Friday, September 25, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Manhattan"

When it comes to Woody Allen movies, I'm with Ned Flanders.

The do-gooder neighbor on "The Simpsons," who's sort of a caricature of middle-America suburbanites, once opined that "I like his films except for that nervous fella that's always in them."

I've seen nearly all of Allen's movies, liked most of them, loved a handful, been indifferent to a few, never outright hated any of them. But when I think about it, I tend to like his movies in which he, Woody Allen, is not the main character -- "Hannah and Her Sisters" is probably my favorite.

The Woody persona of the nerdy, high-strung New York intellectual may bear little relation to Woody the Manhattan filmmaker, but I find that a small dose of it goes a long way in his movies.

So it's strange that 1979's "Manhattan" is also among my favorite Woody Allen movies, since he's in almost every scene, and is at the very center of the story.

He also narrates it, as he did in "Annie Hall," but I really feel that movie was about the Diane Keaton character, with Woody acting as the lens through which we viewed her. In grammatical terms, she was the subject and he was the object. In "Manhattan," Woody is the object, subject and all the adjectives, too.

There's a scene near the end where Isaac Davis, Woody's cinematic alter-ego, muses that people like him are so self-obsessed and tie themselves into all sorts of psychological knots in order to prevent themselves from thinking about the really big, scary stuff: Life, death, God, love. If this constitutes his attempt to justify the narcissism that is a hallmark of his characters, then he fails miserably.

The main plot of the movie is a love triangle -- or rather, a love quadrangle. Isaac falls for the mistress of his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), who is married. Mary (Diane Keaton) is a self-doubting writer and feminist who can't believe she's fooling around with a married guy. She turns to Isaac, almost as a way to ween herself off Yale. But eventually she changes her mind, dumps Isaac and runs back to Yale's arms.

The other notable thing about "Manhattan" 30 years later is its resemblance to controversial parts of Woody Allen's real life. In the movie, Isaac (who is 42) is dating a 17-year-old girl, Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway (nominated for an Oscar). Allen, of course, was involved in a long-term relationship with Mia Farrow that ended when she learned that he had been carrying on a dalliance with one of her adopted daughters, Soon-Yi Previn. He was 56 and she 22 when this came to light, and they eventually married and remain so to this day.

The film ends with Isaac, who had pushed Tracy to forget about him and take up a scholarship to study acting in Europe, arriving just before her taxi leaves to take her to the airport. In a grand gesture, her begs her to stay and take him back. Tracy, who despite her youth is perhaps the most centered and mature character in the film, asks him to wait for her and to trust her. The film ends on that ambiguous note.

There is much to say about a romantic relationship between a 42-year-old man and a girl in high school, the most important of which is that this is a crime. Isaac even lightly jokes about being arrested once or twice during the movie. I cannot for the life of me imagine what sort of parents have so slight a yoke on their teenage daughter's life that allow her to wander New York at all hours of the night, even sleeping over at someone else's apartment, without objection. I hope that such parents exist only in the movies.

Meryl Streep, who was just launching her film career three decades ago, has a small but interesting turn as Isaac's ex-wife, who is now a lesbian and has written a tell-all book about their sordid marriage. It's an underwritten role -- as most of Allen's non-lead female roles tend to be -- but she makes quite an impression.

Perhaps the thing most remembered now about "Manhattan" is the black-and-white cinematography by the great Gordon Willis, which somehow was not nominated for an Oscar that year. The film is an unapologetic love song to the Big Apple, with its loving portraits of majestic skylines and many shots of Central Park. The shot of Mary and Isaac looking at the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun comes up is perhaps the most famous image of Woody Allens long and storied film career. I lived in Manhattan for nearly two years while attending school, and the city never looked as good as it does in this movie.

3.5 stars

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