Woody Allen and Diegesis

posted Mar 6, 2009, 12:11 PM by David Neumeyer   [ updated Mar 6, 2009, 1:09 PM ]

Woody Allen's films are replete with violations of diegetic space that are, of course, played for humor, part of which is triggered by the audience's recognition of the film's constructedness. Beyond their specific functions, these ruptures of the diegetic are valuable pedagogically as exceptions that prove the rule about filmic conventions of space and time, of diegesis and synchronization (we discuss these topics in HtM, chs. 3 & 4).

Perhaps the most familiar instances are when Allen suddenly breaks out of his character to address the audience directly. In Annie Hall (1978), for example, he does this as a frustrated movie-goer forced to listen to the pompous blather of a person behind him in the ticket line. Allen compounds the confusion by dragging in Marshall McLuhan from offscreen (?) to rebut the offending would-be critic, who had mentioned the famous media theorist. Direct address to the audience is hardly unknown -- the voice-over narrator, after all, is addressing the audience, not characters in the film -- but voice-over narration exists in the nondiegetic realm. The barrier of the screen makes direct address to the audience difficult and problematic, not so in the traditional theater, where that barrier is the far more permeable front edge of the stage, so amenable to monologues and soliloquies. Managing voice-over narration in a similar way is ironic or funny, as in Allen's usage, or complex and often ambiguous, as when a voice-over narrator is at some other time revealed to be a character.

The device is pushed to its reductio ad absurdum in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), when one of the actors in a film spots Mia Farrow in the audience (see the first screen still below) and talks to her. He then walks through the screen out into the theater, to the consternation of audience and screen actors alike (see the second screen still). The plot then revolves about the "real life" actor and his newly acquired shadow, both of whom claim to have fallen in love with Mia Farrow's character. If at the end we are suspicious that she might have imagined the whole thing in the course of watching the movie multiple times, the film staunchly refuses to let on.