Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Annie Hall (1977)

Then Like Sleeper, I’ve seen Annie Hall so many times our first acquaintance has dipped out of my memory. My suspicion is that it was, like so many of these early Allens, at Leeds Metropolitan University, presumably from one of the library’s off air recordings, because I subsequently used clips of the film to punctuate a video documentary I made about Leeds for a Practical Presentation Skills module (particularly the scene in the foyer of the cinema before a screening of Bergman’s Persona when Annie turns up late and “Max” won’t go in because it’s already begun even though he’ll “only miss the titles and they’re in Swedish”). The fact that I can quote the scene in those brackets demonstrates why the idea of the first time I’ve seen the film is rather a mute point.

Now In his interview with Stig Bjorkman, Woody describes his motivation for making Annie Hall thus:
“I really feel it was a major turning point for me. I had the courage to abandon … just clowning around and the safety of complete broad comedy. I said to myself, ‘I think I will try and make some deeper film and not be as funny in the same way. And maybe there will be other values that will emerge, that will be interesting or nourshing for the audience. And it worked out well.”
It certainly did, with the film attracting six Oscar nominations, winning five (beating Star Wars, which was, for the benefit of younger readers that year’s Avatar) -- best picture, best director, best screenplay and best actress for Diane Keaton. Woody lost out in the acting category to Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl. Arguably it was his career high – there would be further nominations and awards (Hannah and Her Sister was nominated for best picture in 1989), but never again would he attract both critical and popular support in quite that same way.

Previously I suggested that watching these films in order was like seeing an embryo develop into something more recognisable. Actually on reflection these early pictures are like a symphony with Annie Hall as the completing crescendo. From Take The Money And Run we have the anarchic approach to continuity, from Bananas the post-modernity of pulling in real people, Alvy is arguably a close cousin in temperament to Allen from Play It Again, Sam and there’s the surrealism of Sex*, Sleeper and the philosophical underpinnings of Love & Death, capped off with the New York sensibilities of The Front. There's some wonderfully perceptive material here about the style.

How much of this is down to his collaborator Marshall Brickman is open to conjecture. I’ve speculated previously that Brickman (fittingly considering his surname) pulls the structure of these collaborations together and certainly Annie Hall has the strongest story of any of the previous Allen authored films.

It’s also extremely participatory, expecting the audience to be able to follow the ins and outs of a relationship with they’re often selecting the beats often ignored in other films, such as the division of possessions after a break up and dissatisfaction of the post-relationship one night stand demonstrated in the simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking repetition of the lobster scene where Alvy realises that he’ll never recreate the chemistry he had with Annie.

Apparently some of that was to do with the original cut of the film reaching two and a half hours and a lot of subplots and other material being cut out, including more fantasy sequences, but I think the point stands. We're trusted to fill in the gaps.

The result is a film which has been strip-mined for homages and references across the years and influenced dozens of romantic comedies and still does. From Jack Black saying “Those who can teach…” in School of Rock to Danny Baker appropriating “Boy if only life were like this” as his radio catchphrase, as with the best of classic films it has seeped into culture. What is Family Guy if not an extension of the moment when Annie turns into the Wicked Queen from Snow White over and over again? The young Woody confronting his sexuality even turns up again near the beginning of Cameron Crowe’s Singles (“Spam!” “Uuuuh!”) Arguably it also defined the careers of Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, both of whom would spend the rest of their lives playing versions of these characters:

My favourite scene this time around was the other foyer scene in which Alvy is forced to listen to the pop academia of the man standing in the queue behind him critiquing Fellini. Partly it's because I know I’ve been on both sides of that event but mostly because before I took a module about Science in Entertainment Media on my post-graduate film course I didn’t know who Marshall McLuhan was. So when Woody wheels the scholar out to defend his work I finally understood what the director was trying to do here and the significance of his choice of academic. Annie Hall is a film which risks alienating its audience by sometimes expecting even rewarding it for having a post-graduate education. How gloriously pretentious! More please.

Angela and Jordan reunited.

TV I can't let the day end without commenting on this photo which features Claire Danes and Jared Leto, My So-Called Life's Angela and Jordan pictured together for the first time since the mid-90s:

For some us, this is like a Beatles reunion and as has been noted almost everywhere else, the remarkable element is that they look exactly as you'd assume their characters would be now. Priya Elan's suggestions for the substance of that are spot on, though as I said in the comments, it's odd how many fan-fics assume Rayanne wouldn't have made it through to the final season.

I always like to think that her outcome wouldn't be too dissimilar to the actress who played her - A.J. Langer - married an English Lord. As the wikipedia entry for the now Allison Joy Langer Courtenay, Lady Courtenay describes:
"Langer married Charles Peregrine Courtenay, Lord Courtenay (born 14 August 1975), the son of Hugh Courtenay, 18th Earl of Devon, in a civil ceremony in 2004. A formal wedding took place on 30 April 2005, in Los Angeles, California. Lord and Lady Courtenay plan to live in England at Lord Devon's seat, Powderham Castle in Devon, but not in the near future as Lord Courtenay is a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles. He plans eventually to hold dual citizenship (United Kingdom/United States). On 31 January 2007, Langer's daughter, Joscelyn Skye Courtenay, was born. On August 16 2009 she had a son, Jack Haydon Langer Courtenay."
Another omission is the fate of Sharon Cherski, but she always seemed destined for a teary farewell at a railway station at the close of the second season having recklessly married a jock who's heading to the majors, never to be heard of again, with some new character, presumably played by Sarah Paulson, filling the void.

Quick, someone get Julianna Hatfield and W. Snuffy Walden on the phone. This needs a soundtrack. Or as my t-shirt (which will have to be worn at the weekend) says:

"This life has been a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have received actual instructions on where to go and what to do."

Plug!: Lodestar Theatre Company's The House That Dripped Horror

Plug! Lodestar, whose Hamlet experiment I enjoyed so much last year have a new show coming up and I've offered to published the press release by way of an advertisement. Here it is:
The House That Dripped Horror is a newly devised show from Lodestar that celebrates the glory of the B-movie.

Three fantastical tales of alien abduction, vampiric possession and a massive lizard!!!

SHUDDER as Dracula rises from his tomb

SHRIEK as your loved ones are transformed into hideous aliens and

FEEL YOUR EYES BURST as Godzilla battles the entire US army!!!

(and count the Exclamation marks in this press release !!!!)

Join us down in the crypt at Liverpool Contemporary Urban Centre from March 30th – April 3rd for an unforgettable evening of creepy comedy courtesy of Lodestar: award-winning producers of The Liverpool Shakespeare festival.

Tickets are available from NOVAS CUC 0151 7083529 or on the door. Prices: £9 standard, £7 concessions including CUC booking fee. Show time 7.30pm

We love old films and have written three scripts of our own:

Behold the claws of Dracula!

They came from Venus! In 3D!


Godzilla – Emperor of Monsters!

At the moment the cast of 7 is in the process of squeezing each one down to a twenty-minute stage version. With a tiny budget and sequences like ‘Godzilla battles the entire US air-force’ and ‘The Aliens destroy New York’ to represent, we’ve had to find creative and imaginative solutions. David Ben Shannon, our genius composer is writing the scores as we work. It is fast paced, highly inventive physical theatre that celebrates the tacky glory of the B-movie - and we’re doing it in a crypt!

This is something of a new direction for Lodestar, in that it’s not Shakespeare – and this is certainly not Shakespeare – but we are a company of eclectic tastes and we think our audience will have as much fun watching this as we have had making it. We’ll be back to the Shakespeare in the summer – the public have been voting on our website in our ‘What would you like to see next?’ poll and the front-runner is Romeo and Juliet, which currently has 50% of the votes. More to come before then though – in late May / early June, Benn Stott (Macbeth 08) will be starring in the wig-tastic musical, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ at The Kazimier and we continue to run regular classes at the Contemporary Urban Centre in Acting, Improvisation and Shakespeare in Performance.

All the details are on our website

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  • Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: The Front (1976)

    Then 1994. Winter. Another Friday night at university, another film from Leeds Metropolitan University’s collection.

    Now A forgotten film in some ways (it doesn’t even feature in the index of Woody Allen on Woody Allen), The Front should stand alongside the eco-system of 70s films, spoken in the same breath as All The President’s Men and The French Connection. That it's not could be attributed the subject matter which must still have been quite raw even a couple of decades later – the blacklisting of writers during the Communist witch hunt of the 50s. Allen plays a gambling debt-laden bar cashier who agrees, for 10% of the profits, to be the front for a group of television writers who’ve been placed on McCarthy’s list and though his motives are initially noble circumstances push him into taking a stand.

    Based on the real experiences of writer Walter Bernstein and director Martin Ritt, The Front offers us Allen’s first dramatic pure acting role. In The Woody Allen Companion, Stephen Spignesi suggests that its his first “non-Woody role” and to an extent that is true – this isn’t the madcap figure blundering about in the future or Napoleonic Russia. But the tone of his performance isn’t too far away from his work as Play It Again, Sam’s Allan Felix -- it’s simply that with the exception of a couple of notable one-liners, conversations aren’t gag laden and indeed watching the film in the midst of these comedies there are moments when the ear is attuned waiting for the witty retort but a banality is deliberately offered instead.

    In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that in the build up to the film’s release a level of expectation grew of the kind that no film would be able to live up to which in his eyes it doesn’t. Ebert then suggests that the failure of the film in his eyes can be attributed to having this figure at the centre of the film is a blunder, because however much it might be pushing towards the “larger statement” it’s undercut by the fallacy that these television executives and script editors are unable identify as fake someone who clearly doesn’t have the ability to write a laundry list. He suggests: “The movie becomes a suspenseful game: If Woody gets unmasked, will he lose the girl and have to slice pastrami again? The moral issues involved become an inconvenience; blacklisting is the backdrop for a situation comedy.”

    I think that’s a rather harsh criticism. As George Clooney’s later film on the same theme, Good Night and Good Luck demonstrated, Mccarthyism is a rather dour, tragic subject. That film accomplished its aims of bringing that period of history in the “entertainment” industry to book through great speeches and stylisation. The Front’s approach is more akin to fantasy; yes, Woody’s acclaim is a fantasy but I think there’s enough of a hint to suggest that both the producer and his girlfriend the script editor are in denial – how else would the accept the rapidity with which he appears to submitting scripts and the variations in style? But I also think, the heavy dramatic and thematic lifting is being done by the Hecky Green character played by Zero Mostell, whose stunning performance demonstrates the crushing effects the blacklist had on performers who happened to mix with the wrong people at the wrong time causing the destruction of their life and reputation.

    What is notable is that even though Woody’s apparently simply an actor here, it’s his first film which is set completely in New York, that breathes the city. Danny Aiello even plays a greengrocer. From his character Howard Prince’s initial mildewed apartment to the street sellers and book keeper to the cafés and restaurants were he takes his meetings through to the upmarket dinner parties and the television studios and out to the Catskills, The Front spans the Big Apple taking a wide look at the complexity of its landscape and citizens in ways that even his more icon films can’t and a year before Annie Hall.

    Forget Love & Death, a case could be made for this being the transitional film and perhaps it was as he found himself shooting on the streets of his home town that he felt ready to make as he says in the Bjorkman interview “some deeper film and not be as funny in the same way. And maybe there will be other values that will emerge, that will be interesting or nourishing for the audience.” Certainly the production team is filled out with what were already Woody’s stalwarts, who would go on to produce Annie Hall and onward -- Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Ritt and Jack Rollins.

    Video: Killed The Radio Star

    Music The first ten minutes of Mtv. Finally discover what the second song played on the station was:

    Ironically, reality television ultimately killed the video star at least in Mtv terms and despite the surgery, Heidi Montag still wouldn't look as good in those leather pants. Meaow. Hi, I'm Stuart Ian Burns and I'll be here for the rest of my life. Over to you JJ Quinn.

    Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Love & Death (1975)

    Then My original love for Woody Allen’s films probably stems from time spent at my friend Tris’s house in the early nineties. When I first moved to my current flat, he was the school mate who lived around the corner and I’d somehow end up there at least once a week, watching films, listening to music and talking about how we were going to change the world -- or at the very least get a television series about twentysomethings living in the then Bohemian atmosphere of Lark Lane commissioned. It’s during one even that I first saw Love & Death via an off air recording on his top loading VHS player.

    Now Given the budget Woody must have been commanding and a shoot in Hungary with a thousand extras and an amazing attention to period detail, another director, however apparently comedic, may have decided to try and make a wider, accessible point about war and humanity over a leisurely two hours. See Doctor Zhivago. Allen instead transfers his usual comic persona and scattershot approach to humour to the Napoleonic Wars, spoofing everything from Tolstoy to Eisenstein and expecting his audience to be in on the joke, have that kind of recall of classical literature. Sometimes we are. Sometimes we’re simply laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. But it also shows a change in the times that Allen could make a film with this depth of satire for a major studio.

    I remember finding the music fairly incongruous first time around; popularly Prokokiev’s main theme is known as Sleigh Ride and turns up on innumerable Christmas compilation albums. Woody says the choice of this music was because they’d tried Stravinsky but those themes were too stark and he wanted some much lighter and brisker. But the movement is from the 1934 Soviet film Lieutenant Kijé (availble at the Internet Archive) directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer based on the novel of the same title by Yury Tynyanov about a misread report during the reign of Czar Paul I (the son of Catherine the Great) leading to the creation of a fictional Lieutenant, the kind of story that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of these earlier funny pictures (and bares a striking resemblance to Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe).

    Other than that, everything else you need to know in the trailer. In fact, the trailer strays very close to offering nearly the whole film, with some of the best jokes, in two and half minutes:

    It's Sleeper with cossacks.

    Call Centre Tips.

    Commerce I've just sent a version of the following to someone in a comment in the spirit of waste not, want not ... it's on the subject of dealing with a genuine complaint at a call centre. Based on my experience on both sides of the phone:
    The secret of call centres (which people often don't really know unless they've worked for them) is that the person they're speaking to is always at the bottom of a very tall ladder. Oh and if you're especially nice to them, they're more likely to give you the world if they're empowered to do so.

    If you can't get any joy from the initial advisor, you can ask to speak to their manager (sometimes call a team coach) either via a callback or they may take over the call. Often they're more likely to give you things like refunds or if it's a particularly bad failure on their part compensation.

    If that doesn't work -- or they don't manage to convince you that the company hasn't done anything properly wrong (which sometimes they can better than the advisor), they too will have a manager (sometimes called a floor or ops manager) and someone above them all of whom you should be able to talk to if you need to.

    That said, some places also have a customer care team and if you have a complaint you'll be transferred to there and it's their job to make you happy. That was a particular joy during my brief stint at Nat West because it meant that we personally didn't have to deal with the above escalation procedure.

    Failing all of that there will be a proper complaints/escalation department abd you should be able to get their details from the advisor or by googling the name of the company and "complaints department" with the usual regional adjustments.

    The Narrator (!).

    TV I have a question about this action figure from the new Doctor Who The End of Time releases:

    Why the hell have we waited decades for a Rassilon action figure (and in the shape of Timothy Dalton), only for Character Options to splatter "The Narrator" across the front of it as though that's the character's name?

    Plus, is that the best they could do in terms of accessories? Where are The Sash of Rassilon, The Crown of Rassilon, The Key of Rassilon, The Harp of Rassilon, The Ring of Rassilon and the Black Scrolls?


    Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Sleeper (1973)

    Then A film I’ve seen so many times, if I’m being honest I can’t actually remember my first viewing. My pre-dvd copy was a late 1997 off-air recording from an Eddie Izzard theme night (Channel Izzard) were he outed it as one of his favourite films. Sadly that tape has been lost in the mists of time (or more precisely a life laundry in the early noughties so therefore the local incinerator) so I can’t say exactly what Izzard thought of the film. But loads of other material from the evening is available on YouTube.

    Now A true classic and one of my favourite films. From the script to the performances to photography to design it’s a work which is not just very funny, but intelligent and manages to work as both political satire and valid piece of dystopian science fiction, drawing correctly on everything from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (and more specifically Truffaut’s later film) to Orwell’s 1984, lightly seasoned with some of The Brothers Grimm. It’s also a bloody good screwball comedy. Amazing.

    According to Stig Bjorkman’s interview with Woody, the original idea for the film was for an expensive four hour piece, which began with a two hour New York comedy that ended with Miles being frozen, then an intermission and with the rest of the film set 500 years in the future (Dennis Potter’s final plays would execute a similar plan with Karaoke and Cold Lazarus). United Artists loved the idea but ultimately Allen decided it was too big a task so decided to go with the second half and roped in his old tv cohort Marshall Brickman to co-write.

    Perhaps that’s the reason why, at this early stage it manages to finally balance the needs of story and comedy. I commented in my Bananas review that Woody hadn’t quite managed to meld his character and comic beats together yet always going for the joke when he needed building up his characters (that’s also true of Don’t Drink The Water). Perhaps Brickman’s nuts and bolts structure man and Woody provided the funny or its simply that with each film he’s gaining in confidence and developing a better idea of what he’s trying to accomplish.

    It’s his first film to eschew zany animation or white rabbits for writing on a black background with a jazz soundtrack, though the font is all wrong and too large and there’s no “cast in order of appearance” in brackets at the front. That music was recorded live by Woody himself with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra and provides a very post-modern counterpoint to the proceedings especially in relation to the red helmeted state police who come across as nothing more than a high-tec keystone cops.

    The costume design is from Joel Schumaker who blaze through the eighties directing the likes of St Elmo’s Fire and Flatliners before blighting us in the nineties with his Batman films (& Robin being the first film I ever walked out of) and never really recovering. Two scenes recall the silent era. When in his android butler make-up, Woody has more than a passing resemblance to Harold Lloyd and the tape machine in the job his given by the administration recalled Chaplin’s Modern Times (and a cut price Metropolis for that matter). Plus – look at the instant cake scene. How did they manage that? No CGI! No CGI! No CGI!

    Sleeper has another of Woody's bespoke trailers. Ironically, much of everything he says could later be attributed to Interiors. Apart from the bit about the love story. And it being for the family.