Monday, March 21, 2011

Flick of The Day: Manhattan

Opening with a classic and often imitated montage of black and white street scenes of New York City set to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, this is Woody Allen's masterpiece, an homage to the city he loves, Manhattan. The film is both an ode to the city and an indictment of the almost permanent dissatisfaction of its denizens.
Woody Allen plays Isaac Davis, another variation on the same literate, New York sophisticate that populate nearly all of his films of this era. This one is a dissatisfied TV comedy writer. As per the usual, he is in a relationship with a girl half his age who is in thrall to his mind, Tracy,a 17 year old played wonderfully by Mariel Hemingway. His ex-wife, a cold lesbian played by Meryl Streep is out to destroy him by writing a book about their marriage.  Diane Keaton plays a female version of Isaac, literate, opinionated and never satisfied. At the heart of the tale is Isaac's neuroses and his inability to commit to Tracy, always hinting at a breakup and moving on to Keaton's Mary. He eventually comes to his senses but is it too late?
The film is peppered with some very fine witty dialogue, some of Allen's best work. Some of the funniest lines are the knowing laughs at the expense of Allen and his contemporaries. You know the type of Manhattanite more concerned without how something looks then how it is. There is one great exchange at a cocktail party.

Isaac Davis: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Y'know, I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, y'know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them. 
Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op Ed page of the Times, it is devastating. 
Isaac Davis: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Ultimately though the best reason to see the film is that it is an ode to a city, explaining why Allen loves it and why it is at the heart of almost all of his canon of work until very recently. The story of the intertwining relationships is overlaid onto this and there is as much poignancy to all their unhappiness as there is humour. The character feel well drawn, all having a depth to their angst. They are not just clich├ęs of urban professionals with too much time on their hands to engage in navel gazing.
The film is beautiful to look at, the black and white cinematography a triumph, harking back to the city as it was during the jazz age. The opening sequence is one of the great achievements in modern cinema and this film is rightly considered as one of Allen's best. It is strange that upon completion Allen asked United Artists not to release it and even went as far as offering to do another film for free. He has never spoken about why he disliked it. Perhaps it was too close to the bone. 

Isaac Davis: Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...

In summary, this is a classic film that all should see. Coming off the success of Annie Hall, this film placed Woody Allen in the pantheon of great writer/directors. It has a wonderful style all of its own combined with a knowing wit of the lives of New Yorkers, this combined with Gordon Willis beautiful cinematography make it an unmissable treat.

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