Annie Hall’s numerous elements of visual invention supplement the story’s main theme that art can reshape life into something more palatable and satisfying. The narrative itself works on this level, as Alvy revises the story to fit his desires. In addition, some of the film’s visual techniques allow a different, surprising way for Alvy to go back (literally) and editorialize on the past. Allen appropriates some techniques, such as direct addresses to the camera and a nonlinear timeline, from his own cinematic influences—Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and the Marx Brothers, among others. Other gags, entirely original and influential in their own right, serve to show that the film is not about the relationship but rather about Alvy’s idea of what the relationship was. They gags also reinforce Allen’s own image of a self-conscious artist who constantly uses art to revisit and revise his life. With movies, he has the power and control to do so publicly.
One of the most famous techniques used in Annie Hall is the double-exposed scene in which Alvy tries to coax Annie into having sex without the assistance of drugs. To display visually Annie’s distance and lack of interest, her body is double-exposed so that one Annie is in bed with Alvy while another rises out of bed to search for her drawing pad. Alvy speaks to both Annies, separately and collectively. The visual gag gives humorous emphasis to the conflict of the scene and of course revises what actually would have happened. The visual gag is entertaining and gets a laugh but also demonstrates that Alvy is fantasizing.
Another, similar, visual technique is the addition of subtitles that contradict the onscreen dialogue as Alvy and Annie converse on Annie’s balcony. The subtitles ostensibly offer their respective character’s thoughts as they chat nervously. This gag adds another layer of awareness to the scene, as well as a bit of humor in exposing the completely unrelated thoughts that most people have while interacting with someone they are attempting to attract. Again, the gag serves as a way to editorialize upon the story’s reality and also humorously point out the difference in perspective that two people have while participating in the same conversation.
Time travel and animation are other techniques that emphasize the fantastical aspect of Annie Hall. In several scenes, Alvy literally revisits the past and occasionally takes companions with him. He goes back to his childhood to defend his younger self’s actions by explaining them in Freudian terms. He takes his friend Rob back to a family party to prove a point about his uncle. He tags along as Annie pulls him along her relationship timeline. All of these moments allow Alvy and, vicariously, Allen, to return to the past, comment on it in terms of what has happened since, and of course slip in some self-reflective jabs at the expense of others, often family members. The animation scene takes this fantastical tack and pulls it in another direction, inserting the characters into a fictional cartoon in which Annie is portrayed as the wicked queen in Snow White and Alvy is portrayed as a childish victim. Clearly, Alvy is psychoanalyzing the situation too much. Other visually inventive elements in the film include interactive split screens, sudden physical transformations (such as when Alvy turns into a Hasidic Jew), and the sudden production of a real-life character (Marshall McLuhan) paired with the direct-to-camera comment “Boy, if only life were like this.” Together, these techniques support the notion that art can and should be used to reshape life into an easier-to-swallow, more fulfilling version of itself.
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