Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.6: Woody Allen's Manhattan.

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen. Today’s entry covers his masterpiece, 1979’s Manhattan.

Grade: 99 (A)
“Chapter One: He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that he romanticized it all out of proportion.” So begins Manhattan, Woody Allen’s finest film and the greatest love letter to New York City ever commissioned to celluloid. After a declaration of maturity in Annie Hall and a first attempt at serious drama with Interiors, Allen rejoined Annie Hall and Sleeper co-writer Marshall Brickman and decided to mix romantic comedy with drama for the first time. Allen was unhappy with the result (he reportedly offered to do a film for free to keep it from being released), but the film remains one of his most lasting contributions to cinema, a beautiful ode to love, artistic integrity, and one of the greatest cities on earth, all set to the rapturous music of George Gershwin, whose “Rhapsody in Blue” accompanies Allen’s immortal opening narration over a montage of New York’s finest locations. “New York was his town, and it always would be.”
Isaac Davis (Allen) is a 42-year-old comedy writer dating 17-year-old high school student/aspiring actress Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). His best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), is seemingly happily married to Emily (Anne Byrne), but he’s seeing the intellectual Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) on the side. Isaac knows his relationship with Tracy is risky, as she’s growing increasingly attached. He’s dissatisfied with his career as a writer for television, and he’s also facing the release of a humiliating tell-all book from his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep), who left him for another woman. As Isaac doubts whether or not he could ever be serious about Tracy and Mary longs for a more permanent relationship than Yale can offer, the two grow more and more attracted to each other. But this is New York, and nothing is ever as simple as that.
Every discussion of Manhattan has to cover how Allen romanticizes the city “all out of proportion”. Gordon Willis, one of the all-time great cinematographers, famously photographed movies as diverse as The Godfather and Annie Hall; his innovative use of shadows and placement was revolutionary. His stunning black-and-white photography on Manhattan may be his greatest achievement. Allen and Willis worked together on Annie Hall, another great New York movie, but Manhattan is the New York movie. The city never looked as beautifully alive as it did here, and in gorgeous scenes under the Brooklyn Bridge and in the Planetarium, it’s easy to see how Allen (or Isaac) could fall in love with the town that “pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin” (talk about romanticized).
That romanticism compliments the various romances in the film. Isaac and Tracy’s romance might be a bit questionable (to say the least), but for all the dubious aspects, the relationship is filled with an overwhelming sweetness. Tracy is young and na├»ve, but she’s also remarkable intelligent and sweet, and the affection between the two feels very real. feeling hits its peak wonderful horse-buggy ride where Isaac uses one of the all time greats of romantic sweet talks:
“You know what you are? You’re God’s answer to Job. You would have ended all argument between them. He would have pointed to you and said, ‘I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these’. And then Job would have said, ‘Yeah, well, you win.’”
That said, Woody’s New York is not a perfect place. Allen constantly explores the decay of morality in New York, the subject of the book Isaac currently working on (hilariously based on Isaac’s short story “The Castrating Zionist”). Isaac watches his best friend “diddle a yo-yo” like Mary rather than spend time with his wife. He watches relationships crumble left and right. At the same time, he’s completely culpable: he doesn’t do anything to stop Yale, and he’s dating a 17-year-old. He also sees a New York devoid of integrity and rampant with terrible art, from the “antiseptic, unfunny” television show he can longer stand to work for to the tacky tell-all from his ex-wife to Mary’s decision to whore out her writing talents to writing novelizations of movies.
New York is also filled with the most colorful bunch of Fellini-esque intellectuals in a Woody Allen film yet (Isaac flat-out describes them as being “like the cast of a Fellini film”): Mary’s filmmaker friend is planning a sexist art film where a man’s sexual prowess is so powerful that when a woman reaches orgasm they die of fulfillment. Several of them insist that devastating satire is the best way to deal with the American Nazis (Isaac’s suggestion of bricks and bats sounds more appropriate). One woman claims that she finally had an orgasm, and that her doctor said it was the wrong kind (“Did you have the wrong kind? Really? I’ve never had that. My worst was right on the money”). Isaac’s ex-wife, Jill, is a cold intellectual who seems bent on humiliating her ex-husband (although, to be fair, he did try to run her girlfriend over with his car).
At the center of it all is Mary, a complete 180 from Diane Keaton’s beloved Annie Hall and one of the most complete characters in Allen’s filmography. Allen stacks the cards against Mary at from the start: she’s an overly cerebral, often outright pretentious Radcliffe grad. She hates everything at the art museum other than a steel cube “with great negative capability”. She mispronounces “van Gogh” as “Van Gockh”. She and Yale have an “Academy of the Overrated”, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustav Mahler, and Isaac’s (and Allen’s) filmmaking hero, Ingmar Bergman, whose exploration of crisis of faith and God’s silence Mary finds juvenile. After all, she’s from Philadelphia, where everyone believes in God and doesn’t cheat on each other (whatever that means). It’s easy to immediately hate her for being an insufferable jerk who thinks all of her friends are geniuses (“You should meet some stupid people, you could learn something”).
But beneath her eccentricities lies a living, breathing person. In truth, Isaac has his own pretensions and hang-ups, and he and Mary have an extraordinary amount of chemistry (though when you cast Allen and Keaton together, results are almost always terrific). She’s just as neurotic as him, with “self-esteem a notch below Kafka’s”. Her pain when Yale breaks up with her is palpable: she tries to hide it with one-liners (“you sounded authoritative, like the pope or the computer from 2001”), but she’s clearly devastated. Her courtship with Isaac, meanwhile, has a swooning romanticism nearly as wonderful as his scenes with Tracy. Their “date” in the planetarium shows a great New York’s location while giving the two a figurative walk amongst the moon and stars (again, beautifully shot by Willis). There, Isaac hilariously argues that “nothing worth knowing can be learned with the mind”, and that Mary should lighten up, but she wouldn’t be as fascinating and complex a character if she changed. In a way, Mary is a fitting metaphor for Manhattan itself: some complain that Manhattan’s intellectual airs and constant high-art name dropping can be a bit much, and it’s a fair argument; but beneath the prickly exterior lies a beating heart (plus, those references are damned funny, so nyah).
As self-conscious as Manhattan can be in Allen’s attempt to become a great filmmaker, it’s kept on balance with its great comedic timing and frequently light-hearted tone. Allen keeps his Bob Hope-inspired one-liners on hand, and Manhattan is filled with them:
“I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics.”
“I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion.”

“I’ve never had a relationship with a woman that’s lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun.”
Allen gets some great light comedy in the scenes in Isaac’s new apartment (truly the darkest side of New York!): the movers are inept, there’s brown water from the sink, and there’s a guy upstairs making a sound like he’s “sawing a trumpet in half”. Allen tips his hat to Hope, W.C. Fields, and other great comic actors throughout Manhattan, and although he doesn’t give himself the credit, he joins them as one of the greatest creators of comedy of his time.
Yet for all the light-heartedness, Manhattan joins Annie Hall as a more mature look at the Woody Allen character, a funny and often charming man who nevertheless is painfully neurotic, sees conspiracy everywhere (smoking, frankfurters, and valium all cause cancer according to Isaac), puts himself up on a high horse above everyone else, is completely self-centered, and is perfectly willing to break hearts. Never is this more clear than in his break-up scene with Tracy: here’s a girl who’s intelligent, charming, and head over heels in love with him…but she’s just too young. Isaac confesses that he’s in love with someone else, and that she should go study abroad in London like she planned. This is shortly after she bought Isaac a harmonica as a token of affection. He glibly dismisses her romantic notions. When she “can’t believe [he likes] someone better than me”, he gets annoyed. He starts to feel bad when she starts to cry and he realizes what he’s done to her, but it’s far too late. “Leave me alone.” It’s a beautifully wrought scene, and Hemingway gives the best performance in the film. For her work, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, losing to Meryl Streep’s strong, emotional performance in Kramer vs. Kramer. She was robbed.
He gets a taste of heartbreak when Mary, who has a similar history of difficult relationships with intellectuals, and Isaac thinks that he is going to be different. She and Yale meet up and fall for each other again, Yale leaves his wife for Mary, and Mary leaves Isaac for Yale. It doesn’t matter that things probably won’t be different with the two this time around either; the heart wants what the heart wants. Isaac complains that she likes Yale better than him (sound familiar), and he and Yale have a big argument over integrity and morality (though really, Isaac isn’t much better). Relationships and love are complicated, perhaps more complicated than they need to be. Isaac’s reasoning, that Manhattenites create unnecessary problems to ignore the bigger issues (like moral and urban decay) is pretty sound.
By the time Isaac realizes the mistake he’s made with Tracy, it’s too late. He lists off things that make life worth living: Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Swedish films, and Willie Mays all make the list, but at the end of it is “Tracy’s smile”. He runs across the city to find her on her way to the airport, leaving for London. He’s made a big mistake, and he’s in love. She’s not such a kid after all. She points out how much he hurt her, but it wasn’t on purpose. She’ll be back in 6 months…but he knows everything will change (just like New York is changing around him). The quietest, gentlest section of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” starts up as she insists she has to go, but that she’ll be back. “Not everyone gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” A sad, slight smile, not unlike Chaplin’s smile at the end of City Lights, comes over Isaac’s face, and as “Rhapsody in Blue” swoons, a final, bittersweet look at Manhattan, a city as filled with love, romance, and heartbreak as any other place in the world. Roll credits.

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