The film that made me fall in love with films was Annie Hall. I first saw it during its initial release in the summer of 1977; I was thirteen. This was the summer when I learned two important facts about myself: that I would rather watch a good film than do just about anything else except read a good book, and that my definition of a good film was radically different from that of everyone else I knew. This continues to be the case.
1977 was the year of Star Wars. It’s quite possible that I was the only eighth grader in my middle school in northeastern Massachusetts—or anywhere else, for that matter—who didn’t love the film. Even at age thirteen, I felt as if I had seen it all before. Star Wars is, at its core, a western, but with spaceships substituting for horses, and laser beams replacing pearl-handled six-shooters. I had seen enough Saturday afternoon Westerns on Boston’s old UHF channels to know that little distinguished Star Wars from, say, Stagecoach other than advanced computer graphics and Dolby sound.
Annie Hall, however, was, for me, a revelation. Part of the reason may have had something to do with the fact that, like Woody Allen, I was (and am) a short male with glasses. But the bigger reason was that I thought this was the funniest and most innovative film I had ever seen. Its storytelling inventions, which include Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, speaking directly to the camera; subtitles that show the inner thoughts of Alvy and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) when they first meet; and the adult Alvy going back in time to talk with the six-year-old classmates in his first-grade classroom in 1942, were startling. I would eventually learn that the American film industry had made plenty of charming romantic comedies prior to then, but none that had a bookish intellectual with ordinary looks as its lead, and certainly none that incorporated jokes about Leopold and Loeb and the theories of Marshall McLuhan into its storyline. Annie Hall reinvented the romantic comedy so successfully that it became rare to see a comedy of its kind that didn’t feature either neurotics or ordinary-looking men, or both, in the lead. Annie Hall was the right film for me to see at an age when my artistic sensibilities were still being formed. It taught me what a work of art could be.
And I thought Diane Keaton was pretty.
I like to think that art still has this transformative power. I like to think that there are thirteen-year-olds out there today, sitting in a modern multiplex, or perhaps just sprawled out on the couch and about to crack open a book that sounds interesting, who will encounter an artistic experience that changes their lives. Annie Hall has become an old friend that I often return to when I need an infusion of magic, a reminder of why I write stories and how important and influential a good narrative can be. I hope every other thirteen-year-old finds his Annie Hall, or his Star Wars, and finds a friend for life.