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Monday, May 12, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Manhattan (1979)

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Mariel Hemmingway, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep

Manhattan is probably the most technically ambitious of all Woody Allen’s films. While many of his films have the flavour of being “writer’s” movies, this is distinctly a director’s movie, which is ironic given that the central character is a writer. None of this is to say that Manhattan isn’t as sharp or cleverly written as other Woody Allen classics – because it is – just that it attempts, and succeeds, at achieving more as a film.

Allen is Isaac Davis, a writer whose serious work has been pushed aside by his work writing for television, whose ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is now a lesbian and writing a tell-all about their relationship, who is dating Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway), a high school student who is way too young and far too mature for him, and who develops a relationship with Mary (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy). He negotiates these relationships with the neuroses and fears of commitment typical to most of Allen’s male characters, especially those played by himself. He wants Tracy until he meets Mary and then, losing Mary, decides that he wants Tracy again, and is forever unsettled by the fact that Jill left him for another woman. In a nutshell, that’s the story, but the story itself is really secondary.

What the film is about is the city itself. It opens with Isaac dictating the opening of his novel, describing Manhattan in terms to relate it to his protagonist. This plays out over a marvellous montage of shots of the city beautifully photographed in black-and-white. The city is filtered through loving eyes, brushing away any ugliness that may have existed on the streets of Manhattan in 1979 (a fact which Allen fully admits, but argued, “Other directors romanticize their hometowns – look at Fellini with Rome – and no one complains, so why should I be pilloried for showing New York in a good light?”) so that you have an unfettered view of a city that is really gorgeous in its design. When Isaac and Mary sit on a bench looking at the Brooklyn Bridge and he sighs, saying, “I love this city,” it’s hard not to feel the same way.

But the film’s technical prowess isn’t limited to photographing the city, it’s also evident in the way that Isaac’s relationships are framed as they carry on within the city. There are two scenes in particular. One takes place between Isaac and Mary as they walk through an observatory during a rainstorm and it’s shot to make it look like they’re floating through the vast darkness of space. The other is between Isaac and Tracy in his apartment, which is drenched in darkness save for one spot of light, where Tracy is sitting. It’s as if she’s the sole space of illumination in his life, although he’s too blind to see it. From a purely technical standpoint, these are the two most beautiful sequences Allen has ever shot.

The chemistry between Allen and Keaton is as evident here as it was in Annie Hall, although it feels more transient, perhaps because the relationship between Isaac and Mary is given as much time as that of Mary and Yale, who will eventually get back together. The first time I saw the film, I was surprised to realize that Isaac and Mary weren’t the story’s central couple, but that it was Isaac and Tracy, who seem like they ought to be the fleeting romance. The casting of Mariel Hemmingway is brilliant on a visual level because of the way she towers over Allen, making her really obvious where, due to their age difference, she ought to be someone others try not to notice – at least not too closely (on their first meeting, Mary asks Tracy what she does. “I go to high school,” Tracy replies, ushering in a brief but awkward silence). Just like in the scene where she sits in the one spot of light, when they walk down the street together, you can’t help but notice her. And the role is supremely well acted, mixing just the right levels of maturity and immaturity. Tracy is smart and certainly mature enough to be in a relationship with Isaac (which isn’t really saying that much), but she is ultimately still a kid, as evidenced in their break up scene, which concludes with her saying, “Now I don’t feel so good,” while drinking a milkshake.

But despite that, Tracy is in certain respects the most adult of all the characters because she’s the only one who possesses real self-awareness and the ability to act selflessly. Yale strings Mary along because he can’t bring himself to leave his wife, then pushes Isaac to get involved with Mary to alleviate his guilt, then leaves his wife and takes Mary back from Isaac. Mary spends most of her time with Yale lamenting the fact that they’re having an affair but not being able to break it off. Isaac dumps Tracy for Mary then loses Mary and races back to Tracy in order to stop her from going to Europe, fully admitting to her that he’s doing something inconceivably selfish. The film’s final words belong to Tracy, who tells Isaac that sometimes you just have to have faith in people, and then the camera cuts to Isaac who looks as if he’s just heard something that is both obvious and revelatory. Has he learned his lesson? We can’t be sure. All we know is that life will go on in that big, lustrous city he loves so dearly.

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