Well, La-Di Da: Long Takes in ANNIE HALL
8 September 2013
In the opening scene of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience. Among other things, Alvy discloses to viewers that he and Annie (Diane Keaton) broke up again (suggesting that this latest, and seemingly final, break-up happened fairly recently). He goes on to say he is in the process of “sifting the pieces of the relationship through in his mind.” What this casual, figurative statement actually means is that viewers are about to watch what those “pieces of the relationship” are to Alvy, non-sequentially and (sometimes) nonsensically.
Annie Hall is a movie about the best of times and the worst of times in Alvy and Annie’s relationship, all from Alvy’s reflective perspective. The film does not start with Alvy and Annie’s first meeting, but rather a flashback to Alvy’s childhood, which is revisited more than once. Eventually, we get to where Annie appears in Alvy’s sifting: first as she traps loose lobsters in a kitchen. From there, fragments of this relationship bump into each other, playing out the highs and lows, as Alvy remembers them.
Annie Hall did not earn its reputation as one of Allen’s strongest films simply because of its nonlinear narrative and comedic interjections; Annie Hall, unlike most films of its time, experimented with lengthy takes. According to David Bordwell, the average shot length (ASL) in Annie Hall is 14.5 seconds. (The ASL in other 1977 American cinema he researched was 4-7 seconds.) Moreover, these long takes are also free from dramatic angles and wild camera movement. (Of course, being a Woody Allen film, there are numerous tracking shots, most of which are long takes, but the tracking movement is a natural movement, complimenting the lengthy takes.)
Lengthy takes, arguably creating a more sophisticated cinematic construction, typically build a stronger sense of realism for viewers. The theory here is with few cuts the audience experiences fewer interruptions and, therefore, sees the scene(s) as they might if they were actually standing in front of these characters; longer takes assist the audience’s unconscious willingness to suspend their disbelief for the film. However, building realism does not seem to be particularly important to Woody Allen. In fact, in a film that explores the gauntlet of cinematic technique, namely split-screening and animation, Allen seems to always want the viewers to remember that what they are watching is not reality; they are watching “pieces” of someone’s memory about a lost romance. Thus, assuming Allen uses long takes to create a stronger sense of reality does not fit.
Instead, it seems more likely Allen uses long takes in Annie Hall to communicate authenticity, authenticity about his recollections of the “pieces” he is “sifting” through. It is not that Allen tries to build realism as we typically understand it; Allen may be trying to communicate how these fragments are all that is real to Alvy. And, although Alvy cannot put these memories in chronological order, as they once played out in reality, the essence of these moments define his relationship with Annie and who Annie Hall is to him.
One prime example of Allen’s use of long takes is during Annie’s second nightclub appearance, when she sings “Seems Like Old Times.” There are only two cuts during Annie’s performance, keeping Keaton in a close-up for the majority of the song, only breaking to a long shot for 19 seconds of this two-and-a-half minute scene. The close-up alone is an intimate, emotional shot, but an uninterrupted or minimally interrupted close-up is a more personal, more emotional shot. What this long take communicates effectively is the love Alvy feels for Annie in this moment. It communicates this because, without excessive cuts, the scene is less pretentious and, in fact, rather profound; without cinematic affectation Allen achieves an honest moment; this is Annie, as Alvy has stored her in his memory. Metaphorically speaking, he cannot keep his eyes off her; therefore, Allen does not let the audience’s eye shift from her either. The long take allows him to accomplish this.
In a film that doesn’t start at the beginning and unexpectedly warps its characters into cartoons for a few minutes, these long takes are essential for audience investment. “Sifting” through the “pieces” of someone else’s mind asks something of an audience, and, in return, the audience requires some emotional and or intellectual reason to care about this seemingly scattered and rather stream-of-consciousness style cinematic narrative. The long takes allows Allen to show honest, authentic moments in Alvy and Annie’s relationship, and these are the moments audience can hook on to. In the end, Annie Hall does not feel like a collection of pieces, even though that is exactly what it is. Instead, Annie Hall feels like an anthology of real, genuine memories which define how one lover experienced another.