by Alexander Huls Tuesday February 7, 2012

With Woody Allen experiencing somewhat of a renaissance thanks to Midnight in Paris it makes sense that MGM would choose now to introduce Annie Hall and Manhattan in gorgeous Blu-Ray. No doubt they were easy selections to make from Allen’s catalogue considering they are widely regarded to be his two greatest films. It’s a happy accident that the two films also represent not only perfect companion pieces but a counterpoint to Woody Allen’s current cinematic image.

Over the years Woody Allen has become the go-to example for neuroticism, crafting an image of the “cute neurotic” who charms us thanks to the steady stream of befuddled, harmless, naval-gazing proxies (Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Larry David, Scarlett Johansson) of himself he rolls out in his films – when Allen isn’t starring himself. Like everyone else, I’ve grown quite accustomed to quaint, idiosyncratic Woody Allen.

Watching Annie Hall and Manhattan reminded me that neurotic Allen wasn’t always so cute and cuddly.  He was actually a dysfunctional and destructive neurotic. In layman’s terms: kind of a jerk.

At first glance Alvy in Annie Hall and Isaac in Manhattan (who are effectively the same character) would appear to be quirky neurotics. Sure, they’re depressed, insecure, paranoid, anal-retentive, hypochondriacs comedians/writers who are prone to morbidity, nihilism, and social awkwardness, but it would seem they aren’t harmful to anyone but themselves. These days we might be inclined to just shrug them off, dismiss them as “neurotic” in the same forgiving tone we say “eccentric,” and leave them to their “they are who they are” ways.

Alvy and Isaac are harder to dismiss. In Annie Hall and Manhattan Allen’s neurotics aren’t people with quirky mannerisms but instead people with crippling personality issues that heavily impact their own and others’ lives.  They are self-indulgent, self-involved, and selfish. They are incapable of seeing past themselves to truly care about anyone.

Annie Hall Blu-Ray CoverTheir neurotic crimes and misdemeanours are numerous. Alvy ignores Annie emotionally opening up to him because he’s too busy self-victimizing over a pretentious movie fan in line behind him. Isaac’s self-involved lifestyle barely involves his son, whom he refers to as “the kid” and uses to discuss picking up women. Alvy lies his way out of a party invitation that could help Annie’s career simply because he doesn’t want to go. Both men neglect the sexual wants and needs of woman in favor of rants. In Alvy’s case it’s taking on the responsibility of cyphering the JFK assassination conspiracy, and in Isaac’s case it’s fixating on the noises he hears in his new apartment. The Isaac case is particularly representative, since his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) manages to logically explain all the sounds only to have him ignore her. He – and Alvy – don’t want explanations, they just want to rant, with no consideration as to what the other person wants. They cultivate the act of being the only one who matters.

That indifference to others is represented most broadly by the endings of both films. In Annie Hall, despite being told she’s moved on, Alvy tries to win Annie back by outrageously proposing marriage. It’s a selfish gesture with no regard for what Annie wants and one meant to bring the relationship back to him, not to them both. It indicates he truly doesn’t understand anything outside of himself. That’s only reinforced during his theatrical recreation of the same scene – this time with things going the way he wants. In writing that scene he still proves his inability to understand Annie’s perspective by shoehorning her fictional self into giving him the reaction he wanted with no understanding what made that reaction improbably in real life.  

In the case of Manhattan’s ending, Isaac tries to win Tracy back too. He catches her at the moment she is leaving for London to study acting for three months – something he encouraged her to do – and simply because he is now ready to get back together, he wants her to abandon her plans and career simply to stay with him. What’s more, he toes close to the line of positioning her choice to go to London as a sign of not loving him. He seems to feel that if she loved him he would stay, another selfish gesture that involves a sacrifice from her and not him, and one all the more audacious considering Isaac only had his Tracy epiphany conveniently after he himself was dumped.

Aside from their treatment of others, what makes Alvy and Isaac so peculiar and problematic is that for all their ceaseless introspective naval-gazing, they seem largely incapable of recognizing how their neuroticism is making them treat others. There’s no responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour and actions. When at the end of Annie Hall, Alvy nostalgically philosophizes his time with Annie as another example of relationships being “totally irrational crazy absurd,” you can’t help but feel like a point was missed, that those words apply to him.

That’s where Manhattan veers different. Whereas Alvy never realizes the mistake he made in his relationship, Isaac does and tries to fix it. He’s still a jerk as his haphazard treatment of Tracy still reflects his selfish neuroticism that he’s unable to see. But what’s different here is that Woody Allen himself sees it. He seems aware of the damage his characters exact..

Manhattan Blu-Ray CoverEarly in the film we’re told that the “essence of art provides a working through” and the film is just that: Allen working through the problems with Isaac’s personality that Isaac is unaware of. In particular there’s a moment in Manhattan where Isaac is being read an excerpt from a book his ex-wife wrote about him. She describes him as representative of “Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy and nihilistic moods of despair” along with a habit of complaining about life without offering solutions, and a narcissistic rooted fear of death. As Isaac hears this, his face collapses into sadness and it’s difficult to not feel that it’s a character reacting to an accurate criticism, and to read it as Woody Allen self-diagnosing his character – if not himself.

There’s a reason Tracy comes off the best out of anyone in Manhattan. There’s certainly a nostalgic yearning for the simplicity of youth in the film, but it’s more that the film positions the lack of complexities in youth not as something to be sacrificed to age, but as something we need to learn to carry with us and aspire to. Woody Allen is positioning Isaac and his friends as how the adult world is, and Tracy as how the world should be: a world where the neurotic complexities of adults (or faux-adults as Joan Didion called them) doesn’t lead them to create unnecessary problems for themselves. As Tracy tells Isaac at the end of the film when he says he doesn’t want that “thing I like about you to change” she assures him that “Everybody gets corrupted. You have a little faith in people.”

For all of Allen’s attempts to probe Isaac though, he’s still very much an often unlikeable neurotic, but at least Allen’s insights represent an interesting progression between the ignorance of Annie Hall and the self-awareness in Manhattan. It’s perhaps why his cinematic likeness has evolved to be so toothless and charming now: he exorcised the demons of himself and his cinematic characters. That, or he managed to channel Tracy’s model.

And of course ultimately Woody Allen’s characters being jerks here isn’t a bad thing. These days Allen has essentially created a softened caricature of his self and past roles. It can be charming sure, but it functions as little more than amusing comic relief. In Annie Hall and Manhattan he’s a real, complex, deeply (very deeply) flawed human being, and that’s far more interesting.

That’s why if you’re basking in the romantic glow of Midnight in Paris you should take the opportunity to pick these movies up on Blu-Ray to see a different kind of Woody Allen: the worst and best.  You might not like him as much as you do now, but there’s no doubt that both films are incredibly rich, complex, charming and engrossing movies that continue to justify their status as classics.

About the Blu-Rays: Woody Allen is famous for not offering special features on his releases, but it’s hard to care about that when the high definition transfer for both films are this gorgeous. Manhattan in particular is stunning with its black and white cinematography. If either movie weren’t good in itself, these would be worth owning for the transfers alone.

Film    Society & Culture