Lost in the Movies: Manhattan


I promised some new posts for this blog, but I was just stuck on the T for about 40 minutes longer than necessary, I already have a bit to write tonight and I'm not quite feeling up to it. So here's a compromise, on my end at least: a piece new to you, but not to me. It's a selection from an unpublished essay I wrote on Woody Allen years ago (when I was 19), revived in honor of seeing Manhattan on the big screen recently, with Gordon Willis in attendance. Even with the cinematographer on hand to speak after the show, it was hard to focus exclusively on the photography: the image, the performances, the story all blend seamlessly together in one of Woody's finest pictures. Here, then, in a moment of frustration with my own city let me turn my gaze towards Allen's idealized metropolis...

(P.S. The time it took me to actually dig up this old piece made this not so economical after all, but at least it didn't take much mental energy...)

[Following Interiors, Allen's] next picture was just right for the times, a last summation of the seventies spirit before it was swallowed by the feel-good comforts of the Reagan era. In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen returned to the combination of seriousness and comedy that had worked so well with Annie Hall, but without the hectic and buzzing style. In fact, the director made a very interesting stylistic choice with Manhattan: instead of using the form to reinforce the content, he does the reverse, letting the look and feel of the film offset and balance the story and characters. While analyzing the struggles and flaws of a few Manhattan love affairs he glorifies the city around them. Manhattan’s uplift derives from the romantic possibilities provided by the beautiful city, photographed in black-and-white Panoramic widescreen.

The film’s most famous sequence is its opening, which features a gorgeous montage of New York City’s skyline, streets, and people, in all seasons, scored to “Rhapsody in Blue.” On the soundtrack, Isaac (Woody Allen) crisply revises the opening lines of his new novel, finally settling on: “Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of jungle cat. (I love this.) New York was his town, and it always would be…” Cue the transcendent finale to “Rhapsody,” bring on the wide shot of the fireworks in Central Park, and you’ve got a grand prelude. It has little to do with the rest of the film, but perfectly sets the background mood, so that we can move on to the more intimate stuff. This opening sequence is Manhattan in a nutshell: admittedly pretentious but technically brilliant, with an enthusiasm that washes away any lingering tastes of self-importance.

Formally, Manhattan is like a finely-tuned instrument that never misses a beat, sharing its perfectly modulated outpouring of joy with the George Gershwin soundtrack. The final scene of the movie is a masterpiece of measured dialogue, camerawork, and music; and the closing expression on Isaac’s face speaks volumes. This formal maturity, however, is a double-edged sword. If the movie has a flaw it is that it may be too self-assured, the confidence of the style seeping into the characters as well; it lacks the frenetic goofiness of Annie Hall that made that film so fresh, honest, and endearing. The bourgeois smugness of many of the characters signals an artistic impulse that will come to envelop much of Allen’s work. Here it is redeemed somewhat by the vulnerability of its central characters.

For example, Mary (Diane Keaton) is not as arrogant as she first appears; when they first meet (she’s having an affair with his married best friend) Isaac can’t stand her. But after they run into each other again and begin to talk, he discovers she actually has very low self-esteem. As for Allen’s character, any smugness he may suffer has to be a defense mechanism. His self-assured balloon is constantly being pierced: by his lesbian ex-wife (Meryl Streep) who writes a tell-all book about their marriage; by his guilt over sleeping with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old who thinks they’ll spend the rest of their life together; and by the weakness of his friend Yale (Michael Murphy), who ends up stealing Mary back after setting her up with Isaac.

Isaac’s quest in this movie is for stability and some sort of moral structure. While Yale ends up whining “we’re only human” to justify his own behavior, Isaac tries to hold himself to a higher moral standard. That is why he is always telling Tracy that she shouldn’t waste all her love on him; he tries to remind her that she’s still in high school and has her whole future ahead of her and she should pursue an opportunity to study acting in England rather than keep dating him. In the end, when he realizes his love for Tracy and tries to stop her from going overseas, it’s a moral lapse; he’s abandoned his better judgment to his emotions, the same way that Yale did. But Isaac is lucky; his high standards have rubbed off on Tracy, who gently rebuffs him with the same advice he gave her. It’s Isaac’s realization that finally his morals have paid off—albeit in a bittersweet way—which gives the story its redemptive, ever-so-optimistic resolution.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow (reprinted, other than the introduction, from a pre-blog essay).

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