Late last year, Annie Hall was voted by the Writers Guild of America as the funniest screenplay ever written , calling it "modern cinema's greatest semi-autobiographical relationship story". I hesitate to call it a rom-com but it is, for me, the most romantic and most comic film I've ever seen. It is, of course, about a failed love story, and only a lifelong neurotic like Woody Allen could find that funny and somehow more fulfilling than a successful relationship.
But why, nearly 40 years on from its release, is it still so appealing? Why do we find such solace in its jokes, rhythms, beats and routines.
When you hear a line or see a scene from Annie Hall, it immediately sends your senses to the comfort food of American comedies that have sound-tracked your life. You think of Friends and of Seinfeld, of Sex and the City and of Girls. All those kooky heroines played by Jennifer Aniston, Kathryn Heigl, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Greta Gerwig and Meg Ryan - they couldn't exist without Diane Keaton's Annie and her rejection of Woody Allen's Alvy.
Nora Ephron - whose own script to When Harry Met Sally came 15th on the Guild list - once put it to me thus: "Shakespeare invented the romcom with The Taming of the Shrew; then there was Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice. After them, Woody changed everything in the movies with Annie Hall - those are the three beacons, and only those three. They're all you need."
She might have added George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion to that list, I think, because Alvy does slowly build country girl Annie into the kind of sophisticated New York woman he doesn't really like, illustrating the key quote from his opening monologue, adapted from Groucho Marx, about "not wanting to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member."
But it can't just be comic cadence and a neat way for a girl to wear a waistcoat and tie that makes Annie Hall endure. There must be something more that appeals to an audience's eternal human needs.
I think much of it lies in the direct address techniques, the way Alvy Singer looks us right in the eyes, a flailing man needing our help, our laughter. So Woody begins the film talking directly to us, making himself vulnerable, pitiable, trustworthy. We're in his confidence and we feel safe enough to share our own problems and feelings about love and relationships. We become complicit in Alvy's fretting, we're on his side. Of all Woody's movies, Annie Hall is most like sitting through one of his nightclub acts - except this time, rather than the absurdist Moose sketch, it's about the difficulties of making love work.
Not only are we with him on this exploration of why the relationship with Annie failed, but we feel we're almost in his mind as he's creating the film - we're privy to the process, his innermost thoughts.
That's the effect of those famous subtitles on the balcony scene back at Annie's apartment, or of the moment of sudden physical transformation when Annie's Grammie imagines Alvy as a rabbi, or of the flights of fantasy when Alvy takes Annie back to his childhood in Brooklyn.
The nature of the jagged chronology has also helped the film endure because it progresses as a series of sketches, of quick and cherishable scenes. It's practically a feature-length montage, the sort of thing cheesier movies have in the middle, compressing the new lovers' first few months of bliss. Woody succeeds in building a range of emotions through this agglomeration of moments, sometimes altering them in a replay for comic or wistful effect. For example, the lobster scene plays out once, deliciously and hilariously with Annie, and again, later, with another girlfriend who simply does not laugh as Alvy battles a crustacean.
Annie Hall wasn't supposed to be funny. Woody wanted to call it Anhedonia, named after the psychological depressive condition in which the sufferer has the inability to experience pleasure or feelings of enjoyment. It was also supposed to comprise a murder mystery element in which Annie and Alvy get distracted from their relationship troubles to become involved in some amateur sleuthing. That bit resurfaced many years later as Manhattan Murder Mystery.
The film, then, was rescued in the editing by Ralph Rosenblum who alerted Woody's attention to the brilliant comic playing of Diane Keaton's Annie (Keaton's real name, incidentally, is Diane Hall) and Woody realised he needed to make the film about her. Or, if that was too much for his large ego, at least about how he felt about her.
It won Keaton an Oscar for Best Actress and a place in cinema iconography. Despite initial protests from the costume designer, Annie's outfits are all Keaton's own clothes, part of a unique personal style which led, in real life, Allen to first fall in love with Keaton - although the pair had broken up by the time they filmed Annie Hall.
All of this extraneous biography brings another level of enduring identification to audiences. Annie doesn't feel like a fantasy dreamed up by a male writer, but is the real product of an exceptional comic actress working on her lines and character. It helps, too, that the lines and character were written specifically for her. And the romance feels real, because it was real, and then it really did fade. And Woody really did spend hours wondering why. Ultimately, Annie Hall examines the absurdities of love and relationships and that's something we've all been through. Watching it feels like looking through your old photos, flicking through your personal scrapbook, scrolling through your phone's photo stream.
People feel comfort and kindred in Annie Hall, an almost personal propriety over the snapshots. It gives you time to reflect and laugh and think about moments sitting in the park making fun of passers by, or of blissful weekends away, of major spiders in the bathroom or the time when you were the only Jew in the village when the ham came out at Christmas.
"Boy", says Alvy to us when he gets that guy in the cinema queue to shut up by producing the real Marshall McLuhan, "if life were only like this!" But Annie Hall really does feel like life. In its exquisite anatomical dissection of a beautiful but failed relationship, it is the perfect fusion of fantasy and reality from an artist whose perpetual struggle has been to make his life come out like a perfect movie. The real trick is that it makes you believe you can do it, too.