. But he was one of its most terrible actors.
As well as being famous for his theories, many of which are known by catchy phrases like ‘the medium is the message, Professor McLuhan was also a guest star in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.
And his appearance was no mere triviality: he played himself, and in doing so was able to exemplify some of the theories he espoused. But it was an accident, and one that some people came to see as one that didn’t go especially well.
The appearance comes early in the film. Woody Allen’s character is arguing with Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall while they wait in the queue for the cinema, in an introduction that will set the tone for their disastrous relationship. But someone else is droning on, too – a mansplainer before there was a word for it, telling his date in patronising terms about film.
He makes his way around many of the greats of 20th century cinema, discussing director Federico Fellini as well as Professor McLuhan, doing so in a loud way that interrupts and irritates Woody Allen, who makes that clear by looking into the camera and voicing his displeasure. But the prattling man starts talking to the audience through the fourth wall too, and they get into an argument.
Woody Allen, however, has the perfect rebuke to this argument: he brings out Marshall McLuhan himself from out of the side of the frame, who quickly tells him: “You know nothing of my work”, and shuts him up.
It is a classic line from a classic scene, sitting right in the middle of a classic film. But it is also an important moment in Professor McLuhan’s history, .
Professor McLuhan’s work focused specifically on the meaning of film, in contrast with TV and other media. And in particular he discussed the kinds of participation that each of those forms encouraged – writing that film was a hot medium that didn’t require the viewer to make much of the meaning themselves, and forcing it on them instead.
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That seems to be both exemplified and proven wrong in this scene. On the one hand, the argument reaches through the screen and asks the viewer to take part in the argument; but on the other it is interested in being absolutely, certainly right, in a way that McLuhan suggests film is doomed to do.
In that, the scene is classic Woody Allen: pulling down the grand theories of philosophy into daily life, and managing at the same time to mock both. He does that twice over, since the demolishing of the argument is actually a kind of fantasy, and it takes a particular kind of arrogance to believe that you know about a writer with such certainty that you’d know what they were thinking.
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It wasn’t always supposed to be McLuhan anyway, but rather Federico Fellini. But the Italian director pulled out of his commitment just days before, and the team had to grab to get the thinker to replace him. (That’s why the man in the line goes on about Mr Fellini so much.)
When the great philosopher does finally arrive in the scene, all doesn’t go to plan. Professor McLuhan tells the academic that “You mean my whole fallacy is wrong”, which doesn’t really make sense.
It could be that the professor was looking to further the sense that being wholeheartedly supported by the person you’re arguing about is a fantasy that doesn’t make sense in itself. But it appears just as likely that he got the line wrong.
Russell Horton, who plays the man in the queue, told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year that Professor McLuhan didn’t make a great co-star. He found it impossibly to get the line right – castigating Woody Allen for being “wrong” when he was criticised for doing so – and taking as many as 18 takes to film it, and still not getting it correct.