Entry from July 30, 2008

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The seventh film in the series was Annie Hall (1977), by Woody Allen, shown on July 29th. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:

Since last week, I’ve received an e-mailed request from two members of the audience to make the discussions a bit easier to follow by defining “romance” and “love.” It’s a request which I have a lot of sympathy with, but which I hardly know how to comply with since, really, the point of the discussions over the past six Tuesdays has been for us to see how the definitions of both terms have changed over the years and as the culture has changed. And never has that change been more pronounced than it was in the seventeen years between last week’s film, The Apartment, and this week’s, which is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, winner of the Best Picture Oscar of 1977. One of the significant moments in the latter film comes when the title character, played by Diane Keaton, asks her lover, Alvy Singer — played by Woody Allen himself — if he loves her. “Love is too weak a word for what I feel,” he replies. “I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you, two F’s. Yes I have to invent, of course I — I do. Don’t you think I do?”

The whole film is about this re-invention of the very idea of love to fit with the changed cultural landscape of the post-revolutionary 1960s. And yet, I do think that one constant in the definition of romance, and something that sort of survives even the rocky cultural transition of the 1960s is the idea of fatedness. That is, even after the sexual revolution we still have an attachment, albeit a wistful and nostalgic one, to the idea of there being just one right person in the world for us. The notion survives in Annie Hall in the song the title character sings for her audition on the night when the love affair with Alvy Singer is consummated. This is “It had to be you” by Gus Kahn (lyrics) and Isham Jones (music) — a song that also figures prominently in next week’s film, When Harry Met Sally. The chorus, which is all we hear of it in this movie — and not all of that — goes like this:

It had to be you, it had to be you
I wandered around, and finally found
The somebody who could make me be true
Could make me be blue or even be glad
Just to be sad just thinking of you
Some others I’ve seen might never be mean
Might never be cross or try to be boss
But they wouldn’t do
For nobody else gave me the thrill
With all your faults I love you still
It had to be you
It had to be you
It had to be you

Semantically, it’s a perfect summing up of the romantic ideal, but in such a downbeat, slow melancholy arrangement, and sung in Diane Keaton’s thin, waif-like voice, as to be heart-breaking. The effect is magnified by the inattention of the crowd and the ambient noise in the club which suggests the indifference of the world and of fate itself to the romantic ideal she is singing about. This makes a song supposedly about romantic fulfilment point us toward the “reality” of romantic unfulfilment which is the note on which the film ends. This, I guess, is how you sing when you know that it doesn’t have to be “you” at all — that the “you” is always going to be optional — even though you wish as hard as you can that it weren’t so.

Such pessimism is, in spite of the jokes, the prevailing mood of Annie Hall. In the course of the movie, Woody Allen addresses the viewer on three occasions — twice to the camera at the very beginning, and before we know anything else about the story, and once at the very end, in voiceover — to tell jokes which he regards as significant in some way. These “key jokes” explain or sum up, he tells us, his life and his views of love. The first is the one about the two women comparing notes about a Catskill resort. The first says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one replies, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” This, says Woody Allen — or is it his character in the movie, Alvy Singer? — is “essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

The second joke is the one that Woody informs us, intellectual fashion, is often attributed to Groucho Marx but really originates with Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious — about how he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. The third comes right at the end, as a kind of summing up. “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’” Again, the narrator cannot keep himself from playing the intellectual and telling us what the joke means. “Well,” he says, “I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”

In all the movies we’ve seen so far in this series there has been a strong interest in the gap between the ideal and the real. It Happened One Night places the romantic fantasy of Claudette Colbert’s opposition to her father and elopement with a dashing aviator in opposition to the down-to-earth, honest Clark Gable who represents romantic reality. The Shop Around the Corner opposes the mistaken idea that the real lovers have formed of each other in relation to the ideal they have set up in their correspondence. In The Philadelphia Story, the ideal is Tracy Lord’s unrealistic expectations of marriage (and Kittredge, the man she thinks will embody them) while the real is variously presented to us by her father, her ex-husband and her brief infatuation with James Stewart’s “Mike” Connor. In Brief Encounter the gap appears between the romantic dalliance the couple contemplate and the crushing and prohibitive reality of their respective marriages. In An Affair to Remember it is between Cary Grant’s image as an international playboy and his longing for true love.

In every case, it’s the ideal that has to take a tumble in order for romance to flourish. Or, to put it another way, reality proves to be more romantic than those exploded romantic fantasies. In The Apartment this is also true, but only at the very last minute, and somewhat ambiguously. Up until then, the romantic ideal as represented by marriage and family is shown up as a sham, while the reality of sordid, surreptitious and loveless couplings in poor Baxter’s apartment is merely squalid. One thing I should have mentioned about that movie last week, as Bill Schambra pointed out to me afterwards, was the Dionysian aspect of the scene of the Christmas party at Consolidated Life. The film seemed to be going out of its way to pour scorn on the very idea of anything truly romantic emerging from these scenes of drunken excess and debauchery among lonely people in the big city who, so far as we can see, are incapable of forming real, serious, meaningful attachments. Yet this made the romance, when it finally did happen — if it finally did happen — all the more remarkable.

The pessimism of Woody Allen’s movie, as suggested by all three of his significant jokes, can be summed up in the avowed meaning of the third one, about the eggs, which is that romance is now to be regarded as nothing but fantasy, but a fantasy that we can superimpose with greater or lesser success upon reality in order to console ourselves for reality’s nastiness — which here comes out in yet another Christmas party, this one at the Hollywood home of Tony Lacey (played by Paul Simon). Reality can also be summed up in that new and infinitely adaptable concept, the “relationship,” a word which figures prominently throughout Annie Hall. There were no “relationships” in the movies pre-dating the sexual revolution. There were engagements, marriages and divorces but no relationships. Everything was seen in relation to marriage, which is what kept those movies’ romantic feet on the ground. Once “relationships” became a valid cultural alternative to marriage, everything became relationships, even marriage (Alvy has had two already), and the longing for romance is relegated to the nostalgic dream world of “It had to be you” — or Diane Keaton’s other song in the movie, “Seems like old times.”

To my ear, behind all this there lurks an intellectual who is trying to show us how bright he is for seeing through the illusion of romance. Paradoxically, fantasy is all he has left, because he can’t believe that romantic love is real. This attitude is part of a more general posture of melancholy pessimism that sees the world as divided into the horrible and the miserable, and is grateful for being miserable because it only means that things aren’t (yet) horrible. This is also why Alvy admits that he is incapable of enjoying life, but precisely because he is not, as Annie accuses him of being, “an island unto yourself.” On the contrary, “I can’t enjoy anything unless everybody is,” he says with unintentionally comic pretentiousness. “If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.” This posture of a world-embracing, melancholy compassion was a popular one in the 1970s and is still widely shared among intellectuals and would-be intellectuals. Like being too bright to believe in old-fashioned love — which is why Alvy tells Annie that he needs to invent a new word for it — it is a form of showing off.

And yet Alvy, like his alter ego behind the camera, is also suspicious of intellectuals. He is both ludicrously pretentious — another example is when, after the first time he and Annie make love, he sighs to her: “As Balzac said, ‘There goes another novel’” — and, at the same time, he is able to make fun of his own pretension, at least as a child, in the joke about the expanding universe. Or is that a joke? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. The scene in which he brings Marshall McLuhan out from behind a display ad in the lobby of the movie theatre to puncture the pretensions of the blowhard behind him in line is just one of several barbs at the expense of the high-falutin’ brainiacs he at times wants to associate himself with and at other times wants to denounce — including the not-very-funny jokes about “mental masturbation” or how intellectuals “prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea of what’s going on.”

His feelings of ambivalence towards intellectuals are a fascinating subtext of Annie Hall, and I suspect we may want to say more about them later. But perhaps a more interesting thing for us to take away from his joke-founded personal approach to his material is how me-centered Annie Hall is when compared with the other movies in our series. It is impossible to imagine Frank Capra, or Ernst Lubitsch or George Cukor or David Lean or Leo McCarey or Billy Wilder making a movie so much about himself and his own love life. It was widely known that Diane Keaton, Woody Allen’s co-star, had been his real-life lover, and her real name was Hall. Likewise, he and his pal Tony Roberts, supposedly called each other “Max” in real life just as they do in the movie. Just as it is impossible to imagine such jolly, if self-indulgent, japes in the other movies, so it is equally impossible not to see Annie Hall as an autobiographical document, and its subject and author barely bothers to disguise the fact.

This suggests that it is really another of the movie’s jokes which should be regarded as “the key joke” of his life: “Hey, don’t knock masturbation! It’s sex with someone I love.” Self-love is also what is behind the running joke about his character’s (and his own) 15 years in psychotherapy. Psychiatrists are like intellectuals in being both admired and deferred to and ridiculed. But they retain their position on a pedestal because they validate the quest for personal happiness and fulfilment which is really how both the lovers approach their “relationship.” Their romance is really with themselves, not with each other. The verse to “It had to be you,” which Diane Keaton doesn’t sing, goes like this:

Why do I do, just as you say
Why must I just, give you your way
Why do I sigh, why don’t I try to forget
It must have been,
That something lovers call fate
Kept me saying: “I have to wait”
I saw them all,
Just couldn’t fall ’til we met

It’s a perfect description not only of the traditional romance but also of what neither one of them is willing to do, and what each of them runs to a psycho-analyst to complain about the other’s expecting of them.

A new book by Frances Dolan called Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy from the University of Pennsylvania Press, as reviewed by Carlin Romano in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, supposedly offers as its “most provocative idea” the view that “marriage, by its confused nature, amounts to a form of ‘violence’ against individuality, sometimes prompting other forms as well.” That’s certainly a view that would recommend itself to Annie Hall — though only after she has been guided by Alvy to go to a psycho-analyst and so learn to look at it in this way. In the famous split-screen scene where both partners are talking separately to their analysts, she says “Since our discussions here, I feel I have a right to my own feelings. I think you would have been happy because I really asserted myself” — that is, against Alvy.

True, she tells her, Alvy is paying for her sessions with the shrink and this makes her feel guilty “if I don’t go to bed with him. But if I do go to bed with him, it’s like I’m going against my own feelings. I just can’t win.” There’s also something unintentionally comical about these iatrogenic feelings of inner conflict between the claims of what seems almost to be a third-party “self” — an entity within her which has to be conciliated and placated just as much as if not more than the boyfriend does. And yet from the point of view of the self-absorbed Alvy, it must have a tragic cast. He has been her Pygmalion, made her into his fantasy lover by guiding her to be more like himself through undergoing psycho-analysis and taking adult education courses, and all only to see the influence of these things take her away from him, first through the affair with her adult ed. teacher, “David,” and then through the self-assertion she has learned from the shrink. Finally, she goes off with Tony Lacey, who has been attracted to her by her singing — which Alvy also has encouraged her to keep up.

In spite of a late, half-hearted and instantly rejected proposal of marriage, the idea that the “relationship” might be defined not by a mutual, on-going self-invention but by a once-and-for-all commitment that the lovers would have to conform themselves to never seems to occur to anyone. That is the legacy of the sexual revolution: an idea of “freedom” which would have seemed at least equally foreign and bizarre before the 1960s. Up until then, it didn’t seem to most people that there could be an element of constraint, let alone “oppression” as the politicized language of the hippies put it, in the free choice of a single lifetime partner. On the contrary, people gladly made that choice, and every love song stressed this wish for exclusivity and permanence as much as “It had to be you” does. What could be oppressive about the joy of being united with the only one for me?

But if you de-couple love and sex, which was the first order of business in the sexual revolution, then you could privilege the formerly discreditable and unrespectable feelings of lust, yearning to breathe free, over the constraining and binding tendency of love. The trouble is that, as in the case of so many other manifestations of immaturity, people wanted it both ways. They wanted the liberation of their sexual urges to light on whom they would — and when they would and as they would — but they also wanted to dignify them by the traditional language of love that in other respects had been discarded as out of date. This is the attempted reinvention of the romance as we see it in Annie Hall and other films of the 1970s. They were doing the same kind of thing at the same time as that new breed of movie heroes — the cartoon heroes — where we ended last year’s series on the American Movie Hero. And both the cartoon hero and the re-imagined romance were attempts to salvage something from the old honor culture which had been rejected — something that would be compatible with the individualistic, egalitarian, therapeutic culture that had succeeded it. At least Woody Allen had the grace and the insight to see, in the end, that it couldn’t be done.


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