“It was NOT one of his best. It lacks a cohesive structure. You know, you get the feeling that he’s not absolutely sure what it is he wants to say”
The thing about this scene from Annie Hall is that the Woody Allen character is not actually as irritated with the academic blowhard in line behind him as it seems, not really: his frustration is actually with Annie, with their relationship, and with himself. This is Woody Allen Character at his most neurotic, plus-which, the two of them are at a particularly low ebb as a couple: though it’s Dianne Keaton’s character’s introductory scene, the scene’s function in the movie is to demonstrate the nadir of the relationship, so we can then go back and figure out how it got to this point. After a spectacular display of anal compulsiveness on his part, dragging her to The Sorrow and the Pity — which provokes her to say “I’m not in the mood to see a four and a half hour documentary on Nazis” — both demonstrates and exacerbates their dysfunction: she doesn’t want to see it because it makes her feel guilty and he wants her to see it for precisely this reason. Also, since this is a Woody Allen movie, their passive aggression throughout the scene is just a fight about sex, and about using sex as an excuse to fight. Her sexual problem, his sexual problem, her period, her bad mood, his demands, it’s all part of the war of position that both is a dying relationship, and the manner in which gendered resentment tends to produce resentment at the representation of gender itself, The Woman.
At this point, however, a narrative problem intrudes: though this is Annie’s first scene in the movie, and it’s important that the relationship be already doomed — still moving, still warm, but a terminal case — the movie can’t let the moment explode, not yet, nor can the fight reach its obvious (in retrospect) climax. We can’t see them break up, or even to really go at it; that moment has to be saved for late in the movie, or we‘ll lose the subjective experience of narrative build-up. At the same time, Woody Allen’s character can’t quite admit that things have reached the stage they’ve reached. He’s in denial — sex is part of the escape, the “sexual problem” that really means, in this context, all the things about her and their relationship and himself that he doesn’t like — and since the movie has to be as much the process of deconstructing that denial, of analyzing the thing it’s hiding, we can’t see it all out in the open just yet. The whole thing has to be present in this scene, in other words, yet remain below the surface. We have to see the gun, but it can’t go off quite yet
When the explosion comes, then, it doesn’t come at her, but gets re-directed at the ugly version of him-with-her onto which he displaces all his rage, the academic blowhard in line behind him, a Columbia professor of Media who is pushy, faux-authoritative, and pathetically pompous as he struts for his date in some of the exact ways that we will characterizes Woody Allen’s character for the rest of the movie. But it isn’t really about that guy. It’s about what that guy represents in Woody Allen’s psyche, and about the evasion that rage at him will allows the psyche to perform. It lets him forget that he’s the one who both patronizes Annie — he doesn’t think she’s smart enough to commit to, as she points out — and that he’s also attracted to her precisely because he can be smarter than her and patronize her. It is not a coincidence that he will push her to take a class in “Existential Motifs in Russian Literature” at Columbia and then accuse her of having an affair with her professor. In his mind, the link between pedagogical authority and sex is quite direct:
ANNIEThen why are you always pushing me to take those college courses like I was dumb or something?ALVY(Putting his hand to his forehead) ‘Cause adult education’s a wonderful thing. You meet a lotta interesting professors.You know, it’s stimulating.
The dynamic is unsustainable: his ability to patronize is a huge part of what attracts him to her, and patronizing her drives her away, as he wants it to. Or not so secretly; he tells us in the first minute that “I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member” is the basic truth of his adult life with women, and it is.
In any case, the center still needs to hold for this one scene. And so, the impossible fantasy of “Well it just so happens I’ve got Marshall McLuhan right here” and the impossible fantasy that McLuhan will, unconditionally, support you against the ugly version of you is exactly the perfect wish-fulfillment, the wonderful “wouldn’t it be great if life was like this?” in just the way the movie needs at this point: experiencing a kind of psychic crisis of authority — the subconscious realization that his own lust for authority is actually poisoning his own lust-fulfillment — he creates the very embodiment of the kind of authority to which he aspires, who both takes his side, and in doing so, relieves him of the responsibility for that authority himself. After all, when Allen tells the blowhard that he’s wrong, he can’t help reveal that both of them are playing the same game, essentially are the same. But if it can come from a third party — from the man himself — then the narcissistic assertion disappears and the problem is resolved (and the scene can abruptly cut away, like a bank robber fleeing the scene of the crime). He gets to have it both ways. And in Allen’s original intention for the scene, you can see this even more clearly: he wanted to get Fellini, first, and failing that Ingmar Bergman. McLuhan was a distant third choice when those guys didn’t want to show (which Allen made quite clear in interviews), and while he does work in the scene, Allen’s great cinematic idols would have made the identification much more precise, naming both the ambition, and giving voice to the self-doubts that he feels and then raises to the level of artistic ambition, the making of meaning from his inability to cohere, to know what he wants to say. It would tie the scene together in a differently brilliant way, since they were trying to see a Bergman movie and saw The Sorrow and the Pity instead. It would have cut right to the amazing Alvie Singer mask that Woody Allen is wearing by reminding us who the writer, director, and actor in the scene really is, what he is telling us about what he wants and what he can’t admit to wanting, and how film lets him do that (and not). But it’s still a pretty good scene, no?