See It Big: Manhattan

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The Big Apple
Justin Stewart on Manhattan

It’s called Manhattan. The title suggests familiar Woody terrain, but its sheer bluntness implies something special, an impression that this is “the one,” the film that gets at everything Allen feels about the second greatest love of his life (after himself, though the two can’t so easily be pried apart.) It remains his most fawning love letter to the city. An opening line, one of the scrapped “Chapter One” intros, admits that the conception of the city here is romantic, idealized, and personal without apology. Manhattan’s Manhattan is a dream, a wish, a memory—that it’s the best place on Earth, ever, is made impossible to deny, if only for 96 minutes and however long until the trance wears off.

The case for this New York is made straightaway, in one of the most ravishing opening sequences in all of cinema—Gordon Willis’s sublime black-and-white static shots of the city, scored to “Rhapsody in Blue.” Recognizable without being dully iconic, the images should muffle whatever resistance other-city loyalists might raise. The mixture of grandiose long shots, like the view from Jersey of the skyline popping with fireworks, and closer, more intimate ones, like a voyeuristic look at a posh couple embracing on a balcony, prefigures the rest of the film’s interest in both the large and the specific. Allen said around the time of the film’s release that his city was becoming “desensitized,” an ailment for which Gershwin and Willis offer the correcting cure.

Following this prologue, the visuals throughout the film are no less elegant, Allen and Willis having given themselves over to uncorked romanticism. There are the graceful driving scenes, with the camera following various cabs or the convertible belonging to Yale (Michael Murphy) down different city highways, so much in contrast to the madcap stuff on the streets of Annie Hall. It doesn’t get better than the early dawn shot of Allen’s Isaac and Diane Keaton’s Mary silhouetted on a bench framed by the 59th Street Bridge (as Isaac talks about the city being a “real knockout”). And then there’s the wonderful scene in the Hayden Planetarium, where Isaac and Mary fall in love in the shadow of Saturn. It’s an apt place to set the birth of a sensation as bizarre as love, and key to it is the way Willis’s photography conceals all the museum mundanities (ropes, other visitors) in the dark, leaving only space.

It’s worthwhile to ask why Manhattan looks so beautiful, why Allen went to the trouble (a processing lab had to be built to handle all of the black-and-white 35mm film) for this story and these characters in particular. Does the style suit the subject, or is it just distracting handsome packaging? I think it is a success of contrasts, between the lush visuals and the flawed, mostly mean and cunning characters’ words and deeds. The cinematography is as unquestionably attractive as the humans are frustratingly imperfect, even unlikable. The style forces the viewer to assign more value to the story, whether it deserves it or not, and to seek something grand, perhaps even Allen’s stated goal to make “a metaphor for everything wrong with our culture.” (Such ambition is mirrored in Isaac Davis, who at one point admits he models himself after God.)

Putting aside the film’s singular look and feel—is Manhattan’s central story business as usual for Allen? Well, yes. Its conflicts rest on a familiar group of four with a familiar bunch of problems, and the dialogue’s the same potpourri of one-liners, neurotic insecurities, and dismissals and defenses of Allen’s beloved artistic figures. The story is neither as funny nor romantic as Annie Hall, neither as rife with pathos as Husbands and Wives, nor as heartbreaking as Sweet and Lowdown. But that’s high company, and Manhattan still has all of those things in proportion.

It’s consistently funny, from Mary’s “I’m from Philadelphia. We believe in God” declaration to the hilarious sight gag revelation of her “devastating,” “brilliant,” sexual dynamo ex-husband played by . . . “homunculus” Wallace Shawn. When Isaac dumps the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) because of their huge age difference, he protests that she should be hanging out with boys her own age, kids named “Billy, Biff, Scooter, or little Tommy.” There’s physical comedy in Isaac and Mary’s rainy run to the planetarium, pointlessly trying to stay dry under blowing newspaper, and in Isaac’s distracted peeking to his left at Mary and Yale, sitting next to each other at a concert. And though it isn’t remarked upon, Woody and Murphy play some of the worst racquetball on record.

Every relationship in the movie is marked by angst. From the first post-Elaine’s stroll, the conversation concerns “awful,” “terrible” extramarital affairs that “need to end.” The men “have to get out,” but they both lack the moral backbone to do so. Though the truth is often camouflaged by Allen’s disarmingly nebbishy onscreen appeal, Isaac is monstrously cruel to Tracy. He’s never unaware how wrong it is that he’s 42 and she’s a teen, but he’s lazy to do anything about it, and loves to talk about how great and “record-breaking” their sex is. When he dumps her for Mary only to find she’s still in love with the married Yale, Isaac callously reappears in Tracy’s life, begging her not to go to London. That spoiling this trip may’ve proved disastrous for Tracy’s future does not impinge upon his selfishness. (His impetuous race down the street to catch her comes after he’s listing his reasons to live and thinks of her face, but only after he checks off Groucho Marx, Swedish films, and Willie Mays.) Worse, he’s even self-righteous enough (Yale’s words) to excoriate his friend for waffling on Mary, condemning Yale’s snaky “rationalizations” while forgiving his own with Tracy.

All are a little stained in the end except the young girl, who leaves open the possibility for reconnecting with Isaac after her six-month stint. “Not everybody gets corrupted,” she tells him. “You have to have a little faith in people.” No and yes. Manhattan freely exposes its characters’ corruption, setting it in relief against its idyllically depicted setting. We question their behavior, and we’re answered with the uncomplicated beauty of Willis’s cinematography. Human cruelty is as much a part of the Manhattan landscape as a dewy, picturesque Central Park at dawn, after all.

Manhattan shows January 27 and 28 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of Reverse Shot's See It Big series.