The Film That Switched A Light On

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.

Isaac and Tracy

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.


8 responses to “The Film That Switched A Light On

  1. Hmm, not sure I agree with you there buddy (I can feel your shock).

    I think it is entirely reasonable not to disassociate the person from the work to be honest.

    For example whilst Polanski may be a fine film maker that doesn’t excuse the blot on his character that I rightly think overshadows his work.

    To take the comparison even further, you may well appreciate the sculpture of Josef Thorak but given his work was made to glorify the ideals of German National Socialism this leaves an unpaletable taste in the mouth that cannot be ignored.

    Now whilst to lump Woody in with these two is far from fair I think it is to be expected and even understood.

    Whilst the logisitcs of he and Farrow’s relationship meant he was never Soon-Yi’s “father” as such and the fact that their marriage may well work for them doesn’t do away with the moral questionability of his actions.

    He also doesn’t do himself any favours in this regard having cast himself time and time again opposite very young (often naive) female romantic leads (Manhattan as a priome example). This just perpetrates the idea of his ephebophilia.

    In this at least age has helped Woody out. Given he apparently no longer feels up to staring and directing his films he has had to find “Woody Substitutes” for these roles be it Jason Biggs, Will Farrell or even Scarlett Johansson so perhaps over the next few years the response you have been getting will fade.

    As for Manhattan itself I haven’t seen it in an age so will have to watch again before I feel I can comment fairly, but I do remenber thinking “it aint no Annie Hall”, but then what is?

  2. “Now whilst to lump Woody in with these two is far from fair I think it is to be expected and even understood.”

    Yes, it is to be expected, and I suppose understood. There is a huge difference however, between someone living a chapter of their life in a questionable and unorthadox way (Haven’t we all) and someone who has actually commited a crime, or supported a regime known for mass genocide.

    Woody hasn’t broke any laws here.

    “He also doesn’t do himself any favours in this regard having cast himself time and time again opposite very young (often naive) female romantic leads (Manhattan as a priome example). This just perpetrates the idea of his ephebophilia.”

    His movie back catalogue is interesting. If you actually look at it you’ll notice that very few, maybe as little as 2 pictures, have him alongside someone that could be described as a “very young (often naive) female” and in fact, in Manhattan, as I said in the post, Tracy is FAR from naive. She’s incredibly smart and balanced, she just happens to love the man…… For whatever reason. Lets take a selection of a few movies to put this theory to the test……

    SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000) Allen in a marriage with Tracy Ulman, no spring chicken.

    MATCH POINT (2005) There isn’t really an “Allen” character in this one at all. All the love interests are the same age(ish)

    BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994) John Cusack is in the Allen role but falls for an OLDER woman.

    EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996) he ends up in bed with Julia Roberts in this picture but she’s neither young, in the context of this analysis, or naive. His real love though is the “mature” Goldie Hawn.

    MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993) Allen is married to Diane Keaton in this film. Both are middle aged

    BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) He doesn’t have a romantic interest in this movie.

    ZELIG (1983) Mia Farrow…..

    THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow hook up, both similar ages.

    RADIO DAYS (1987) Woody only features on the voiceover.

    SEPTEMBER, ANOTHER WOMAN, ALICE… none of these films have any ephebophilia going on as the plot wouldn’t allow it…..


    STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) Allen plays alongside Charlotte Rampling. Incredibly inteligent, and in no way “youthfull” looking

    I’m going to revisit the films I’ve not seen for a while to search for signs but I’m 99% sure there’s nothing there.

    It’s like Saddam’s WMD’s….

    Again, and I stress this passionately, I don’t have the guy on a saintly pedestal but even Elvis is guiltier of questionable relationship morals than ol’ Woody.

  3. Oh dear, I have the age old sense of someone who is to be hoisted by their own petard.

    Whilst I would, to a certain extent agree, I think you have missed the point somewhat.

    Woody may not always go for what YOU feel is an inapropriately young female co-start but that is because you judge him by your own standards.

    However there is a significant age gap between ALL of the females you note and Woody. With Rampling, Hawn, Farrow and Keaton you have at least 10 years. Not that the actresses were inapropriately young necessarily but the age gap at the time of shooting the picture helped to build this idea (rightly or wrongly after all neither of us know or have met the guy so can’t form a true impression) of Woody as a sleaze.

    Now whilst YOU may not feel Ullman is a “Spring Chicken” as a man your early 30’s, for Woody at 60 to be partnered with a woman of 35 is a considerable vanity.

    As for Julia bloody Roberts! She was almost universally considered the most beautiful actress in Hollywood in the mid 90’s and was the ideal against which actressess were compared in the same way Jolie is today, he was 61 she only 29.

    These kind of age differences struggle to be accepted by the public when its bona fide sex symbols like Sean Connery with Zeta Jones or Robert Redford with Demi Moore never mind Allen and Roberts.

    Also lets not get confused here, a characters intelegence has nothing whatever to do with their naivete.

    The appeal of many of Woody’s roles is that he isn’t a stereotypical leading man like Connery or Redford but his charm, wit and street-smarts win the day (or not). It is a necessity of the plot that the women in these films will fall for his charms (or not) and it is this I mean.

    I think that perhaps in Woody’s head (as in all older mens I guess) he’s still 25 going on 30 and when casting himself he is often casting the 30 year old, having forgotten he’s actually turned 60.

    For those who love his work it is easy to suspend disbelief that a 61 year old Woody can pull the best looking woman in the world. For those that don’t, or whom wish to actively attack it, it comes off as little more than a dirty old man living out his fantasies on the big screen. A feeling only compounded by his marrying a 27 year old when in his 60’s.

    An unfair judgment perhaps but not one that Mr Allen has done a great deal to negate. But then maybe he doesn’t give a toss what people think of him and why should he?

  4. Ah, see now you’ve changed your argument Matthew. In your first post you use the word “ephebophilia”

    Here’s the definition…..

    “The term ephebophilia (sometimes confused with hebephilia) is the sexual attraction to adolescents (typically teenagers).”

    You’re now talking about examples that are merely based on age difference.

    I’ll elaborate later but when one thinks of great Hollywood couples, one quickly gets to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall. There’s a 25 year gap there, yet no one would dare cast shame or doubt on Humphrey. When TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT was released Becall was 21, Bogart was 46….. Is that creepy? No. They ended up married and she was with him till the day he died.

    Is it more the way Woody looks that makes the thought of him with a younger, better looking female (Soon-Yi) so hard to bear, have we really become that shallow? It would appear so. This paragraph in your post sums it up.

    “For those who love his work it is easy to suspend disbelief that a 61 year old Woody can pull the best looking woman in the world. For those that don’t, or whom wish to actively attack it, it comes off as little more than a dirty old man living out his fantasies on the big screen. A feeling only compounded by his marrying a 27 year old when in his 60’s.”

    I completely agree with that, it is only when people are looking to bring someone down that they will turn a common male trait into something sinister on which they can build a damaging agenda.

    Woody is not alone, check out this ABC news section…..

    Katie Holmes had posters of Tom Cruise on her bedroom wall when she was a kid!

    I’m not saying (again) that he’s perfect. All I’m saying, and have said from the start, is that he does not exploit and lust after young girls.

    Now would you like a loan of Manhattan so you can comment on the movie? 🙂

  5. Actually the psychological defenition of “ephebophilia” is an attration to sexual partners disproportionately younger than the individual, although “typically” adolescents. The word typically kind of gives away the fact that its not “exclusively” so in short I feel the shoe fits.

    Nor have I taken ownership of the argument buster. I personally have no feelings one way or the other as to Mr Allen’s private life, I was more championing the right of people to not dislocate the individual from their work.

    I’m not sure where you’re going by bringing Katie and Tom into the eqaution as thats not a pairing that has found much public acceptance either and has been subject to worse ridicule than Woody’s.

    Mr Cruise’s stock is I think at an all-time low since his very public divorce from Ms Kidman and it has been strongly suggested that Katie has either been manipulated or is happy to be a part of a hoax. In all likelyhood both are untrue and disgraceful but are a prime example as to why there is ill-feeling toward your hero.

    Nor would I say that Woody’s behivior is “a common male trait” and the comparision with Bogey and Bacall is most unfair there is a huge difference in social acceptance between a twenty-something in a relationship with a fourty-something and a sixty-something although I’d be very surprised if that relationship didn’t have PR challenges of its own.

    You can certainly argue whether this stigma is right or wrong, just or no but you cannot dismiss it as an agenda against Mr Allen.

    As for the film please pass it along I’ll get to it right after “Burden of Dreams”.

  6. You and your psychological definitions. It was the word “adolescents” that formed my interpretation, “typically” had no bearing on things….

    Ok, I agree with you that it’s not the right of anybody to have their actions dislocated from their work.

    Gary Glitter will (quite rightly) never sell another record in his life. (I hope!)

    The point I’m making is, in Allen’s case, he’s only a fiend in the eyes of people who want to use age gaps as a weapon against HIM, and I don’t mean you here Matt.

    The common male trait I refer to is having a younger girlfriend / wife. In saying that, I’ve lost count of the amount of women I’ve spoken to who’ve said they prefer an older man. I know LOADS of people very happy in relationships that have over a decade between them, my own relationship has a 10 year gap, speaking from a first hand perspective, it’s never considered, where does society draw the line?….. As long as it’s not drifting into the realm of the venerable, who cares?

    My burning feeling is, it’s all a big hoo-ha over nothing.

    But here comes the MASSIVE contridiction……. If my own daughter at 20 was dating a 50 year old, I may raise an eyebrow…. I have no problem admitting that, it doesn’t necessarily make the situation wrong though. I actually think the issue becomes diluted as you get older as both parties have lived more of life, have gained the experience required for the decision to be completely mutual……

    As for Bogey and Becall, THE BIG SLEEP PR people used their relationship as a selling point. “See them sizzle on screen” was one tag line.

    I accept and respect your championing of the right you speak of. The truly horrible should never be allowed to flourish, regardless of talent.

  7. On a lighter note, but still on topic…

    It’s like “What’s Up Tiger Lily” in reverse.

  8. Haha!!

    That’s tremendous! I’d be interested to find out what they were actually saying. And is it just me or does Miss Piggy have a Keatonesque look about her?

    Spot on with the WHAT’S UP TIGER LILLY comparison too, I have much love for that picture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s