New Values

I don’t know if my visit to the 1970s world of movies is unearthing any insights, this film era has been examined to death at this point, but I am certainly enjoying the vacation. I love the movies of this era, especially for the variety of storytelling that was permitted. The 1970s gave us big budget disaster movies, gangster epics, menacing sharks, Superman and Star Wars, but it also gave us ambitious literary adaptations and tiny movies so personal that it seems amazing someone approved a budget for them.

The vast majority of these movies I experienced after the fact like an archeologist trying to unearth artifacts of that confounding era. But there is one movie that I saw in its first release that still amuses me when I think of the 11 year old me reacting to it. It was May 1977, and I was six months into my complete assurance that “Rocky” was the greatest movie ever made. I was at a mall multiplex with my female cousin and sister, dropped off by my aunt to find a movie to see. I wanted to see some awful “Rocky” knockoff starring Muhammad Ali that some studio had rapidly cobbled together. But my cousin Laura wanted to see “Annie Hall,” and as the youngest of the group, I had no power to override her.

I didn’t expect much from it — I had a vague sense of disliking Woody Allen even though I’d never seen one of his movies and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t a life changing experience — “Rocky” wasn’t dethroned and held onto its title for exactly one more month until “Star Wars” came out — but I laughed a lot and thought better of Woody Allen afterwards. The following April, I watched the Academy Awards, sure that “Star Wars” would clean up, and watched with amazement as “Annie Hall” walked off with the top prize.

I think I’ve seen “Annie Hall” at every stage of my life and the movie gets a bit sadder every time I see it. Today I watch it mostly in awe of Diane Keaton’s characterization of Annie, which is one of the great heroic romantic performances in movies. I call it heroic because Keaton/Hall is attempting something very new in this movie, the creation of a feminine-feminist archetype that both fully embraces the tenets of Romanticism while refusing to surrender the hard won gains of Sexual Revolution.

There a “Pygmalion” myth at the center of the movie. Alvy Singer discovers this extremely neurotic, oddly dressed woman at a tennis outing. He asks her out, and is sometimes amused by her quirkiness and sometimes just tolerates it. He proceeds to mold her into the type of woman he wants her to be — he convinces her to take adult education classes to make up for her lack of a college education, gets her to read gloomy books with the word ‘death’ in the title, introduces her to psychotherapy and, eventually, gives her the courage to get in front of an audience and sing.

I find Annie heroic because she identifies the implicit criticism in all of Alvy’s renovation schemes, voices her fears, but does them anyway. She not only goes along with them, actually, she crushes them. Annie makes real progress in her therapy, unlike Alvy who has spent decades in analysis and seems stuck in mud. She not only goes to her classes, she forms a bond with her instructor and becomes more open to other influences. She not only gets on stage to sing, she attracts the attention of a music producer who wants to help guide her career. In short, she accepts Alvy’s influence and finds the kindest possible interpretation of his meddling, assuming that he cares about her personal growth and openness to continued influence and social growth.

Alvy reacts badly to all of this. He becomes jealous of Annie’s new influences, criticizes her therapy and classes. They go to Los Angeles, where Annie takes another step forward in her career, and Alvy can do nothing but, hilariously, mock the fake culture all around them. The relationship feels doomed and the couple breaks up. Alvy’s feelings, however, get in the way. He begins to feel nostalgia for their bond and feels compelled to take one last shot at Annie’s affections.

In the old fashioned romantic comedy, Alvy flying out to his hated Hollywood to beg Annie to come back would be seen as a heroic gesture that must be rewarded. And that reward, naturally, would be her returning to his life. But Annie seizes the heroism from him and stands her ground, refusing to go back with Alvy. And old Hollywood, and perhaps cultural, view of American couples dies out with Alvy’s failure.

The 1970s put us in the in between space of old values dying before new ones could be created, so we were left to dwell in that bittersweet in between. But what if Alvy had listened to his emotions and decided to match Annie’s romantic heroism with his own form of courage? Imagine an alternative “Annie Hall” where Alvy doesn’t just ask Annie to begin again, but he also makes the enormous sacrifice of giving up the protective bubble that Manhattan had become for him and join Annie in Los Angeles?

You could argue that this would be inauthentic, that Woody/Alvy would be sacrificing his genuine self purely for Annie and that this would lead to resentment and failure. I would argue that, if Alvy genuinely loved Annie, he would be willing to take the same leap of faith that she did and would be willing to risk as much growth and change as she to be with her.

This ending did not happen, either in the movie or in the fake “happily ever after” play that Alvy later writes to soothe himself over Annie’s loss. The ethos carried forward from “Annie Hall” lives on. Most romantic comedies since then depend on the movie’s form — it’s impossible to imagine “When Harry Met Sally” without “Annie Hall,” and the same can be said of “Seinfeld.” The lonely, sad core of these new romantic comedies is the idea that we should always wait and look for that one person who requires us to change as little about ourselves as necessary to make it work, overlooking the possibility that it is just this kind of influence and openness to the new that makes love so indispensable and transformational.

It’s unfortunate that, like so many 1970s anti-heroes, Alvy Singer lacked the courage to listen to what his aching heart was trying to tell him, that the safety and comfort of his predictable life in New York wasn’t worth the loss of the woman he loved. She had changed for him, it was time for him to pay back her courageous growth. But in the end, he wimped out.