A few weeks ago, I happened to see Annie Hall on television. I still think it’s one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. The structure itself is unique; from the first minute of the opening monologue, when Woody Allen wonders what went wrong in his relationship with Annie Hall, I was totally hooked. While the film begins in present time with Alvy whining for his lost relationship, we see the relationship in bits and pieces.
The story begins in present time, then shows us some hysterical scenes of Alvy’s early childhood. He grew up under a rollercoaster, he says, which is why he tends to be a little nervous. The film flashes back to his two marriages, based, we see, on sex rather than love. We share some of his memories with Annie, then we flash back to Alvy’s first encounter with Annie when they first meet on the tennis court.
When I first saw the film many years ago, I had tried to analyze the structure in relation to the paradigm, but I saw very quickly it wouldn’t work.
I didn’t understand how Annie Hall was put together. I had to approach my analysis from a different perspective. I wondered if you could structure a story around the growth and change of a character? Alvy is a person who refuses to change, whereas Annie Hall is a person who changes and grows constantly. Can a screenplay told mostly in flashback be structured around the dramatic need of the character?
Woody Allen sets up his character’s point of view immediately from page one, word one, in Alvy’s monologue. I saw that Act I sets up Alvy’s present situation and past relationships. Everything Alvy refers to relates back to the time when he and Annie were together.
Alvy’s character, as set up in Act I, goes from present time to past time. Act II deals with Alvy and Annie’s relationship, from recreating their first stirrings of passion (including that glorious subtext scene on the balcony) to their final separation. The last part of the movie is played out as Alvy unsuccessfully tries to recreate his relationship with Annie with other women.
Woody Allen is brilliant at setting up characters, then getting inside their heads. Alvy explains his point of view, how he sees life in the opening monologue: “A lot of suffering, pain, anxiety and problems – and it’s all over much too quickly.” He tells a joke, attributed to Groucho Marx, sharing how he feels about himself: “I would never 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.” And that’s what the film shows us; his relationship with women, focusing on Annie Hall.
The movie unfolds from Alvy’s point of view. In the dictionary, “point of view” is defined as “the way a person sees the world.” And Alvy certainly “sees” his world in a bizarre and unusual way.
In all my reading and analyzing movies, I was aware that most good films focus on the unfolding of a specific incident or event; and that incident becomes the engine that powers the story to its completion.
In Annie Hall, the key incident that drives the story forward is Alvy’s relationship with Annie Hall. That’s a no-brainer. In the opening monologue, within the first two minutes of the film, Alvy says, “I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and examining my life and trying to figure out where the screw-up came.” Since the film is told in an odd structural dynamic, the incident, the relationship with Annie, provides the “pieces” that tell the story.
The first act, after the monologue, shows us Alvy’s childhood, his early school years growing up under the roller coaster on Coney Island, his tendency toward anxiety and depression. It not only shows us his dysfunctional childhood, but also illustrates his relationship with women, starting with his mother who’s always trying to change his father. It illustrates Alvy’s early obsession with sex and his belief that sex is the predominant drive in a relationship, the fantasy source and wellspring of all happiness.
And that, for me, is the key to the film: Alvy’s search for happiness. Alvy believes Annie Hall will be the key that unlocks the happiness he knows is inside of him. He thinks that the source of happiness is found outside himself, through another person, or having a lot of money, a powerful job or career, or through drugs and alcohol, or eating great food, anything, in short, that will fill up the empty hole of loneliness and unhappiness that so many people feel inside. Alvy’s search for a woman becomes a mirror of his own quest for happiness. What gets in the way is his unrealistic idealism, which becomes the source of his breakup with Annie Hall. You know, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Alvy’s quest to make Annie into his own image is the very reason the relationship fails. Alvy is not able to accept Annie for who she is, because he wants her to conform to his image of who she is and what she should be. Unconditional love it, it ain’t.
In Act II, we watch the relationship begin to unravel when Alvy suggests that Annie take adult education classes, then criticizes her when she quotes her teacher. He sulks when she expresses herself by singing in a night club, and is totally jealous when Tony Lacy (Paul Simon) takes an interest in her and invites them to a little gathering after the show. Alvy, of course, declines. We know where this relationship is going – down the tubes.
Near the end of Act II, almost at the end of their relationship, there’s a marvelous scene, among many, done in split scene, where Annie and Alvy are both seen in therapy sessions; Alvy lies on a couch, Annie sits in a chair. Both lament the fact their feelings have changed toward each other, but it’s how they see the same thing that brings the humor out. Both psychiatrists ask “do you have sex often?” and Alvy replies “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” And Annie replies: “Constantly! I’d say three times a week.” It’s a perfect illustration of “The world is as you see it” as the ancient scriptures say.
Just before Plot Point II, when Alvy is invited to give an award on a TV show in LA, they fly out but Alvy gets sick, naturally, and can’t give out the award. Later, they end up at a party at Tony Lacy’s house where he renews his interest in Annie. Alvy sees just how different they are; he’s the one who has given her the opportunity to grow and change, and he can’t deal with it. On the flight home, the two of them are immersed in their own thoughts, each knowing the relationship is over. Annie turns to him and says, “You know, I don’t think our relationship is working.” And Alvy replies, “A relationship, I think. is like a shark.it has to constantly move forward or it dies.. And I think what we’ve got on our hands.is a dead shark.” The truth at last.
The relationship ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. When they return to New York, Annie moves to LA to be with Tony Lacy, and Alvy tries to recreate some of his experiences with Annie with other women, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t work because no one can step into the same river twice. Their break up, Plot Point II, “spins” the action into Act III, the Resolution.
Once I analyzed the film from the perspective of character I understood Alvy’s dramatic need, and only then did the structure ring true. It didn’t matter that the film is told in flashback, the structure was still clear. Alvy sets up what’s going through his mind in the opening monologue. He sets up his disjointed childhood, how he relates to women with visual “excerpts” of his two brief marriages. At that point he cuts to the flashback of his first meeting with Annie at the tennis club. That incident sets up the relationship and leads us into Act II.
It showed me once again that there is a definite relationship between story, character and structure. They are part and parcel of the same thing. There is no way to really separate them. That’s when I learned that good structure does not create a good story, a good story is what creates structure.