Thursday, August 22, 2013

Another look at Woody Allen's "Manhattan"

One of the things I find difficult in being a self-taught student of movies is when I can’t seem to understand or appreciate what other, supposedly more-learned folks than me see in the “Great Films.”  I understand the greatness of Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock, but I’ve never quite figured out what’s so great about Woody Allen.  I watched Interiors while I was in college and felt something close to disgust for all of the characters in that film, so I’ve avoided Allen’s movies in the years since.  However, a documentary about Allen that Turner Classic Movies ran not too long ago got me to thinking: maybe being a whole lot older would give me a different insight into his movies. Well, Manhattan is on several critics’ lists of the supposed “Best Films Ever Made,” so I found it on Netflix and gave it another shot.  Let it be known that while I still don’t get why Woody’s films are held in such high esteem, maybe getting older is making me more tolerant of them.

Manhattan follows the ordeals of Allen’s character, Isaac, a neurotic (gee, big surprise there), twice-divorced television writer who dreams of writing some great novel as a means of proving that he is a man of substance in a superficial world.  Or at least that’s what he pretty much tells us in the first three minutes of the movie.  His most recent ex-wife (Meryl Streep) has recently realized her homosexuality, left him for a woman and is now writing a book detailing her relationship with Isaac and her newfound happiness as a lesbian.  He’s currently dating Tracy, a 17-year old girl (Mariel Hemingway, in her film debut) who adores him, but he can’t bring himself to have deep emotions for a girl so young.  Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy) is somewhat happily married, but has taken up a dalliance with Mary (Diane Keaton), a horribly insecure writer who puts forth an intellectually snobbish front because that’s just how one behaves in New York.

Isaac spends most of his time with Tracy explaining to her how their relationship can’t possibly last.  Yale and Mary spend most of their time wracked with guilt over the adulterous nature of their relationship.  Isaac’s ex-wife spends most of her time dwelling on how lousy her relationship with Isaac was.  Mary spends most of her time with Isaac explaining how awful she is at relationships in general, yet wishing she could find one.

In much simpler and fewer words, this is a movie filled with screwed up people, and that sounds like just about every one of Allen’s films since Annie Hall.  Of course, real life is filled with screwed-up people and life is what happens when you’re trying to overcome your problems, a shocking realization to which I’ve come in my advanced age.  Allen’s screenplay, written with Marshall Brickman, is filled with wonderfully entertaining dialogue that harkens back to his stand-up comic days.  The film does have a dry sense of humor about the problems these people have, but perhaps my Bible-Belt upbringing keeps me from having a lot of sympathy for the New York characters with which Allen populates his films.  The characters here, with the possible exception of Yale’s wife (Anne Byrne, who was once Mrs. Dustin Hoffman), are all lacking a basic understanding of emotional fidelity, something I learned from Mom and Dad, and in Sunday School.  Maybe New York synagogues don’t do as good a job, I don’t know.

Allen is a wonderfully gifted writer of dialogue.  It’s ridiculous not to acknowledge that.  In the above-mentioned documentary, he states that everything else he does as a filmmaker is merely as a means to bring his writing to life, and that he is first and foremost a writer.  I’ll even go so far as to grant that he is a better-than-average director.  His choice of black-and-white photography for Manhattan was perfect for this story, as New York is the most black-and-white of cities, and the characters here all lack an understanding of the black-and-white issue of emotional commitment.  He laces the soundtrack with the music of George Gershwin, who filled Tin Pan Alley with the sounds of his songs during the Roaring Twenties, and songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You” cast a sense of love’s simplicity over the lives of these people who must complicate everything they feel.  They wander through lovely scenes of horse-drawn carriage rides in Central Park and watching the sun rise over the 59th Street Bridge while they bemoan their existence.

Is it a good movie?  Yes, I think it’s a wonderfully made movie with a fairly interesting story, but I can’t recommend it.  The story ends leading us to believe that the only character who understands the human heart is the one we should least suspect of having such wisdom.  While Isaac does come to a realization about his deepest feelings by the end, Manhattan, in typical Allen fashion, doesn’t give us any hope that any of us deserve to be loved.  I, for one, need that from my movie-watching experience.  I guess I’m just too much the sucker for happy endings to constantly expose myself to Allen’s world, where there aren’t any.  The real world is enough like that as it is.