Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)


Towards the end of Manhattan, Woody Allen’s Isaac lies on his own couch, reminiscent of so many movie psychiatry scenes, and unknowingly performs a self-analysis with one passing comment that sums up his existence perfectly: New Yorkers, we are told, live their entire lives creating petty little problems for eachother, with the sole aim of distracting themselves from dealing with greater, more terrifying issues about the universe. For the majority of the film, this is exactly how Manhattan feels. Men and women are equally responsible for switching feelings towards one another, alternating between their desired partners and turning relationships on and off accordingly. There’s no malice behind this indecisiveness; everyone means well and changes their feelings quite naturally. But the rapidity at which people are turned over and the amount of humour injected into the alternations undoubtedly trivialises them somewhat, and ultimately makes most of the characters appear rather childish. Yet, despite this fact, which is presumably given to us as an intended reflection of reality, romantic moments are far from jeopardised. Manhattan is packed with iconic scenes bursting with love, from a man not just besotted by two women, but infatuated with the city he inhabits as well.

It is admittedly a little odd to find, given the film’s title, that it is not just a blunt cinematic dedication to the city that never sleeps. The opening scene is indeed about nothing but New York, and all the promise and wonder it contains. We see some fantastic shots of the skyline, footage of the bustling streets and stills of the overwhelming greenery of Central Park in the midst of it all. This is set emphatically to the sounds of a George Gershwin composition, and the narration of a nervous Woody. The fireworks seem to explode in sync with the music. It feels like such a celebration of the city itself, and in a way, Manhattan is precisely that. But the homage is very subtle, and implicit in the story we are exposed to. To see this, just consider the following: the two most iconic moments in the movie – Isaac and Mary’s stopping on a bench overlooking Queensboro Bridge at sunrise, and Isaac and Tracy’s horse and carriage ride through Central Park – are primarily romantic moments, but also moments only made possible by the majestic surroundings of the characters. The choice to film in black and white, a masterstroke, made these scenes even more powerful. Just look at that poster-perfect shot, and try to imagine it in colour. The magic, clearly, would have been lost.

Not only in these stills, though, but also in the fact that we are taken through so many different art galleries, restaurants, museums and social clubs, is the city of New York celebrated. And there is also an excessive amount of strolling. The characters wonder the streets of Manhattan a lot, and the camera moves with them as they discover and pretentiously chat about art and philosophy in that Woody Allen way.

I don’t want to say too much about the love affairs, despite them monopolising the plot. In short, Isaac (forty-two years old) juggles the seventeen year old Tracy and maturer Mary. He has discovered the latter through her relationship with his married friend Yale, and whilst genuinely intrigued by her quirky persona, he pounces on this slight-attraction, probably unconsciously, as justification for ending his contentious relationship with the much younger Tracy, for her sake. Yet when Mary loses interest and turns to Yale again, Isaac conveniently convinces himself it was Tracy he was really made happy by all along. But, hurt, she is off to London now to study theatre, and Isaac knows his desperate attempts to constrain her and keep her for himself are self-interested and unfair. Gershwin’s anthems fade in again, and the film fades out.

There’s a lot to be thought about and contemplated here, in the way these relationships map out and the way the characters interact. But this is ground on which Woody has produced more serious movies later on in his career. Both Husbands and Wives and Hannah and Her Sisters deal with such issues far better than Manhattan does. But what no other Woody film can lay claim to is being as beautiful and artistic as Manhattan manages to be. It is quintessential Woody insofar as its subject matter is similar to all his other films and it is full of humorous dialogue, but its love of New York and its love of life makes it surpass any other Allen film in its joyful nature. The occasional silent scenes, so Chaplinesque in their musical, visual and comedic feel, are probably supposed to reflect that happiness. But it is summed up no better than in the same scene that Isaac gives his damning self-analysis: he asks himself why his life is worth living, and lists elements of art incredibly diverse in response: from Groucho Marx to Brando, Louis Armstrong to Sinatra, and Cezanne to Flaubert, they all contribute to the richness of his existence. Add Manhattan to my list of things that make life worth living.

One Response to “Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)”

  1. i don’t know why but i never liked manhattan as much as i felt i should have. Maybe its the creepiness of the young girl and woody. I think husbands and wives is a better script, but i agree manhattan is more beautiful, an ode to gershwin as much as it is an ode to new york.

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