Thursday, December 27, 2007

GREAT FILMS: Manhattan (1979)

Directed by Woody Allen

Out of all of Woody Allen's great work, it seems to me that none of his films are as beautiful and incandescent as Manhattan. It studies the usual Woody subjects: the troubles within sexual relationships and the futility of intellectualism. More than anything, though, Allen's eighth film is a love song to the city he loves. A city brewing with culture and occasional crumminess, Allen has dedicated essentially his entire catalog of films to showcasing New York City, but no other film demonstrates Allen's obsession like Manhattan.

The story follows a group New Yorkers, including Isaac (Allen), a paranoid television writer, who hates the low-brow material he writes and is in the middle of a healthy affair with a 17-year-old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). His friend Yale (Michael Murphey) is a college professor who is happily married to Emily (Anne Byrne), even though he can't get his mind off of his mistress Mary (Diane Keaton).

Both men are conflicted with their lives. Isaac irrationally quits his job, and constantly questions his immoral relationship with Tracy. Yale endlessly fails to choose between his love for the comforting Emily, or his lust for the high-strung Mary. On top of it all, Isaac has to deal with his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) who plans to write a memoir about their unsuccessful marriage--and how she chose to leave him for another woman.

As all of Woody's films, Manhattan is filled with charming, flawed characters and hilarious, pithy dialogue, but this film is one of the only films Allen ever made where substance took a back seat to style. We remember the one-liners in the movie, but what we remember more is Allen's use of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" throughout the soundtrack. What we remember more is iconic cinematographer Gordon Willis' incredible black and white photography. No other film that Allen has made has such a detail for tone and cinematography.

There are a lot of moments which tackle Woody's usual subject matter of romantic relationships and their ability to make people hysteric. Yale drops Mary to bring some stability in his life, but he is completely unable to get her out of his mind. He unwisely suggests that Isaac take Mary out. Equally unwise, Isaac gets rid of Tracy, despite the fact that she truly loves him. The complexity within the constant hooking up and breaking up is something that is not uncommon in Woody films. Needless to say, the relationship between Isaac and Mary does not work out.

The sweetest moments in Manhattan are the ones that involve Isaac and Tracy. Hemingway's performance as the emotionally mature teenager may be the greatest performance in a Woody Allen film. It's incredibly nuanced performance, because we believe that she actually loves the much older, balding Isaac. Months after he has left her, Isaac sits talking to Emily, explaining to her his missed opportunity with Tracy.

It is rumored that Woody Allen disliked this film so much that he asked United Artists not to release it. It makes sense when you come to realize that this movie is very different stylistically than any other movie he made. There is a moment in the film when Mary and Isaac are walking through a planetarium, and the dark tone of the photography literally drenches them in darkness for quite a few minutes. Very few filmmakers would be brave enough to do this, but what it does is put emphasis on the important dialogue that is being spoken by the characters in the scene.

This movie is not a socially relevant as Annie Hall and does not have a message that blows you away like Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Manhattan is by far the most beautiful film Woody Allen ever made. There's a moment toward the end of the movie where Isaac talks into a Dictaphone, stating all the things that make life worth living, which includes Groucho Marx, classical music, and of coarse, Tracy. Through this reflection, he realizes how much he loves Tracy. As the audience, when we watch Woody recite those things, we realize that this film is one of those things that makes life worth living.

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