Annie Hall, Misunderstood Heroine

I've probably seen Woody Allen's 1977 Annie Hall over 100 times. It's a movie I often use as a litmus test with people as to whether or not they'd be able to handle my slightly darker views on people, relationships and life. Like most of Woody Allen's early films, it answers questions about the universe and our roles within it and faces the bleak emptiness of human existence, and it laughs in its face, through shivers and tears. A truly beautiful movie, his first love story, "[he] took a risk; he let the audience feel the sadness of goodbye in a funny movie," as Ms. Keaton says in her book.

The movie charts the relationship of Alvy Singer (Allen), a successful New York comedian, and Annie Hall (Keaton), a ditsy, well-intentioned but aimless aspiring performer originally from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and starts at the end, revealed to the audience through a monologue by Alvy. Annie is as unconventionally dressed as she is behaved, in loose-fitting men's clothing, largely inspired by Keaton's personal wardrobe and sparking a major fashion trend that's still a common reference point today. After a meet-cute playing tennis, the two begin seeing one another, and he encourages her to sing and get out of her apartment and see more people and, of course…because it's Woody Allen, face mortality.

Alvy is neurotic. That puts it lightly. Annie is lighter, she smokes pot, she's not as inhibited by cynicism. She tries new things and embraces new ideas. Alvy is stuck. "Alvy, you're incapable of enjoying life…you're like New York City…you're like this island unto yourself," Annie observes after their relationship's demise, when she relocates to California to follow a music career (under the guidance of an impressively smarmy Paul Simon as Tony Lacy). You know all along the relationship is destined to fail, as Alvy tells the audience this in the opening monologue. But you watch it all planted, blossomed, plucked and dead, the hilarious sadness of goodbye.

Because of the dynamic of their relationship and because of Annie's characteristic ditziness and Alvy's paternal way of interacting with her, Annie is regularly mischaracterized as having created the blueprint for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a trope we are quick to criticize because of its reductive placement of the role of women and interpretation of their actions and identities. It's a categorization not fondly regarded by the actresses playing these characters for similar reasons, though it is a trope that is continuously defaulted to when we have a lonely, loathsome male protagonist, in the midst of his male rite of passage: the existential crisis. It is also a trope that racially limits our interpretations of what constitutes a woman and who qualifies to play major female characters. Annie Hall is no such character.

Generally, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, erratic and totally available disposal of grief for male protagonists, who must learn from their capriciousness and wayward ways of living to make sense of their own enigmatic existences. Classic examples of this would be Sam of Garden State, Penny Lane of Almost Famous, or Catherine of Jules et Jim. There are many more. It's an embarrassingly easy list to compile actually.

Alvy and Annie's interactions show that Annie is capable of facing the darkness Alvy is so obsessed with, but she chooses not to. She chooses to enjoy life in spite of its futility. She doesn't allow her neuroses to hold her back from existing in the world in the same way that Alvy does. She accepts the philosophical quandaries Alvy presents to her and grows into an urbane young woman, regarding herself and her role in the universe with aplomb. To mischaracterize Annie as the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl is to misunderstand and oversimplify Annie and it is to completely warp the film's narrative and message. The story necessitates that Alvy is the aimless, the nihilistic. Alvy is the one so overcome by his self-loathing ego that it entraps, atrophies and destroys him and the relationship. Rather than liberating Alvy with her seemingly whimsical way of interacting with the world, she liberates herself from his self-destructive train of thought. He teaches her things about life that lead her to a more actualized and empowered existence, but he is stuck, the same little boy getting his aggression out at the bumper cars run by his father on Coney Island.

Thinking about Annie in this way has me thinking about Lindsay's post on what our interpretation is of a strong female character, particularly her observations about Florence of Greenberg (another character largely misunderstood in a movie I love). There's so much Annie in Florence. There are actual scenes in Greenberg where I think Noah Baumbach must have been directly inspired by Annie Hall (particularly a moment where Florence is telling a story and halfway through realizes it's not nearly as humorous as it is dark and bizarre…EXACTLY like Annie telling the story of her Uncle George, the veteran with narcolepsy who out of nowhere died getting his free turkey on Easter). Too often, I feel, we write of that intellectual and emotional insecurity harbored by characters like Annie and Florence as weaknesses and flaws, when really their experiences resonate so deeply with the young, with the unsure, with those of us who feel overcome by ambiguity at times. To quote Lindsay's piece: "I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out." The basis of Annie's appeal is just that — she gets past the point of figuring it out, and neither shuns nor chastises those who helped her get there, even when they couldn't get there themselves.

This post originally appeared on Canonball. Republished with permission.

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