Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Absurdity and Necessity of Love
Annie Hall follows Alvy as he searches for the secret to successful relationships and ultimately concludes that love is fleeting and ridiculous but absolutely necessary. He begins his narrative wondering out loud what caused his split with Annie. He ends it resigned to the idea that relationships are absurd but that people need them, absurdity and all. In between, he desperately tries to pinpoint what went wrong. Was it that book he read at age nine? His aggressive mother? The cocaine fiasco? After coming up empty, he even asks anonymous pedestrians to identify the key to happiness in relationships. The answers, of course, are unsatisfactory and belie the arbitrariness and absurdity of love. Alvy’s relationships with his two ex-wives also underline the dilemma. How can he now feel so underwhelmed by both of these women whom he once vowed to love until death? But despite its eagerness to point out these paradoxes, the film ends by celebrating the romance between Annie and Alvy, though failed, adding weight to Alvy’s final monologue about the necessity of relationships. Annie Hall simultaneously relishes and dismisses them.
The Transformative Nature of Art
Throughout the film, Alvy emphasizes the capacity of art to transform life into a more ideal version of reality. Narrative control allows him to revisit the past with revisionist intentions, imagine an animated version of his situation, and force geographically and temporally separate scenes and characters to interact. He also gets to call on a famous media expert (McLuhan) on a whim. Annie Hall also carries a tinge of regret, as though its narrator’s attempt to improve upon life is only halfhearted. Indeed, the fact remains that, regardless of the ending Alvy conjures up in his play, Annie and Alvy in reality do not last as a couple. Although the fantasy elements frequently add a layer of unpredictability and delight to the narrative, the basic elements and conflicts of the story are true to life.
Location As Identity
Annie Hall places a great deal of emphasis on geographical location as the foundation of personal identity. Alvy is characterized as a New Yorker, fiercely loyal to his city and condescending to all other locations on earth. Annie is a transplant, still getting her bearings in New York after growing up in a WASP household in the Midwest. Alvy criticizes her birthplace and upbringing—and in some ways her character—each time he mocks her “Chippewa Falls expressions.” When Alvy and Annie fly together to Los Angeles, Alvy constantly rails against what he sees as that city’s cultureless superficiality. Virtually all of the characters in the L.A. party scene are portrayed as vapid and unctuous. The contrast between Alvy’s relief at returning to New York and Annie’s enjoyment of their L.A. trip is depicted as a distinct personality difference. And when Alvy tries fruitlessly to get Annie back, he criticizes Los Angeles, suggesting that she leave L.A. not just for him, but also for New York. The cities represent two different lifestyles and identities.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The use of cultural stereotypes in the film pokes fun at the politically correct climate of 1970s New York. As a Jewish comedian, Alvy (like Woody Allen) has a vested interest in labeling himself and others for comedic purposes. The film plays around with stereotypes, treating them both seriously and ironically, using them as a tool to quickly label characters but also revealing the limits and cruelty of such labels. Annie Hall invokes stereotypes to reinforce and dispel prevalent cultural stereotypes. Alvy’s Jewishness is one example. In a conversation with Rob, he bemoans a remark he heard at lunch that he interprets as anti-Semitic. Later, at dinner with Annie’s family, he momentarily transforms into a Hasidic Jew, full beard and all, representing visually the Jewish stereotype that Annie’s family seems to hold. The film also uses stereotypes to define Alvy’s ex-wives quickly and cleverly and to reinforce the idea that L.A. is full of superficiality, as all Californian characters live up to the stereotype. Interestingly, Annie is the only character in the film who actively resists being stereotyped, defending her Midwestern upbringing and attraction to L.A. when Alvy uses them to attack her character.
In its heavy reliance on fantastical elements, Annie Hall features numerous instances of transformation, both visually and within the narrative. There are obvious examples, such as Alvy’s Hasidic Jew experience and the brief cartoon sequence, but other more subtle examples are scattered throughout the film. Annie transforms significantly during her relationship with Alvy, blooming from blushing wallflower to ambitious artist. She is open to new experiences and comfortable with the transformative experiences that drugs allow, using marijuana during sex so that she can, in a sense, perform better. Rob, too, transforms, moving to L.A. and embracing its lifestyle. Alvy, on the other hand, is apparently afraid to change. He refuses to use drugs, claiming they make him “unbearably wonderful,” and clings to his city and his life as though an upheaval would drastically harm him. Indeed, even his brief visit to L.A. results in physical illness. Nonetheless, though Alvy is resistant to change in his real life, he adopts it often in his art, riffing on life in his jokes and revising events in his play to fit his desires.
Performance is important to Annie Hall, especially in terms of its comedic aspects. The film is framed between two humorous monologues, suggesting that the film itself should be regarded as an entertaining performance rather than taken too seriously. Fundamentally, the film is a comedy and therefore intended to induce laughter; indeed, at its most basic level, it is simply a number of brief comic sketches pieced together. Performance is important not just for the viewer’s sake but also for the main characters, who occupy performative roles. Alvy is a comedian; Annie, a singer; Rob, an actor. By emphasizing performance as a career and as the function of the film, Annie Hall suggests that all social interaction, particularly as pertaining to romantic relationships, is performance. Surely, Alvy’s constant jokes, even in casual conversation, are a form of performance. And of course there are the scenes involving sex, failure to have satisfactory sex, or failure to have sex at all. Alvy avoids having sex with Allison because he simply can’t fake it anymore; Robin blames New York noise for preventing her successful performance; Annie needs pot to enjoy sex; Alvy is insecure about his performance generally, and after his first time with Annie, lavishes their coupling with praise. Sex is treated as a performance that can go very well or very, very badly.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
New York City symbolizes all that is Alvy Singer: it is gloomy, claustrophobic, and socially cold, but also an intellectual haven full of nervous energy. To Alvy, New York represents home, culture, life, and safety. It is his favorite place in the world, and he will defend it until death. Alvy is not comfortable anywhere else and longs for his city when away. The New York of Annie Hall is portrayed as a cultural mecca where Alvy feels free to cross the street without looking and ask strangers about their love lives. Indeed, Annie Hall is as much a love song to New York City as it is to the character Annie Hall. The film celebrates New York for its accessibility and intellectual climate. It is also viewed as the antithesis of the cultureless void that Alvy considers Los Angeles to be.
Los Angeles harbors only superficiality, self-indulgence, and empty glamour, according to Alvy and the film. On his visit with Annie, Alvy has a visceral, nauseated reaction to L.A. The city is blindingly bright, but sun is “bad for you,” Alvy says. Annie points out the streets’ cleanliness, and Alvy jokes that all the trash is put on television. Each overheard conversation at Tony Lacey’s party is a jab at Hollywood stereotypes: “All the good meetings are taken”; “I forgot my mantra”; “we’re gonna operate together.” Alvy views Annie’s move to L.A. almost as a personality defect, but it’s also a life-changing decision for her, one made entirely without Alvy’s input. When Alvy flies out to California to attempt a reconciliation, he makes snide cuts at Los Angeles and glorifies New York. Annie defends L.A., which has become a symbol for her freedom, saying “What’s so great about New York? I mean, it’s a dying city. . . . Alvy, you’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? You’re like New York City.” Annie has articulated her realization that Alvy will never change and that their relationship is dead.
Drugs appear in the film several times as a symbol of open-mindedness, youth, escape, and freedom. Annie uses them to enhance sex and for relaxation. She tries to persuade Alvy to smoke marijuana after sex, to no avail. Alvy is uncomfortable around mind-altering substances, saying they generally cause him only embarrassment. His claim is proven true when he does try cocaine at a friend’s apartment and ends up sneezing away thousands of dollars worth of the drug. Alvy feels too old and unhip to use drugs, which points to the profound contrast between Alvy’s narrow-mindedness and Annie’s interest in new experiences. Alvy views drugs much as he views L.A.: as glamorous and self-indulgent. He doesn’t understand Annie’s predilection for them. When he persuades Annie to have sex without marijuana, the results are hilarious, with Annie’s spirit literally rising up from her body in boredom in a double-exposed scene. While comic, this scene reveals Annie and Alvy’s sexual problems and the couple’s growing rift.
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