Annie Hall is a document of its time. Released in the 1970s, it comes dressed in its historical period and geographic setting. As such, the film is an artifact that records the intellectual climate of New York City in the late 1970s. Nearly all of its jokes rely on knowledge of then-current cultural events and figures, as well as prevalent cultural stereotypes. To watch Annie Hall is to be plucked from your seat in the twenty-first century and dropped onto a street corner in Manhattan in 1977. The immersion is at once delightful and bewildering, and viewers too young to remember the 1970s are likely to miss out on some laughs without knowledge of how Freud, Fellini, and others factored into the cultural landscape of the time. In a sense, Annie Hall is educational, and its name-dropping is often tongue-in-cheek, simultaneously giving glory to and making fun of the pretentious Manhattan intelligentsia that both attracts and repels Alvy Singer.
Freud’s ideas exert a great influence on Annie Hall and its depiction of relationships. Psychoanalysis as a form of self-help was at its peak in the 1970s, and in New York City, nearly ubiquitous. In both narration and dialogue, Alvy uses his knowledge and experience of psychoanalysis to guide him through current relationships and reevaluate past ones. These experiences inform the story’s disjointed retelling, in which one scene is followed by an indirectly related scene, entirely out of sequence and in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. The narration jumps from the present to Alvy’s childhood to midway through his relationship with Annie to their first meeting and so on, making for a jagged chronology that could conceivably follow the course of a session between Alvy and his analyst. But while Alvy treats his psychoanalysis sessions with reverence, an ever-present chuckle runs throughout the film at any mention of the technique. Alvy recognizes the failings of psychoanalysis but clings to it nevertheless.
Similarly, Alvy clearly is part of the New York intelligentsia, yet he claims to find that group self-important, elitist, and cold, constantly pointing out the absurdities of its set of social rules. His love-hate attitude is revealed in the film’s preface-like opening, in which Alvy paraphrases Allen’s idol, Groucho Marx, who himself was paraphrasing Sigmund Freud: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” Alvy is eager to be accepted into the artistic, intellectual crowd but finds this same crowd insufferable. To Alvy, Annie is a refreshing alternative to his usual New York scene. He is fascinated by her Wisconsin background and her frequent use of the word neat but pokes fun at her at the same time. And while Alvy falls in love with and celebrates Annie’s otherness, he attempts to indoctrinate her into the very scene he wants to escape. He mocks Sylvia Plath, whose poem collection Ariel he finds in Annie’s apartment, and suggests Annie instead read theory-heavy books about death—a concept that profoundly affects the way he views life. He advises her to go back to school, and then gets upset when she establishes a relationship with a professor. He encourages her to improve herself and continue singing, but when she does begin to succeed, he becomes controlling and unsupportive. Annie Hall is a Pygmalion-like story, with Alvy shaping Annie in his image until she finds the self-confidence and independence to strike out on her own. Even then, he criticizes her choice of residence. Annie Hall is a constant paradox, reflecting Allen’s ability to make fun of intelligentsia in intelligent fashion without letting his protagonist off the hook.