I’ve been reading Drew McWeeny’s writings about film for, oh, probably a decade now. I first found his work when he wrote for Aintitcoolnews.com, though these days he has a terrific blog over at Hitfix.com. The dude has some sharp opinions, and while I’m not always in agreement with him, I can always count on his pieces being interesting & insightful, to say the least. I’m a big fan. Drew recently started a series called “The Basics,” in which he writes about a film that he considers one of the “essentials” — a film that anyone who takes film seriously should see — and then another, younger writer, William Goss, writes a response. To read more about this series, click here and then here.
With their latest installment, Drew opened the door for others to chime in with their opinion. Since the film in question is Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, I jumped at the chance to share my two cents!
I am an enormous Woody Allen fan. I have seen every one of his films (with one exception, Interiors, a situation that I’m sure I’ll remedy someday, but I must confess to not being in any rush), and many of them I have seen too many times to count. But while I recognize that Manhattan is one of Woody’s most well thought-of films, I’ve actually only seen it one time, about 15 years ago. I remember enjoying it, but I didn’t think it was of the level with what I would consider to be Mr. Allen’s masterpieces, films like Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bananas, etc. (It probably didn’t help that I watched Manhattan less than a month after first seeing Annie Hall, a film that absolutely blew me away and that remains easily one of my top ten favorite films of all time.)
So, prompted by this “The Basics” series, I was excited to go back and re-watch Manhattan. Would my opinion of the film change?
Filmed in gloriously beautiful black and white, Manhattan follows several good-natured but lost urbanites as they try to find some measure of love and happiness. Woody Allen plays Isaac, a television comedy writer unhappy with his job who dreams of writing a novel. When we meet Isaac, he’s involved with a much, much younger woman: the 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Meanwhile, his married best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton). While Isaac and Mary strongly dislike one another when they first meet (at an awkward encounter in a museum), they gradually strike up a friendship and ultimately start seeing each other.
None of the elements of that plot might sound particularly innovative. Indeed, change the names and you’d have the plot of about twenty other Woody Allen films. But, while I still don’t think this film comes anywhere close to the genius of Annie Hall, while re-watching the film I could easily see that there is something special about Manhattan. The now-familiar elements common to many Woody Allen pictures come together in a particularly successful manner.
Right from the opening moments it is clear that this is a film with more on its mind than one might expect. Manhattan opens with a series of beautiful shots of Manhattan, taking us on a visual tour of the city set to the entrancing music of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. We then hear Woody Allen’s opening narration, as Isaac attempts to write the opening sentences of his novel by describing the intense love that his main character feels for the city of New York. The images are stunning, the music is phenomenal, and the narration is a riot. This is the way to start a movie!
It’s a fun game to play, when watching a Woody Allen movie, to try to suss out just what is autobiographical and what is not. While I have no real way of knowing just how similar Mr. Allen is in real life to his standard intellectual, nebbishy film character, it seems clear that the sentiments expressed in this opening montage genuinely belong to Mr. Allen. As the film progresses, we’re continually brought back to shots of different areas of the city (accompanied by Mr. Gershwin’s melodies). This fascination with the architecture of New York (along with the film’s title, of course), seems to indicate that Mr. Allen was setting out to give his film a broader scope than just a depiction of the love-lives of a few confused New Yorkers. In many ways, this movie is a love-letter to the city of New York, and I really engaged with that aspect of the film. Isaac’s identity as a New Yorker is a central part of who he is, and the thought of leaving the city is inconceivable to him. I wonder whether Mr. Allen felt that way himself, back in 1979. Either way, that love of New York is central to the film, and I think is plays an enormous part in the great affection that many feel towards it.
There’s some wonderfully inventive and idiosyncratic filmmaking on display here. I really can’t heap enough praise on Gordon Willis (the man who shot The Godfather, for goodness sake!!) for his astounding work in the film. He and Mr. Allen were quite daring with their willingness to, occasionally, let their characters step into total darkness before emerging again into the light (for example, when walking down a city street at night). They also weren’t afraid to keep their camera steady while characters walk in and out of the frame during the course of a conversation. (That actually happens so often during the film that it’s probably not enough for me to write that Mr. Willis & Mr. Allen weren’t afraid to allow that to happen — I’d say it represents a conscious stylistic choice.) Far from being distracting, to me it directs the viewer to focus one’s attention on the words being spoken by the actors.
And what a fine cast of actors this is. The women are particularly notable. Mariel Hemingway is quiet and wise, not to mention stunningly beautiful, as the young object of Isaac’s affection (though he spends much of the film trying to convince her that they’re no good together). Diane Keaton is equally engaging (to Isaac, and to the audience) as the older woman (though younger than Isaac, he’s quick to remind us!) who is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Tracy. Keaton’s Mary is outgoing and chatty, and possesses the life-experience that young Tracy has not yet acquired — she’s been involved in a number of failed relationships, and while those experiences clearly left some scars, Mary hasn’t allowed herself to get too beaten down by life. Then there’s Isaac’s ex-wife Jill, brought to wonderful life by a young, gorgeous Meryl Streep. Jill is a dynamo, one who apparently grew quite weary of Isaac’s neuroses and peculiarities. (So weary, in fact, that she left him for another woman!)
What I really enjoyed about this story is that all three of those women — each of whom represent a powerful place in Isaac’s life — are all presented as fairly well-rounded and complex individuals. Readers of this blog might recall my profound hatred for Mr. Allen’s most recent film, Whatever Works, primarily because of the disdain he seemed to show to all the women in the film, each one of whom was depicted as essentially brainless. In both Manhattan and Whatever Works, the central character has entered into a relationship with a very young girl. But whereas Evan Rachel Woods’ character Melody (in Whatever Works) was depicted as a brainless, gullible fool, Tracy seems to have quite a good head on her shoulders. She’s infatuated with a much older man, true, but she seems to be able to hold her own quite well with Isaac and his friends, and her reaction to Isaac in the film’s climactic scene is measured and intelligent. When we first meet Diane Keaton’s Mary, she is presented as having the exact opposite opinions as Isaac does. But the film doesn’t make fun of those opinions (well, not too much, anyways), and it doesn’t mock her as an over-intellectual know-nothing. In fact, in some ways, we start to see Isaac come around to some of her ways of thinking by the end of the film. Then there is Jill. As Isaac’s ex-wife, we could easily expect her character to be depicted as a cold shrew played simply for laughs. And while she is quite firm towards Isaac (and doesn’t hesitate to spill the beans on their failed relationship in the book she authored), she also seems pretty tolerant of some of his crazy behavior (she’s pretty chill, for example, that he may or may not have tried to run her and her new partner over with a car!), and the two of them seem to be on decent terms with one another, willing to cooperate in the raising of their son. It is a delightful thing when a comedic film is able to craft real characters, rather than one-dimensional, one-note caricatures.
OK, so far I have been pretty much singing Manhattan‘s praises! I’m really glad that I gave it another try. But while I have come around somewhat on this film, I still wouldn’t consider it in the very top-tier if Mr. Allen’s large body of work. It’s hard to compare it to his comedic romps like Bananas, Take the Money and Run, Play it Again Sam, and What’s Up Tiger Lily? (a ludicrously magnificent and under-loved film!!), all of which have much dearer places in my heart than does Manhattan. It makes a bit more sense, perhaps, to compare Manhattan to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Annie Hall, two films that, as I wrote above, I consider among Mr. Allen’s very best. All three are films that are very very funny, while also telling deeper, honest stories. Annie Hall in particular stands out for me because I feel it contains the very best aspects of Mr. Allen’s work — tremendous humor (tell me that Marshall McLuhan scene isn’t a killer), innovative cinematic techniques (the split-screen scene that contrasts a meal at the Halls versus a meal at the Singers; or the moment when Annie & Alvy’s thoughts are suddenly spelled out for us on the bottom of the screen), and an honest, rich story that doesn’t fall into any hollywood ending cliche traps where boy and girl live happily ever after.
Manhattan possesses all of those aspects — just, for me, a bit less successfully than does Annie Hall, a film where I found myself laughing harder and engaging more deeply with the central relationships. One aspect of Manhattan that gives me a bit of pause is Isaac’s sexual relationship in the film with a girl who is only 17 years-old. That’s a bit unsettling even without taking into account any other aspects of Mr. Allen’s personal life. I’m a liberal guy, but my feeling that Isaac and Tracy’s relationship isn’t the right thing for either of them lingers throughout the film, and that prevents me from really investing in their storyline.
That objection aside, I can nevertheless comfortably state that Manhattan is a tremendously potent film that has aged incredibly well. It’s the forebearer of so many “romantic comedies” that came after — films that, as Drew puts it so well in his review of Manhattan, are far too-often neither romantic nor comedic. Just painful. (I love a good romance, but my wife can tell you how bitterly I’ll resist going to see any of today’s agonizingly unfunny so-called “romantic comedies.”) Manhattan is a film cut from a different cloth, and I wish more filmmakers (including Mr. Allen himself!) were making films like this today. (But let’s just make the young girl in the film 21 next time, OK?)