marry him, and Alvy can only think to appeal to her purely in terms of location:
Alvy: Why? You wanna live out here all year? It’s like living in Munchkin Land. […]
Alvy: You’re not gonna come back to New York?
Annie: What’s so great about New York? I mean, it’s a dying city.
At last, Annie expressly compares Alvy to New York itself:
Annie: Alvy, you’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean, you’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like this island unto yourself.
With that realization finally made clear, Annie and Alvy are permanently finished.
Interestingly though, the character of Annie seems to suffer less from this concept of location as identity than the other characters. Where Alvy is tied to New York and Rob is enamored with L.A., Annie glides through the two worlds, neither of which are really her home. Perhaps, then, she is an example of one who, unlike Alvy, is capable of enjoying all life has to offer, someone who breaks this bond between one and one’s geographic identity and is the better for it. Yet in the film’s coda, where Annie is revealed to have moved back to New York, it seems that she hasn’t really progressed very far in her own life: her singing career on the West Coast presumably having failed, she lives in SoHo with her new boyfriend, whom she drags to see “The Sorrow and the Pity.” If Annie is actually no better than off than when we met her, then there exists no direct message within the film about her own relationship to geographic location.
The other characters of the film, however, are invariably tied to their locations to the extent that they firmly embody where they’re exist. Annie Hall itself is arguably an embodiment of Manhattan, as a product of the wry ruminations of a writer/director born and raised in New York. As Allen subtly weaved into the narrative of the film his views about regional differences in 1970s America — left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers in New York; lingering racial biases in flyover country; vacuous, artless garbage in Los Angeles — he on some level embodied this tendency of stereotyping regions both in himself and in his character of Alvy Singer. In the final shot of the film, Annie and Alvy say goodbye for one last time across the street from Avery Fisher Hall then fade off into the city, leaving the viewer with a steady river of cars flowing down Columbus Ave. Appropriately, the last sequence is nothing more than a small snippet of the city which would come to identify with Woody Allen as much as Allen identifies with it.
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