Woody Allen’s Alfie in Annie Hall, a known bit of wisdom: a relationship is like a dead shark. It has to keep moving or it dies.
Annie Hall can be a favorite movie, easily. The AFI Top 100 list thinks so. I think so! Why do I think so? In a “sentence”: against a constellation of other New York love stories like When Harry Met Sally or Moonstruck – stories I fell for during that impressionable period of my life when all my dreams were of living in the city and celebrating love in Central Park – Annie Hall is an ode to a relationship that collapses. Furthermore, this love collapses for no single catacylsmic reason; Woody and Diane are just not right for each other. They take many moons to realize this, and it’s all sort of amicable and quiet, really, and maybe you cry at the end because of how un-shocking the fall is. How pedestrian, how almost-predictable, how see-able from the outside, how familiar: their story began. The beginning of the movie is the courtship and the coyness. The end – rather logically if you think about it! – is what went wrong.
Other movies that are this story: 500 Days of Summer. Mike Birbiglia’s fabulous new piece Sleepwalk with Me. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, last summer’s Like Crazy. As an amateur scholar of the American romantic comedy, I think it is still quite rare and surprising to watch a relationship movie in which the real story is how great love unspools and meet its maker. The joy in being witness to this not-so-phenomenon is twofold, for me: 1) this has happened to me! In fact, this is “what really happens!” 2) (entre Debbie Downer) mostly, statistically, this happens more often than the Big Kiss on the top of the Empire State Building. In your life, maybe you’ve been lucky enough to feel deep, earth-shaking love. Maybe you’re still in it. But more likely you’ve felt it and seen it expire. More likely you’ve spent hours going over and over your mistakes, assigning blame, basic stalking…it’s almost cathartic, if you think about it, watching a movie where the people don’t end up together. You get to see from the outside why it doesn’t work! Just like your friends usually can and do and don’t say, what a privilege! What a curious solace, to know you’re not the only person who feels they royally screwed up something wonderful, or hurt someone, or let happiness steal from their room in the night! We are all like this. So really, we’re all profoundly un-alone at the end of the REAL STORY. Your love failed and so did mine. Ta-da…
*MANY SPOILER ALERTS*…
The morality of the rom-com, now; I have some words and feelings for Cindy Chupack and Darrin Starr and Sarah Jessica Parker. They created a cultural zeitgeist in the late 90s that really had too much impact on my life. Overheard in real time at this very cafe I write in: “That is such a CHARLOTTE thing to say! He’s Jewish, too!”
If you also thought it was suddenly okay to buy a tutu in 2004 and start writing personal essays with a lot of rhetorical questions scattered in, maybe you don’t want to admit how much Sex and the City shaped your particular idea of love in New York. But here’s the clincher: so we spent six seasons and two feature films watching a woman (Carrie Bradshaw) pursue a man (Mr. Big) who was just wrong for her, just totally wrong, and sometimes it seemed like she saw this and other times her friends did but in the end he saved her, on a bridge, in Paris, in the end they kissed sweetly and the credits rolled. To an extent, I do understand my militant feminist friends and their cries of HOW DARE WE SHOW THIS TO YOUNG GIRLS! I assign certain of my delusional faculties to SJP and SJP alone. Because in this love story, you are privy to the realism (in parcels) and the complexity implicit in years of history with another person – only things still work out in the end. They work out in the end with dreamy aplomb, and with a seeming disregard for the errors and awfuls that shaped Carrie-Big (Barry? Cig?) and would seem to doom a relationship existing in the real world. Another example here is the end of Arthur, where a smitten Liza Minelli takes on the UNDENIABLY ALCOHOLIC Dudley Moore like a nurse accepting a ward. Red friggin flags, you guys. I love this show and that movie fiercely but I’ve been noticing this compulsion I have to separate the realist cinema’s intentions from the escapist-cinema’s intentions: what does it mean to peddle art that walks and talks like real life but ends in fantasy? Or vice versa? Isn’t there an obligation to we the impressionable in such story-telling? Not that I’ve ever really mistaken a Meg Ryan movie for a documentary, but still…
Take our girl Lena Dunham. She’s a hot-button lady these days because she is making money in realism-cinema, and for my part Girls feels so close to home it preempts my theatrical distance, even enjoyment. Yet I watch Sex and the City and am prompted to ask myself what it is I want from romantic comedies in the first place. Is it that assurance that damage is universal, or is it the clearly fabricated coziness of love against ALL THE ODDS? Against emotional stuntedness or ALCOHOLISM? Making it personal, now. What do you want, B? What do you see? What do you think is true, or hopeful, in these stories, to your life?
Some more notes for your files: a character in Lorrie Moore’s book A Gate at the Stairs writes, “I’d gone back to thinking, no, the wedding was the end. It was the end of the comedy. That’s how you knew it was a comedy. The end of comedy was the beginning of all else.” Think also of Jeff Eugenides’ recent book, The Marriage Plot. These stories, being novels, proceed with the assumption that life goes on past the rolling credits of, say, Sleepless in Seattle – we just don’t see it. Probably, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks board a plane to Washington and find there is nothing to say (think also of that ending scene in The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross stare into a vacant, terrified space). Presumably, there will be a lot of paperwork and awkwardness negotiating her cross-country move to live with a stranger, but since that’s not necessarily theatrically interesting we take it for granted. And it’s true. On a practical note, the love story is sometimes just more FUN to watch. Perhaps we ought to be taking these movies with grains upon grains of salt, as opposed to so frigging seriously. Yet Annie Hall is a serious movie. And looking for and tripping on and falling in and out of love is a pretty serious thing. In France and Italy, there are movies made that treat this subject with according gravitas. I think it’s only in America that “rom-com” is an inherently derogatory term, maybe only in America that true love always equates tripe. Necessitates giggles. Maybe. Truth in both, of course.
And finally, some world-bending. Richard Linklater/Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke and Before Sunrise, which to this date signifies to me the perfect blending of the seeming-real and the seeming-wistful. This film is probably very dangerous to me, as such. Characters Celine and Jesse meet on a train bound for Vienna and decide to get off together. They spend a day side by side and faults are find-able and celebrated: Celine’s a neurotic, guarded intellectual and Jesse’s fopish, with an element of the douche in his earnestness. Yet we see why they come together… and how they could fall apart…or make it work. Big, fat, spoiler: the movie ends with her getting on a train, and them promising to meet several months from now. Do they?
And why is this plodding conversation with no special effects and a scarce soundtrack and no make-up and no frills no fuss some teehees some sadness the most compelling to me, this: isn’t all of love and like that suspense between fantasy and realism? All of love and like is suspense and foolishness and should-I-or-no, and the best part is no directions or answers or conclusions. All the love and like I’ve really witnessed is idiot straddling grace and truth chewing on fiction. I watch this movie and my heart aches because I see what it’s like to be young. To have young person notions about the way of things. So do they? Do they get together? Isn’t that the point? Which part is the STORY?
We’re saved! It takes eight years and an equally impressive/cryptic sequel to tell. And even then, one is left wondering. It takes place in real time. It’s shot with a single camera. If you were a dunce or just wanted to believe, you could tune in to this movie on Showtime and maybe mistake it for a documentary. Har dee had har….maaaaaaaaaaybe.