Regular contributor Nigel Watson reviews Woody Allen’s classic film Manhattan, ahead of it’s screening at Plymouth Arts Centre from Friday 23 – Thursday 29 June. Tickets are available to book now.
Manhattan is best known as Woody Allen’s love letter to the city. The opening sequence shows off the full beauty of the city accompanied by the intoxicating, lush music of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. We see the tourist attractions of Central Park, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge and the sunrise before everyone wakes for another busy day.
This visual unfolding of the places and activities of a city is reminiscent of the 1927 semi-documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis directed by Walter Ruttmann. It is edited to tell a story without a conventional narrative, based on Soviet montage theory which posits that the assembly of edits into a montage creates meaning as much as the script itself.
Allen admits that in childhood he associated old films, photographs and art books portraying New York with the music of Gershwin. In his mind the images were always black and white, and that’s why he decided not to use colour film for this movie. The cinematography by Gordon Willis is simply stunning, bringing out the full beauty of New York, making it as much a central character as Allen and his fellow actors.
As might be expected of a Woody Allen central character, he plays anxiety-ridden, twice divorced Isaac Davis, his voice over breaks into the idyllic sights and sounds of Manhattan. He wrestles with working out how to introduce the book he is working on, about a man who is in love with the city.
He begins with, ‘Chapter One….he romanticised it all out of proportion,’ and quickly slips into regarding the city as ‘a metaphor, for the decay of contemporary culture’ desensitised by drugs, loud music, crime and television. Yet, he proudly admits it will always be his city and Gershwin’s music climaxes with fireworks over Central Park.
Isaac is dating 17-year-old Tracey (Mariel Hemingway), and is shocked to discover his married friend, college professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Adding to his woes is the fact that his ex-wife Jill Davis (Meryl Streep) has come out as a lesbian, she has a new female partner and for good measure writes about her marriage to Isaac in a feminist tract entitled Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood. Isaac says it is humiliating, Jill counters that it is honest account of their break up. ‘I was not the immoral psychotic, promiscuous one’ he says, as she walks off.
Like the complexities and contradictions of the city, the relationship between Isaac and his friends become inter-locked and complicated. On initially encountering Mary, he doesn’t like her snobbish attitudes to culture, yet they meet again and Isaac finds her increasing attractive.
Isaac encourages Tracey to go to London, whilst he becomes more involved with Mary, much to the disgust of Yale who petulantly says ‘I found her first’. At the end, Isaac realises that Tracey made his life worth living and at the last minute tries to stop her going to London.
This black and white ‘detour on the highway of life’ does have nods to Allen’s own life, and the part of Mary is claimed to be based on his relationship with 17-year-old Stacey Nelkin. And, of course he also famously had a relationship with Diane Keaton. There are some funny one-liners but it does indicate Allen’s continuing move to more philosophical themes rather than the outright comedy of his earlier films. Nonetheless, this is one of his best films, which is as profound, funny, annoying, complicated, disturbing and amazing as Manhattan itself.
Nigel Watson is a writer living and working in Devon.