Manhattan (1979) (R)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Directed by Woody Allen

“You’re so beautiful, I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter…” So says Allen’s Isaac Davis in Manhattan, as a cab takes him and his date through the New York streets. It’s typical of a film which accentuates all human neuroses and cynical attitudes and places them front and centre – not to be celebrated, but to be acknowledged, something of a warts-and-all approach that doesn’t romanticise but leaves room for real romance. It’s deeply autobiographical, clearly, but I think it’s relevant to many of us.

Isaac is the central focus of the film. He’s nerdy, articulate, funny, neurotic – all these adjectives that have been applied to Allen over the years. He has no trouble finding women, but his relentless critical evaluations of relationships seem to derail them before they have a chance to be anything more than just sex and temporary companionship. Indeed, Isaac talks for almost the entire movie – he says so much so fast that it’s kind of hard to keep up with at first, but you get used to it as it goes on. In fact, I could say the same thing of the whole movie: I found it somewhat annoying at first, with its self-righteous, overly cerebral and incredibly narcissistic characters. That’s just who these people are, though. It isn’t as stagy as it first seems – there are people just like these in the real world, we know them, in a lot of ways we are them.

So it’s a film about relationships, but without any of the sappy nonsense we usually see in films. There are no sentimental moments, no turning points, and there is no real happy ending. People are right for each other in some ways, but totally incompatible in others. And of course, a relationship between two people encompasses more than just the people in it – others affect it directly or indirectly, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. No matter how open you are, there’s always more beneath the surface. To be honest, I could’ve just quoted dialogue to convey all this information. There’s so much of it, and so much of it is good. Funny, clever, and true, and delivered quickly but effectively by all members of the cast, particularly Allen and Diane Keaton (who had worked together before). Very occasionally the talking stops, and the ensuing silences are wonderfully used – characters have reached a point where words won’t do anymore, they just kind of look at each other, and it’s beautiful.

It’s not just a good screenplay, though. Allen’s decision to film in black and white was audacious, but tremendously effective; some sequences are almost completely without light, such that it is hard to make out what is happening on screen and you have to use the character’s voices to guide you, drawing attention to the excellent dialogue. The other brave choice he made was to shoot mostly from mid- or long-range, very rarely in close-up; rather than removing the audience from the action, it somehow makes it more real, more involving. Close-ups can make for great cinema, but that isn’t really what this script calls for – while not quite gritty realism, it’s a world that strongly reflects our own, and our lives are frequently composed of talking across a room or a table. So that’s what happens here. I really liked that.

As always, though, I have reservations. Some scenes end abruptly, some fall completely flat; most importantly, the final scene is a disappointment. It contains probably the weakest dialogue in the whole movie, and departs in tone from the rest of the film, when we should continue to be swept along in the entertainment. It doesn’t provide a conclusion, but that’s okay (and is often a good thing); what is not okay is that it doesn’t really leave any questions, either. All that had gone before was so engaging and thought-provoking, to end on that note feels very much like an anti-climax. It isn’t enough to sabotage the whole film, but it is bit of a let down.

This was my first Allen film. I’ll certainly be seeing more, particularly with the rave reviews of his latest, Match Point. Based on interviews I’ve read, he seems content to feel mediocre – he’s under no illusions that he’s become very much wiser over the years, and I guess that attitude shows in his films. In no way does he come across as superior; he’s just another guy making do with whatever happens. Manhattan, however, is an excellent reflection of the mediocrity of life. The Gershwin soundtrack is fantastic, too.

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