Annie Hall

The Women of Annie Hall

In the 1970’s, filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and Paul Mazursky explored the changing role of women in American society with films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and An Unmarried Woman (1978).  After a string of successful genre parodies in the first part of the decade, Woody Allen broke new ground as a filmmaker with the critically acclaimed Annie Hall (1977).

With Annie Hall, the nebbish character that Woody Allen portrayed in his early films became the well-rounded mature character that Allen would play in most of his later films.  In Annie Hall, Allen is Alvy Singer, a stand-up comic who does material drawn from Woody Allen’s days as a stand-up comedian.  Intellectually mature, but still a sexually motivated male, Alvy must cope with the changing world of male/female relationships. Annie Hall pokes fun at everything from spirituality to drug culture, but Alvy’s relationship challenges are Allen’s major theme.  Allen introduces the topic in the film’s opening monologue:

“The other important joke for me is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx but I think it appears originally in Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious – and it goes like this.  I’m paraphrasing.  I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.  That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”

The stream of consciousness narrative bounces from scene to scene and theme to theme, cued by narrative, dialogue, and a free association of images and ideas.  The working title of Annie Hall was Anhedonia which is a psychology term used to describe a person’s inability to experience pleasure.  An early version of the film focused more on Alvy and less on Annie.  Working with his editor, Ralph Rosenblum, Allen was able to reshape the available content into a film about Alvy’s relationship with Annie.  Additional sequences were shot and the existing sequences became subservient to the new concept.

The women characters in Annie Hall are well drawn and well acted. Recognizing the changing role of women in society, Woody Allen and his co-writer Marshall Brickman offered Alvy a variety of illuminating relationship situations.

With few exceptions, Allen’s female characters are socially conscious women in pursuit of careers. Annie (Diane Keaton) is an actress and aspiring singer who Alvy tries to reform Pygmalion style.  Suggesting books to read and classes to take, his Henry Higgins backfires on him and he becomes jealous of Annie’s teachers and her rapidly developing social awareness.  Alvy is also wary of coke spoon toting record producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) whose tempting offer to produce a record album for Annie takes her to LA, far from Alvy and his beloved Manhattan.

Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) is a political advocate who is working on her college thesis when she meets Alvy at a rally for Adlai Stevenson.  Alvy Groucho Marxes himself into a corner by culturally stereotyping Allison.   Instead of doing a Margaret Dumont, Allison meets him head on telling him how much she enjoys being reduced to a cultural stereotype.  The relationship is doomed. Allison is analytical and Alvy has commitment issues.

Robin (Janet Margolin) is a writer who finds it hard to perform sexually with Alvy. We are shown two examples of their problem.  In the first, Alvy wants to bed her during an isolated moment at a social gathering for New York’s literati.  In the second, she finds it hard to concentrate because of the traffic noise heard in the privacy of their bedroom.

Pam (Shelley Duvall) is a Rolling Stone reporter who describes sex with Alvy as a Kafkaesque experience.  She tends to ramble on with a wordy otherworldliness, waxing philosophical on rock and roll and spirituality.

Allen graphically illustrates dinner with the Hall and the Singer family using split screen portraits.  The Halls look like a family in a Norman Rockwell painting.  The Singers, even though they are Jewish, look like something out of a Fellini film.  Ignoring the cinematic boundaries, the mothers, Mrs. Hall (Colleen Dewhurst) and Mrs. Singer (Joan Neuman), actually converse with one another.  It is evident that the families, for all their differences, are both matriarchies.

Allen continues to offer women complex roles in his films.  His female characters are often imbued with wisdom and strength, a quality still lacking in most films. Allen’s women are drawn and portrayed as unique individuals who challenge their male counterpart’s concept of womanhood.  The actresses who play the roles in his films are challenged by the material.  In his play Play It Again, Sam, and later in the movie of the same name, Allan Felix (played by Allen) paraphrased the final speech that Bogart makes to Bergman in Casablanca:

“Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.”

Thanks to films like Annie Hall, we have come to see a woman’s role in a film story as more than possession, more than accessory, and more than a masculine incentive.  It took Woody Allen more than a decade to go from the burlesque of What’s New, Pussycat to the sophistication of Annie Hall.  It is the first mature work of one of American’s few real auteurs.

Mike Maginot

Fanny and Alexander

Ingmar and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander is Ingmar Bergman’s antidote to religious fanaticism.  In both the television and the theatrical version, Bergman presents the world of theater as a humane alternative to a world ruled by an angry and judgmental God.

The narrative structure of Fanny and Alexander is omniscient, but we often see things from Alexander’s unique point of view. In Alexander’s world, which from the beginning of the film reflects the world of the theater; statues come to life, ghosts interact with the living, and a man who pretends to be a pious priest is characterized as the devil incarnate.

Bergman doesn’t care if we, or his characters, believe in God.  Like so many of Bergman’s protagonists, Alexander has lost his faith.  When it seems that he has met God face to face, God turns out to be a puppet manipulated by Uncle Isak’s nephew.

Bergman needs us, and his characters, to believe in magic.  Bergman is a magician, the kind of magician who shows you how a trick is done and then does a variation on the trick that puts the gloss back on the mystery.

In the theater scenes of Fanny and Alexander we are aware that the thunder and lightning is fake, but when the children are locked away in their bedroom at the Bishop’s palace, we accept the dramatically timed thunderclaps and flashes of light.  We are willing to believe in magic because we care about the children.  Our love for the characters helps us to suspend our belief in what is real and accept the cinematic version of a theatrical illusion.

Alexander is the master of his own universe.  We are introduced to him as the curtains are drawn on a miniature stage.  His head fills the proscenium as his hand manipulates cardboard actors on the stage.  Above the arch is the legend, “Not For Pleasure Alone,” suggesting that this theatrical toy is for educational purposes as well as for amusement.

The footlights of Alexander’s little world are candles, not incandescent lights.   This tells us about the time in which the story is set, but it also tells us that Alexander is old enough, or considered old enough, to play with fire.

Bergman called his autobiography, The Magic Lantern after one of his favorite childhood toys.  The magic lantern is also one of Alexander’s favorite toys.  He uses it to entertain his sister and his cousins.  Like his miniature stage, the lantern is candle lit.  With this tool, Alexander can even raise the dead. He is the master of his little world and as we get to know him and see the larger world through his eyes, we begin realize the power of his extraordinary imagination.

Alexander’s father, Oskar Ekdahl, runs a real theater and plays parts in his theatrical productions.  He is Joseph to Alexander’s mother’s Mary in the Christmas nativity play and more significantly the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  After his death, Oscar will continue to play the part of a ghost for Alexander.

Alexander’s mother, Emily Ekdahl scolds Alexander for playing the part of Hamlet, but Alexander is not content to just play the part.  He must also be the playwright and the director.

When Alexander makes up stories of being sold to the circus or the cruel story about the Bishop’s daughters, he is reprimanded or severely punished for what the Bishop considers to be sinful.  As the Bishop tells him, “Imagination is splendid, a mighty force, a gift from God.  It is held in trust for us by the great artists, writers, and musicians.”  The Bishop doesn’t even consider that Alexander might be one of the anointed.

The Bishop has no idea of how powerful Alexander’s imagination can be.  With the help of an androgynous madman who reflects in physical form a deity that is both masculine and feminine, Alexander invokes a dark power that destroys his nemesis.  The price that Alexander has to pay for resorting to hell fire damnation is that the Bishop will always be with him.  Is this the price that Bergman has paid for his art?

The Bishop Edvard Vergerus tells his wife Emily that he only has one mask that is branded into his flesh.  We can see that mask, but we frequently get glimpses of the man behind it.  This character, like the priest in Bergman’sWinter Light is often seen as a representation of Bergman’s own father who was both a priest and a stern disciplinarian.  In Bergman’s family, parents could never be wrong and children were pushed to contemplate their guilt and shame.  In a one-hour documentary made for Swedish television called Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell, Bergman says, “You had to accept punishment and ask for forgiveness, despite your innocence.  And I guess I carried that with me in my early years.  I really struggled with that dogmatism.”  Speaking of people like his father and characters like Bishop Vergerus, Bergman says in the same documentary, “They remember the law, but forget the gospel.”

Bergman considers himself an anarchist, a maverick and a rebel, but recognizes, “I’m authoritarian by nature.  My democratic abilities aren’t that well developed due in a large part to my profession.”

In both versions of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman gives us two contrasting families.  The Ekdahl family is large and includes not just family members, but friends, the theater people and even the servants.  In her review of the film, Pauline Kael says of the Ekdahl’s, “Nobody is religious, nobody is in any way spiritual: in fact, Alexander’s idealized family is so hearty and indulgent it’s gross.”

The Ekdahl world is filled with color and light, in stark contrast to the Bishop’s family that lives in a sparsely furnished castle with bars on the windows.  The mother, sister, aunt, and servants in the Bishop’s household are repressed, cruel, ill, and literally rotting.  These are people whose religion offers them little or no reward and they wallow in a melancholy funk.  Their only joy it would seem is torturing children and hating those who would presume to take pleasure in just about anything.

Religious and artistic metaphors are abundant when Bergman discusses his work. In an introduction to a book containing four of his screenplays, Bergman compared filmmaking to building of a great cathedral.  In interviews, he has called Fanny and Alexander a tapestry.

Bergman has always left his audience with deep religious questions to ponder, but even when it asks the questions Fanny and Alexander doesn’t allow us to dwell too long on the answers.  Get on with your life Bergman seems to be saying.  So what if you are haunted by ghosts, death, and God’s silence.  There is magic to be found at the theater and love to be found when you gather with family and friends.  Don’t dwell too much on the evil things that haunt you.  If you make enough noise you can drown out the sound of God’s silence.

Bergman’s first love is the theater and Fanny and Alexanderdemonstrates that love better than any of his other cinematic achievements. The theater is for Bergman the closest thing to heaven on earth.

Mike Maginot


John Travolta in Blow Out

Lies De Palma Told Me

When Brian De Palma’s Blow Out was released in 1981, only two film critics praised it in the popular press, Michael Sragow of Rolling Stone Magazine and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker.  Sragow begins his piece by saying, “Of all the prominent young American Filmmakers, Brian De Palma does the most straight talking about his generation”.   Kael is passionate in her enthusiasm for De Palma, “I think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with two of the Godfather movies—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision”.  Kael ends her piece boldly stating, “It’s a great movie”.

Blow Out tells the story of a sound technician who accidentally records a murder.  Applying his established cinematic style, using a storyline that incorporates his favorite themes, writer/director, De Palma, cleverly deconstructs the filmmaking process for his audience.  In Blow Out, De Palma dramatically declares that film by nature is a medium incapable of telling the truth.

Like Citizen Kane, Blow Out begins with a film within a film.  In Citizen Kane, the newsreel, that interrupts an expressionistic prologue with a startling burst of Bernard Herrmann’s score, establishes the back-story of Charles Foster Kane and provides the key to the film’s structure.  When the lights come up in the screening room, Mr. Thompson’s assignment is to discover the meaning of  “Rosebud,” Kane’s dying word.  In Blow Out the film within the film is a cheesy exploitation film called “Coed Frenzy” and the quest of Jack Terry, “Wiz Kid Soundman,” is to find the perfect scream.

“Coed Frenzy” is a parody of the kind of film that some audiences and most film critics find offensive. It is a trashy soft-core pornographic slasher film.  De Palma knows how to do trashy.  He has no qualms about nudity or graphic violence.  It isn’t the film we are going to see, but it is an important part of the plot. “Coed Frenzy” is the first lie De Palma tells in Blow Out.

Graphic depictions of sex and violence were taboo territory for De Palma’s American cinematic mentors Hitchcock and Welles, due mainly to the censorship standards of the time.  Hitchcock did managed to alienate his more conservative fans with Frenzy.  A misogynistic protagonist, bare breasts and black humor where shocking to Hitchcock fans expecting another romantic adventure along the lines of North By Northwest or To Catch a Thief.  The psycho necktie serial killer of Frenzy would fit nicely in a lineup of De Palma villains.

De Palma’s European mentor, Jean Luc Goddard has often been blunt regarding sex and violence, but his inclination is to create some distance between his audience and the subject at hand.  De Palma tends to be more of an in your face filmmaker like Sergei Eisenstein.

The search for the perfect scream becomes subtext as Jack becomes wrapped up in a murder mystery that turns into a cover-up scheme.  Jack is accurately described in the film as an “ear-witness to an assassination.”  Jack’s dilemma is that he wants the world to know the truth about the cover-up.  Using the raw materials available, Jack attempts to recreate the murder on film. He has the sounds that he captured with his shotgun microphone. All he needs is the 16mm film shot by the lowlife photographer/blackmailer.

Jack’s passion is to establish that a crime has been committed, not to find the culprit.  Jack’s interest in Sally, the naive co-conspirator in the blackmail attempt, rescued at the scene of the crime, is far from romantic.  Sally retrieves the film from the sleazy photographer and Jack marries it to his audio. Sally and Jack consummate the marriage of sound and image with their first real kiss on the lips.

In a 1984 interview with Marcia Pally for Film Comment, Brian De Palma has this to say about his work, “I like mysteries and plots with reversals.  I have a dark image of society in which people are manipulating each other.  Maybe that has to do with the world I work in.”.

Jack Terry and Brian De Palma work in the same industry.  They both put pieces of film together in order to tell a story.  De Palma uses Jack’s quest for truth to demystify his medium of choice.  We see Jack dub tape to mag-striped film stock.  We see Jack make a flipbook from pictures cut out of a magazine.  We see Jack use a matte camera to photograph and animate the individual frames cut from the magazine pages.  We see the images synchronized with sound.

Like a magician who pretends to fail and then does an impressive trick that can’t be figured out, De Palma waves his magic wand and cleverly does his magic.  Selecting the sounds an audience should and should not hear, De Palma achieves the auditory equivalent to his visuals.  We don’t hear what a microphone would actually pick up under normal circumstances.  Instead, De Palma focuses our attention on what we need to hear to advance the story.

Jay Beck in an article for Journal of Popular Film and Television called “Citing the Sound: ‘The Conversation,’ ‘Blow Out,’ and the mythological ontology of the soundtrack in ‘70s film” writes,  “To emphasize the inscrutable relationship between sound and image we have a sequence of Jack gathering sounds in a park where each sound is “revealed” by the visual rendering of the sound. This functions narratively to demonstrate Jack’s mastery of his profession and to slyly introduce the presence of the murderer Burke, but it does so by ignoring some basic principles of sound recording. Each sound is heard directly, without reverberation, in a strategy that effaces the presence of the recording apparatus. The microphone eliminates the space between it and the object in an acoustic analog for the split-focus screen. Jack deploys his recording device as a prosthesis that apprehends its chosen subject without mediation–there is nothing that interferes between the source and the recording of the sound.”  The movie version of recording sound advances De Palma’s story and focuses our attention on what De Palma wants us to hear.  It isn’t real.  It’s synthetic. This is another lie De Palma tells.

De Palma is no stranger to the themes presented in Blow Out.  Conspiracy, corruption, and cover-ups all play a major role in his early work.  One of the characters in Greetings is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. There is even a direct reference made to Antonioni’s Blow UpBlow Out is an homage to Blow Up in title, theme and plot point.  Beyond that they share few stylistic touches.  The working title for Blow Out was Personal Effects.  The door to Jack’s office carries that title and Jack carries that weight.  His sound effects are very personal.

To suggest that conspiracy, corruption, and cover-up are as American as assassinations, De Palma provides a stunning collection of red, white and blue set pieces.  Set and costume design are beautifully integrated adding to the film’s mise-en-scene.  Almost every scene contains a combination of these three colors.  The ironic payoff comes during climactic chase when the assassin wearing a red, white and blue tie and a red, white and blue campaign button on his lapel.

A less obvious visual motif is the spastic movements of VU meters used to measure the volume units of sound in a manner similar to the human ear.  Besides the many actual VU meters that we see in the film, there are several visual references that imitate the motion of a VU meter.  We see it in the title sequence as a wipe across the names of John Travolta and Nancy Allen and we see it again in the form of a windshield wiper when Travolta and Allen are driving.  Finally, we see it as a beam of light that crosses over Travolta as he enters the Philadelphia train station in a panic.  It is subtle effect visually, but the concept is spectacular when you realize how nicely it represents Jack Terry’s mounting agitation.

De Palma pulls out all stops and attacks the story with an arsenal of techniques designed to keep an audience on the edge of their seat.  He uses his familiar split screen and split diopter shots sparingly to create strong compositions and to focus attention where he wants it to be in each scene.  It is a sweet epiphany when the blow out of the tire appears above Jack’s head like a comic strip thought balloon.

In several scenes, De Palma chooses a bird’s eye view to show the results of a dramatic encounter.  Slow motion is used during the chase scene to amplify the details and expand the moment in time.  The series of pans around and around Jack’s office when he discovers that all of his tapes have been erased, a sound engineer’s nightmare, is the centerpiece of the film.
In her essay, “The Fallen Wonder of the World”: Brian De Palma’s Horror Films, Allison Graham observes, “In Blow Outeveryone is set up, everyone is spied upon, everyone is both usable and disposable”. This is an accurate description when applied to the major characters in Blow Out.  The setting De Palma writes his characters into is not a cheery one.

De Palma’s fascination with voyeurism has been the subject of many essays.   Writer Laurent Bouzereau, who has made a career out of De Palma and Hitchcock scholarship, devotes an entire chapter of his book The De Palma Cut to the subject.  When Jack is standing on the bridge with his shotgun microphone collecting sounds for “Coed Frenzy” he listens in on a couple’s conversation.  The woman sees Jack and asks her companion, “What is he, a Peeping Tom or something?”

Jack enjoys his work, perhaps too much.  Like the bedridden Jeff Jeffries, in Rear Window, who watches his neighbors through binoculars and becomes the witness to a murder, Jack can’t keep the earphone out of his ear.  There are many things that Jack doesn’t actually see, but we see them:  In Jack’s mind’s eye, in films and television shows within the film, through the eyes of other characters and through the window Brian De Palma lets us peep through.  These multiple points of view do little to expose the truth.  Putting together little pieces of film with little pieces of sound has nothing to do with telling the truth.  Editing is the essential lie that turns a film into a work of art.

Mike Maginot