FFF Hannah and Her Sisters

Mar 2, 2018

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It’s Favorite Film Friday which means I’m going to be diving into one of my favorite films and exploring what I loved and why it’s so special to me. Since this is my first favorite film Friday I’m going to start with my very favorite movie of all time, Hannah and Her Sisters. I’m going to post the trailer to the film below. Even thought trailers in 1986 were a totally different style and pacing than they are today this one holds up great:

There are so many things I love about this movie that I fear it’s going to be hard to really get it all down here in this blog post but I’m going to try. There was actually a campaign to make Hannah and Her Sisters the first film to win a Pulitzer Prize when it was released. Unfortunately, that didn’t take but I’m not surprised that it was attempted – it’s quite a literary film. In many ways it feels much more like a novel than a film and that’s part of the alluring charm that makes this film so special.

In fact, if you’re interested in reading the screenplay for Hannah and her sisters, here’s a link to download it. It won the Oscar that year for best original screenplay (it also won for best supporting actor and actress for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest) so…yeah, it’s a damn good script. 🙂

Download the Hannah and Her Sisters Screenplay

The script is 130 pages or so but the finished film is only 107 minutes including credits and titles. It’s always fascinating to me to see how timing ends up translating on screen. If I saw a 130 page script today (for a dramedy!) I would run scared but this happens to be my favorite film – go figure.

Can we just talk about the music for a second?

Man when Woody Allen wants to swoon you with a tune he sure knows how to do it. The drunken horn in the trailer is all you need to know that this romantic movie is full of hypnotizing melodies from some of America’s greatest artists. Each scene, or in this case chapter, starts with its own theme and really just carries you through the film with such grace. I think one of the greatest tricks or cheats a filmmaker has at their disposal if they can afford it is great music.

I still remember watching the credits to Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 as Nancy Sinatra sang My Baby Shot Me Down and thinking how I could have been watching a black screen and it would have still been amazing. I don’t want to get too off topic from Hannah and Her Sisters but I can’t resist. If you haven’t seen the opening to Kill Bill Vol. 1 it’s absolute magic. It’s a static shot of the back of a woman’s body bathed in blue light. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the video clip but here’s that amazing track:

Anyways, Woody Allen is a Jazz fanatic and it serves him well throughout almost all of his movies but in Hannah and Her Sisters he’s just in top form with his curation. He’s able to use it to force you to fall in love, accent a laugh, and even create a sense of great introspection. Also, because the music is SOOOOO amazing, the moments without music are that much more impactful. The silence becomes noticeable because of the absence.

Some very Character Driven Camera Work

Woody Allen has worked with a great number of cinematographers. As a result his films do change aesthetically quite a bit from film to film. In Hannah and Her Sisters one of the things I appreciate the most is that the camera movement and positioning really takes on the mentality of the characters. It sees what characters see and hides things from the audience, almost forcing them to peer over as if wanting to look around a corner.

There’s one very famous sequence where the camera goes around a table where Hannah and her sisters are talking and eventually start to argue and the camera follows one character who remains silent as the world around her keeps spinning. It’s not fast enough to be nauseating or anything and the metaphor is undoubtedly lost on a lot of the audience but even without the subtext it’s just gorgeous to watch.

Of course, the classic Woody Allen master shots are still used throughout the film with great effect as well. I absolutely love his patience as a filmmaker. It’s nice to see someone let the camera just sit for a moment and watch people live in the space.

Hannah (the Title character) is Actually One of the Most Repressed

The film is in many ways about not knowing what we really want. It’s about flirting with temptation and discovering things about yourself that you never knew. In some ways it’s even about how fitting into people’s expectations of who you are. The title character, Hannah, is played by Mia Farrow and what I found interesting is that her part is actually quite small in the film compared to Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Woody Allen, or Barbara Hershey.

It is an ensemble film so it’s hard to say who the lead is really but I’d have to say that Mia Farrow’s Hannah is the one character that doesn’t have much of an arc if any. Just titling it after her makes you wonder why the writer chose to do so and my thought is that Hannah is the rock of the family. She has all these crazy people around her. Her husband, her ex-husband, her sisters, and she’s the one who has to hold everything together by knowing who she is and sticking to her true self. I don’t know if I even would have picked up on that if the film was called anything else. I probably would have dismissed her as a minor character.

The Ensemble That Bravely Abandons Characters Whenever it Wants

You can write ensemble movies in any number of ways. The characters can all interconnect like in this film, or they can stay in their own bubbles, like Altman’s Short Cuts. What makes the way Woody Allen treats the ensemble here for me is that he will abandon characters right in the middle of huge moments to jump into another character’s story. It leaves the audience wanting more and keeps them engaged throughout the film.

Sometimes he doesn’t go back to the characters either and you’re left to wonder how things resolved and that’s also part of the brilliance here. The film is written in a way where it feels real. Sometimes you get closure and sometimes you don’t. It has a real flare for authenticity because of some of the loose ends it leaves hanging.

Great Comedic Characters with Arcs

While the funny sidekick has a place in movies, I always find it cheap. This could be partially because I saw myself as the funny guy in some of my groups and I always felt the turmoil that the funny guy feels goes unnoticed.

Here, in Hannah and her Sisters, Woody Allen is at his prime as his neurotic character worries if he has cancer. While there are some great sight gags (in one scene he tries to become more non-Jewish and buys a plethora of items he thinks will help him dispel his Jewishness), what is really great is that his neurotic character has real depth and is someone you end up truly caring for by the end of the movie.

The Magical Feeling That Romance is a Powerful Force

Woody Allen can be quite a cynic. Some of his films end in heartbreak and misery but if you look at his filmography as a whole I think the general message I get is that life seems to always work itself out. Sometimes that message comes with a bit of a whimper and seem almost accidental, and sometimes there’s passion and fire behind it.

In this film romance and true love seem to have an amazing force that changes people emotionally, spiritually and even physically. The ending definitely left me feeling warm and fuzzy which is something I sometimes frown upon as a clutch but when it’s done right there’s no better feeling in the world for a film and this one knocks it out of the park.


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