Manhattan (1979)

"Manhattan."

Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman. Produced by Charles H. Joffe. Photographed by Gordon Willis. Edited by Susan E. Morse. Production designed by Mel Bourne. Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemmingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne.

I think it would be practically impossible for Woody Allen to make a movie about dumb people. He has made (and will continue to make) movies about frustrated people, immature people, and flippant people. And also people who are vain, entitled, violent, or easily manipulated. But never stupid. In a way, that’s part of his overall point. His movies are almost always about intellectuals caught in emotional mazes that you might think they would be smart enough to think their way out of, but they are not, because no one’s really that smart. Some reject the Allen canon as cinema made by snobs, and disapprove of the way that Allen tries to convince us that he’s smarter than us. But I don’t think that’s fair, because that presumed superiority should not be taken at face value. One of the buried themes of most Woody Allen movies is that intelligence is essentially a curse that allows one to speak about their frustrations with heightened articulation.

Manhattan, which is often cited as one of Allen’s very best films, certainly speaks to this notion. It involves overlapping love triangles (or is it a single love rectangle?) amongst liberal intellectuals in 1970s New York, in which each side of whatever-shape-it-is can cause equal parts pain for all involved. And yet there is real love there. In a way, these relationships are mirrored in the one that Allen has with the city of New York, best illustrated by a famous opening sequence in which shots of everyday life (set to gorgeous b & w photography by Gordon Willis) are laid over a soundtrack that is equal parts Gershwin (“Rhapsody in Blue”) and Allen (narrating the rejected beginnings of a book he’s writing that tap into his anxieties and fears). If there is a central theme in Manhattan, I think it’s right there in the beginning: what it feels like to adore something that gives you such limitless consternation.

As is common with a Woody Allen picture, he casts himself in a leading role in Manhattan. This is not vanity. The Woody Allen character in a Woody Allen movie is always a Woody surrogate, and Allen would rarely feel comfortable giving his problems to someone else. Even when he selects another actor to stand in for him, like recently with Owen Wilson, Larry David, or even Jason Biggs, you feel a slight pity (self-pity?) coming from the director’s chair. In Manhattan, Allen plays Isaac Davis, a forty-something writer who toils in television comedy. He loathes it. He is also twice-divorced, and his second wife, Jill (Meryl Streep) is currently finishing a tell-all book about their marriage, which ended so badly it pushed Jill firmly into the land of lesbianism (giving Isaac the same tolerant neurosis that would later attack George Costanza on “Seinfeld”).

For his current squeeze, Isaac has set his sights young. That would be in the direction of Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway), a 17-year-old high school student. We may question this pairing, and certainly events in the past few decades of Woody’s life would give us reason to question it some more. But notice how carefully the movie approaches the topic of Tracy. Isaac’s friends, Yale (Michael Murphy) and his wife, Emily (Anne Byrne) don’t dislike the girl, or think she’s terribly wrong for Isaac. How she fits in is a topic of conversation for the married couple, but not gossip. And note how that lack of a judgmental attitude is returned when Yale confesses to Isaac that he’s been having an affair, and Isaac is curious and concerned for his friend, but not morally indignant. Throughout Manhattan, people will be generally tolerant and supportive of the rotating romantic pairings that occur…up to a point. You’d think that would make things easier, but no, it doesn’t.

The mistress, we discover, is Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), who earns Isaac’s ire during one visit to an art museum when she mispronounces “Van Gogh” as “Van Gaaaagh,” in a blundering attempt at humor and a low-key variation on the way all romantic comedies begin with the introduced lovers-to-be at odds. Isaac is not interested in her. But Mary doesn’t really fit in with the group, as Yale can’t be with her when Emily is around, and Emily cannot even know of her existence. So she finds a kindred spirit, despite it all, in Isaac, taking moonlit walks with him. Together they sit in repose on a bench in the Battery, until dawn. A romance blooms between them, although with Yale and Tracy still in the picture, it’s a complicated one.

It becomes clear that Isaac has a religion he holds in greatest importance of all things: science, art, the achievements of society. He’s a cultured man who rails against the vapid nature of the TV comedy he writes, and drops the names of August Strindberg, Cezanne, Noel Coward, Flaubert, and others into casual conversation. This is not because the screenplay thinks that’s a joke, but because that’s who Isaac is, and those are the reference points he has. This is true so much that it does not matter at all whether we know to what he’s referring or not. And that’s what makes him take so well to Mary, who is also smart and curious. During one midday trip to a planetarium, they stroll around the bodies of the universe in what feels like infinite space, and yet their conversation, which digs deep into their true feelings, beneath all airs, is whispered and tender, like a confession in a cathedral. Because in a way, that’s what it is.

Given the lack of any theological insight in Isaac’s day-to-day, I’m going to take a leap and suggest he is an atheist. Or at least agnostic. Of course those things are not inherently intellectual, but valuing science and rational thought is, I think, and speaks to how studied and curious Isaac is. There’s a tendency in today’s society to polarize the discussion between science and religion, as if the two cannot co-exist. For some, they cannot, but they are a tiny minority with a regretfully loud voice, and they feed into the pervasive need in today’s culture to label those who appreciate the arts as “smug” or “elite.” Well, why wouldn’t someone wish to be elite, anyway? What’s the problem with learning things and knowing things?

But I digress. Except not really. My discussion is drifting this way because I’m trying to suggest that Woody Allen makes movies for smart people, but he also believes that anyone can be smart. If you disagree with him, that is your loss and not his. How else can we explain Tracy, who is maybe not the right fit for Isaac, but she’s also curious and smart in a way that our closely held stereotypes about 17-year-old girls do not enforce. She can carry a conversation about cinema greats and artists that died before she was born, and she teases Isaac when he senses disparity amongst their interests. Some may call this a foolish ego-stroking dream of Allen’s–the idea that a seventeen-year-old would not only be smitten with him, but could carry a conversation with him. But I think such an indictment is mis-underestimating Allen’s faith. He truly believes that some kids out there would be like this. Well, why shouldn’t they? Are we so cynical that we refuse to believe a teenager could love something older than her? And by “something,” I’m referring to any cultural landmark, and not necessarily Woody Allen.

But smarts will only get you so far. Isaac is low-key and maybe even a little passive when it comes to matters of love. He would easily rather recite a witticism than a poem. Even the act of lovemaking itself he seems to consider more an intellectual exercise than a passionate pursuit – notice how much time is spent in the movie to Isaac and his lovers reclining in bed, either just before or after sex. Because for Allen the real sex–that is, the pure intimacy of connection–is manifested by talking, not by intercourse. And notice that despite Isaac’s self-deprecation, he is underneath it all a fragile person who is capable of being hurt – by Mary, by Yale, even by a 17-year-old girl.

I think what Allen is getting at in Manhattan is how lonely you can be in life even when surrounded by people who convincingly call themselves your friends and lovers. Whether that notion is perverse neurosis or actual awareness is a matter of perspective, but a convincing case is made. Isaac loves Yale and Emily as friends, and loves Tracy, and eventually comes to love Mary, but he’s never really happy with them, and neither are they with him. Because for all their discussions of politics, art, film, literature, science, their lives are teetering on the edge of dead zones. One of the movie’s most telling details is the casual way Yale introduces his affair, and how quickly Isaac adapts to this new information. Happy people do not do this.

Only when Isaac is pushed around one last time does he finally become angry, and fight someone for what he loves, in a scene that is both cathartic and exceptionally well-written. In it, the man, for perhaps the first time in a long time, feels like he has achieved something. Even if it’s only for himself. Well, possibly for another, but maybe not the other that you’re thinking of. The city of New York is as vivid a character here than in any other Allen movie—or any movie for that matter—and that heightens the film’s central irony: here is a town that practically forces together who people who have much in common, and yet each is stubbornly adrift in their own miseries.

As I said before, Manhattan is shot in black and white. It’s not a gimmick, but rather a way to make the city look magical, beautiful. Elegant, refined. But the technique does not just enhance cityscapes, but mental spaces. Look at the planetarium sequence to see how effortlessly the film glides into a dreamlike reverie. Or note the key early scene in Isaac’s apartment, as Tracy lies on a couch. A sole key light is visible, featuring Tracy on the left, because she is a beacon, a symbol, for satisfying romance. Meanwhile, Isaac rummages around the right side of the screen, enclosed in darkness, trying to find Tracy within the mess of his own mind.

Woody Allen has made…let’s say…a lot of movies (last year’s Oscar-nominated Midnight in Paris was his forty-second as a director alone). Some are comedies, some are dramas, some tickle a delightful spot in between. Some are great, some are average, the occasional few are below par. But he is always working, and has earned his place amongst the directorial elite. Not many filmmakers could direct a movie that could beat Star Wars for a best picture win in 1977, but Allen did, and deserved to (this fact is sometimes disputed, largely by people who have never seen Annie Hall). Manhattan is not just one of his best films, but is also a prime cut of the Allen steak. Here you get the wit and pathos, the dreamlike nostalgia, the sharply realized characters. It’s one of his most romantic films, but in a sideways way that is pure Woody. In effect, the movie plays like a love letter, from Allen…to himself. That’s not because he’s arrogant or elite. It’s because actually giving it to someone else would be–and I truly believe this–too painful for him.

GRADE: A

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