I’m going to start by directly addressing the reason people have a problem with this movie, and with the director, the scene below demonstrates both perfectly.
I was going to quote a whole section of Richard Schickel’s book WOODY ALLEN: A LIFE IN FILM that deals with the whole Soon-Yi scandal. I’ve decided not to as I’d rather talk about the work but I think this paragraph goes some way to providing closure.
…….. “Moreover he emerged [from the paparazzi / court case craziness] with something he had not enjoyed before – a happy marriage. Soon-Yi is a very intelligent, attentive and forthright woman; in the exchanges with Woody that I have witnessed, one senses a serious and well balanced relationship in which, clearly, she is not in the least bit dominated by his fame, accomplishments, or brains. They listen to each other sympathetically, and when they disagree it is rather obviously within the parameters of a sympathetic affection”……..
It’s this chapter of Woody Allen’s life that influences many opinions on his work. I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve heard the phrase “I can’t watch his films – he’s a creep – he had an affair with his daughter”. I’ll no doubt need to provide further evidence that this is far from the truth but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy myself talking about the film that inspired me to make films, the film that led me to fall in love with New York, the film I still count as my favourite picture of all time:
Woody Allen had decided to do a picture in black and white with an anamorphic aspect ratio prior to writing MANHATTAN. He and cinematographer Gordon Willis had concluded over dinner that to do a picture in such a style would present some interesting creative problems which could hopefully lead to some beautiful solutions. One can only thank god that MANHATTAN was the movie he wrote following that discussion.
The opening scene is a wonderful, spine tingling piece of cinema. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swells and rolls, introducing the audience to a New York that is not portrayed in a glitzy Hollywood way. We see trash on the sidewalks, throngs of people paying no attention to each other, workers fixing the street, the Hudson River ferry pulling into berth. It’s INCREDIBLY alluring. The city was always intended to be a character in this film, no surprise given the title.
The climax of this sequence is a fireworks display photographed in Central Park. I’d never have believed, prior to seeing this movie, that fireworks could look so beautiful in black and white. The larger explosions reveal hidden detail in the buildings for a split second….. It’s just great.
Even watching the small youtube section fills me with glee, have a look.
The picture follows the main protagonist (Played by Allen) Isaac Davis as his life slowly unravels around him. His ex wife (EXECELENTLY played by Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their break up which causes him great pain and anxiety, this after leaving him for another woman. His relationship with his younger girlfriend (Mariel Hemmingway) leaves him unsatisfied despite the girl being besotted by him. His career as a television writer comes crashing to an end when he quits. He then falls for the woman (Diane Keaton) with whom his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wife….. That’s what I love about this movie, Isaac is never on top.
Of course, being Manhattan, (everyone has an analyst) it’s not only Isaac that is going through emotional turmoil. No one, except the wonderfully naive and pure Tracy (and maybe his ex wife) is happy with their existence. Diane Keaton plays Mary, the 3rd point of the love triangle formed By Isaac and Yale, her character is a typical New York intellectual type, forever in a crisis but with little in the way of solution. Her fragility is hidden behind a veneer of pseudo strength derived from pretension. Yale, living a lie with his wife who wants him to move to the country and have kids, is no surer of his path than Mary. The whole film plays out at a perfect pace and allows the audience to get into every character, not just Allen’s.
The scene below shows the triangle being formed. It opens with the most famous scene of the picture, photographed by the Queensboro Bridge (I went on a solo pilgrimage to find the site when in New York last year) with Isaac and Mary. The phone call between Yale and Isaac is charming as is the exchange between Yale and Mary in Bloomingdales. Allen crams a lot of information into this 3 and a half minutes but it never feels rushed……
Although Isaac seems to go from one trauma to the next we never really sympathise for him. I never really find myself on his side. Tracy is spoken to in a condescending manner due to her age yet it is she who is the stable, rational, decent one. I always feel that Isaac deserves everything thing he gets yet can’t help but like him…… he’s only human after all.
Despite the generous helping of neuroticism we’re given in this film it ends with a subtle trace of hope. For those of you that have seen the film, you’ll know what I’m on about. Those of you that haven’t, you have to see this film. I’m willing to come over to anyone’s house and personally show the picture.
Allen himself loathed the film. When Stig Bjorkman, whilst interviewing Woody, pointed out ” I’ve heard, or read that you were very uncertain or very unhappy with Manhattan”, Woody answered “…. When I finished it? Yes, I’m never happy with my films when I finish them. Just about always. And in the case of Manhattan I was so disappointed that I didn’t want to open it. I wanted to ask united Artists not to release it. I wanted to offer them to make one free movie, if they would just throw it away” …….
What does he know?
I’ll leave you with a great scene that again gives lots of information in a short space of time. When out on a drive with Yale, his wife and Mary, Isaac spots his ex wife’s newly published book in a shop. They buy it and start reading it aloud. Note how the camera lingers on Isaac as his every weakness is revealed via print….. A lovely moment from a simply tremendous film.