| Dir: Woody Allen
“You’re throwing away an enormous amount of real affection on the wrong person.”
Chapter One. He adored Woody Allen. He idolized him all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that he, he romanticised him all out of proportion. And I really do, which is why I’m undertaking this project of watching his canon of work. I want to see if my views are justified. I want to know whether Woody Allen really is my favourite filmmaker, and if he always will be. Manhattan suggests so. Yet Allen was so unhappy with the film that offered to make a new one for free if United Artists didn’t release it. Thank goodness they did, because it’s without a doubt something to add to Isaac’s list of things worth living for.
Annie Hall may be the more enduring film in mainstream culture, but Manhattan is his most well realised film to that point. The multiple parallel story arcs progress and overlap with precision, the characters are the richest to that date, the relationships are insightful on the underlying moral hang ups that plague them, its style is impeccable, and it’s Allen’s sharpest written comedy in terms of wit and intelligence. Arguably not a single joke falls flat: “Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening, if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery”. In the eternal war of Annie Hall vs. Manhattan, both are undeniably brilliant in their unique ways. The former makes me giddier and gives me more raw pleasure, but the latter simply makes me feel more about what’s happening in front of me.
Your instinct is to root for Isaac and Mary purely because of who is portraying them. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are an adorable and endlessly charming on-screen pairing, but that’s matched by Tracy’s endless neurosis and Isaac’s endless inability to compromise. There’s only so much mileage between a pretentious woman who shoots below her all too self-aware standards and a man who “when it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg award”. Keaton marries Annie’s affability with the complicated psychological currents of Renata, giving Allen a great energy to bounce off that creates a love/hate relationship which is always alive. In a way, it’s a tragedy that this doomed couple share one of the most romantic moments in cinema. But it’s very true to life in a film where none of the relationships feel like lasting and love is nothing but transient.
Not that Isaac’s other relationship in the film with 17 year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) gives you much more hope. You understand Isaac’s placement on their relationship in the first half of the film and, in your best judgement, you have to side with him. But Hemingway’s understated and sensitive performance – capturing the integrity of this young girl precocious beyond her tender years – draws you into her emotionally mature 17 year old perception of the world. It’s even more impressive to consider that Hemmingway was a very sheltered, naive and innocent 16 year old girl with little similarity to the character she captures so superbly. Her first real kiss was with Woody Allen in this film, which resulted in her running to Gordon Willis afterwards to ask “I don’t have to do that again, do I?” Whether her pleading was fueled by anxiety about doing a good job, or not wanting to kiss Woody Allen again, is uncertain.
Allegedly based on a short relationship which Allen had with 17 year old actress Stacey Nelkin in the mid-70s, its conclusion plays out to the same inevitability in fiction. You know that there’s zero chance of 79 year old Isaac and 55 year old Tracy watching a W.C. Fields film in bed in 2016, and zero chance of them both being fulfilled with that life. But she utterly convinces you to have a little bit of faith in them, even if Isaac doesn’t at the ambiguous close of the film. The irony is that he so badly wants to, just as badly as he doesn’t want that thing about her that he likes to change. It’s a devastatingly straightforward sentiment equaled by Tracy’s own: “I can’t believe you met somebody you like more than me”. Her attempts to rationalise Isaac breaking up with her is absolutely heartbreaking. Hemingway does so little, but it reads immensely. When her voice softly breaks asking Isaac to “leave me alone”, you want to do anything but that for fear of her wilting away.
Gordon Willis’ close up framing of that shot, and the closing exchange of the film, are some examples of his breathtaking work that go beyond the obvious showmanship in the opening montage. Manhattan is a titular character unto itself; he captures not only the action happening within it but its existence in the immediate surroundings (all shot on location, amazingly), inseparably fusing the two together. His compositions and choreography are so striking, playing with exposure and silhouettes in such stimulating fashion. He injects the love that Allen has for New York into the viewer so that we’re not merely peeking in at his magnificent love letter to the city, but experiencing it. Coupled with the stellar Gershwin soundtrack after Woody’s two film experimentation without music, we are treated to a gloriously traditional feel reminiscent of a 1940s romance. It’s incredibly immersive, iconic cinema.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Third viewing.