Some thoughts on Annie Hall and romantic comedies in general

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mimitabu writes:

"Do [romantic comedies] usually have a protagonist? what does s/he usually want? "Get back into a family"? "Find happiness"? "Get over my ex"? "Become a better person so i can be a better father/mother"? Then i thought about the best romantic comedy, Annie Hall. i thiiiink you once wrote here that it has brilliant script, but i don’t believe you’ve ever posted an in-depth analysis of it. Does it have a protagonist? Is it Alvy? What does he want? "To get the eggs"? Is he just living out some sort of narcissistic pathology? Are there rules that Annie Hall follows that other successful romantic comedies also follow? If so, do they do away with the idea of a protagonist altogether?

A love story, it seems to me, can have two protagonists, and perhaps ideally should. Having said that, a romantic comedy often only has one. There is the protagonist and his/her love interest, and the movie is about how the protagonist figures out how to "get" the love object. This can involve a lot of different situations. The protagonist can have family issues to settle, emotional problems to face and overcome, romantic entanglements to solve, stalkers to lose, spiritual crises to confront. The love plot is, as the reader must surely know by now, is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. As society changes and evolves, the manner by which boy meets and loses girl continuously changes but the dynamic of the love plot rarely does. The "antagonist" of the love story is whatever keeps the boy and girl apart — the jealous boyfriend, the strict father, the pressures of career, the edicts of class, the opinion of society, the love-object’s opinion of his/her self, the protagonist’s own ego. Or death (Heaven Can Wait), or time (Kate & Leopold). Generally speaking, the narrative is weighted in favor of one character or the other — it seems relatively rare to me that a romantic comedy balances both lovers equally.

(A romantic comedy I wrote, the ill-fated Curtain Call, threw all kinds of obstacles in the path of true love: the protagonist was afraid of commitment, he had a business that demanded his attention, an older woman throwing herself at him, an ex who came around at the wrong time, issues involving his love-object’s business, a superior romantic rival, and two ghosts living in his house.  Whew!)

(I was recently watching Bonnie and Clyde for the nth time, and while it’s not a romantic comedy per se, it is a love story, and I was surprise to see, after many viewings that Clyde is not an equal protagonist; Bonnie is the protagonist of the narrative, Clyde is a kind of mysterious guy she has to learn to figure out. Which she eventually does. And in a lot of ways, the screenplay of Bonnie and Clyde is about how Bonnie figures out Clyde and learns to be happy with his weirdness — you know, the whole bank-robbing, killing-people-as-a-sexual-substitute thing. At the moment she figures out how to be happy with Clyde, the narrative reaches its fulfillment and it’s time for them to die.)

I’ve never sat down and done a formal study of Annie Hall, but it’s a great screenplay with a pretty unique history. It was developed as a three-hour movie about Alvy Singer, a standup comedian incapable of experiencing happiness (its working title was Anhedonia). I’ve never read the shooting script, but from what I understand from interviews Woody Allen has done (and from editor Ralph Rosenblum’s book When the Shooting Stops), the movie he shot was a huge, sprawling treatise on everything in the world and contained, yes, a murder mystery (which Allen later brought back as the plot of Manhattan Murder Mystery). Allen apparently shot the whole thing, then, after looking at a two-and-a-half-hour cut, decided that maybe the thing to do was to take out everything that wasn’t directly about the love story between Alvy and Annie and see if there was a movie there. It sounds like an utterly bizarre way to make a movie these days, but thems was the times and that’s who Woody Allen was back then. (That’s why, when I hear rumors like how there’s a weird sci-fi time-travel plot that got cut out of Anything Else, I can’t entirely dismiss it — it’s not that weird for Allen to entirely re-think a movie after principal photography ends. Hell, he entirely re-shot September. In this age of DVD I can’t believe that we can’t have access to the 2 1/2-hour Annie Hall or the "first version" of September.) Because of Allen’s background in European art films, I wouldn’t presume to impose a traditional 3-act structure on Annie Hall — it was probably the furthest thing from his mind at the time. (On the other hand, Allen’s biggest hero is Bergman, whose work all but screams "traditional 3-act structure," so I could be wrong.)

Anyway, yes, Alvy Singer is the protagonist of Annie Hall. And yes, what he wants is "the eggs," but he doesn’t really understand that until the end of the movie (and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that Allen didn’t know that until he was done editing the movie). The reason Annie Hall feels so lived-in, so detailed, so real, is because there was a whole hour’s worth of other material in there, a whole tapestry of narrative, that got cut out. The result is that the characters seem to have rich inner lives that continue after the scene is done. Annie Hall is, nominally, about Alvy’s failed love affair with Annie, but because of all the details about Alvy’s life and career, all the odd little neuroses and flashes of magic realism, it seems to be more about "love itself," re-defined for a new, more self-aware generation.

(Which illustrates another good screenwriting lesson: the more specific you make your characters the more universal they will, paradoxically, become. I don’t know why this works, but it’s been proven to again and again. In fact, specificity is the key to just about any successful art. Alvy Singer is about as atypical a protagonist as one can imagine for an American mainstream movie: neurotic, homely, balding, short, hostile, touchy, unhip, paranoid, self-destructive, obsessive, narcissistic. But because Allen brings him to life in such detail and with such passion, we all watch Alvy and say "You know, he’s just like me.")

What keeps boy and girl apart in Annie Hall? Oh god, so many things: his neuroses, her upbringing, the clash of their personalities, their conflicting career trajectories. One of the things that sets Annie Hall apart from other romantic comedies is that boy doesn’t get girl back: in the third act, Allen suggests that a big romantic gesture will bring Annie back to Alvy, but of course it doesn’t happen — they’ve drifted too far apart. That’s one of the things that makes Annie Hall "modernist," that it takes the conventions of the romantic comedy and says "yeah, but, you know, that’s not life."

Comments

49 Responses to “Some thoughts on Annie Hall and romantic comedies in general”
  1. swan_tower says:

    Which illustrates another good screenwriting lesson: the more specific you make your characters the more universal they will, paradoxically, become. I don’t know why this works, but it’s been proven to again and again. In fact, specificity is the key to just about any successful art.

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I was saying this recently to my husband — we were watching brief video reviews of various console games, most of which neither of us had played or even knew anything about, and yet laughing our heads off because the snark was so funny. And the key to its humor was specificity.

    Likewise, on a panel at a recent convention I got to talking with my fellow panelists about how a lot of your standard epic quest fantasy Tolkien imitators have this sort of “everyman” protagonist, often on the theory that a generic template is easier for the reader to identify with, and how flawed we think that reasoning is. If the character’s generic, what do I have to be interested in?

    • Todd says:

      And yet, I’ve heard passionate arguments in the opposite direction, that to describe a protagonist too precisely is to alienate the audience. That is why we have “leading men,” good-looking, personality-free sorts we can project our own selves upon.

      • swan_tower says:

        One reason I’ve never latched onto a lot of older movies is that the leading men of yesteryear all too often bore me stiff. They don’t play characters; they play themselves, and their selves consist of being good-looking and nonspecifically charming.

        Give me looks and a personality, sez I. We’ve got a nice crop of guys at the moment who can do both, and I’m enjoying it immensely.

        This is also the theory behind a trend in cover art right now, especially for certain kinds of books, that consistently presents female figures who are either headless or facing the other way. Marketing say, mystery! and the reader can project onto them! I look at it and think, go go gadget depersonalization (not to mention objectification). I’d much prefer the cover to show me a memorable individual.

        • notthebuddha says:

          the leading men of yesteryear all too often bore me stiff. They don’t play characters; they play themselves

          This kind of “Robert Redford” syndrome is hardly limited to past eras. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, I’m looking at you.

          • swan_tower says:

            I’ll give you Ben Affleck, but I’ve seen Matt Damon be more than just a pretty face.

            • Todd says:

              Strangely, Ben Affleck has become more interesting to me as a director — I was very impressed indeed by Gone Baby Gone.

            • notthebuddha says:

              Well, Matt Damon has has a couple of modes. He’s ranty superior guy in _Good Will Hunting_ and _DOGMA_, and reluctant caper guy in _The Rainmaker_, the Mexican prison thing, and _Ocean’s Eleven_.

              This is not to say they’re not effective within their limited range, they are, and I enjoy their work, but at no time am I not aware I am watching Ben Affleck and/or Matt Damon, the same way I am always aware that I am watching Jack Nicholson or Peter O’Toole. Some actors do grow out of this, but it is usually when they are too old to carry on like before and are forced to reinvent themselves, like John Wayne in _The Shootist_, Richard Harris in _The Count of Monte Christo_ and the first two Harry Potters, or Redford himself in _An Unfinished Life_.

              • swan_tower says:

                I think “ranty superior guy” is selling Damon’s role in Good Will Hunting rather short. And then you get things like The Departed, or the action-hero roles of the Bourne movies, or The Talented Mr. Ripley, and so on. He’s not a name for the ages yet, but I wouldn’t say his range is that limited.

                But some of the evaluation undoubtedly varies based on the eye of the beholder, since I’m rarely unaware that I’m watching Jack Nicholson.

      • stormwyvern says:

        I do strongly believe in the idea that the specific evokes the universal, and yet I’ve seen arguments from something close to the opposite perspective which also seem rather convincing. Scott McCloud makes the point that a more iconic character can be said to represent more people and draw the audience in by inviting them to fill in the blanks and project some of themselves into the character. Some video games (not all) have been very successful at giving the players a relatively undefined – or even player defined – character to inhabit. The Halo series obviously places a great deal of importance on its protagonist never removing his helmet to reveal his face. He doesn’t even get a name until the very end of the third game beyond the generic “Master Chief.” The idea is that all kinds of gamers can happily take on the role of Master Chief because Master Chief could be anyone, even YOU. (Well, probably not me, as I’d be very shocked if Master Chief turned out to be a thirty year old Caucasian woman.) Certainly stories like this can employ specific touches to evoke universal feelings, but it’s interesting that the opposite sometimes seems to be true as well.

        It may be that one reason the specific evokes the universal is that every person has so many specific quirks and qualities that there is likely not one person on this planet with whom you don’t have at least one thing in common. So the more specific aspects of a character you show, not only the more real do they become, but the more likely it is that your audience will pick up on one of those things and go “That’s just like me!” or at the very least “That’s just like someone I know!”

        • swan_tower says:

          I’d argue that video games are different, since the player is actively inhabiting the role of the character, controlling their actions. The extreme end of this is first-person perspective games — some of them have a degree of story, but they show you little or nothing of the character because you’re looking out of his/her eyes.

          And I’d also say there’s perhaps a difference between “iconic” and “generic.” Batman is iconic, but a long way from the sort of bland neutralness we started out by discussing.

          • Todd says:

            I was a big fan of the Quake franchise, and the moment in Quake 4 where they show what “you” look like is an odd, disconcerting moment for some reason — when the cut-scene comes along I think “Who’s that?” and then, every time, it takes me a second to go “Oh, that’s me.” And then I’m kind of outside the game for some reason.

            It doesn’t happen with Half-Life, for some reason, where I’m perfectly content to play as Gordon Freeman. But then, Gordon’s “personality,” such as it is, is a more dynamic part of the story — Gordon is a scientist, and a lowly, uninformed one at that. He’s got no idea what’s going on, and he’s a pencil-necked geek in a world of monsters and marines. Part of the story is that he’s a specific guy in this situation, not “some marine” with a generic tough-guy face.

            • stormwyvern says:

              I suspect that the concerns of making a good video game and the issues of telling a good story don’t always overlap. Some games I’ve played certainly have narratives that I’ve really enjoyed. But I still enjoy the average Mario game despite the generally thin stories, and I’ve never stopped in the middle of a game of Tetris to wonder what it is that the L-shaped piece wants.

        • Anonymous says:

          Why would you have been shocked if Master Chief had been a 30 year old white chick? Isn’t that was Samus Aran (Master Chief’s obvious forebear) turned out to be?
          -Doc Handsome

          • stormwyvern says:

            Yes, but Samus didn’t have a voice at the time. Master Chief certainly doesn’t sound like a thirty year old white chick. Plus Master Chief’s real name is apparently “John,” which doesn’t sound very feminine.

            • Anonymous says:

              Two words: Dr. Girlfriend
              -DH

              • stormwyvern says:

                A good point, though I think Dr. Mrs. The Monarch tends to be the exception rather than the rule. And though her first name escapes me, I seem to remember it was something feminine.

                Also, the multuplayer game options seem to indicate that there is a different style of Spartan armor designed for the lady Spartans.

                Also I’m probably putting way too much thought into this.

        • stephenls says:

          With regards, specifically, to Halo, I don’t quite agree. I think Master Chief succeeds because he’s extraordinarily nongeneric for the nameless, faceless space marine archetype he inhabits.

          He’s not silent, for one — he talks all the time, and not just about mission objectives. His relationship with Cortana is very detailed; they bicker like an old married couple. She’s not the generic “no bullshit female commanding officer” archetype increasingly inundating action games, either. And Master Chief’s voice is decidedly non-generic: that sort of low tone with wry, understated humor is not what I was expecting.

          See this early Halo trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqGDfivqShc for a more generically-voiced Master Chief. I don’t think Halo would have succeeded as well if they’d gone with the generic Chief from that trailer.

      • Anonymous says:

        It seems like the winners have to be blank (more or less) and the losers have to be specific.

    • travisezell says:

      If you can compare to video games, I don’t feel as awkward comparing to serialized drama tv shows. I just had a seemingly unrelated conversation with some good friends about how it’s not a coincidence that (to the three of us) the weakest-link characters are always the everyman/hero. It’s something they keep doing, and keep doing wrong. In Lost it’s Jack Shephard, in Deadwood it’s Sherriff Bullock, in Carnivale it’s Ben Hawkins. In each case, the least developed (as we begin) “main character” is so blandly stubborn and so unquirky compared to the world around him, and they’re invariably the least relatable character on the show — and love ’em or hate ’em, each of those shows is a thoroughly unique world with an ensemble of heavily “quirked,” distinct characters… except for the “hero,” who’s so universal he’s the least universal.

  2. notthebuddha says:

    I don’t know why this works, but it’s been proven to again and again. In fact, specificity is the key to just about any successful art. Alvy Singer is about as atypical a protagonist as one can imagine for an American mainstream movie: neurotic, homely, balding, short, hostile, touchy, unhip, paranoid, self-destructive, obsessive, narcissistic.

    I think this may work because most people have seen some lesser degree of some of these traits in themselves. This is the *right* kind of specific detail that lets the audience identify with the hero. Otherwise the hero should be kind of plain or generic, within the scope of the medium: Indiana Jones’ political views or favorite brand of vehicle aren’t relevant, Charlie Brown and Tintin are drawn simply, and characters in pop songs often don’t even have names.

    • Anonymous says:

      Indiana Jones: He likes Eisenhower

      • notthebuddha says:

        Not an indicator of political alignment; Ike was massively popular, a pragmatic moderate, and was courted by both parties.

        • Also the comment was made to Soviet stooges and was probably more of a flip “screw you” than a statement of political party affiliation.

          Inadvertently, though, this might go to why Crystal Skull feels a bit weaker and less Indy-like than the previous films. While it’s possible to take the blank-slate adventurer too far (Temple of Doom) Crystal Skull went WAY overboard defining the character. It was more like an episode of “Late Middle Aged Indiana Jones Chronicles” and had the same problems as Young Indy–the more “real” detail you try to put in, be it Indy escaping prison with Charles De Gaulle or Indy addressing whether his long-lost son should go to school, or being interrogated by J. Edgar’s boys, the less convincing the whole concept of Indy becomes.

          Or maybe it just suffered becuase of the aliens interdimensional beings. (REALLY, George.)

          • Todd says:

            The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, of course, places all its eggs in the basket of “Indy escaping prison with Charles De Gaulle,” often at the expense of adventure and intrigue.

            • The sad part is I remember really liking it back in…middle school? I certainly wouldn’t have watched “Lawrence of Arabia” quite so soon or read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom if it weren’t for the pilot. And watching it now there are some moments that are still good. There are even moments that seem Indy-esque, like Indy in wartime London flirting with a girl by seeing which of them beats the other in foriegn-language fluency (she eventually trumps him with Welsh.)

              Then there’s nine-year-old Indy talking about sex with Sigmund Freud. Or Indy hanging out in Tinpan Alley with George Gershwin and a wannbe Zigfeld Girl. Or middle-aged Indy playing the saxophone (does George have incriminating pictures of Harrison Ford or something?)

              Young Indy adventuring in extreme places and getting out of scrapes in improbable ways I could actually buy, because that’s what Indy does and he had to have learned somewhere. Young Indy meeting, influencing, and interacting with every major political, artistic, criminal, and intellectual figure of the early twentieth century is where the suspension of disbelief crumbles. I’m surprised they didn’t just go for the whole enchilada and have him run into a young ex-watercolorist German corporal who’s been wounded in a gas attack and who’s developing an interest in the Aryan ‘histories’ of Madam Blavatsky.

              If they actually DID go there and I’m just repressing that memory, please don’t remind me.

        • Todd says:

          Indy may or may not “like Ike,” but we know for sure he hates Nazis. So there’s that for a defining characteristic. I wonder how many neo-Nazis went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out, and were grooving along with it until the bad guys turned out to be Nazis, and then said “Awww, mannnn, and here I was projecting myself onto the protagonist!”

          • notthebuddha says:

            Considering how many neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are actually part Jewish (Bobby Fischer, delinquent grandchildren of immigres to Israel), I would not say this kind of duh-moment could not happen.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I have to admit, the only Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen is “Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” This is probably something I should seek to remedy sometime soon.

    It’s kind of strange how “romantic comedy” has become a term of some derision, rather like “chick flick” and “feel good movie.” I guess it’s because romantic comedies are generally so unappealing to the male adolescent audience that is the prime target of many movie studios. Or maybe it’s because they’re seen as being so predictable and formulaic, even though that’s not always the case. I imagine “Annie Hall” opened the door for romantic comedies that don’t end with the boy and girl back together, just as “Rocky” set up the idea that a sports themed movie doesn’t have to end with the protagonist winning the big sporting event. (My knowledge of film history is obviously a little lacking, so if these weren’t the first films to put forth these ideas, please correct me.) A couple of my favorite romantic comedies, which are on Sara’s List of the All-Time Best Date Movies are “Boy Meets Girl, Boy Discovers Girl is into Other Girls, Boy Wins Girl Over Regardless, Boy Loses Girl” and “Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back, Girl’s Dad Goes to Jail.” (Feel free to guess. It shouldn’t be too hard.)

    • Anonymous says:

      “Boy Meets Girl, Boy Discovers Girl is into Other Girls, Boy Wins Girl Over Regardless, Boy Loses Girl” = Chasing Amy!

      “Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back, Girl’s Dad Goes to Jail.” = Say Anything?

    • Todd says:

      To say “The only Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen is Curse of the Jade Scorpion” is to say “The only part of an elephant I’ve ever seen is its anus.” Curse is the absolute nadir of Allen’s output, a clumsily-made mystery-comedy where even Allen’s skills as a director come into question.

  4. While I don’t think you can describe these as “Romantic Comedies” two of my personal favorite films that’s built around romance is Roman Holiday and Casablanca. Two stories that end similar to that of Annie Hall, where neither protagionist gets the girl in the third act.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Which brings up the question: what exactly does make a film a romantic comedy? Films that end with the protagonist failing to win over the love interest can be something of a downer if not outright sad, and yet they still get termed romantic comedies.

  5. popebuck1 says:

    I would argue that When Harry Met Sally… is a romantic comedy with BOTH protagonists equally defined and weighted. There are undoubtedly others.

  6. I’ve always wondered if there was a surviving cut of Anhedonia
    and the I’d be very curious to see if the 1st version of
    September is any better than the one that was released…
    (I think it’s Woody’s first big misstep as a director…it ain’t no interiors…)

  7. urbaniak says:

    Please. The protagonist of “Annie Hall” is totally Tony Roberts.

  8. mimitabu says:

    thanks for the in-depth answer.

    i knew of the editing history of annie hall, but i tend to get all academic english student regarding that kind of thing; even if you know the biographical truth of an author invalidates a theory, if the work supports your theory, it works (i once wrote a paper on a portrait of the artist as a young man that claimed that there were 5 distinct characters named ‘stephen dedalus’… i can’t remember them all, but i remember literal stephen, narrator stephen, author stephen. this theory is ridiculous, but the work supported it quite well. this parenthetical note is on the verge of irrelevance, however, b/c everyone knows james joyce was crazy enough for virtually any theory to turn out accurate).

    i think the weird thing about romantic comedies (such as those populated by tom hanks and meg ryan) is that (in my limited experience) they seem to tell you what the protagonist wants, and then only show you what the protagonist gets (not how the protagonist tries to get it). i wonder if that makes sense. i guess it’s difficult to write a love story and fill it with actual willful action. especially when what the protagonist wants is usually a state, not an event. an often fragile state, no less. i hate writing in sentence fragments.

    anyway, thanks again. the response is interesting, but unfortunately i have little interesting to say in response(:.

    • Todd says:

      The way they put it in screenwriting school (so I’m told) is: there is what the protagonist wants and then there is what the protagonist needs. Oftentimes, what the protagonist wants is the exact opposite of what the protagonist needs.

      The “event” in the traditional romantic comedy is a wedding, although that has been tempered somewhat in recent decades to be something more like “commitment” or “stability,” whatever equilibrium the protagonist is seeking through the love story.

      Of course, in Annie Hall the protagonist is intent on destroying everything he pursues — every one of his relationships ends because, on some level, he wants it to end. Annie, unlike his other women, is “special” somehow, and the only difference between Alvy’s relationship with Annie is that he kind of regrets blowing it with her, whereas with his other conquests he just kind of looks back and shakes his head in astonishment.