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The Small Picture #1: Annie Hall

Updated on January 8, 2016

A fantastically paradoxical approach to the adult relationship and how neurosis bleeds into love. The following is a scene-specific analysis of the classic Academy Award winning film from director Woody Allen.

What's the small picture? How could the complexity behind a character be explained by something as simple as bumper-cars?

Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) describes Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) as an isolated island much like New York City. Confident in her judgment, she points out how incapable he is of enjoying life and sharing it with someone else. He’s textbook neurosis and preoccupied with minuscule subject matters that negatively impact his day. The idea someone could be starving and unable to obtain food is enough for Alvy to justify the reasoning behind his madness. Viewers learn of this trait fairly early in the film when his younger character explains his rationalization behind not completing his homework assignments. Rather than the familiar dog ate my homework shtick, young Alvy considers school obligations unnecessary since the universe is constantly expanding and soon will break apart. This theory locks him into a deep depression and exemplifies the assortment of odd phobias and issues he’s vulnerable to.

He grew up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn underneath a roller coaster that sent violent vibrations throughout the entire household. His father worked the bumper-car concession which generally was used as an outlet for Alvy’s aggression. Between his two divorces and the inevitable break-up with Annie, his life evolved into a real life game of bumper-cars and constantly deprived him of an offensive strategy.

The relationship Woody Allen has with the city in the 1979 film Manhattan resembles what we witness in Annie Hall. Similar to the Isaac character, Alvy embraces New York City’s hurried lifestyle and refuses to take into consideration the positive attributes of Los Angeles when visiting on several occasions. He still feels at home regardless of the recognition of New York’s flaws during an exchange between him and his friend Rob (Tony Roberts). He agrees with the accusations that portray New York residents as “left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers,” but physically expresses indifference implying this as a battle not worth fighting and one that has already been accepted as a loss. He has accepted the bumper-car mentality of New York and has learned to avoid or at least prepare himself for the impact of situations that arise solely in a town like this.

Whenever visiting California, Alvy experiences nausea and several dizzy spells. This clear discomfort in Los Angeles becomes apparent when a doctor is seen questioning him following an interaction with Rob. It’s enough to cause Alvy to miss an award show in Burbank and find refuge in a hotel room for the remainder of the afternoon. Not only is he away from the contentment of home and within the clutches of a city he finds repulsive, Rob's continuous advocacy for California and persistent effort to persuade Alvy to make the transition drives him to a plethora of critical observations discrediting the city altogether. To make matters worse, he even loses Annie to the glamor of Los Angeles when she decides to start a new life with Paul Simon’s character, Tony Lacey.

Woody Allen’s character associates Los Angeles with loss and refers to his stomach ache as the “chronic Los Angeles nausea” when convincing Annie to meet him at a Sunset Boulevard café. When Annie agrees to meet him at this location towards the end of the film, Alvy is seen driving a rental car with a severe lack of expertise. He rides the brakes and is incapable of gracefully pulling up to the crosswalk at a red light. Being that New Yorkers generally depend entirely on public transportation, Alvy most likely relies heavily on his faint memory riding in bumper-cars when attempting to operate an automobile.

During their time together, the topic of death was brought up in reference to New York City and how Annie recognized the opportunity to enjoy people more; the same opportunity Alvy never seemed to care about. She explains how the city is dying, but Alvy remains distracted by the thought of winning her back and can't help but reiterate his marriage proposal. She respectfully declines and requests to remain friends. Alvy is in disbelief and continues to persuade her the best he can. Unfortunately, Annie’s reaction suggests she’s satisfied with her decision to be in new territory and removed from the dormant nature of a relationship based on predictability.

Alvy is once again left alone to fend off the incoming traffic similar to his bumper-car days. He backs up into one car, drives into another, and follows it with one last bump to a parked vehicle causing him to be boxed in. He’s subconsciously resorting to this tactic as an outlet for his aggression. Losing Annie to Los Angeles was the colossal impact Alvy wasn’t prepared for and caused him to retreat to his early childhood memories on Coney Island. Alone, deprived, boxed in. In the end, Alvy had enough ammunition to re-write his own outcome with a successful dramatization that avoided the bumper-cars of life and better suited a neurotic personality only he would appreciate.

© 2016 Alexander Hornby

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