17 July 2007

Manhattan (1979)

Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman

Grade: A

"This is really a great city, I don't care what anyone says," Woody Allen mutters earnestly over Manhattan's well-known money-shot of the 59th St. Bridge and, thanks in large part to Gordon Willis' magnificent photography, he really makes you believe it. Manhattan, kicking down the cobblestones on the heels of Allen's much derided Interiors, is a return to the comedic form of the beloved (and Academy Award sweeping) Annie Hall, though with a matured voice; despite its poignancy, Annie Hall is, for the most part, tonally silly, while Manhattan plays more like Interiors with jokes. It's about modern romance, New York City and the way the two intersect; as Allen says in the introduction, of his love for New York, the film's "romanticized all out of proportion". But at the same time it's incredibly emotionally sincere, and it's the careful balance between the two that is Manhattan's most winning virtue. "He was too romantic about Manhattan," Allen says critically of himself, in third person narration once again during the introduction, following it with, simply, "he adored New York City." Manhattan is simultaneously celebratory and critical of the Big Apple, its intellectual class, men & women, the 1970's and even Woody Allen himself. It's both adoring and scathing.

After the gorgeous opening sequence, a stunningly photographed travelogue paired with Allen's voice struggling to work out the first chapter of a novel, the first line of the film is spoken by Michael Murphy, playing Allen's best friend: "I think the essence of art is to provide a kind of working-through situation, so that you can get in touch with feelings you didn't know you had". And that's just what Manhattan sets out to do, forcing the neurotic lovers of the 1970's to confront their own neuroses, and despite that it's been hailed as the defining film of its decade it still works and it still stings--lovers of the twenty-first century are not exempt from its trenchancy. Manhattan is one big romantic entanglement between rich, white New Yorkers, but it's both specific and generalized. Every relationship in the film is fucked up--Allen's dating a high school girl (Mariel Hemingway, in a perfectly mousy performance), he's divorced twice and on bad terms with his ex (Meryl Streep), a born-again lesbian; meanwhile, Murphy's married with a girl on the side (Diane Keaton), who's divorced herself and soon to be romantically involved with Allen.

Going beyond a mere love triangle into the complexities of a love pentagram, with a lesbian on the side, Manhattan's romantic perfidy plays out in art galleries, bookstores, museums, the Russian Tea Room, Elaine's, Lincoln Center, apartments overflowing with books and, finally, on the streets themselves; there are many extended, virtuosic tracking shots as the peripatetic characters peregrinate through the proudly pedestrian city. It's the most thoughtful valentine New York ever got, set to a lush score of George Gershwin orchestrations performed by the New York Philharmonic and photographed by Willis with startling artistry. (Slick appearances are an important aspect of the film; the carcinophobic Allen smokes throughout the film--without inhaling--because he knows that it makes him look cool, just as he hides the legitimate dangers of '70s New York behind a sumptuous veneer. While Martin Scorsese had exposed the grit of the New York streets three years earlier in Taxi Driver, Allen sweeps it all under the celluloid rug.) But Allen is nothing if not a comedian, so his not-too-serious portrayal of New York and its inhabitants--his fantastical approach, as J. Hoberman recently argued--is the perfect fit for Manhattan, which is end-to-end hilarious; it wouldn't be nearly so easy to laugh if Travis Bickle were lurking in the background. Allen's one-liners zing flawlessly, and there are even several scored sequences of physical comedy that recall his early-career farces, such as Bananas. (Allen does bear more than a passing resemblance to Buster Keaton, albeit with thick-rim glasses.) But lightheartedness is the characters' undoing; Allen, Murphy and Keaton want to treat their romantic relationships as insignificant loads of laughs, but are caught by surprise when they always, inevitably, turn serious. Relationships, inherently, are no laughing matter.

Manhattan could easily have slipped into mere static verbalism, a la the Marx Brothers, but as it stands it's cinematically more than just its crackling script. It's rare for comedic films, though typical of Allen's, to have such dedicatedly meticulous photography, but every anamorphic Panavision shot in Manhattan is framed in such a way that's always surprising and revealing. (It was the first movie released on video in a letterbox format, as Allen insisted the original ratio be preserved.) For instance, characters are often marginalized to the corner of the screen, while New York's architecture towers over them, reducing them to insignificant spots of a larger world.

Walking through the streets, Allen and Keaton notice a beautiful old building being slowly demolished, and he remarks that, "this city's really changing," a brief and easily overlooked moment that's essential to the film, as it underscores Allen's point of the culture in (literal) decay. There are real and serious problems in the world, and I don't mean landmark preservation, but the New York neurotics are able to avoid dealing with them, even thinking about them, by obsessing over their own (invented) neuroses; Manhattan exposes solipsistic intellectuals and their tendency to over-intellectualize to the point of inventing problems for themselves that distract them from facing the serious matters of the world, blinding themselves to and in denial of their essential insignificance.

In another scene, Allen gets a call from Keaton. "I was just sitting around looking through the magazine section," he tells her, adding, "uh, no, no, I didn't read the piece on China's faceless masses, I was checking out the lingerie ads." A struggle between the physical and the cerebral underlies Manhattan; "nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind," Allen claims but Keaton doesn't buy it, and she makes him go see a film by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, after which he makes a sour face, letting us know he'd rather have watched W.C. Fields on the late show. In an early scene, Allen reports that neo-Nazis are going to march in New Jersey, and proposes to some guests at a gallery opening that they go down there with bricks and baseball bats, to which one replies that there's a devastating satirical piece in the Times about it. "Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing," Allen replies, "but bricks get right to the point."

Allen's particularly hard on high-browed Manhattanites, from whom he largely tries to separate himself, although he knows them too well to be convincingly wholly disconnected (the issue of Woody Allen the person vs. Woody Allen the character), and the film is still, consciously, heavily autocritical. Allen may constantly speak haughtily of himself ("I don't need you to tell me that," he says when Keaton tells him he has a good sense of humor), but ultimately it's the seventeen year old Hemingway who comes out as the most mature, putting the adults to shame; when Allen is livid over Keaton's tour-de-force teardown of his artistic heroes, she's the one who notes that she just seemed nervous. She also gives a speech on the outmodedness of monogamy, and calls Allen out for thinking six months apart is the end of the world. In contrast, in an earlier scene Allen disparagingly tells Keaton, of her new relationship, "I give the whole thing four weeks."

"Well I can't plan that long in advance!" she replies, exasperated.

Despite its critical commentary and romantic cynicism, Manhattan is, overall, an optimistic film. At least, it doesn't advocate society-wide suicide. Allen acknowledges that there are things that make life worth living, like Willie Mays, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Cezanne, Flaubert, good Chinese food, and pretty girls. (Allen's often accused of being a misogynistic creep, for, in this film, giving himself a high-school senior as a girlfriend, or for his bitterness towards his now-lesbian ex-wife, but he's really a philogynist. Not only is Hemingway the most mature character in the film, the lesbian couple is the only healthy and successful couple portrayed, the only one that seems like it might actually last for a long time.) But outside of great art, great crabs, and great gals, he acknowledges that life's a mess. "What are future generations going to say about us?" Allen says with worry, over his era's lack of personal integrity and abundance of neuroses. Well, unfortunately, that we look a lot like you.


Clayton L. White said...

A beautiful movie, greatly enhanced by Willis and Gershwin. I'm very glad you mentioned Bananas, as it is one of my favorites of Allen's, and one of his most overlooked. And yes, as an Ohioan, I like to think New York looks like this, as opposed to what Scorsese and Schrader have to say about it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah the Gershwin arrangements are really something, it's definitely a soundtrack worth picking up. (I luckily found it on vinyl in a Salvation Army!) Bananas is good, but I prefer Sleeper; it's definitely my favorite of the early comedies. Love and Death is surprisingly hilarious, as well.

As a New Yorker I like to think New York looks like this too, and if you stick to certain places it does, especially post-Guiliani. In the '70s, though, I imagine it felt like a very romanticized depiction.

james flames said...

first, i have to say i think this is your best written review yet. i think a film like this lends itself to a good review, but i can easily see how someone can get lost in its vastness and come out with a very 'by-the-numbers' routine. yours comes across with passion, an awareness that comes with a keen eye and (surely) multiple viewings, and a true personal love for NYC. (so much for my review of your review!)

as a recent NYC export, i had watched this film again about a month or so ago (i remember we talked about it), and it hit some nerves. some of my very first memories are of NYC circa 1980-81, and most of those memories are in black & white, and most of those memories are of the same NYC as in Manhattan. which validates the depiction of the city only as far as a 3 year old's memory can.

but being away from the city now, longer than i've ever been, i find it easier to remember Allen's NYC than i can Scorcese's. even though i know both are completely false (which coincides with my reasons for leaving). but obviously there's something about a city that can be such a muse - Allen's movie, Willis' photography, Gershwin's tunes, just to be relevant. so which is it? or does it really depend on who you are and how you look at it? i feel, personally, that it probably couldn't have been much of a muse for me until i left it.

but i truly miss NYC - whatever version of it you like. but i also think that i'd rather miss it than be caught up in it all the time.

luckily, i'll be in town in a few weeks, so i'll be sure to get my fill for the meantime.