July 25, 2011

Movies Revisited: Manhattan (1979)

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A generation of filmmakers including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and the director of this week's Movies Revisited, Woody Allen, have on many occasions, attributed the critical praise and admiration for their work to the influences of their cinematic idols. In numerous sit-down interviews, these men fondly recall the movies that wowed them in their youth. And it is good, important gushing, not only as a celebration, but also as a reminder to fans: to know the history of cinema, and to preserve it.

But, in a sense, they redirect their identification as artists to these original "masters." Most movie fanatics, with any sense of film school discourse, will know the list: Kurosawa, Kazan, Bergman, Lean, Fellini, Renoir, and other "masters" of world cinema. They are ground breakers, each known for the technical and dramatic nuance he brought to the medium.

This brings me to a choice selection from the Woody Allen oeuvre, Manhattan (MRQE Metric: 88) from 1979.

The film's premise is simple enough: Allen plays Isaac, a neurotic city dweller and comedy writer who hates his job (that's tough). He's dating Tracy, a 17-year old whom he doesn't love. His ex-wife has left him for another woman and plans to write an expository book on their relationship. Then he meets Mary, a "pseudo-intellectual" from Philadelphia that's having an affair with Isaac's best friend, Yale; Yale is married. Yale and Mary have a falling-out and Isaac and Mary begin dating while Isaac is still seeing Tracy. Isaac falls in love with Mary and dumps Tracy. Tracy is heartbroken.

But soon enough Yale has second thoughts on his marriage and wants to get back together with Mary, culminating in an argument between Yale and Isaac in a high school laboratory. In a fit of romantic desperation, Isaac runs across the city to see Tracy before she takes flight to Europe for a semester abroad. Isaac gets to Tracy in time and tries to sway her from leaving. Tracy, who has matured since getting dumped, tells Isaac to wait for her return in three months. "You have to learn to have a little faith in people," she tells Isaac. By the end, Isaac seems like the 17-year old. The film opens and closes with "Rhapsody in Blue," set to picturesque shots of The City.

Growing up, I always loved Manhattan for the style, the lavishness. Shot in black & white, basked in the tunes of George Gershwin, the film was, and remains, an iconic presentation of its title. D.P. Gordon Willis (The Godfather) shows the darkened spaces of apartments and side streets at 2am that are given life by their inhabitants, truly making New York "the city that never sleeps."

But, I also thought there was something lacking. I thought Allen danced around heavier themes in his story. He celebrates (and imitates) his movie idols: the Renoir, Bergman and Fellini references abide here, but the apparent seriousness or conviction those men brought to their work is not evident in Allen's.

Today, I look at the film with a little more maturity and some experience with NYC life. And I think Manhattan is a masterpiece. A comedy of manners that is entirely unique to the life of a New Yorker, a life filled with fleeting passions and an almost insatiable appetite for desire and comfort. Whether lying in bed eating Chinese food, or watching the Manhattan Bridge at sunrise, Allen captures moments. And in a city as infinitely beautiful and surprising as New York, all you need is a moment and you're hooked. Forgive me for waxing poetic . . . actually, don't.

Allen has stated in interviews that Manhattan is one of his least favorite films. I find that surprising. With the exception of Midnight in Paris, which has found recent success, Manhattan was Allen's highest grossing film. And over the years, the film has become a fixture of movie pop culture. Perhaps, like many great filmmakers, Allen simply refuses to attribute the film's success to his own artistry. I have bought Manhattan on DVD, doing my part to preserve good movies. You should do the same.

Catch up with more Woody Allen, in our ranked list of his best movies.

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