Saturday, March 28, 2020


Director Woody Allen

Allen with actress Mariel Hemingway

Mariel Hemingway

Allen with actress Mariel Hemingway

MANHATTAN          A                    
USA  (96 mi)  1979  ‘Scope  d: Woody Allen

Made in an era when Woody Allen films were still funny, where his cleverly written dialogue was likely the best thing you heard in a movie all year, convincingly real and naturalistic, with Allen’s giant ego as well as his phobias and anxieties at the heart of the film through his own autobiographical central character, yet this also has a majestic view of New York City and is really a love letter to a city of magical possibilities, beautifully captured in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the same man who filmed THE GODFATHER (1972), where this may be Allen’s first art film, shot in ‘Scope, visually intoxicating while driven by the melodies and natural rhythm of George Gershwin’s music, making this the quintessential Woody Allen film, listed at #1 from an October 4, 2013 Guardian Poll, "The 10 best Woody Allen films".   Accentuating the impressive skyline as well as city streets, parks, and museums, much of the film becomes a travelogue taking us through a tour of New York City’s most magnificent borough, never looking so stunning, filled with cultural landmarks and significant locations, offering a Who’s Who of what to see there, caught in a moment in time, like a time capsule, or a metaphor for contemporary culture, accentuating all the things Allen loves about his exalted city.  Opening to the lush sounds of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Rhapsody in blue -  George Gershwin - Gary Graffman, New York Philharmonic - Zubin Metha (16:37), including luminously romanticized shots of the city, the skylight at dawn, a silhouette of the Empire State Building, the neon lights of Broadway, all framed in an idealized montage of a perfect city, Allen in voiceover as writer Isaac Davis narrates the opening lines as if typing out the first draft of a 40’s pulp fiction crime novel, where he’s a Raymond Chandler tough guy in a noirish story describing the gritty pulse of New York City through expressive language, but finds it difficult to choose the right words, stopping and starting again several times before finally getting it right, elegantly setting the tone for what’s to come, where Allen has a history of romanticizing New York City in films, again idealizing his favorite city with familiar city streets, Manhattan - Woody Allen (HD) Opening Scene (3:09), “New York was his town and it always would be.”  In contrast, next to this glorious backdrop, the citizens who call this place home are themselves flawed and plagued by ordinary, everyday problems, caught up in their own tawdry melodramatic betrayals and personal issues.  To start out with, Isaac’s best friend is Yale Pollock (Michael Murphy),  married for over a decade to Emily (Ann Byrne Hoffman, the first wife of Dustin Hoffman), yet he’s caught up in an affair with Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), a bright and attractive but somewhat flaky personality, while Isaac, annoyed that his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep), who left him for another woman, is writing a tell-all book about their marriage falling apart, while he’s dating an attractive 17-year old high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), mature beyond her years, both seemingly happy, though he’s obviously using her, yet deep down he thinks she’s too young, never really taking her seriously.  Nonetheless, their time onscreen together is positively charming, where despite his omnipresent litany of neverending neuroses, Allen has rarely been seen this happy and relaxed before, an essential component to why this film is so revered, as it’s perhaps closest to his authentic self. 

Throughout the film it’s clear we are part of Allen’s world, awash with stunning Gershwin melodies, while the pathetic counterpoint to the city’s romanticized perfection is the deceitful affliction of the feeble-minded humans residing there, suggesting humans sabotage their own personal happiness, filling the screen with writers and intellectuals, all supposedly working on books, each one viewed as selfish to the core, overly self-absorbed and emotionally naive, where their morally tangled lives are founded on enormous personal transgressions that are breezily swept away with the greatest of ease, with each relationship built upon a series of betrayals, where one of Allen’s self-confessed intellectual anxieties (raised near the end of the film as an idea for a short story) is creating unnecessary neurotic problems that prevent his characters from dealing with life’s more important issues, finding amusement in their sheer ineptitude.  Because humor is so ingrained into the fabric of the film, one excuses the misogynistic leanings, as duplicitous characters falling from grace are at the heart of the film, providing a near mythical landscape of what amounts to a gargantuan distance between heaven and earth.  In this film, romantic attachments fall apart, love never lasts, the exact opposite of the typical 30’s Hollywood musical with Fred Astaire, as exemplified by Yale’s marriage to Emily, which Isaac thought was air tight and would never crumble.  But everything touched by the hand of humans eventually falls apart, thereby leaving their own ephemeral imprint or legacy.  When Yale breaks up with Mary, it opens the door for Isaac to step in, where their initial meeting is disastrous, at emotional and artistic extremes, yet he can’t get her out of his head, thinking perhaps she’s the voice of maturity that he’s looking for, despite her swooning mood changes that are epic, both caricatures of changeable artistic temperaments, exposing the pretentiousness of New York intellectuals as culture snobs, rehashing their relationship in Annie Hall (1977).  Part of the fun of this film is watching Allen’s continual self-obsession, which he mocks with sarcastic humor, yet he can’t disguise a constant need for attention, which seems to be the standard operating position of male characters in Woody Allen movies, who delude themselves by forgiving their own flaws, but not in others, having little time to sympathize with the rest of the world, as they’re too busy thinking of themselves.  There are plenty of digs at his own character and the inflated view of himself, with Yale attacking his moral self-righteous attitudes, “You think you’re God,” claiming moral superiority, always presuming he’s right, to which Isaac coyly responds, “Well, I gotta model myself after someone.”  But ex-wife Jill gets the motherload of targeted barbs, with his friend Yale (rubbing it in) reading aloud from her memoir, scathingly accurate, so piercingly true that one can’t help laughing in approval, as this is the epitome of self-deprecating humor, “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair.  He had complaints about life but never any solutions.  He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices.  In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights when in fact it was mere narcissism.”  Not sure Allen has ever been more accurately described in one of his own films, continually inviting ethical scrutiny, reading like it’s straight from the hallowed halls of heaven, or from psychiatric notes, yet dripping with veracity.

After this game of musical chairs, with Yale returning to Mary, claiming he never stopped loving her, willing to sacrifice his marriage for her (while buying himself a flashy Porsche sports car to help ease the pain), Isaac has a revelatory moment of honesty, like how stupid he was to throw away what he had with Tracy, who despite being 25 years younger displays more emotional maturity than he ever does, yet he always kept her at a distance, never really accepting her for who she was, now viewed as innocence personified, remaining one of the most gorgeously appealing characters in any Woody Allen film, just 16 when filming, so open and vulnerable, untainted from cynicism, very much like who she is in real life, where her screen persona represented her own, even-keeled and wise beyond her years, very reserved and grown-up (coming from a family with deep-seeded emotional turmoil, with the public glamorizing the Hemingway misfortunes with suicide and depression), becoming a shining star in Allen’s universe of misfits, where he was fortunate to discover her at the height of her beauty and stardom.  She famously rejected Allen’s advances after the film was completed, showing a surprising independence, where she is the antithesis to his moral fallibility, where her virtuosity only makes her stand out even more in the universe of his films, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but losing to Meryl Streep in KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), who was more of a lead character, countering Dustin Hoffman who won for Best Actor.  Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman were nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to the writer of BREAKING AWAY (1979).  In the abyss of his personal rejection, Isaac lies on the sofa and recounts into a tape recorder those things that make life worth living, each very carefully thought out, “Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Paul Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, and Tracy’s face.”  The pause afterwards says it all, as he’s internalizing what a shmuck he was to give up on her for someone his own age but so emotionally unstable, whose anxiety level mirrored his own, subject to catastrophic mood swings, while Tracy is as well-grounded a human being as exists opposite his own, and he ignored her, like something Jean-Pierre Léaud’s adolescent Antoine Doinel would do in Truffaut’s series of autobiographical encounters in Introduction to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel.  Attempting to call her by phone, but the line is busy, he instead runs through the streets of the city in an extended sequence accentuating the city streets that he adores, bookended by the “Rhapsody in Blue” music of Gershwin, blending together the loves of his life, creating a seamless encounter that may as well be with fate, testing his luck once again, thwarted by a 6-month adventure that she’s about to embark upon to study in London’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts that he actually encouraged, thinking it would do her a world of good.  Running up against his own advice, he begs her to stay, not wanting to lose that essence about her that he likes, hoping it will never change, but she reassures him “not everybody gets corrupted,” and all the plans have already been made by her family, suggesting 6-months isn’t so long, concluding with the kind of line Billy Wilder might have written, “You have to have a little faith in people.”  Gobsmacked and completely befuddled, he can only offer a wry smile, like that magical Chaplin moment at the end of CITY LIGHTS (1931), where he can’t weasel his way out of this one, caught like a deer in the headlights, perhaps seeing himself for the very first time, as the curtain drops, Manhattan (1979) Ending (HD) YouTube (8:00), offering a few final shots of the city skyline, with Gershwin’s Embraceable You playing over the end credits.  Strangely, of all the Allen films, this one holds up better and feels more contemporary than all the others. 

Post Note

In hindsight, one may re-examine the film after the very public fallout of the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow breakup, where sexual assault allegations were made against Allen by his seven-year old daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992, claiming Allen sexually molested her in Farrow’s Connecticut home, though Allen has always denied the accusation.  The Connecticut State’s Attorney investigated the allegation and contended there *was* probable cause for a criminal case but did not press charges, claiming the effected child was too emotionally fragile, while the Connecticut State Police referred Dylan to the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale–New Haven Hospital who concluded that Woody Allen had not sexually abused Dylan, and the New York Department of Social Services found “no credible evidence” to support the allegation, though it was never demonstrated conclusively that it had not happened.  Nonetheless, Dylan’s brother, Ronan Farrow, now a journalist, has publicly supported his sister, where the incident has become embroiled in the #MeToo movement’s insistence that victims must be listened to.  Adding to the controversy, Allen (at the age of age 56) began having an affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (essentially his step-daughter, though he and Farrow were never married) when she was a senior in high school, graduating in June 1991, with a sexual relationship allegedly beginning December 1991.  While there is some controversy surrounding Soon-Yi’s actual birth date, it is generally recognized as October 8, 1970, making her 21 years of age, eventually marrying Allen in 1997.  Lesser known to the public, just a few years before making this film, Allen (at the age of 42) previously dated a 17-year old high school student named Stacey Nelkin who was attending public magnet school Stuyvesant High (17 was and remains the legal age of consent in New York).  He likely had her in mind while writing this film.  In the custody turmoil, Farrow labeled Allen a child molester and a sexual predator, charges that were initially ignored, but resurfaced again when Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards in 2014, with Dylan Farrow (now age 28) repeating her allegations in an open letter to The New York Times, writing another to The Los Angeles Times in December 2017, again reiterating her allegations.  This time, however, there was public fallout from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, affecting Allen’s ability to work again in the industry, with Amazon Studios backing out of a 4-movie distribution deal in April 2019, cutting ties with him all together, and no new films have been distributed since the release of Wonder Wheel (2017).  This history brings to mind suggestions that Allen is a sexual predator, with many finding Allen’s behavior in this film, combined with his history, as enough proof, featuring Allen as a grown man developing sexual and romantic inclinations with a high school student.  Her parents and their reactions are never considered, as they are not part of the self-obsessed delusion that the Allen character represents.  Does this history effectively alter one’s appreciation for the film?  For some it not only could, but it does (Woody Allen Is Both a Genius and a Predator ... -  Not so much for me, now in his mid 80’s, Allen poses no risk to anyone (though his children may feel otherwise), where this may arguably be Allen’s best film, as it’s presented essentially as a fantasy, cleverly funny, at times hilarious, offering a swooning romanticization of both the city and its inhabitants, using a lush Gershwin musical score as a backdrop, poking fun at the inherent flaws of human fallibility, becoming a gloriously visualized operatic work, where humans never live up to their potential, becoming an idealized dream versus reality, Beauty and the Beast fable, with humans (the beasts) still learning how to make their way in a cold and indifferent modern world.  

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