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“Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” Films Comparison Term Paper

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Introduction / Thesis

Although the so-called Auteur Theory had attained cinematographic legitimacy long time ago (the origins of this theory can be traced back to 1954), its practical significance continues to be interpreted from a variety of different perspectives. In its turn, this can be explained by theory’s seeming incompatibility with cinematography as an artistic genre. As Donald Staples had put it in his article The Auteur Theory Reexamined: “In music, painting, or literature it is easy to find a one-to-one ratio between artist and work. One artist: One work. In film, however, the artistic variables are so numerous and so constantly changing from one production to the other that it is difficult to establish a one-to-one ratio and discover who the auteur of any film really is” (1967, 4). Nevertheless, even though there can be no rigidly standardized criteria as to what movie may be considered auteurist and what may not, it does not imply the conceptual fallaciousness of Auteur Theory as ‘thing in itself. After all, we cannot visualize four-dimensional subjects – yet, it does not mean that non-Euclidian geometry, which operates with these subjects, should be disposed of as ‘fallacious’. Therefore, the practical application of Auteur Theory appears fully appropriate to the works of cinematography, for as long as these works bear an undeniable mark of intellectual sophistication, as the foremost trait of their directors’ individuality. In our paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion even further by analyzing and comparing two films, which we believe fit rather well within the methodological framework Auteur Theory – Woody Allen’s 1977 romantic comedy “Annie Hall” and Rob Reiner’s 1989 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally”.

Analytical part

One of most striking characteristics of auteur movies is that they often provide viewers with biographical insight into their creators’ existential identity. “Annie Hall” initial scene depicts Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) establishing a psychological trust with viewers by expounding on rather unsightly details of his biography as four-eyed, skinny, neurotic, Jewish-American, who was born in raised in New York, and who exhibited a variety of clearly abnormal mental traits, while growing up: “I’m not a depressive character. I was a reasonably happy kid. I was brought up Brooklyn during WW2” (00.02.31). Why would Alvy bother to provide viewers with personal accounts of his upbringing? This is because, just as an auteur director, Allen actively strived to prompt viewers to assess movie’s semiotics through the lenses of his innermost psychological anxieties. It is only after we adopt Alvy’s perspective on surrounding socio-political reality, that plot’s developments and movie’s unconventional structure begins to make perfectly good sense in our eyes.

The same can be said about Reiner’s movie, although to somewhat lesser extent. As we are aware, the dialogues in “When Harry Met Sally” is based on real-life conversations that had taken place between Reiner and Billy Crystal (Harry) over the course of years, and on Crystal’s monologues as an upstage comedian. This alone endows movie with autobiographical undertones, on the part of Reiner and Crystal. However, in order to emphasize these undertones, Reiner had to adjust comedy’s actual format. This is exactly the reason why in “When Harry Met Sally”, the initial stages of a developing relationship between Harry and Sally appear to be spatially and timely remote – apparently, director wanted viewers to familiarize themselves with Harry’s mentality, before they would be exposed to plot’s consequential twists. And, just as it was the case with Alvy, Harry’s mentality appears to be utterly urban with a bit of a dark side to it – that is, there is nothing irrationally-naïve about how Harry perceives life’s challenges. When talking to Sally for the first time, Harry enlightens her on an illusionary essence of her idealistic hopes and expectations: “Suppose nothing happens. Suppose you never meet anybody, you never become anything, then you die and nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hall” (00.05.31). From the very beginning, viewing audience realizes the fact that both comedies’ gags are going to be concerned with exploitation of black humor.

Another unmistakable characteristic of auteur movies is that they are meant to appeal to intellectually advanced audiences. As Shyon Baumann had rightly pointed out in his article Intellectualization and Art World Development: Film in the United States: “The auteuristic intellectualization of film involved the application of aesthetic standards and so was a crucial development in the promotion of film to the status of art” (2001, 411). Throughout both movies’ entirety, their leading characters never cease indulging in rather sophisticated dialogues, with the point of having these dialogues being only apparent for viewers with IQ higher than 100. In fact, Allen and Reiner had made a point in presenting their cinematographic creations’ high degree of intellectualization as such that is being associated with comical subtleties. In “Annie Hall”, there is a memorable scene when, while discussing an artistic value of Annie’s photographs, Alvy applies too much of an effort into trying to sound utterly sophisticate “(Alvy): Photography’s interesting because…it’s a new art form. A set of aesthetic criteria has not emerged yet… The medium enters in as a condition of the art form itself” (00.31.57). The apparent artificiality of such Allen’s suggestion provides us with an additional insight into his psyche as highly intellectual and yet psychologically insecure person – thus, increasing this character’s comedic appeal. In Reiner’s movie, characters go about proving their existential sophistication to their potential dates in strikingly similar matter – they take a practical advantage of the fact that they can operate with an abstractly bohemian terminology: “(Jess): Pesto is the quiche of the eighties” (00.54.25). Apparently, there is nothing coincidental in the fact that Woody Allen, Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal are of Jewish ancestry – throughout the course of history, Jews have been known as particularly open-minded individuals, instilled with an acute sense of cosmopolitanism. This; however, does not imply that “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” is being completely progressive, in multicultural sense of this word. On the contrary – both comedies’ cast does not include even a single non-White actor.

Yet, it would be wrong to refer to this observation as such that proves Allen and Reiner’s ideological maliciousness. There are simply no objective preconditions for auteuristic films to be enjoyed by ethnically unique moviegoers, simply because unlike what is the case with Jews and Whites, the majority of these moviegoers profess essentially rural values of highly ritualized religiosity, tribal intolerance and intellectual inflexibility, which actually explains these people’s inability to score high, while being IQ tested. As the history of both movies, being played in theaters suggests – the representatives of racial minorities could not emotionally relate to comedies’ characters. It is namely those who were born and raised in America’s cosmopolitan megalopolises, which might enjoy watching “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” without any second thoughts at the back of their heads – both comedies are definitely not for cowboys with pitchforks in their hands. Neither are they for recently arrived immigrants from Third World.

The third most distinctive trait of auteuristic movies is that their storylines often revolve around the discussion of highly controversial public issues. This is why these types of movies are not recommended for watching by individuals with a strong sense of religion-based ethics. In the article from which we have already quoted, Donald Staples states: “The system of values proposed by the auteur theory commits the first heresy by departing from any system where taste and sensitivity play a foremost part” (1967, 4). As it appears from watching both movies, Allen and Reiner were not afraid of providing viewers with highly unconventional outlook on the issue of sex. There is a famous scene in “When Harry Met Sally”, in which Sally proves to Harry that women are more than capable of faking orgasm is completely undetectable manner. However, even in seemingly casual conversations between Harry and Sally, sex-related motifs play rather prominent role: “(Harry): Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” (00.12.09), “(Sally): Joe and I use to talk about it and we’d say, we are so lucky we have this wonderful relationship, we can have sex on the kitchen floor and not worry about the kids walking in” (00.31.38). By openly discussing sexual matters, Harry and Sally have proven themselves as individuals ruled by reason, rather than by the set of some obscure religious beliefs.

The same can be said about Woody Allen’s comedy. Throughout its entirety, “Annie Hall” is being filled with explicit and implicit referrals to sex: “(Alvy): When we first started going out, we had sex constantly… We were probably listed in the Guinness Book of World Records” (00.13.42), “(Alvy): You’re exceptional in bed because you get pleasure in every part of your body when I touch you” (00.41.30). The fact that the plots of both comedies are being concerned with a frank exploration of sexual matters indicates that while filming their movies, Allen and Reiner were the least concerned about trying to endow “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” with an appeal to broader audiences. In its turn, this serves as yet another proof as to the fact that both cinematographic works had been affected by Auteur Theory rather substantially.

The careful watching of “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” reveals an undeniable fact that comical subtleties of both movies are being objectively predetermined – that is, they derive out of particulars of characters’ psychological makeup. In its turn, this allows us to pinpoint another indication of both movies being in fact auteuristic – Allen and Reiner’s depiction of main characters is psychologically realistic. It appears that, throughout the process of filming their comedies, both directors remained perfectly aware of the fact that it is namely characters’ endowment with variety of mental insecurities, which makes their act particularly funny. This is the reason why Allen and Crystal were presented with the task of simply playing themselves, which explains why dialogues contained in both movies cannot be discussed outside of actors’ supreme ability to improvise.

As we have mentioned earlier, Allen and Crystal had originally attained public prominence as upstage comedians – this is why both individuals proceeded with the task of playing their characters in a same manner if they were simply addressing audiences in comedy clubs. Given the fact that intellectually advanced viewers derive a particular amusement out of being exposed to situations when mentally insecure individuals strive to maintain an aura of respectability, while addressing life’s challenges, it comes as no surprise that, throughout both movies’ duration, the characters of Alvy Singer and Harry Burns never ceased revealing their psychological weakness as such that constituted the core of their individuality.

Alvy’s foremost psychological weakness is being clearly concerned with his hypertrophied sense of emanations of anti-Semitism: “(Alvy): Well, I pick up on those kinds of things. You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said… uh, ‘Did you eat yet or what? and Tom Christie said, ‘No, didchoo?’ Not, did you, didchoo eat? Jew? No, not did you eat, but Jew eat? Jew. You get it? Jew eat?” (00.06.24), “(Alvy): I was in a record store. Listen to this – so I know there’s this big tall blond crew-cutted guy and he’s looking at me in a funny way and smiling and he’s saying, ‘Yes, we have a sale this week on Wagner’. Wagner, Max, Wagner – so I know what he’s really trying to tell me very significantly Wagner” (00.06.50). On Harry’s part, it was his aspiration to always sound cynical and dark, in order to conceal the fact he was even more mentally vulnerable then Sally: “(Harry):When I buy a new book I always read the last page first that way in case I die before I finish I know how it ends. That my friend is a dark side” (00.05.56), “(Harry): Look, if you would ask me, ‘What does she look like?’ and I said, ‘She has a good personality’. that means she’s not attractive” (01.03.29). Given the fact that the characters of Alvy and Harry reflect actors’ actual personalities, “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” cannot be referred to as Hollywoodian, in full sense of this word. Both movies’ strongly defined Freudian content implies that they relate to French cinematography of fifties and sixties more then they relate to American cinematography of the seventies and eighties.

As we have implied earlier, due to auteur directors’ intellectual open-mindedness, their movies are being usually concerned with promotion of urban existential values and urban aesthetics. The watching of “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” removes any remaining doubts as to the full validity of this suggestion. For example, in “When Harry Met Sally” characters spend a considerable amount of time while providing waiters with exact specifications as to how they wanted to have their food served: “(Sally): I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have, it if not then no ice cream just whipped cream, but only if it’s real, if it’s out of a can then nothing” (00.09.00). In a similar manner, the characters in Allen’s comedy take their time, while ordering food in restaurants: “(Annie): I’m gonna have a pastrami on white bread with, uh, mayonnaise and tomatoes and lettuce, and don’t put on any peppers – that grosses me out” (00.45.03). In its turn, this explains both movies’ apolitical content – urbanistically minded individuals who know how to appreciate life’s sensual pleasures, cannot possibly be associated with any political movements. Therefore, it is not simply a coincidence that both comedies’ action takes place in America’s largest megalopolises – New York and Los Angeles. Apparently, Allen and Reiner wanted to emphasize that it is only people, associated with the values of post-industrial existence, who are being capable of acting as urban society’s integral elements. As it has been rightly noted in Carl Plantinga’s article Film Theory and Aesthetics: Notes on a Schism: “Auteur directors make a sharp qualitative distinction between film as art and film as the vehicle of a political cause” (1993, 448). And, as we are well aware – the extent of one’s affiliation with an abstract art is being counter-proportionate to the extent of his or her affiliation with politics. This is the reason why in “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally”, characters’ politically charged remarks are meant to serve the purpose of mocking politics as ‘thing in itself.


This paper’s conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is fully appropriate to discuss Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally” within the conceptual framework of Auteur Theory, because in both movies, the quality of actors’ performance derives out of their ability to reflect upon their own psychological anxieties.
  2. Given the fact that both movies feature a variety of structurally innovative elements, it serves as yet additional proof as to the fact that, while filming their comedies, Allen and Reiber were mainly preoccupied with trying to create cinematographic works of art, as opposed to simply trying to ensure that their movies would appeal to broader audiences.
  3. Given the specifics of both directors’ stance on the issues of socio-political importance, it comes as no surprise that “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” promote the values of gender egalitarianism, urban tolerance and intellectual open-mindedness. Apparently, by filming these two movies, both directors wanted to attain self-actualization as particularly progressive individuals, endowed with an acute sense of personal freedom.
  4. Despite “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally” being sexually suggestive, such explicit suggestiveness cannot be referred to as serving the purpose of entertainment alone. By placing characters in a variety of sexually suggestive situations, Allen and Reiber strived to educate viewers on sheer importance of ensuring that sexual relations between men and women are based on the principle of equality and mutual respect.
  5. Even though auteurist cinematography has been criticized on the account of its bohemian elitism, there can be little doubt as to the fact that professional activities of auteur directors and producers are being socially beneficial, as auteur moviemakers do help to preserve Western societies’ intellectual well-being.


Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perfs. Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts. United Artists, 1977.

Baumann, Shyon “Intellectualization and Art World Development: Film in the United States”. American Sociological Review 66.3 (2001): 404-426. Print. (In his article, Shyon Bauman suggests that auteurist movies’ most distinctive trait is their engagement with highly intellectual matters. In its turn, this brings author to conclude that, as time goes by, these types of movies’ appeal is going to be continuously undermined).

Nystrom, Derek “Hard Hats and Movie Brats: Auteurism and the Class Politics of the New Hollywood”. Cinema Journal 43.3 (2004): 18-41. Print.

Plantinga, Carl “Film Theory and Aesthetics: Notes on a Schism”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51.3(1993): 445-454. Print.

Staples, Donald “The Auteur Theory Reexamined”. Cinema Journal 6.10 (1967): 1-7. Print. (In his article, Donald staples comes up with a suggestion that, despite what it is now being commonly implied by movie critics, Auteur Theory continues to represent a full conceptual validity)/

When Harry Met Sally. Dir. Rob Reiner. Perfs. Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher. Metro Goldwyn Meyer, 1989.

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