Saturday, April 25, 2009


Rhapsody in Black and White

By Jonathan Pacheco
Many describe Manhattan as more of a love story between a man and his city than a traditional love story between a man and a woman. I disagree with that, as I feel the plot of Isaac and Mary and Tracy really is the story being told. However, I do interpret the film itself, and the way it was made, not as Isaac’s relationship with Manhattan, but the director’s. Even the less-than-stellar Woody Allen films feature beautiful cinematography (I first noticed it in Small Time Crooks), but Manhattan, at 30 years old today, really goes out of its way to spotlight the beauty of this city.

The beginning sequence shows none of the film’s characters, just shot after shot after shot of locations in the city that Woody loves. The film shoves characters to a corner of the frame to make more room for the city in the background, creating memorable, breathtaking moments. With the cinematography, it’s almost like a pornography film that always gives more screen time and space to the most beautiful woman in the room; only, here, the most beautiful “she” around, as far as Woody is concerned, is the city of New York.

The story sounds familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Woody Allen film or two. Isaac (Woody), a 42-year-old writer in Manhattan, dates a 17-year-old high schooler, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, in an Oscar-nominated performance) while his married friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), takes on a mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton). Soon, Yale falls out of love with Mary while Isaac falls in love with her, and around and around we go. Isaac is the typical, neurotic, narcissistic “Woody Allen Persona” that was perfected in the '70s and '80s (when accused of thinking he was God, Isaac comes back with, “I gotta model myself after someone!”), while Keaton’s Mary plays as the polar opposite of her title character in Annie Hall, released just two years prior in 1977. Vocal, opinionated, and intelligent, Mary constantly clashes with Isaac (never insult Bergman around that man), and soon enough, the conflicting, “verbal joust”-nature of their relationship leads to attraction.

Something I’ve always loved about Woody Allen’s films from the period is the portrayal of his main characters, specifically the men. Woody just about always plays himself, but surrounds himself with taller, slightly balding 40-something year old academic white men usually wearing big, thick-framed glasses and a tie. They spend their evenings dining with their wives (who they cheat on) and girlfriends (who are either too young for them or are their mistresses), talking openly and casually about art, sex, and philosophy. Oh, and they all have psychoanalysts, of course. Sure, occasionally Woody’s characters will want to watch the Knicks game on TV, but his sports team doesn’t dominate his dinner conversation as I suspect mine or yours does. Things are much more cerebral for these characters (compare that to Woody’s later movies, where most of his characters would rather drink soda or beer than wine). I love it because these characters always surround themselves with vocal, intelligent friends more than willing to debate what it means to be an artist or spout off phrases like, “Gossip is the new pornography,” while I’ve personally found that, at least in my fair burg, those friends are not as easy to come by; maybe that’s what makes Woody’s New York City so great.

Seeing Manhattan’s opening sequence again, it astounded me how much it reminded me of the short-lived series, The Critic (a show that, after a brilliant first season, ruined its second season by trying too hard to make us care about the characters). Either they’re both spot-on in their portrayals of the Big Apple, or The Critic merely took its inspiration from Woody Allen’s films. The Gershwin-style of music that each plays, the shots of the city, they all match up. So many films and TV shows use NYC as merely a backdrop (or a name-drop), and they use it so poorly that the story’s setting could be any other U.S. city and it wouldn’t make a difference. The Critic knew how to use the city, and as we know and have come to expect from Woody Allen films, Manhattan certainly knew as well. For Isaac in Manhattan and Jay in The Critic, this place is their town, and you can just feel it.

As a clever touch, capitalizing on the black and white classical nature of Manhattan’s look, the film features small, soundless interludes that almost serve as mini silent films. Usually as transitions, these sequences show events such as Isaac moving into a new apartment or spending a day with his son. The actions are always a little exaggerated, and just like any silent film worth a lick, it’s brilliantly easy to tell what’s going on. You know what Isaac’s thinking by the way the movers carelessly toss his boxes on the floor. You see him desperately try to convince his son that he doesn’t want the really big sailboat, but rather the smaller, no-doubt cheaper sailboat right next to it. Each scene was a tiny, pleasant, unofficial break in the storytelling.

A favorite, brilliantly shot sequence takes place in a space exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as Isaac and Mary, not yet a couple, duck in from a rainstorm. They walk through the exhibit, sometimes in total darkness, sometimes as MST3K-style silhouettes, and sometimes looking as if they’re standing on the moon. It was a joy to anticipate how the next shot would play with the shadows and the darkness, as sequences like this just wouldn’t have the same effect in color. The triumph of the sequence, a two-shot of Isaac and Mary face to face, only shows the highlights of their eyes, cheeks, noses, and mouths, the dark, starry backdrop engulfing them.

The critical breakup scene between Isaac and Tracy moves me as much as it does thanks to the wise cinematography. In this scene the shots move to close-ups of each character, particularly Tracy — closer than they’ll be on any character for the rest of the film. We’re allowed to see Isaac’s face as he tries to justify his actions, and we see every expression on the face of his 17-year-old girlfriend as she tries to understand how she’s supposed to be the benefactor in the breakup (according to Isaac). The scene ends with a heartbreaking shot of Tracy crying quietly, Isaac’s hand in frame, massaging her shoulder, trying to comfort her as she asks him to leave her alone. There’s a special little moment at the tail end of that shot as Isaac’s hand, unsure of how to console Tracy, hesitates and wipes one of her tears away. Not a typical, romantic film tear wipe with the thumb, but a tentative, almost accidental touch with the forefinger. Look for it next time you see the film. It blew me away.

It’s a little strange to watch Manhattan now, knowing where Woody is in his career these days. In the mid 2000s, he stopped filming in New York and shot his next four features (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) in Europe — three in London. It was almost universally understood that Woody would never — could never — film anywhere but New York, especially after doing it for so long. Yet, a moment in Manhattan now seems slightly foreboding. Almost a throwaway line, Isaac comments to Mary that the city is really changing. In the moment, you think that Isaac could never leave the town. His friends simply don’t believe he could survive anywhere else. I don’t think Woody has fallen out of love with New York City, but with all the changes he’s seen for the past 30 years, and knowing this man’s nature, is it really that surprising that he’d be willing to try to fall in love with some other cities? As Tracy states at the end of the film, “Everybody gets corrupted.” So now Woody has gone off to Europe, just like Isaac kept telling Tracy to do (until he asks her not to, that is). I see Woody today as an older version of Isaac, finally taking his own advice.

There’s a Seinfeld episode in which George single-handedly ruins the production shoot of a Woody Allen film. One of the punch-lines of the situation was that after this specific incident caused by George, Woody was doing the unthinkable: he was wondering if his days of shooting in New York were over. Over a decade after that episode, the situation came true, but it wasn’t because of George Costanza’s incompetence. With every studio looking for the next $500 million blockbuster, it gets harder and harder to find money for a filmmaker whose movies rarely cash in $20 million domestically. Europe has apparently made things financially easier for Woody, and I think it could be good for him creatively. With new cities and countries to explore and personify, I think Woody’s having a blast in this new location. In a review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I wrote that Woody was portraying “the Spain of my dreams: passionate artists, tragic poets, beautiful countryside homes, and couples fighting in the streets.” In a way, you could even say that the characters played by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are personifications of Barcelona in the same way that Isaac personifies New York City. Are they entirely accurate portrayals? No, but they’re not meant to be. They are Woody’s romanticized versions of Barcelona, just as Manhattan, as stated in its opening monologue, is a romanticized version of the Big Apple. This is the world through Woody’s infatuated eyes.

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Actually, Tracy says, "NOT everybody gets corrupted." Otherwise, a really nice post. I always loved Manhattan, and enjoyed it more than Annie Hall. The plot is a little uncomfortable these days given what happened in Woody's personal life, but Mariel Hemingway is lovely as Tracy. For all his despair, Woody's list of "Things That Make Life Worth Living" at the end of the movie shows hope for his ultimate redemption, and trigger his rush to Tracy's side.
Huh, I guess you're right. I listened to it a few more times, and while it's still hard for me to hear it, "Not everybody gets corrupted" makes a lot more sense (not to mention that everywhere else online confirms it).
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