Friday, 18 May 2018

The OTHER films of 1977: Star Wars vs Annie Hall

Annie Hall, 1977

To understand the world into which Star Wars was released, it's helpful to look at the other big movies of the era.

Today, Episode Nothing examines the film that took several of the key Oscars that year, including Best Picture  Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

Does this tale of love between urban neurotics have anything in common with a fantasy set in outer space? Let's find out.

Annie Hall opened in the US on April 20, 1977, just over a month before Star Wars. 

It took Woody Allen  its co-writer, director and star  from cult success to huge critical acclaim. In April 1978, it would win the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman) and Best Actress (Diane Keaton).

Critics mainly loved it. "In a decade largely devoted to male buddy-buddy films, brutal rape fantasies and impersonal special effects extravaganzas, Woody Allen has almost single-handedly kept alive the idea of heterosexual romance in American films," said Variety

There were just a few dissenters, such as the curmudegonly John Simon, who dubbed it "everything we never wanted to know about Woody's sex life and were afraid he'd tell us anyway".

Does it have any links with George Lucas's film? Well, only in a tenuous, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of a way. (Its cinematographer, Gordon Willis, had shot the Godfather films for Lucas's friend Francis Ford Coppola, and Lucas had helped edit some sequences on the first Godfather. And almost a decade after Star Wars, Carrie Fisher would appear in a Woody Allen movie, Hannah and Her Sisters.)

On the face of it, Annie Hall almost the anti-Star Wars  a small, personal film, rooted in its time and place. And yet I'm going to argue that the two have at least a little bit in common.

Annie Hall in a nutshell

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall

Annie Hall is, essentially, the simplest of stories. Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Keaton) meet, get together and split up. There isn't much more to it than that.

But the story is not told so straight-forwardly. 

It begins and ends with Alvy narrating, and he tells us at the outset that he and Annie have broken up. Then, after flashbacks to his Brooklyn childhood, we see their burgeoning relationship, his uncomfortable encounters with her family, and the widening gap between them as Annie pursues a singing career in Los Angeles.

All this is related using a host of film gimmicks, including narration, split-screen, an animated sequence spoofing Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, various events placed out of sequence and some breaking of the fourth wall to directly address the audience.

Unlike George Lucas, who had to whittle down a big story before shooting, Allen shot a much longer script and then reshaped his material in the editing. The first cut, which ran two hours and twenty minutes (compared with the finished film's 93 minutes) was apparently much  more disjointed and didn't even have the Alvy-Annie relationship as its main plot strand.

Is it good? Well, I think it is. Very good indeed. Maybe not Allen's best (for my money, that would be Hannah and Her Sisters) but it was something fresh and appealing in American cinema.

Allen's comedy is not to everyone's taste, and I know some people think his humour is whiney. In this film, he plays a celebrity (a comedian who has appeared on The Dick Cavett Show) and some found Alvy Singer's complaints about being recognised by the general public particularly grating. 

Personally, I think many of the gags are almost as funny as those in earlier, straightforwardly comic Allen films, like the brilliant Sleeper and Love and Death. Among the comic highlights are Alvy finding a surprising way to silence a noisy intellectual in a movie line; a great sequence at Annie Hall's family home, where Alvy imagines her prejudiced grandma picturing him as an Orthodox Jew; and the famous, improvised scene in which some Hollywood types regret offering Alvy a sniff of their cocaine.

On top of the humour, the story is a sweet one at heart, and it leaves the viewer feeling wistful, with its concluding montage depicting the couple's relationship to the tune of Annie singing 'Seems Like Old Times'.

I think it's a terrific movie. But what, if anything, does it have in common with Star Wars?

Star Wars and Annie Hall: anything in common?

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen standing
in a movie line in Annie Hall

George Lucas and Woody Allen grew up on opposite sides of America and had very different formative experiences. One thing they do have in common is that, for all their success, they have never been mainstream Hollywood directors.

Both directors were suspicious of the movie studios. And both were unimpressed by the Academy Awards. When their films were competing at the Oscars in 1978, Allen didn't turn up. Instead, he honoured his weekly gig playing clarinet with his band at Michael's Pub in New York. Lucas went to the awards, but according to Dale Pollock's biography Skywalking, he was there as the husband of a Best Editor nominee (his wife Marcia), rather than as a contender for Best Director and Best Screenplay. 

As a film student, Lucas had made arty, experimental films, and he had to be pushed in the direction of writing stories. Allen, meanwhile, had been a successful comedy writer and stand-up comic, but his taste in movies tended towards European art house cinema.

Star Wars, of course, references the classical Hollywood adventures that Lucas loved as a child, while Annie Hall owes a lot to the European movies that Allen had come to love. (Early in the movie, Alvy and Annie are going to see Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face, but miss the start and see The Sorrow and the Pity, a four-hour documentary about collaborators with the Nazi.)

On the face of it, the two films are very different. Star Wars is defiantly optimistic, in contrast to much of the cinema of its day. Annie Hall is very funny, but the laughs draw on fashionable 1970s neuroses and pessimism. 

Annie Hall was seen as a very sophisticated film. But I think people forget that this was said of Star Wars as well. 

While it obviously appealed to children and families, Star Wars was fun for adults too. As you can tell from contemporary reviews, it flattered cineastes, who had a field day spotting the movies that Lucas alluded to, or borrowed from.

The two directors may share little in common apart from their distaste for movie studios. But it's not hard to imagine the sophisticated, urban characters of Annie Hall seeing Star Wars and debating it endlessly. Unless they were late to the line and ended up seeing The Sorrow and the Pity.

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