I watched Annie Hall today. It’s a seminal film, funny, intelligent, beautifully shot, incredibly acted. It’s a film which should speak to me, a film which has influenced dozens of my favourite films and which has crafted a thousand bad impersonations.
And it’s a film I just can’t get on with.
My feelings towards Annie Hall have absolutely nothing to do with the film itself, like I said I can recognise it’s a truly great piece of cinema. The problem was that everything felt old hat, which is odd considering this was the first time I’d seen the movie. The problem is how influential the film was and how it would go on to shape the cinematic landscape in the years that followed its release.
It’s partially my fault, I grew up transfixed by the numerous ‘Top 100 *Insert Genre Here* Films of All Time’ shows that clogged up terrestrial TV. Living in the UK it was pretty hard to get away from them but if you managed to somehow avoid the madness the shows were essentially clip shows. Some nebulous list of films would be formed, and then clips from said films would be shown with celebrity voiceovers explaining why the film was so great.
They’re a great form of cheap and entertaining television; the problem is that the nature of the show requires scenes from the films to be shown in their entirety. Sometimes you can get up to ten minutes worth of footage from a single show. Take into account how many variants on this format there were and it becomes easy to see how a film could be comparatively spoiled. What these shows aim to do is give a flavour of the films they showcase, and as such certain scenes are always repeated. For example whenever Taxi Driver is listed you’ll get the ‘You Talkin’ To Me’ sequence and the ‘Porn Theatre’ sequence, largely because they’re the most well known and most easily quantifiable moments of the film. Showing segments of a film like Taxi Driver is fine; it gives a taste of the film but doesn’t really give away the entire film.
With Annie Hall, it’s essentially episodic nature and wide variety of quotable scenes meant that its entire running time was essentially shown. The cocaine gag will always get played, that’s an archetypal moment of Annie Hall and it’s an easy to get joke. The problem was that by showing key sequences out of context you’ve already had one key elements of Annie Hall removed.
Watching Annie Hall when you’ve already seen the cocaine gag, the subtitles bit, the ticket line bit, the dual therapy segment and Christopher Walken’s entire part is a hard experience. The more overt jokes in Annie Hall help to balance against the more serious elements of the story. There’s a constant vein of humour which runs throughout Annie Hall but the more obvious jokes serve as punctuation and break up the neurosis a little. When these jokes are already ‘old hat’ in disrupts the flow of the film. In taking the punch out of the jokes the film becomes centred on the neurotic breakdown of Alfie and Annie’s relationship and it loses something of its power. It’s still a wonderful piece of work, but it just feels somewhat disjointed.
When taken with the fact that Alfie is a character who has been parodied and spoofed a dozen times over, his character ticks replicated to the point of perfection, it becomes almost trite to watch Annie Hall. It’s a dark film about self destruction, lightened by humour and wit, but if the humour and wit has been overplayed by imitators then all you are left with is the darkness. As such watching Annie Hall becomes more about intellectual appreciation than emotional appreciation.
As culture cannibalises itself more and more I fear that films are going to have their teeth pulled out more and more often. How will Empire Strikes Back play when the truth of Vader’s identity is part of the cultural psyche? At what point does the initial ‘You Talkin’ To Me’ become a parody of itself, a cultural cornerstone turned into an easy gag?
My generation grew up with ‘You Talkin’ To Me’ as a cultural icon completely divorced from Taxi Driver. The generation after will grow up with ‘Say Hello to my Little Friend’ as a punch line, and in twenty years time current cultural memes may have become overused and overstated. So what’s the solution? There probably isn’t one, in fact as media becomes more and more pervasive the cultural net is going to be cast further and further for things to consume. The only way to truly appreciate fine pieces of cinematic art will be to catch them before they become the zeitgeist, or pray the true classics of today remain culturally insulated (like the underseen but utterly superb Zodiac).