Monday, September 21, 2009

Rhapsody In Black And White

The words "romantic comedy" are normally enough to strike fear into any man’s heart, but they say that the exception proves the rule – and Manhattan is surely an exception that the most red-blooded male would appreciate with its shrewd combination of troubled relationships and caustic wit. Manhattan is arguably Woody Allen’s best movie, certainly it’s the film that stands as the best fusion of Allen’s desire to entertain and his melancholy sense of the rhythms and complexities of human relationships.

Allen is one of those rare directors who can seamlessly interweave comedy and drama, humour and tragedy, and Manhattan has plenty of hilarious lines to mitigate the darker subject matter. Not as serious as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Husbands and Wives, not as overtly funny as Sleeper or Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, Manhattan marks the point where Allen fully realized his talent, reducing his reliance on the glib one-liner and spending more time on developing fully rounded characters and the dramatic integrity of the narrative.

"Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3"

Manhattan is often considered to be Allen’s 1979 companion piece to Annie Hall, which he had directed two years earlier. They are both about imperfect, somewhat forced relationships, both star Allen and Diane Keaton (his girlfriend at the time) with Allen essentially playing himself as a neurotic character living in New York. However, the two are completely different in tone: Annie Hall is the blunt, sad realist; while Manhattan is the hopeless romantic. It feels like Allen’s most personal movie, enshrining everything from his morality, his heroes, his humour and (obviously) his home town.

An accusation levelled at Woody Allen is that he always plays the same character in his films, and yes, once again this looks like his typical movie persona: a small, balding, neurotic, middle class Jew, as insecure as he is smart and garrulous: “Years ago I wrote this short story about my mother called The Castrating Zionist". However, his performance here is among the very best he has delivered with a brutally honest look at a man going through a mid-life crisis whose urges and insecurities are founded on a profound immaturity. The emotions feel genuine and he manages to elicit sympathy, even though he’s portraying a self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, whining middle-aged man. Despite his immense ego, he is also very aware of his faults, including the triviality of his work and particularly his disastrous relationships with women, even making jokes about his own parochialism: "Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be ..."

"Fountain of youth"

Allen plays Isaac, a twice-divorced 42-year old television comedy writer, who is besieged with problems, some of his own making. He has become disenchanted with his day job and longs to write a novel, but lacks the courage to give up his monthly pay cheque. His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their marriage that will expose his insecurities and sexual failings. He is dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a gorgeous 17-year old high school student, but frets about the age difference. To further complicate his already messy personal life, he then falls in love with Mary (Diane Keaton), the highly strung journalist with whom his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair.

In the past the film has been advertised with the tagline “For anyone who’s been in love”, but love does not fare too well here. In fact, the film is less about love, but more about loss: everyone constantly seeks to retrieve the past, as they feel the pain of realising that they had a beautiful thing and let it go. When forced to make choices, you just know that Isaac will make the wrong ones. Although Tracy is the polar opposite of Isaac, he would do better to focus more on what she has rather than what she lacks. The theme of impermanence can be heard in the soundtrack, “they’re writing songs of love, but not for me”, and Isaac refers to it in his customary humorous manner: “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics”.

"You've done too much, much too young"

In this way, Allen has produced an authentic account of male vanity and foolhardiness, particularly men at a certain stage of their life, including his own unfortunate conviction that he is a plausible romantic lead opposite attractive young women. He somehow manages to successfully project his own self-absorption as a universal human condition:

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we're just people. We're just human beings, you know? You think you're God.

Isaac: I ... I gotta model myself after someone.

Both Isaac and best friend Yale have to live with the consequences of their lack of self control with Yale’s handling of his relationships with wife and mistress every bit as clumsy and cowardly as Isaac’s.

The film is actually a highly self-critical examination of Isaac’s romantic immaturity and his child-like need to be in a relationship. Despite a string of unsuccessful attachments in the past, he never stops trying to find affection, if not romance, and it is true that Isaac and Tracy share some very tender moments, establishing a realistic chemistry despite their many differences: "You know what you are? You're God's answer to Job, y'know? You would have ended all argument between them. I mean, He would have pointed to you and said, y'know, 'I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these.' You know? And then Job would have said, 'Eh. Yeah, well, you win'."

"Young and the restless"

In her first substantial role, Mariel Hemingway achieves the difficult feat of being both child-like and mature. She comes across as strong-willed and appears to be the only individual in touch with her own feelings. She gives a wonderful performance that is so direct, so without affectation that it is not only at the heart of the film, but provides its heart as well. She symbolises the energy and excitement that Isaac had forgotten existed within Manhattan and it is easy to see why Isaac falls for her. What she sees in him is up for debate, as he spends half the film trying to break up with her (“you’ll think of me as a fond memory”), finally ending the affair at a soda fountain: “Now I don’t feel so good”, Tracy then says in a way that is both simple and heartbreaking.

Given the subsequent revelations about Allen’s private life, where he married his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, even though she was 35 years younger than him, the non-judgmental attitude towards the relationship between an old man and a high school student raises a number of moral issues. Whether this is a case of life imitating art or vice versa, it’s slightly uncomfortable viewing, so when Isaac jokes, “Can you believe it? I’m dating a girl who does homework”, it is difficult to tell if he is mocking himself or boasting. If you can overlook the film’s Freudian implications, then you can appreciate Hemingway’s performance. In many ways, she has the most difficult role with everyone else getting the good lines, but she acquits herself brilliantly and it was no surprise when she was nominated for best Supporting Actress.

"They call it Metallica"

The attractive, but intellectually combative Mary, appropriately played by Diane Keaton, Allen’s then off-screen girlfriend, is apparently the better match for Isaac, being of a similar age and tastes. Despite (or perhaps because of) being self-absorbed and flagrantly neurotic, she is clearly Isaac’s soulmate:

Mary: I'm honest, whaddya want? I say what's on my mind and, if you can't take it, well then fuck off!

Isaac: And I like the way you express yourself too, y'know, it's pithy yet degenerate. You get many dates?

Keaton plays Mary as a slightly sour, jaded riff on Annie Hall. Her scenes crackle with intelligence and intensity, particularly when she almost drives Isaac to violence in a hilarious exchange by summarily tearing apart every writer, film-maker and artist he holds dear. Even though she’s a strong willed woman, it’s evident that she uses her cleverness as a shield against loneliness and she’s just as screwed up as the men in the movie, providing this psychodrama with both the psycho and the drama:

Mary: All right, so he's unorthodox. He's a highly qualified doctor.

Isaac: He's done a great job on you, y'know. Your self esteem is like a notch below Kafka's.

In this movie, few can deal with emotional truths, hiding behind smart wordplay. These sophisticated friends are so busy trying to impress others that they forget to be themselves. All the characters, save the innocent Tracy, are in therapy and/or writing a book, but all their literary superiority and glib sophistication cannot save them from their true feelings when they arrive: “I feel like we're in a Noel Coward play. Someone should be making martinis”. Like Marcello Mastroianni discovering the empty morality and intellectual bankruptcy of the Roman elite in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Isaac finally appreciates that innocence and faith can be more effective than maturity and so-called wisdom. Sometimes you have to act, rather than over-analyse things: ”Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point”.

"Not my idea of foreplay"

Ultimately, the point is that the cynicism and superficiality of the modern mating dance can be trumped by simply going with the flow and enjoying the time spent with the person with whom you have a real connection. The message is that you should just be yourself, rather than who others expect you to be. On this point, Allen himself said that the film deals with the problem of people trying to live a decent existence in an essential junk-obsessed contemporary culture without selling out.

At the same time the movie is clearly Woody Allen’s love letter to New York, the city he calls home, gloriously celebrating the soaring landmarks and famous locations. Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, a carriage ride though Central Park, rowing boats in the lagoon, the Empire State Building – it’s like paying homage to an anthology of Manhattan shrines. However, this is a fictionalised, idealistic version of New York, cut from the same cloth as Amelie’s Paris. During the extraordinary opening sequence montage of city vistas, accompanied by the stirring strains of Gershwin’s sublime “Rhapsody in Blue”, Allen intones, “He adored New York. He romanticised it out of all proportion”, which speaks volumes about the director’s love of the metropolis – and every wistful frame of Manhattan emphasises that. In 1979, New York was in crisis, still reeling from the financial default and black-out, so Allen imagined an improved version as romantic as Casablanca or an Astaire and Rogers musical.

"You old goat"

For the first (and maybe last) time, Allen’s visual rhetoric was equal to his writing with the city magnificently rendered by Gordon Willis, who also shot the Godfather trilogy. The beautiful black and white cinematography reflects a sweet, nostalgic sadness in keeping with Isaac’s gloom, but also turns New York City into one of the principal characters of the film. It helps convey melancholy romance in almost every scene and gives the movie a timeless quality. Willis’ lighting superbly underlines many scenes, such as Isaac and Mary exploring the possibilities of a relationship in the Planetarium: it first appears as if they are strolling among the stars, then they disappear into darkness as the conversation falters, before a sliver of side-lighting finds them (as they find each other).

Of course, Allen is better known for the dazzling brilliance of his scripts rather than the images and Manhattan’s flowing dialogue does not disappoint, filled with the one-liners and savage witticisms that have made him a favourite of cinema aficionados:

You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eye on the meter.

Plus I'll probably have to give my parents less money. It'll kill my father. He's not gonna be able to get as good a seat in the synagogue. He'll be in the back, away from God, far from the action.

Isaac: I got a divorce because my ex-wife left me for another woman.

Mary: Really? God, that must have been really demoralising.

Isaac: Well, I dunno, I thought I took it rather well under the circumstances. I tried to run them both over with a car.

"The Bridge of Sighs"

Traditional romantic comedies conclude with the two principals confessing their love for one another, but Allen’s masterstroke is to end with a heartrending final scene – a veritable symphony of missed chances. Isaac finally realises that he has casually tossed aside the person he really wants, when he includes her in his list of what makes life worth living:

Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Willie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...

Although Isaac pleads with Tracy not to leave on the plane, he manages to convey the tortured tone of a man who still desires her, yet knows that she is doing the right thing. She had idolised him, but he lost her through his own foolishness and now he knows that their time has passed. Ironically, Tracy is now presented as the mature one: “Six months isn't so long ... not everyone gets corrupted ... you have to have a little faith in people”.

This hugely inventive film managed to be simultaneously funny, poignant and sad with its painfully realistic examination of personal confusion and human relationships. Woody Allen’s subsequent attempts to recapture New York have often been embarrassing, but at least we’ll always have Manhattan.

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