Annie Hall is warm, taut rather than loose, angular instead of fuzzy, Manhattan is a love letter to New York, a hymn to neurosis, and a delicate straddling of the fine line between head and heart: the narrative pivots around the strategic barriers people erect to protect themselves from their own insecurities.”
Long before he was making films, Woody Allen was crafting great wisecracks. As a teenager, he was skipping school to pen snappy one-liners, and soon found himself feeding lines to old-time comic icons such as Sid Caesar. Over the years, the quality and tone of Allen’s films has fluctuated, but his ability to reliably produce quality gags has never wavered. This skill has not only supported and enriched his filmmaking career, it has also provided him with a rhetorical weapon that he can wield whenever a critic or interviewer seems to be in danger of backing him into a conversational corner by asking him serious questions about himself or his work. Thus Allen’s famous refutation of the suggestion that he aims to achieve immortality through art: “Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I’d prefer to live on in my apartment.”
It’s fitting, then, that Woody Allen’s back catalogue has long been somewhat neglected on the home video front, bare-bones DVDs being the order of the day. Allen himself is on record, repeatedly, disdaining the archival process and the “extraneous junk” of commentary tracks, DVD extras, etc. (The exception being his famous insistence that the widescreen format be preserved on video releases of Manhattan, hence those elegant blue-grey letterboxing bars on the old VHS tapes). The mid-period classics have been slow to appear on Blu-ray – itself a curious format due to its status as the last link in a long chain of physical entertainment delivery mechanisms – and we have only recently seen the Blu-ray release of those two incontestable peaks of the Woody oeuvre, Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979).
We need to be crystal clear here and avoid indulging in any pussyfooting about “subjectivity” or “valid opinions.” So make no mistake: Annie Hall and Manhattan are unquestionably Allen’s two greatest films. Anyone arguing otherwise is either (a) unqualified to judge, (b) prone to obscurantist affectations, or (c) Woody Allen himself. More than that, these are key works of 1970s cinema. Allen was never in tune with, never mind a part of, the “Movie Brat” generation, and his films have not been subject to the same steady accretion of reverence as those made by Scorsese, Coppola, et al. To an extent, though, this is less a result of any lack of influence, and really more of a matter of subject and tone – as well as the difficulties inherent in other filmmakers using Woody as a template, given that it’s the idiosyncratic nature of the work that makes it so compelling. Allen always says that he has “influenced no one,” but it’s truer to say that the people influenced by him have been unable to copy him successfully: witness the dreadful “Woody Allen-lite” stylings of Nora Ephron, for example. Also, comedy has seldom been taken seriously by cineastes, and Alvy Singer’s urgent fidgeting was never going to seem as “cool” or sexy as Travis Bickle’s baroque psychosis.
Not that Annie Hall or Manhattan can be definitively classified as comedies; indeed, part of the magic of these films is the subtlety with which the comedy is blended with the more serious moods and themes. Trying to unpick the light and dark strands from Annie Hall would be like attempting to unmix a martini; never has an obsession with death sparked so much joie de vivre. Famously, the film’s original title was Anhedonia (referring to the clinical condition whereby one is incapable of experiencing pleasure); the irony being that the experience of watching the film itself is a joyful one, particularly for those who view it repeatedly over the years and thereby develop a deep fondness for it. The film never gets old, and repeat viewings only serve to intensify our enjoyment of its elegant narrative rhythms, its evocative conjuring of time and place, and the unique sensibility it depicts: world-weary yet naïve; despondent but upbeat. Like many Woody Allen films, Annie Hall both encapsulates and contributes to our romantic ideas about New York, capturing what Marshall Brickman described as “life as it was back then in New York, in the rosy ’70s.” The film portrays the Manhattan of the 1970s in a way that is pretty much the diametric opposite of the city depicted in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where all is seediness, decay, crime, grime, and despair. Although both views are valid, and compelling, Annie Hall has a special, puckish quality that can perhaps best be described as a sense of the film having fun with itself.
One of the ways in which the film does this lies in its deft handling of narrative fragmentation and stream-of-consciousness flashbacks, particularly during the first half. Even if you’re a dedicated Woodyphile, it’s likely you would soon come unstuck if you tried making a list of the scenes and chronological segments in order of their appearance in the film. Consider the ground covered in just the first ten minutes or so: we begin with Alvy’s opening monologue, delivered straight-to-camera in an intimate, confessional style; this gives way to childhood reminiscence, Alvy admitting that his “mind tends to jump around a little,” that he has difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, while swearing that he grew up in a house situated “underneath the rollercoaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.” We then see Alvy as a child, “getting my frustration out” on the amusement park bumper cars and stealing kisses from girls in his school classroom, where the contemporary Alvy (dressed in his opening monologue outfit) appears alongside his childhood self, arguing with the teacher and his classmates over whether he ever had a Freudian “latency period.” Alvy ponders what may have become of his “idiot” schoolmates (a few of whom offer to-camera one-liner autobiographies of their adult selves: “I’m into leather”; “I used to be a heroin addict, now I’m a methadone addict”), then we segue to successful, adult Alvy via a clip of Woody Allen himself, being interviewed on his friend Dick Cavett’s talk show. Next, we’re bounced back in time again, to Alvy’s mother who, while peeling vegetables in Alvy’s childhood home, laments that Alvy’s distrust of the world didn’t end when he became famous (raising the question, inter alia, of whether becoming a celebrity should be expected to increase your trust in other people), thereby flinging us back into the present again, where we find Alvy demonstrating the paranoid distrust his mother mentioned: complaining about perceived anti-Semitism (“No, not ‘Did you eat,’ but JEW eat, JEW, you get it? JEW eat . . . “) to his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) as they gradually approach the camera out of the far distance, effectively absent from the frame at first. In a sense, this scene is where the film really begins, yet it is not the same time frame as the opening monologue; instead, it’s sometime after Annie and Alvy first meet but before their first breakup. Next, we meet Annie at the Beekman cinema, and we’re treated to the customary blizzard of themes and references: therapy, Cheech and Chong, Robert Redford, the Teamsters, The Godfather, menstruation, the Holocaust, Ingmar Bergman, celebrity, Johnny Carson, etc.
Thus we begin at the end, with Alvy looking back on the relationship, “sifting the pieces” in an attempt to figure out “where did the screwup come.” This “sifting” suggests itself as an apt metaphor for the film’s narrative structure, which is handled with such verve and inventiveness that it’s enjoyable in itself. One of the most elegant and laconic sequences depicts Alvy and Annie’s past relationships. We witness the two discussing Annie’s reluctance to have sex, thereby sparking Alvy’s reminiscence of his first wife, Allison, and her annoyance with Alvy for using his JFK assassination conspiracy theory “as an excuse to avoid sex with me.” Alvy then turns to the camera and says “Oh my God – she’s right,” which initially seems to refer to Allison’s accusation, but he then goes on to say, “Why did I turn off Allison Portchnik?,” referring back to the opening monologue’s discussion of the old Groucho Mark line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Next, instead of returning to the scene in Alvy and Annie’s bedroom that triggered the Allison flashback, we join them in the Hamptons, for one of the happiest scenes in the film: preparing dinner and chasing live lobsters around the kitchen (“We should have gotten steaks, ’cause they don’t have legs, they don’t run around”). Afterwards, the couple stroll on the beach and we flashback to Annie’s early relationships, Alvy intruding with sardonic commentary on Annie’s old Wisconsin boyfriends. Back on the beach, Annie suggests that Alvy only likes “those New York girls,” and when he protests she points out that “you married two of them,” leading to a sequence in which we see Alvy failing to persuade his second wife, the uptight socialite Robin, to have sex with him, complaining that Robin always tries to “reduce my animal urges to psychoanalytical categories” – another potential metaphor for the film itself. The narrative weave is nuanced and seductive, the past-set scenes subtly moving the story forward: the sequence ends with Annie and Alvy meeting for the first time, at the Wall Street tennis club.
At the end of the film, we return to the opening monologue’s time frame, where we find Alvy doing something similar to what Woody did with his real-life love affair with Diane Keaton: fictionalising the story of his relationship with Annie but “improving” it by writing a play in which Annie finally relents and tells Alvy she’s leaving LA to return to New York with him – this being Alvy’s attempt to “get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” The film ends with Alvy bumping into Annie on the street (we don’t know if she has left LA or is just visiting New York, but we do know she’s not back to reconcile with Alvy), and we view a montage of earlier scenes: lobster wrangling, spider slaying, cocaine sneezing, etc. Given the episodic structure of the film, the montage sequence is particularly powerful, in part because we are viewing reminders of a narrative that was initially presented as a shuffled series of vignettes rather than in a linear manner, so this “montage of a montage” almost feels as though we are viewing scenes from our own memory, rather than parts of a story we’ve just been told. This adds considerably to the film’s emotional heft.
The superb editing, which phases us in and out of past and present, gradually reveals a number of “mirrorings” and counterpart plot elements: there are two lobster chases, two trips to see Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, two “old joke” scenes, two ex-wives, two ex-boyfriends, and two performances of “It Had to Be You” by Annie (one of which is reprised as a soundtrack to the final montage, itself made up of repeat viewings of earlier scenes). Alvy makes two ill-fated trips to LA, the second visit’s Cadillac crash echoing the frustration-discharging bumper cars memory from the opening; and of course, Alvy and Annie end up seeing twin psychiatrists, and ultimately go through two breakups.
Should we interpret these doublings and chronological circlings as some sort of allusion to Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return? Probably not: as with the film’s narrative techniques, these things are fun in themselves, but they are never allowed to dominate the viewing experience. Even when flashbacks occur in a more or less standard manner – with, say, one character’s memory triggered by a direct question – they aren’t done in the standard “this is a flashback, folks” mode; they’re filmed completely straight, and play no differently to the scenes that are contemporary. The cut from Alvy and Annie debating marijuana and sodium pentothal in the Hamptons, triggered by Annie’s question “Were you always funny?,” to an earlier Alvy in his agent’s office, having unspoken thoughts about switching from writing gags to performing, is abrupt yet not jarring, and the naturalistic way the scene is shot means we just get carried along, almost without noticing the transition: we were in one scene, now we’re in another, but the flow remains unbroken. In fact, we sometimes cannot be entirely sure how one scene relates to another, chronologically, but it doesn’t matter. The techniques, and the story they are being used to tell, are perfectly balanced. As Allen explained to Eric Lax, the need to keep the narrative purpose in mind is “a relentless drive, like a Pac-man that’s eating you all the time,” pointing out that “no matter how abstract you make the picture, no matter how you disguise it and modernise it, it’s like jazz. In jazz there’s a melody and you want to come back to it.” While it’s fine to be “very fresh and original in structure,” the film has always got to “come back to what happens next because that’s what the viewers want to know.”
A lot could be said about the various levels on which the film appeals, but ultimately they all boil down to the simple fact that watching Annie Hall is an incredibly pleasurable experience. There is plentiful technical brilliance on display throughout, and some of our enjoyment derives from the sheer virtuosity of it all, but much of the film’s true appeal stems from the story, the characters, and the actors. In particular, Diane Keaton’s irresistible personality suffuses her scenes with kooky warmth, offering us a gentler, more humanist and life-affirming aspect: a welcome antidote to the narcissism-posing-as-nihilism that is such a crucial aspect of Alvy Singer.
When, around twenty minutes into the film, we get to the scene where Alvy and Annie first meet (on the tennis court), and she drives him back to her apartment, we are swept along irresistibly with them. There is a whole world of viewing pleasure in some of these little shared moments, such as Alvy finding an old sandwich in Annie’s bag while searching for chewing gum, or telling her she is “driving a tad rapidly.” The scene that follows, wherein the two nervously converse while postmodernist subtitles spell out their interior monologues, is, in terms of sensibility and tone as well as plot, the heart of the film; it’s also one of the most cherishable sequences in all of ’70s cinema.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Diane Keaton, not just to Annie Hall but to Woody Allen’s ’70s work in general. Allen has said that he rates Keaton, as a comedienne, more highly than the great Carole Lombard. Indeed, he has compared her more closely to Judy Holliday, the highly intelligent comic actress who beat out both Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis in All About Eve to win the 1951 Academy Award for Best Actress for her alluring, faux-naive performance opposite William Holden in George Cukor’s Born Yesterday. Once made, the comparison seems unusually telling, if only because both actresses exhibit a comedic quality that is knowing yet never arch. They also both have enormous charisma.
Keaton’s performance in Annie Hall is nuanced, charming, and hugely accomplished; yet it begins to seem even more impressive when compared with her role in Manhattan, where she plays a character who could scarcely be further removed from the open-hearted vivacity of Annie Hall. Implicit in Annie’s personality and behaviour is the sentiment explicitly addressed to the childhood Alvy, as a salve for his expanding-universe worries, by his doctor: “We’ve got to try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” Mary Wilke, Keaton’s Manhattan character, never seems to have much hope of enjoying herself. She’s too highly strung, too analytical. Even the frizzy hairdo Keaton sports throughout the film somehow adds to the character’s froideur. Where Annie has a welcoming, earthy beauty, Mary projects a more complex, oblique sensuality. The distance between the two characters is a measure of, or at least a hint at, Keaton’s versatility; watching the two films back to back, it is even difficult, initially, to accept Keaton in Manhattan as the same actress.
Similarly, Manhattan feels like a more cerebral film – even if it does continually mock intellectual pretentions – with a much cooler, more overtly sophisticated and emotionally distant flavour to it. Frigid where Annie Hall is warm, taut rather than loose, angular instead of fuzzy, Manhattan is a love letter to New York, a hymn to neurosis, and a delicate straddling of the fine line between head and heart: the narrative pivots around the strategic barriers people erect to protect themselves from their own insecurities. Ostensibly, the subject matter doesn’t differ much from Annie Hall: couples come together and separate against a background of upper-middle-class Manhattan; the significant difference lies in the thickness of the intellectual patina the characters overlay on their emotional vulnerabilities. Both films document the conflict between high culture and noble ethical intentions on one hand, and the frailties and failings of real human beings on the other. Like Woody Allen himself – who is frequently referred to in the press as an “intellectual” but claims to be happier watching baseball than leafing through Proust or Flaubert (“I read that stuff to keep up with my dates,” he often claims) – the film seems deeply conflicted about the life of the mind, and the comparative value of intellectual versus physical pursuits.
This is reflected in Woody’s character, Isaac Davis, and his evolving attitude to Mary. Initially alienated by her aggressive intellectualism – offended by “this little Radcliffe tootsie” who dares to belittle F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gustav Mahler – Isaac soon realises that he is turned on by Mary’s highbrow abrasiveness. In Annie Hall, Alvy pulls something of a Pygmalion routine on Annie, badgering her to take adult education courses and subjecting her to repeat viewings of Max Ophuls’s “four hour documentary on Nazis”; as Mary Wilke, in Manhattan, Keaton is the one who drags Isaac to see Dovzhenko’s Earth, and her over-intellectualised outlook threatens to make Isaac seem instinctual and unassuming by comparison.
The dichotomy between intellectualisation and basic human impulses comes to the surface during the Planetarium scene, with Mary asking “Where would we be without rational thought?,” while Isaac downplays the importance of “facts” and asserts that “Nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind. Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening – if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery.” Although Annie Hall and Manhattan treat this theme quite differently, the essential high/low duality persists. Mary’s argument, that “Don’t you guys see, that it is the dignifying of one’s psychological and sexual hang-ups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues, that’s what it is . . . ,” powerfully recalls the scene from Annie Hall wherein Alvy complains that Robin is trying to “reduce my animal urges to psychoanalytical categories.”
Sex, insecurity, and emotional dysfunction loom large in both Annie Hall and Manhattan; significantly, both films feature orgasm jokes. Peter Biskind’s dismissal of Manhattan as “Porky’s for the psyche” is absurdly reductive, yet it speaks to a core truth: the film’s gloss cannot (and indeed does not really try to) disguise the baser impulses that underpin the urbanity and intellectualism of the people, and the milieu, it depicts. Given human nature, how could it be otherwise?
The pileup of neurotic, narcissistic, and emotionally dysfunctional characters adds to the feeling that Manhattan is a cold film: like Mary, it is brilliant and undeniably beautiful, but there is a distinct lack of human warmth. Isaac aside, a lot of the characters come across as aloof, icily remote WASPs. Yale (Michael Murphy) and his wife Emily (Anne Byrne) seem to inhabit a deep layer of emotional permafrost; and even the divine Meryl Street (in a cameo as the ex-wife who left Isaac for another woman) has a wintry presence. The only open-hearted character is Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), Isaac’s 17-year-old schoolgirl lover, with whom he shares the film’s only touching scenes: eating Chinese takeaway in bed, rolling through Central Park in a horse and buggy. That the relationship between a man in his forties and a teenage girl seems to be readily accepted as totally normal by everyone in the film may be a measure of the extent to which sophisticated “Me Decade” Manhattanites were drifting away from conventional morality and social mores, or it could be taken as an ominous precursor to those explosive Polaroid photographs of Soon Yi that Mia Farrow would later find in Woody’s apartment. Either way, the relationship between Isaac and Mary – illegal and immoral though it may be – provides most of the few glimmers of warmth in the film.
Critics and fans alike engage in endless debate over the relative merits of Manhattan and Annie Hall, with consensus tending, over the years, to tilt toward Manhattan, which is widely regarded as a tighter and more holistically successful rendering of the same plots and themes explored in Annie Hall. It’s seen as Allen’s most seamless blend of comedy and drama – in short, the quintessential “Woody Allen film.” Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to make convincing qualitative comparisons between these two films. They’re like Lennon and McCartney: impossible to rank. We might make preferential judgements, we may go through phases of enjoying one more than the other, but they’re each so good that we can’t credibly claim that one is “better” than the other.
That said, they do have their own flavours, and Manhattan is certainly a showcase for some of Woody Allen’s best screenwriting (perhaps his strongest facet as a filmmaker), being a more conspicuously wordy film than Annie Hall. Mary’s recriminatory outburst when Yale (Michael Murphy) breaks up with her – “I could tell by the sound of your voice over the phone. Very authoritative, you know. Like the Pope or the computer in 2001” – would feel slightly out of place in Annie Hall, where the dialogue feels more organic. The writing in Manhattan is more honed, more sophisticated, more clipped and literary. One-liners abound, but there are also set-piece scenes, the classic example being Isaac and Yale’s extended confrontation in a university classroom (“You talk about, you wanna write a book, but in the end you’d rather buy the Porsche!”), and discursive passages such as Isaac’s recording of himself reclining on his sofa and ticking off the things in life that make it worthwhile: Groucho Marx, Frank Sinatra, Cezanne, Flaubert, Louis Armstrong, Swedish movies (“obviously”), and so on.
If there’s one area where Manhattan inarguably wins out against the earlier film, it’s in the visuals. The dialogue in this film is probably the best Woody’s ever written, yet you could switch the sound off and enjoy Manhattan as a silent movie. It would be going too far to claim that Manhattan is in any respect “overlooked,” but the film doesn’t quite get the level of recognition it deserves for how beautiful it is. When film buffs discuss cinematography, Woody Allen seldom features; and Gordon Willis is much better known for his chiaroscuro work on the Godfather series – gangster tableaux as imagined by Rembrandt – but his work with Woody Allen is equally impressive, with Manhattan undoubtedly the most striking of their collaborations. The iconic opening scenes, depicting taxis purring through Park Avenue snow and skyscrapers looming over Central Park, are among the most beautifully filmed shots in modern cinema.
Not that the opening scenes are left to speak for themselves: they’re accompanied by Gershwin music and embellished with a voice-over in which Isaac intones a number of variants for his novel’s opening paragraph, immediately establishing the way in which the city and the characters are irretrievably entwined. It’s a cliché to say that the city is a character in itself; in Manhattan, it would be more accurate to say that the city forms a key part of each character in the film. Isaac is very much a creature of New York, to the extent that Yale suggests Isaac cannot exist outside the confines of Manhattan, a condition he labels as “very Freudian”; and Mary, an outsider from Philadelphia where, she says, “we believe in God,” often seems to be trying too hard to play the role of the urban sophisticate.
If it’s impossible to set one of these films apart as “better” than the other, deciding which is better served by the Blu-ray treatment is easy: Gordon Willis’s sumptuous black-and-white cinematography benefits hugely from this transfer. In fact this is one of the most beautiful Blu-ray discs currently available, offering rich blacks, tremendous tonal range, and gorgeous, film-like grain. It’s worth watching the film all over again just to revel in the newly apparent details, right down to the fibres on Woody Allen’s checked shirts and the downy hair on Mariel Hemingway’s forehead. Night scenes and dimly lit interiors take on a whole new ineffable radiance; reflections and specular highlights bounce off Woody’s glasses in Elaine’s; street lights and taxi cab headlamps are surrounded by beautiful, almost otherworldly halos.
Again, this emphasises the idealised view of Manhattan the film projects.
It’s a view of New York that you can’t blame people for wanting to be a part of. The intensely romantic widescreen cinematography holds the city in an adoring embrace, and it’s impossible to watch the astonishingly beautiful opening sequence of Manhattan streetscapes – sound-tracked by “Rhapsody in Blue” and culminating in an almost orgasmically powerful fireworks display set against the background of midtown Manhattan – without developing a burning desire to visit the city. Unless of course you’re watching Manhattan in Manhattan, in which case you probably still harbour a desire to experience the Manhattan of Woody Allen’s fond imagination. “It’s photographed so beautifully and romantically,” remarked Maureen Stapleton at the film’s premiere, “that it almost makes you forget all the dog poop in the streets.”
And this is where the Blu-ray technology really shines; it would be worth buying the disk just for the visuals. Instinctively, we tend to assume that the more recent a film, the greater the benefit we are likely to derive from viewing it on the latest format. Surely last year’s blockbusters will look better on our wall-mounted flatscreens than Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon? Well, to an extent this is the case; but although all those extra digital bits on the Blu-ray disc do indeed offer more scope for a higher-quality image, it has become apparent that the effort and care that are put into a given film’s preparation for its transfer to the new format are at least as much of a determining factor as the theoretical capacity of the technology itself. Thus one of Blu-ray’s finest hours to date came with The Searchers (1956), whereas a film such as Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) looks not much better on Blu-ray than it did on a bog-standard DVD. Similarly, some of the best looking Blu-ray transfers have been versions of black-and-white Hollywood classics such as Casablanca and Double Indemnity, the new format proving surprisingly suited to the lambent monochrome splendour of the Golden Age. Suffice it to say that Manhattan could easily serve as a demo disk for salesmen trying to sell Blu-ray players: it’s that good.
Not that Annie Hall is visually lacking. Indeed, Gordon Willis handled the cinematography there too, and the impact of the Blu-ray technology, while less dramatic, is definitely noticeable. The colour palette is subtle, even delicate, yet every now and then more vivid colours bloom: the deep red of Allison’s coral necklace; garish cinema marquee lettering; the almost Technicolor vibrancy of the later LA scenes. Some earlier DVD editions of Annie Hall offered both widescreen (16:9) and “fullscreen” (4:3) aspect ratios, giving the viewer the choice between watching the film (close to) the way it was exhibited theatrically back in 1977 or enjoying it the same way they’d seen it on TV or VHS over the years; comparing the two versions was an intriguing experience, throwing up ontological debates about which aspect ratio is “right” for the film. The Blu-ray edition sticks with the widescreen view, which is undoubtedly the way to go if only offering one version; it would have been nice to have the 4:3 as a bonus feature, but it’s not a huge loss. While not as visually astonishing as Manhattan, the Blu-ray of Annie Hall still represents the best home video presentation of this classic movie to date, and any Allen fan who already has the DVD should definitely upgrade as soon as possible. This is an admirably worthwhile upgrade of a truly great film.
No matter how many time you have seen these films before, you will enjoy them afresh in the new format. However, as with the DVD editions of Woody Allen’s films, we are treated to no extras whatsoever aside from routine trailers; there are no commentary tracks, no “making of” docs, no deleted scenes, nothing. This is a crying shame, and presumably a result of Woody’s continuing intransigence over contributing to updates of his back catalogue. What a treat it would be to have, say, Woody and Diane Keaton commentating on Annie Hall. Given the time frames, and the fact that the Blu-rays are likely to be the last home video restorations of these films, this was probably our last chance.
Allen always claims that he doesn’t care a whit about his “legacy,” or how future generations will value his films. “I personally have no interest whatsoever in legacy,” he told Eric Lax, “because I’m a firm believer that when you’re dead, naming a street after you doesn’t help your metabolism – I saw what happened to Rembrandt and Plato and all those other nice people.” The irreducible horror of mortality mitigates against intimations of artistic immortality. Allen also cheerfully pointed out to Lax that he owns no DVD copies of his own films. “It wouldn’t matter to me for a second,” he said, “if they took all my films and the negatives of my films . . . and just dumped them down the sewer.” We may choose to take Allen at his word on this. Or we might reasonably ask if he isn’t protesting a little bit too much. Can any artist really so utterly disdain his own artistic legacy? And is there not a striking contradiction inherent in seemingly caring so little about the work but eschewing DVD extras because you “want the films to speak for themselves”?
During Isaac and Yale’s vituperative showdown at the university, Isaac berates Yale for his fecklessness and lack of “personal integrity”: “Jesus, what are future generations going to say about us?,” Isaac asks. Gesticulating at a skeleton that’s hanging at the front of the classroom, he says: “I’ll be hanging in a classroom one day. And I wanna make sure that when I . . . thin out, that I’m . . . well thought of.” Of course, like all artists – even living ones – Woody Allen already is, in a sense, “hanging in a classroom,” his films continually scrutinised, dissected, reevaluated, and – crucially – enjoyed. For as long as film is studied, people will be examining Woody Allen films. And enjoying them too.
Tolstoy wrote that if we were to “sift literature,” then Charles Dickens would remain; he went on to say that if we were then to “sift Dickens,” still David Copperfield would remain. By the same token, sifting cinema would see Woody Allen remain, and sifting Allen’s filmography would leave Annie Hall and Manhattan intact. Whatever his (possibly disingenuous) protestations to the contrary, Allen will in fact “live on in our hearts and minds” and – by way of these digital relics – in our apartments, too. Outside of an arthouse revival, these Blu-ray discs are the best versions of Allen’s best films that we’re ever likely to see. Take the opportunity and see them again. Like the cultural artifacts Isaac enumerates on his sofa, they make life worthwhile.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film(s) being discussed.