Don’t Watch Annie Hall (First)

Advice about Woody Allen from guest writer Trevor Siegler.

[In honor of this the release this past weekend of Woody Allen’s latest, enjoy this guest post from Trevor Seigler—an appreication of Annie Hall by way of advice to the Allen neophyte. —Ed.]

Annie HallIf someone were to ask me what Woody Allen movie would be the best for them to view, seeing as they’d never seen a Woody film before, my answer would be obvious: “Manhattan.” Or “Sleeper,” or maybe “Love & Death,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (one of my first Allen viewing experiences and a sentimental favorite), but never the film that he’s best known for, the acknowledged masterpiece. No, for the first-time viewer I would advise that they steer clear of “Annie Hall.”

Hey, it’s my call to make, after all.

Not that “Annie Hall” isn’t a good movie; it’s a great movie, definitely one of the best American films to win the Best Picture Oscar. (Admit it, a lot of Best Pictures aren’t really the best of their respective year. A lot of politics goes into the voting.) And it’s truly Allen’s masterpiece, caught on the edge between his early slapstick and later Bergman-esque austerity. It’s definitely one of the must-see films.

But not right away. Not if you’re a newbie to the whole Woody Allen experience.

There’s a lot for the film to live up to, and live down: it’s the last real comedy to win a best picture Oscar, beating out “Star Wars” for the honor in 1977. It marks the beginning of Woody Allen’s “mature” phase, the one in which he went from being just a funny guy directing his own movies to a funny guy directing his own serious, world-class films. That’s an important distinction to make in this case; a pre-“Annie Hall” Allen wouldn’t have been able to get away with his next film, 1978’s “Interiors” (and indeed, he didn’t get away with it; commercially it was a flop, but he wouldn’t have had the leverage to make a serious film without his success with “Annie”), and the melding of more dramatic elements into ostensibly funny films like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah,” or “Crimes” would not have been possible, or at least commercially viable.

As an appreciative audience member for all the arts, be it music, film, or literature, I tend to gravitate to the lesser-known works of a particular artist as a means of introducing myself to his or her work. It’s the contrarian in me to seek out the book by Aldous Huxley that isn’t “Brave New World” or the Kubrick heist movie “The Killing” as, if not the first experience, the more fulfilling way of accessing an artist’s ability to strike a nerve with something that’s not as well-known.

Part of it is a result of my love of obscure British bands from the Eighties (or at least those bands that were obscure to my peers in backwoods South Carolina when I was a teenager; I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by “Saved By the Bell: The College Years”), the thrill of first discovery of something that you’re sure no one in your social circle has heard of. In the age of Wikipedia, that’s becoming rarer to achieve; when you can Google anyone even remotely notable and have their life spanned out on a website within seconds, it’s just not the same.

“Annie Hall,” the pinnacle of Allen’s career and one of the two or three genuine masterpieces of the romantic comedy genre (it’s the intellectual chick flick, as concerned with mortality as it is with the meet-cute), is not the ideal first-time experience. It’s a dense, multilayered epic of romantic yearning and intellectual playacting. High art and low meet in an easy marriage that blends Disney animation and late Seventies lifestyle choices seamlessly and gets in most of Woody’s big obsessions (death, California, anti-Semitism, lust, romance, and Bergman). The shifting timeline of the film, back and forth between the present, past, and future, is a lot to deal with in what is ostensibly a rom-com (the other successful example of this, post-Tarantino, is “(500) Days of Summer”). It’s a “comedy” that’s much deeper than the genre tag denotes. It’s the work of an artist truly finding his voice, and that’s just exciting. But sometimes in order to appreciate the value of that kind of achievement, you have to muddle through the also-rans, the rough drafts, the “not quite there yet, but close” examples in a body of work.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe people should start with “Annie Hall” and work their way through the filmography afterwards. Trust me, you got a lot to get through; Woody and Goddard seem to have this running battle to see who can release more movies before either expires. But I feel the way I feel, and I would like to think that I’ve backed that up in the previous paragraphs. I can’t just pull Marshall McLuhan out to make my point for me, however. Imagine how much easier life would be if you could do that…

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or anything by Woody Allen from Amazon.

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Or what greatest-hit classic film do you wish the uninitiated would stay away from? Sound off in the comments.

10 Comments on “Don’t Watch Annie Hall (First)”

  1. The Gneech #

    Actually, people should watch “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” “Love and Death,” and “Sleeper,” in that order. If they like those, they should then watch “Bananas” and “Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” At that point they should stop, ’cause Woody didn’t make anything else. At all.

    -The Gneech


  2. Valatan #

    Does anyone else find Manhattan really creepy in a post-Soon Yi world?


    • Bunny #

      I find “Manhattan” to be intensely creepy just on its own. I either like or don’t mind most Woody Allen movies, but I hate hate hated that one. I wanted to fucking punch him in his stupid face during the entire thing, and especially at the end.


  3. Amanda #

    Oh, a Howl reference in the middle of an Overthinking It post about Woody Allen… I’m not even done reading yet and this is already one the happiest moments of the year for me! :D


  4. Darin #

    My favorite of Woody Allen has been “Everything you wanted to know about sex..” (1972). The cameos, the skits, the whole thing was a Woody Allen 70s absurdity in a good way. I was a little kid the first time I saw it and then after that it was good fodder for teenage laughs and education.

    Skit from the movie (with subtitles)

    I’d agree wholeheartedly, do not attempt Annie Hall unless you have consumed at least 3 Woody Allen movies.


  5. Steven #

    I like this idea of defining an order in which movies should be watched. That being said, I was just learning about Monty Python 6 months to a year ago (I’m young okay!) I didn’t know how funnu they were until my friend started watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on Youtube. Then I picked up a Python movie at the store. I got the Meaning of Life. This is probably the most abstruse comedy I have ever seen, and really wasn’t matched by the rest of thier work. The best Python movie to watch first is Holy Grail. It is an earnest comedy that stays within set boundaries. There are no F-bombs, no nudity, and is simply hilarious. The Meaning of Life transcends all boundaries including making sense. Alot of it is off the wall, and completly absurd. While I did enjoy Meaning of Life the first time, I did not laugh as wholeheartedly as I thought I would. While watching Holy Grail, I bust a nut I laughed so hard. At that point I fell completly in love with their work. So I watched Meaning of Life again, and couldn’t stop laughing at all. I was constantly laughing, (which didn’t help my busted nut) and had a totally different reaction to the material as opposed to the first time I watched it. So all in all, to make a long story short, I would start with the Holy Grail, and watch the rest of the Python material at your own discretion.


    • Brian #

      The Meaning of Life scared the crap out of me as a kid, when the fat guy explodes and you see his rib cage. Same with Holy Grail’s epic rabbit fight, I didn’t realize the whole joke is it’s the most absurd thing to be scared of, and was terrified of small animals for awhile. Upside, Flying Circus is also the first place I saw boobs besides National Geographic.

      But to point, don’t watch Python’s skit “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” before watching Peckinpah’s movies, I did and thought it was funny but didn’t get the satire, but then watched Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia then Straw Dogs and the skit was all I could think about through the both movies. Also don’t have Straw Dogs and The Spirit of the Beehive as a double feature, or if you do, watch Beehive first or else it will seem impossibly slow paced by comparison.

      Don’t watch Soderbergh’s Schizopolis as his first. It’s only interesting as watching a famous director breaking rules of “smart or traditional” career decisions, because other than that oddity it’s not funny. It’s inspiring and freeing to see up to a point, but all the gags and premises fall flat.


    • Alex #

      Oh, I would definitely recommend anyone new to Monty Python start with Life of Brian. Unlike most of the other films, it is pretty much hilarious all the way through, without any need to familiarise oneself with the Way of the Pythons. :)
      There might be a bit of swearing though, we Brits love a good swear. It’s cathartic.


  6. Tim Peever #

    I jumped straight to “Annie Hall,” mostly because I did not like what I had seen so far of Woody Allen’s humor, and thought, “If this is his best, maybe I will enjoy it and possibly even understand his humor better” (similar to watching “Holy Grail” before “Meaning of Life,” rather than the other way around). I was unimpressed, and quite close to outright loathing the film. It wasn’t anything about the weirdness of it as a film, but that the dialogue and screen personalities so much embodied the neuroticism of the east coast and New York. I admire the cosmopolitanism of New York, but this is the factor that makes me never want to live there.

    Mind you, I say this as someone born and raised on the west coast, and I sometimes draw a line between “east coast crazy” and “west coast crazy.” Put briefly, east coast crazy freaks out about everything, and makes a big deal about everything. West coast crazy does not freak out about anything, even things that are very serious and deserve some serious freaking out. To me, the latter people are frequently more fun to be around, and are what I’d call “the devil I know.” (And yes, I realize I am probably alienating a lot of people in saying this.)


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