Friday, November 14, 2008

Annie Hall and the Challenges to Romantic Comedy Convention

Alvy's Classmate: For God's sake, Alvy, even Freud speaks of a latency period.
Alvy Singer: Well, I never had a latency period. I can't help it.

Although a lot has already been said of Woody Allen's Annie Hall the full weight of its "Freudianism" has been left out, especially regarding the later writings of Freud. Woody Allen was no stranger to the works of Sigmund Freud, indeed this knowledge played a very important part in his films, so it is forgiveable to call Allen himself a Freudian filmmaker. In order to show the depth of Allen's Freudianism and how it challenges certain established conventions it is necessary to pinpoint what exactly Woody Allen’s screen persona is, using Annie Hall (1977) as an example, then to locate what conventions of the Romantic Comedy it is a challenge to.

Film critics are ready to accept Annie Hall as a romantic comedy and no popular film website or book challenges this film belonging to this genre. But when watching the film it is obvious that the typical optimism of a RomCom is disturbed. What Annie Hall does which this sub-genre of comedy would usually erase is denote the impossibility of love. Or rather it shows the impossibility of love for a “Manhattenesque” intellectual pessimist. Indeed this impossibility is furthered by Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer being a self-conscious Freudian undergoing analysis. As Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ only for Alvy he is not able to live for he is forever examining. Even more relevant is Kierkegaard’s quote ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but... it must be lived forwards’ though for Alvy Singer his (Freudian) obsession with analysing his childhood to understand why he is the way he is, condemns him to a life that cannot properly be lived forwards. Indeed this is aptly summarised by Alvy’s theatrical play about his time with Annie, as he says himself “you know how you’re always tryin’ t’ get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”. It’s as if the only way to psychically patch things up with Annie and experience a proper closure is to rectify his relationship outside of reality – something he says he has always confused anyway.

Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik identify in Woody Allen his ‘incurably incompetent character’ which is not as challenging to Romantic Comedy convention as the questions about love Alvy Singer cries at the people on the street of New York. When the young couple tell Alvy that shallowness of the mind is “love’s only guarantee of durability” then he realises that love is his impossible project. Implicitly in the answer that the young couple give Alvy, they tell him that unexamined love may or may not be worth living, but its the only thing that keeps it alive. Alvy is at the point of his analysis where examination is no longer an option, deeming the durability of his love with Annie as improbable. And indeed this is their loves fete. As such, his incompetence does precede his challenge to Romantic Comedy convention.

As Geoff King points out, Alvy Singer encapsulates the notion of romance as ‘complex, frustrating and elusive’. For Alvy, if romance could just simply be romantic then he would bypass all his pent up anguish, however his tension concerning romance is a reluctance of commitment to a post-feminist heterosexual union. It seems his main battle is to synthesise his fantasy of the old-fashioned couple and the “Manhattenesque” female independence. In comic fashion, his inability to find a synthesis between the two sees him spy on Annie after she has just finished a class, where it is she begins to find his paranoia intrusive.

Alvy’s paranoia demonstrates the same vulnerability which Annie previously found affection for. However, in trying to craft in Annie his perfect woman – one who takes classes at Columbia and who takes analysis – Alvy helps provide Annie with the necessary confidence for her to leave him. At this point, Annie is also able to examine her own life, and she envisages, as Babington and Evans call it, her ‘“second sex” status’.

Another element to Woody Allen’s screen persona which precedes his being a challenge to Romantic Comedy convention is his preoccupation with stereotypes. This also relates to his being an exemplary Jewish humorist – a point I shall come back to further on. On Alvy’s first meeting with Allison Portchnik, he labels her as a typified New York, Jewish, Liberal intellectual after she tells him the subject of her thesis, to which she replies ‘I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype’. In a way, Woody Allen’s screen persona is a reduction to a cultural stereotype. One critic has suggested that telling jokes about the racial/religious group one belongs to is at once a knowledge of the negative stereotypes others have about that group, whilst it not being an affirmation of that negative stereotype. Alvy’s complaint “I distinctly heard it. He muttered under his breath, “Jew”” is at once Alvy Singer being paranoid about his Jewishness, and Woody Allen’s portrayal of the stereotypical paranoid Jew.

Indeed there is something rather unique about Jewish humour. It was Freud who distinguished humour (or as the title of his study suggests, wit) from jokes and comedy. The difference is that anyone can tell jokes or churn out prescribed forms of comedy if they chose to, humour on the other hand is something inherent in ones psychological make-up. So what is inherent in Woody Allen’s humour? His pessimistic, self-deprecating humour is characteristic of Jewish humour. With even a limited knowledge of Judaism one can identify why Jews have needed a psychological defence against persecution. Freud himself recognises humour as a defence mechanism used by the Jews in times of hardship. Martin Grotjahn explains the self-deprecating joke as ‘taking the enemy’s dagger, splitting a hair in mid-air, stabbing himself and giving it back with the query ‘can you do half as well?’’ The self-deprecating Jewish sense of humour seems like a distinguished way of causing psychological trauma to the enemy, by querying whether the enemy can do half as well at denigrating Jews. Amid this, it also underpins a defiance against the Romantic Comedy conventions.

Other than being too intellectually neurotic for love, pessimistic, preoccupied with Semites and stereotypes there is one other thing that is indicative of his screen persona which deems him dissimilar to the conventional Romantic Comedy character. When Alvy Singer announces that he ‘never had a latency period’, whether intentionally or not (as this is a Freudian critique, intention is not important here), he proclaims something which has troubled Jews for centuries: Moses and the latency period.

The latency period in Freudian psychoanalysis is the fourth stage of psychosexual development during which the child develops a libido – that is to say discovers pleasure from being fed (oral phase) and defecating (anal phase) – and when years later on the child begins to go out of its way to control the movement of its bowels. Freud in his text Moses and Monotheism asserts this same period as an analogy to Moses’ relationship with Judaism. So, looks back Freud, Moses was not Hebrew but an Egyptian priest of Akhenaten (Effective spirit of Aten). He furthers by saying that the Jews killed him in despair of his Monotheism, but later historically felt guilty and formulated a religion acknowledging him. Moreover, by killing Moses, the Jews sacrificed the use of historicising – something Freud attributes to the peoples of Egypt. Without a history of these events, there remains an unexamined period of around 150 years of Judaism, which Freud termed the Jewish latency period. In addition, Freud declared that the guilt of killing Moses has remained in (and is the reason for) the Jewish faith - to make Jews feel better.

What then, now, is significant about Alvy’s confession that he never had a latency period. Is he not saying that he didn’t kill off the Moses in his Jewish persona because having a latency period, and being Jewish is, for Freud, the equivalent of accepting the killing of Moses. And so this is relative because by keeping that kernel of Judaism alive in Alvy, has meant that his persona is characteristically Jewish (without actually having the guilt of being a religious Jew for killing Moses – as it happens Allen, like Freud before him, is Atheist). And it is this characteristic, as I have detailed, which constructs him as a challenge to the conventions of Romantic Comedy.

Babington and Evans describe Alvy as ‘struggling ... to detach himself both from Madison Avenue taste and the trauma of an ethnic minority childhood’. And this vulnerability is very public. Indeed it is what makes him attractive to Annie, and also what ends up repulsing her about him. Babington and Evans also talk about the contemporary comedian who must declare a distance between his comic persona and himself. This is precisely what Woody Allen does not do. Critics have convincingly commented on how autobiographical the film can be seen. If this is true, Alvy’s pseudo-intellectualist-Manhattenesque-Atheistic Freudianism, which is attributed to him not being a conventional Romantic Comedian, is Woody Allen’s own.


Babington, Bruce and Peter William Evans, Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes 1989, Manchester University Press, UK

Bailey, Peter J., The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen 2001, University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky

Davies, Christie, Exploring the Thesis of the self-deprecating Jewish sense of humour in Zajdman, Anat and Auner Ziv (eds.) Semites and Stereotypes 1993, Greenwood Press, US

Grotjahn, Martin, Jewish jokes and their relation to Masochism in W.M. Mendel (ed.) A Celebration of Laughter 1970, Mara, LA

Freud, Sigmund, Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays 1974, Hogarth Press, London

King, Geoff, Film Comedy 2002, Wallflower Press, GB

Neale, Steve and Frank Krutnik Popular Film and Television Comedy 1990, Routledge, London

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