Film: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

“…and Freud, another great pessimist. I was in analysis for years and nothing happened. My poor analyst got so frustrated, the guy finally put in a salad bar. Maybe the poets are right. Maybe love is the only answer.”

Woody Allen (Mickey), Hannah and Her Sisters.

Hannah and Her Sisters is where we have chosen to commence our look at Woody’s films. It is a great place to start. It showcases all the hallmarks of Woody Allen’s film-making, and what they do so well. So let’s lay some of these out with reference to the movie.

  1. Fear of Death / Hypochondria

Although not the central character of Hannah and her Sisters, the “Woody Allen” part, (no longer played by Woody himself in more recent films) is Mickey.

Mickey is the former husband of the titular Hannah and exhibits the usual Allen traits of hypochondria and fear of death. Combined the characteristics provide an endless, if unlikely, source of comedy for Allen and his films.

Essentially he mixes pessimism and futility into a blend that will make you splutter with laughter. As far as Hannah and Her Sisters goes, this line from the scene pictured below, combines the two concerns in a classic piece Allen dialogue.

Gail: Two months ago, you thought you had a malignant melanoma.

Mickey: Naturally, I, I- Do you know I- The sudden appearance of a black spot on my back!

Gail: It was on your shirt!

Mickey: I- How was I to know? Everyone was pointing back here.

Mickey’s specific obsession is the fact that for a short period of time he is kept in suspense by his expensively assembled medical team. He awaits the results of tests to try to establish the cause of his sudden hearing loss in one ear. A few days later, hearing that he has got the all clear propels Allen into short-lived euphoria as he dances out of the hospital, before his mood deflates and he starts to ponder the meaning of life…

2. Judaism, religion and the meaning of life…

Which brings us on to Woody Allen theme number 2, ‘the meaning of life with a Jewish tint’. Allen is Jewish and this is another rich vein he taps in his comedy. Coming from an Irish family I’ve noticed that Jewish families in his films do, in fact, share many similarities to Irish families. At the very least Irish mothers could give Jewish mothers a run for their money, and the dinner tables are certainly as verbose.

Anyway, his exploration of religion in this film comes as a direct result of Mickey’s “near death experience”. This leads him on a voyage of personal discovery which sees him firstly convert to Catholicism (much to the chagrin of his father), then to a brief contemplation of the ways of the Hari Krishna, before finally, at the end of the movie, finding true salvation in a Marx Brothers screening in an old New York Movie Theater.

The whole period of contemplation is worth it, if only for securing this classic exchange between Mickey (Allen) and his Jewish parents.

Mickey: But if there’s a God, then wh-why is there so much evil in the world? What– Just on a simplistic level. Why-why were there Nazis?

Mother: Tell him, Max.

Father: How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works.

3. The Love Triangle

Most appropriately for the third trait to be considered in this list, is the love triangle. This is a staple of Allen’s films, and Hannah and Her Sisters is no exception. The triangle here is particularly complex between Michael Caine’s character Elliot, his wife Hannah, and Hannah’s sister Lee.

Lee is at the end of her relationship with the gloriously bleak artist Frederick (Max von Sydow), and she knowingly falls into the romantic web Elliot has laid for her. What is strange is that this most labyrinthine of muddles manages to resolve itself by the end of the movie with everyone seemingly content. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. In Allen’s films the moral arrangements are usually summed up by the title of another of his later films, “Whatever Works”; if the personal arrangements you make for your life work that’s all that matters in the end.

We also have a more minor love triangle played out between Hannah’s other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), her catering partner April (Carrie Fisher), and well-to-do architect David (Sam Waterston). This is a more standard variation on the theme with David (who is married) effectively inducing a spirit of competition between the two women for his affections. It does however set the scene for a fantastic sequence where David shows off his favorite buildings in New York.

The scene juxtaposes the fantastic architecture with the comical soundtrack of the two women trying to sound informed about their subject matter. The irony is that David is probably not listening to a word they say, whereas Holly obsesses about the exchanges on her taxi ride home.

4.Change of location and moral decline

Hannah and her Sisters, also exhibits one of the Allen’s most fundamental hallmarks; references to someone’s desire to move outside of New York City as telling display of their moral and cultural decline. In his films LA is a representative of selling out commercially, whereas a move to a beach house in the Hamptons is a sign of becoming bourgeois and contended. As incidentally is owning or purchasing a car. In interviews Woody Allen has a set piece on this theme that he’s been running with for years on this whole issue.

The phenomenon is mentioned in passing in Hannah and her Sisters but the motif is still there. In real-life Allen has repeatedly been insistent that he couldn’t function outside New York. This has slackened slightly as a principle in recent years. In his so-called prime however his inability to function outside New York was a trait ascribed to many of his characters playing the “Woody Allen” part.

In contrast those who do want to experience life outside New York often come to this realization as they either come of age, mature, or outgrow their relationship with the “Woody Allen” character.

I often find this sad when I watch his films; The “Woody” character is the man who stays the same, loves his city and requires it to sustain him. The city of New York is actually his true love, the book shops, the restaurants, the cafes, the movie theaters. His surroundings and interests hold fixed and steadfast for him, as others tire of him and relationships ebb away. Typically this process occurs with both lovers, his writing partners and friends.

In Annie Hall, this process is the central plot of the film. Annie (Diane Keaton) gradually outgrows him, and as she does she moves out to LA away from New York City. In doing so she follows the path already taken by his writing partner Max. Both leave Alvy behind and file away their New York years as they do so. They change, Alvy stays the same. In The Mighty Aphrodite we see Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) follow a similar route, again out of New York and away from Allen’s character (Max), this time to the Hamptons as she outgrows their relationship.

Likewise the climactic scene at the end of Manhattan, sees Mariel Hemingway’s character Tracey take the decision to go to London at the end of the film. In this work (my personal favorite alongside Manhattan Murder Mystery) the usual tinge of melancholy is tempered somewhat by the rather sweet line from Tracey who reassures the twice-divorced Isaac that, “sometimes you just gotta have a little faith in people”.

Hannah and her Sisters only briefly touches upon this process. It comes outside of its normal form and is simply alluded to and is spread across two examples. The first example is in Lee outgrowing her bleak, isolated and older artist boyfriend Frederick (Von Sydow), whose response is to plead with her to say how much he still has to teach her. This is the usual prelude to the process of departure of the female in Allen’s films. They normally undergo this process with the Allen character just prior to departing for a house on the beach upstate, or off to the sunny West Coast.

The second example is the contrast between Mickey’s miserable state of hypochondria in New York is contrasted with his former writing partner in relaxed and sunny LA. He is pictured driving an open-topped sports car down a palm tree lined road listening to music. The high life! A classic Woody motif comparing the true artist laboring in New York to the sell-out who is happy and rich on the West Coast.

6. Sexual failings

Ah, sexual failings. Without these I don’t think that Woody Allen’s comedy would be quite so hilarious. In an era of macho men in the 1970s and 80s Allen never failed to cast himself in counterpoint to that image. No Burt Reynolds he! One of the funniest exchanges in Hannah and Her Sisters is between Mickey (Allen) and his former wife Hannah (Mia Farrow — Allen’s actual wife at the time — now very much estranged).

The scene is a flashback aimed at giving an insight into their past relationship. After an excruciating scene in which Mickey is told that he is infertile, by the most insensitive Doctor to grace a cinema screen, Allen presents the reader with this classic exchange between husband and wife during the post-mortem,

Hannah: [after learning Mickey is infertile] Could you have ruined yourself somehow?

Mickey: How could I ruin myself?

Hannah: I don’t know. Excessive masturbation?

Mickey: Oh What? You’re gonna start knockin’ my hobbies now?

7. “My accountant says I did this at a very bad time. My stocks are down. I’m cash poor or something. I got no cash flow. I’m not liquid, something’s not flowing” — from Manhattan

This important point basically has blanket application across Woody Allen’s films and its important to remember.

The characters don’t live in the same world as you or me.

They live in a world where they are between jobs and their accountant deals with their money. In the interim they can wander around art galleries all day, stroll in the park, eat at fine restaurants, go to jazz clubs in the evening. They walk everywhere and don’t need cars until their partners go into “moral decline” and want to drive to the beach upstate.

Incidentally this lifestyle is my idea of heaven, but I won’t emulate it because I can’t afford to. In the meantime? Escapism at its finest through Woody Allen’s lens. Mind you its worth noting that all that free time for his characters lends itself to too much thinking and obsessing over problems, so maybe its a case of too much of a good thing.

Hannah and Her Sisters is no different, and Allen’s character takes a year off work to discover what’s important after his aforementioned “near death experience”. Meanwhile everyone else including most of her family seem to be dependent upon Hannah for cash in order to fund their lifestyles. This is fiction people, don’t try to emulate it.

8. Love Letter to New York in the Movies

It is perhaps Woody Allen’s most famous trait as a film-maker. He is almost completely synonymous with New York, and its no surprise that in the Oscars in 2002 after the 9/11 attack it was Woody Allen that presented the short piece by Nora Ephron, Love Letter to New York in the Movies.

Hannah and Her Sisters is a key part of his cinematic collection of Love Letters to New York.

My favorite example of this in Hannah and Her Sisters is the scene where Elliot manufactures a meeting by “bumping into” Lee on the street. They wander around New York and Allen employs his trademark camera shot from across the road at street level.

The scene culminates in a beautiful bookshop which looks like a little slice of heaven in the city. There they peruse the books. Elliot picks out a book of ee cummings poetry and buys it for Lee, telling her she reminds him of one of the poems (the poem is “somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond”). It is a beautiful romantic scene, and the surroundings are just pure unadulterated New York.

You can almost forget that he’s married to her sister.

8. Rhapsodies to New York

As with the city itself, Woody Allen’s films are tied to the soundtrack. To quote the opening of Manhattan, “they pulsate to the great tunes of George Gershwin”. They in fact pulsate to Allen’s selection of music which is mostly drawn from early jazz, classical music, and standards. Hannah and Her Sisters is no exception. There are a number of stand-out tracks on the films soundscape.

The first is Bewitched (usually known as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered) which is performed by Hannah’s parents, acted by Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan. They fight as a couple, and he brings her back by playing the piano. They can’t stand each other after years of marriage, and yet love each other more than any other person in the world.

The second is Bach’s Concerto For Harpsichord In F minor which plays out during a dramatic scene between Lee and Elliot. Like the ee cummings poem, the choice of music stems from a recommendation from Elliot (Lee has purchased it while checking out recommendations). Importantly for me, we get to see Lee take the physical record out of the sleeve and place it on the turntable. She drops the needle and plays. Watching that nowadays reminds you of the physical nature of music that we once existed, but which has been lost in the digital era, or largely relegated to an affectation.

The third piece of music is the use of Count Basie and his Band’s The Trot which is used as the energetic backdrop to the exciting and fast-moving elements of the movie, mostly associated with Mickey’s scenes. Its a great piece, and just as Manhattan pulsated to the tunes of George Gershwin, Hannah and Her Sisters pulsates to the tunes of Count Basie.

9. Structures and Fonts

Finally, and its what we see as the film closes is the one visual cue over the years that tells us we are watching a Woody Allen film, and that is the Woody Allen typeface.

Yes — Hannah and Her Sisters, is “a film written and directed by Woody Allen” enjoy it.

Don’t forget to check out the My Comic Relief site to see what they made of Hannah and Her Sisters.

Editors Note: All images subject to copyright and can be removed upon request

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