Wednesday, December 14, 2005

New York Stories

On the weekend Channel Seven screened Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) and Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995). They were shown at an unsociable time, between 10.40 and 3am, on the cusp of Saturday and Sunday, but still, that they were scheduled at all on free-to-air television, and together, felt like an unexpected gift. I set my DVD recorder to Extended Quality recording so it would capture the full four-and-a-half hours combined of these New York films. And now, at the time of writing (this paragraph at least)—10.00pm on Sunday evening—I’ve just finished watching Smoke. I watched Annie Hall earlier in the day, between solving Tangram shapes and a mid-afternoon sleep from which I emerged strangled by a yoke of sweat .

While both Annie Hall and Smoke are set in New York and each seems quintessentially ‘New York’ in its sensibility (or what I know about New York from films, books and television), the contrast between the films couldn’t be greater. Woody Allen’s film is filled with what became his signatures: an adult love affair which is marred by ill-timed and mismatched passions between an equally mismatched pair of individuals. Why is it that the characters played by the strange creature that is Woody Allen are partnered with the most charismatic of women such as Diane Keaton? It’s a conceit that we have to accept in all of Allen’s films. (Although the writer/director’s succession of romantic partners throughout his own life—including Keaton—would suggest the premise is less of a conceit than I am able to imagine). Many people cite Annie Hall as their favourite Woody Allen film. Even people who don’t like his films as a rule like this meditation on the progress of a relationship, from the first awkward overtures by Annie towards Alvie, through her decision to move on, to his fond reminiscence of their friendship.

Reflecting upon this canonisation of Annie Hall over Allen’s many other films, I wonder to what extent its popularity has to do with Alvie’s final summary of romantic relationships. While the film is quite prosaic in its conclusion that people don’t live happily ever after, ultimately it is quite idealistic. In Allen’s films people meet, they fall in love (?), they get to know one another, and then they fall out of love and have a mutually agreed upon separation, after which they remain friends who will enjoy each other’s company when they meet by chance on a New York street. I wonder if audiences forgive the anxious prate in Annie Hall, more than in Allen’s other films, because Annie and Alvie part without acrimony, without divorce settlements or child custody disputes, thereby presenting an ideal of the end of a relationship. It’s seductive to think that one might fondly recall only ever being gifted books on death by one’s ex-partner precisely at the moment of dividing the library accumulated during the relationship. The philosophical position that Alvie adopts at the end of his reminiscence about his relationship with Annie absolves both parties of any hurts inflicted and concludes that relationships are worth the effort despite the trouble . I’m just curious that there doesn’t seem to be any ‘trouble’ in Alvie and Annie’s relationship. What is slightly disturbing is that Alvie’s principal reason for being with Annie seems to be to educate her, to mould her into a ‘better’ woman. He takes her to see films and counts a post-relationship sighting of her taking a new lover to The Sorrow and the Pity as a ‘personal triumph’; he pushes her to take college courses with the sole aim, it seems, of ensuring she gets the references in his stand-up routines, but then asks her to give up her studies when she begins to form relationships with the interesting people he assured her she would meet; and he pays for her to see a psychoanalyst. Even when Annie’s analyst suggests that moving out of Alvie’s apartment will be good for her, Alvie says he trusts her analyst’s advice because she was recommended by his! To the film’s credit, Annie is never controlled by Alvie’s Pygmalion tendencies, and she uses what she has absorbed from college and in analysis to make decisions which are in her best interests (although moving to California to live with Paul Simon and his bad seventies haircut cannot be condoned).

Next Post: Smoke

If Annie Hall is a frantic meditation on the nature of romantic relationships in which the individual is ultimately preserved, then Smoke is a gentle rumination about small acts of kindness that draw isolated people into communion...

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