Sunday, 12 August 2012

Manhattan (1979)

Dir. Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway 

Manhattan is not the first Woody Allen movie I have ever seen. That honour goes to Match Point. I didn’t like it. I left thinking that Allen was incredibly over-rated as a writer and director. But then, there are several reasons why – up to that point – Match Point was atypical of his work. It did not even star Allen and it was set in England, not New York. In Manhattan  someone comments of Woody Allen’s character that he cannot even leave New York City; it is almost “Freudian”. Likewise I have learnt to distrust any movie by Woody Allen set outside the Five Boroughs.

Because Manhattan is fabulous. I really enjoyed it. Allen himself reportedly hated it. He pleaded for Universal not to release it. When it went on to become the most economically successful of all his films Allen commented that he felt he had got away with it. Almost presciently he has a little rant about popular culture in the film: “This is so antiseptic. It’s empty. Why do you think this is funny? You’re going by audience reaction? This is an audience that’s raised on television, their standards have been systematically lowered over the years. These guys sit in front of their sets and the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out!” Well I'm sorry for laughing! 

So maybe Woody Allen isn’t really acting in Manhattan. He plays Isaac, a neurotic intellectual snob. He is a 42 year-old writer who is having a relationship with a 17 year-old schoolgirl (and, let’s face it, Allen does have a track record in that regard). He is never satisfied with what he has. He is successful in his career writing TV comedy, but quits to start a novel about New York. And his attention soon wanders from teenager Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) to opinionated journalist Mary (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his married best friend Yale (Michael Murphy).  

And that’s it. The plot tells of Isaac and Mary get together, and how they fall apart again. Of how love is a strange beast and how you might only realise with hindsight that you were, in fact, in love. Isaac and Mary are equally neurotic. They both consult analysts, they both indulge in intellectual one-upmanship. What first attracts Isaac is the shock of meeting someone who has as strong reactions to art as he does, but whose views are the polar opposite to his own. She likes a piece of modern sculpture that he hates; conversely she regards heroes of his like Mahler, Fitzgerald and Bergman as “over-rated”. But this at least prompts dialogue, so when they meet again they end up walking and talking all night. When Yale breaks up with her he encourages Isaac to start seeing her instead. I’m not sure if there is any great over-arching moral here. Conflict sparks passion but is not great for stability? You cannot over-intellectualise attraction? Or maybe just that it is the rather Humbert Humbert-ish view that one should get ‘em while they’re young and mould their development the way you want. Certainly Isaac seems to have moulded Tracy’s tastes in classic comedy. In turn, he seems to regard her as a trophy, a work of art. He refers to her in one place as “God’s answer to Job” (i.e. a work of art to convince a doubter that God is in fact good). When he lists the things in life which make it worth living he includes Tracy’s face at the end of a list of other manufactured art works (“the second movement of the Jupiter symphony… Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues…Swedish movies, naturally…”). And he lives in fear that when she goes away to London for six months she might get “corrupted”: “I just don’t want that thing I like about you to change.” 

But all this is just a hook upon which Allen can hang his hat and demonstrate his wit. There is wit in the script and in the action and in how it is shown. Along with co-writer Marshall Brickman Allen crams the film full of jokes. I’m not entirely sure what the dictionary definition of ‘Jewish humour’ is, but Manhattan could be a good primer. When Isaac leaves his job his main concern is that he will not be able to send as much money to his parents. “It’ll kill my father”, he worries. “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.” He tells Mary that her self-esteem is “a notch below Kafka’s”. When Mary tells him not to worry that his son is being raised by two mothers he comments “I always feel that very few people survive one mother.” Or there is just the plain old-fashioned boy humour too. When a woman confides that she had been told by her doctor that she had had “the wrong kind of orgasm” Isaac is stunned. “I’ve never had the wrong kind ever. My worst one was right on the money.” 

But the humour is not just sex gags and liberal guilt and intellectual jokes about Kafka and Strindberg. What surprised me was the level and sophistication of the sight gags. Isaac and Mary go boating on Central Park lake. He dandles his hand in the water. It comes up black with sludge. Or he moves in to his new flat. The removal men come in and basically just throw his belongings on the floor with stereotypical New York surliness while he stands by impotently. Perhaps the finest scene – and the perfect retort to those who argue that Allen is too cerebral and wordy – takes place at the opera. Isaac and Mary go on a double-date with Yale and his wife, having convinced themselves that this is a good idea. No words are spoken and the camera doesn’t move. We just see Isaac, Mary and Yale sitting in a row. They fidget. They shift in their seats. It becomes quite clear that this was a bad idea. Aw-kward!
Next time they would buy a programme each

But it is a love story. It is a love story to New York. And it has rarely looked lovelier. Allen films in widescreen and in black and white. And he sets it off with a George Gershwin soundtrack. The opening four minutes of Manhattan must be the best introduction to New York ever. Four minutes of iconic shots of the city – skyscrapers, yellow cabs, Central Park, the Empire Diner, crowds, the Staten Island Ferry, the grand apartment blocks of Central Park West, Yankee Stadium – with Rhapsody in Blue playing in the background. As the music climaxes we see fireworks explode over the New York skyline. It is stunning. As Isaac comments to Mary, watching dawn come up over the Queensboro Bridge, “Boy, this is a really great city. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s really a knock-out.” 

What have I leant about New York?
This film is Woody Allen’s love-letter to Manhattan. He starts off by criticising the city for being a metaphor of the decay of contemporary culture, but other than one building slated for demolition we don’t really see any bad aspects of the city. It looks beautiful. The classic black-and-white and the Gershwin soundtrack suit it to a tee. The people lucky enough to inhabit the city have pretty much already won the lottery. Perhaps this is why they are all so snobbish. It is all about been seen in the right places, attending the right parties, having the right opinions. One must aspire to have a certain intellectual cachet. Isaac at one point criticises a group of people by saying that “they probably sit around on the floor with wine and cheese and mispronounce ‘allegorical’ and ‘didacticism’.” It is about social one-upmanship. Having a girlfriend young enough to be your daughter also helps. Mary plays the game too, though she is quick to excuse herself by saying that she is from Philadelphia. There they believe in God, they don’t talk about orgasms in public, and their families don’t have affairs. Such things seemingly only occur in big brash New York City. No wonder everyone needs an analyst.

It is expensive (even if you don’t attend the opera and do your shopping in Dean & Deluca). Isaac downgrades to an apartment with thin walls and brown tap water and it still costs him $700 a month. And this was back in 1979. 

Can we go there?
Woody Allen junkies could organise themselves a really good Manhattan-themed trip to New York. You will not be able to start off with wine at Elaine’s Restaurant at 1703 Second Avenue as it closed last year. Instead you’ll have to jump forewards to the Guggenheim Museum (where Isaac first meets Mary). Go to the Museum of Modern Art (where he meets her again in the Sculpture Gallery). Walk all night and watch the dawn come up on the Queensboro Bridge from Sutton Square on Riverview Terrace (you’ll have to provide your own park bench however, as the production crew did). Run through Central Park in the rain and take shelter in the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History (the Planetarium scenes were the only ones shot on a set rather than on location). While in Central Park why not have a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride (if you have the money: a pre-booked 45 minute ride will cost $150).  Enjoy pizza at John’s Pizzeria (278 Bleecker Street in the Village). Do some browsing in Dean & Deluca at 560 Broadway (like Isaac and Tracy) or Rizzoli’s Bookstore at 31 W 57th St (like Issac and Yale). While on West 57th Street (at 150) treat your son to a meal at the Russian Tea Room. Play squash at the Uptown Racquet Club on Park Avenue. Go to the opera at the Lincoln Center. Go to Bloomingdale's. Have a day trip out of town – perhaps to the Palisades at Englewood Cliffs over in New Jersey (while there you could also check out some of the locations of Cop Land). You probably won’t want to pay a visit to the Dalton School, where Tracy is a pupil, but you may end up running down the street, unable to hail a taxi, before thinking of catching a flight to London. 

Overall Rating: 5/5

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