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Annie Hall

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

David Rakoff
December 22, 2006

As one might expect for the 1:30 showing on the Friday before Christmas, there are only about a dozen of us waiting. Our ranks swell to about thirty people closer to show time, but at first it’s just me and more than a few men of a certain age (whose ranks I join with ever-greater legitimacy each day), about whom it might be reasonably assumed that we spend an inordinate amount of time fixating on when next we might need to pee. Thoughts of age stay at the forefront in the first few minutes of the film, when Woody Allen himself (who, it must be said, in later scenes, stripped down to boxers, kind of had a rocking little body in his day) addresses the camera directly and tells us that he just turned forty. I’m older than that by two years.

How many times have I seen this, I wonder? Unquantifiable. The film is canonical and familiar and memorized, almost to the point of ritual. Perhaps this is the spiritual solace the faithful find in the formulaic rhythms of liturgy. It’s as comforting as stepping into a warm bath. Diane Keaton is enchanting, there is no other word for it. She comes on the screen and you can hear the slightest creaking in the audience as corners of mouths turn up. There is Christopher Walken, a peach-fuzzed stripling. And there, doe-eyed, with drum-tight skin: Carol Kane playing Alvy’s first wife, Alison Porchnick.

Alison Porchnick. Oy. I am generally known as an unfailingly appropriate fellow. I have very good manners. But when I fuck up, I fuck up big time. Suddenly, I am reminded of how, three years ago, I was on a story for an adventure magazine, an environmental consciousness-raising whitewater rafting expedition in Chilean Patagonia (about which the less said the better. It’s really scary. Others may call it exhilarating, and I suppose it is, the way having a bone marrow test finally over and done with is exhilarating. And Patagonia, Chilean Patagonia at least, while pretty, isn’t one tenth as breathtaking as British Columbia). On the trip with me were Bobby Kennedy, Jr., hotelier Andre Balazs, and Glenn Close, among others. Everyone was very nice, I hasten to add.

After lunch one day, my friend Chris, the photographer on the story, came up to me and said, “I’d lay off the Kennedy assassination jokes if I were you.”

I laughed, but Chris reiterated, not joking this time. “No, I’d really lay off the Kennedy assassination jokes. The lunch line…” he reminded me.

And then I remembered. I had been dreading this trip (see above about how totally justified I was in my trepidation) for weeks beforehand, terrified by the off-the-grid distance of this Chilean river, a full three days of travel away; terrified of the rapids and their aqueous meat-grinder properties; terrified of just being out of New York. All of this terror I took and disguised as an affronted sense of moral outrage, that such trips were frivolous, given the terrible global situation. I explained it to Glenn Close thusly:

“I was using the war in Iraq to try and avoid coming down here,” suddenly, unthinkingly invoking the part of Annie Hall when Alvy breaks off from kissing Alison because he’s distracted by niggling doubts: if the motorcade was driving past the Texas Book Depository, how could Oswald, a poor marksman, have made his shot? Surely there was a conspiracy afoot. Then, with Bobby Kennedy, Jr. helping himself to three-bean salad on the lunch line not five feet away, I switched into my Carol Kane as Alison Porchnick voice and said, “You’re using the Kennedy Assassination as an excuse to avoid having sex with me.” Then I followed that up with my Woody Allen imitation and finished out the scene. Nice. No one pointed out my gaffe or was anything other than gracious and delightful.

* * *

Despite how well I know the material, the film feels so fresh. All the observations and jokes feel like they’re being made for the first time, or are at least in their infancy. By later films they will feel hackneyed (in the movie Funny Girl, the process of calcification is even more accelerated. You get back from intermission and Barbra Streisand already feels like too big a star, a drag version of herself), but here it’s all just terrifically entertaining. And current! Alvy tells his friend Max that he feels that the rest of the country turning its back on the city—It’s the mid-70s. Gerald Ford to New York: Drop Dead, and all that jazz—is anti-Semitic in nature. That we are seen as left-wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. And so we remain, at least in the eyes of Washington and elsewhere, a pervy bastion of surrender monkeys. There was an Onion headline that ran after a sufficient interval of time had passed post-9/11, that essentially read, “Rest of country’s temporary love affair with New York officially over.”

Rest of the country’s perhaps, but mine was just beginning when I saw the film at age eleven. By the time the voice-over gets to the coda about how we throw ourselves over and over again into love affairs despite their almost inevitable disappointments and heartbreak because, like the joke says, “we need the eggs,” (if you need the set-up to the punchline, what on earth are you doing reading this?) I am weepy with love for the city. Although, truth be told, it doesn’t take much to get my New York waterworks going.

Walking out, my friend Rick, thirty-plus years resident said, “I had forgotten how Jewish a film it is.” I really hadn’t noticed. But I’m the wrong guy to ask. It’s like saying to a fish, “Do things around here seem really wet to you?” I wrote a book that got translated into German a few years back. There was a fascination among the Germans with what they perceived as my Jewish sensibility; a living example of the extirpated culture. I’ve said this before, but I felt like the walking illustration of that old joke about the suburbs being the place where they chop down all the trees and then name the streets after them. At least a dozen of the reviews referred to me as a “stadtneurotiker,” an urban neurotic, a designation that pleased me, I won’t lie. Especially when I found out the German title for Annie Hall: Der Stadtneurotiker.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.

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