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One of the factors that contributed to Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall attaining cult status is the fact that in it, director succeeded in providing viewers with an analytical insight on what accounts for the actual subtleties of a sexual relationship between men and women through the lenses of distinctively Jewish humor.
According to Whitfield (1986), the notion of Jewish humor is being essentially synonymous to the notion of ‘black humor’ – that is, many Jewish-American comedians make a deliberate point in ridiculing traditionally ‘sanctified’ notions, such as love: “[Critics] have tried hard, stressing the proximity of Jewish humor to the suffering that is an ineluctable feature of this ancient people’s history” (Whitfield 245).
Therefore, the popularity of Annie Hall does not come as a particular surprise – apparently, in this film, Allen was able to present viewers with intellectually honest perspective onto purely technical/physiological characteristics of a sexual relationship between representatives of opposite genders.
In our paper, we will aim to explore the validity of this thesis by analyzing Allen’s treatment of physiological aspects of a sexual relationship and by emphasizing director’s tendency to refer to them from essentially qualitative perspective.
While watching Annie Hall, attentive viewers will be able to notice that, throughout movie’s entirety, the character of Alvy never cease trying to expose the primacy of people’s animalistic instincts over their often skin-deep layer of civilizational sophistication.
For example, in the scene where Alvy and Annie get to be invited to the party of left-wing intellectuals and consequently to have a conversation in hotel’s room, Alvy deliberately ridicules these people’s artificial pretentiousness, while implying that having sex is so much more productive type of activity then being exposed their friends’ blabbering about nothing: “All of those PhD’s are in there discussing modes of alienation, and we’ll be in here quietly humping” (00.21.28).
Nevertheless, even though Alvy’s existential mode appears to be firmly based upon his strongly defined sexuality, there is a fundamental difference between how he and Annie perceive the significance of sex. Whereas; Alvy’s sexual urges can be compared to a skin-rash, which goes away after being scratched, Annie’s sexuality appears to be an integral part of her identity – as film’s context implies, Annie is being always sexual and not just being sexual from time to time, as it is the case with Alvy.
The validity of this statement can be observed in the scene where Alvy and Annie are taking a leisurely stroll down the street in New York. During the course of this walk, Alvy addresses Annie’s sexuality as follows: “You are extremely sexy… you’re polymorphously perverse… you’re exceptional in bed because you get pleasure in every part of your body when I touch you” (00.36.25).
This Alvy’s statement reveals his rather acute understanding of the actual subtleties of female sexuality – unlike men, most women cannot mentally detach their psyche from their genitals, which is the reason why they become so easily aroused, as the result of being simply touched.
This is exactly the reason why, while pursuing sexual relationship with Alvy, Annie appears being focused on specifically emotional qualities of such a relationship – hence, striving to ensure relationship’s longetivity. Apparently, the physiologically predetermined workings of her psyche caused Annie to act that way.
As it was rightly noted by Knight (2004): “Annie’s sexual ambivalence mirrors her emotional ambivalence… So if, for Annie, the relationship began on an emotional note, for Alvy, the relationship began on a decidedly sexual note” (Knight 215).
While being just as sexual as Alvy (or even more), Annie nevertheless did not think of sex as ‘thing in itself’ but rather as the mean of exploring her individuality. In its turn, this explains why, unlike Alvy, Annie never ceased insisting that there should have been more to sex then just sex itself.
Therefore, under no circumstances should we be regarding Annie’s strive to associate sex with ‘meaningfulness’ as the proof of her being a particularly moral person. On the contrary – just as it is being the case with most women, Annie simply sought to gain a variety of additional (material and emotional) benefits from pursuing sexual relationship with Alvy.
The scene, in which Annie articulates her reasons to decide in favor of moving to Alvy’s apartment, illustrates the complete soundness of an earlier suggestion. Apparently, Annie truly believed that her relationship with Alvy had automatically entitled her to become his ‘second half’, in secular sense of this word: “Annie: You don’t want me to live with you? Alvy: I don’t want you to live with me? Whose idea was it?… You don’t want to be like we’re married, do you? (00.37.38).
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This particular scene in the movie illustrates once again that, in order for women to consider their sexual relationship with men ‘fulfilling’, they need to be able to confirm to themselves the sheer power of their sexual charms by the mean of ‘converting’ these charms into material and emotional assets, quite unrelated to sex as ‘thing in itself’.
There is another memorable scene in Annie Hall, the watching of which substantiates the validity of an earlier expressed idea. In that scene, Annie and Alvy are shown simultaneously talking to a psychologist, while providing him with geometrically opposite views on what in their minds accounts for intensity in sexual relationship: “Psychologist: How often do you sleep together? Alvy: Hardly ever, maybe three times a week. Annie: Constantly, I’d say three times a week” (01.06.36).
Given the fact that, as it was shown in film’s earlier parts, it was never too hard for Alvy to trigger Annie’s sexual arousal, we may assume that her sexually frigid responses to psychologist’s questions did not quite correlate with the physiological essence of her being – in other words, Annie’s answers were not intellectually honest. Thus, our earlier hypothesis that there are a number of unspoken aspects to Annie’s sexual agenda appears perfectly plausible.
Therefore, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that the particulars of how Allen went about depicting sex-related scenes in the movie, are being reflective of director’s perspective on the subject of sexual relationship as such that is being defined by qualitatively different approaches to sex, on the part of men and women.
Whereas; men associate sex with the notion of ‘relief’, women associate sex with the notion of ‘possession’. And, as psychologists are being well aware of, while pursuing sexual relationship with women, men strive to maintain their existential sovereignty – they strive to avoid being ‘possessed’ by women.
The earlier articulated idea explains the significance of clearly Freudian scene in the movie, where Alvy becomes terrified by being exposed to the sight of live lobsters in the kitchen (00.17.50).
Given the fact that the theory of psychoanalysis suggests people’s attitude towards the food to be indicative of the actual essence of their latent sexual urges, Alvy’s fear of lobsters appears to be nothing but an extrapolation of his fear of intensity in sexual relation with Annie.
According to Leblanc (1989): “The linking of the sexual with the gastronomical sharply characterizes Allen’s use of food imagery… Allen’s fascination with eating, results in a tendency to use food as a symbol for sex rather than as its substitute” (Leblanc 23).
Leblanc’s suggestion provides us with the insight on what contributes to film’s humorous appeal more than anything else does. Even though, throughout movie’s entirety, Alvy applies a substantial effort into representing himself as sex-driven individual, capable of pursuing sexual relations with apparent ease, as plot unravels, viewers become gradually aware of Alvy’s sex-related shyness, as an integral part of his individuality.
As we have implied in the Introduction, the watching of Annie Hall may come in particularly handy for those who strive to define the qualitative essence of sexual relationships between men and women. The reason for this is simple – Allen’s film exposes these relationships as such that should be accessed through the lenses of biology rather than through the lenses of ethics, as some naïve people may believe. In Annie Hall, the untamed sexuality of women is being put against the tamed sexuality of men.
Therefore, it comes as not a particular surprise that the break, in the relationship between film’s two main characters, appears to have affected Alvy more than it did affect Annie.
Just as he had proven himself helpless, while dealing with a spider in Annie’s bathroom (spider in this particular scene is being used as an allegory of female sexuality), Alvy had proven himself defenseless against Annie’s charms. Therefore, allegorically speaking, Annie Hall is the movie about how Alvy ended up being devoured by Annie’s sexuality. We believe that such our conclusion is being consistent with paper’s initial thesis.
Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perfs. Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts. United Artists, 1977.
Knight, Christopher “Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: Galatea’s Triumph over Pygmalion.” Literature/Film Quarterly 32.3 (2004): 213-220.
Leblanc, Ronald “Love and Death and Food: Woody Allen’s Comic Use of Gastronomy.” Literature/Film Quarterly 17.1 (1989): 18-30.
Whitfield, Stephen “The Distinctiveness of American Jewish Humor.” Modern Judaism 6.3 (1986): 245-260.