Manhattan (1979) – Review by Maurice Yacowar

After the somberness of Interiors, Woody Allen has returned to the romantic comedy style of Annie Hall. The result is his most lyrical and emotional film to date. Although it may not be as complex as Annie Hall, Manhattan is a magnificent film, subtle both in expression and in feeling. It proves that Allen's genius is still growing and capable of fertile surprises.

by Maurice Yacowar

After the somberness of Interiors, Woody Allen has returned to the romantic comedy style of Annie Hall. The result is his most lyrical and emotional film to date. Although it may not be as complex as Annie Hall, Manhattan is a magnificent film, subtle both in expression and in feeling. It proves that Allen’s genius is still growing and capable of fertile surprises.

In Manhattan Allen plays Isaac Davis (inaptly nicknamed Ike, as if an old Hebrew could become an icon of Gentile leadership), a TV comedy writer who suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous romance. For one thing, his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is a bisexual who left him for another woman (Karen Ludwig as Connie). Isaac is humiliated when Jill exposes their marital break-up in an “honest” book, Marriage. Divorce, and Selfhood. In addition, the 42-year-old Isaac feels squeamish about his affair with a 17-year-old high-school student, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). He breaks off with her in order to have an affair with a nervous, chic journalist, Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), but only after the collapse of Mary’s affair with Isaac’s best friend, a married English professor named Yale (Michael Murphy). At the end Mary goes back to Yale, Yale leaves his wife Emi­ly (Anne Byrne), Isaac goes back to Tracy, and Tracy goes to England on a six-month theater scholarship.

This tangle of lovings and leavings demonstrates the theme of a short story Isaac is writing: “People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” More specifically, the film details the professional and romantic compromises by which man avoids confronting his insignificance in the cosmos and his inability to control his fate. Both concerns are familiar from Allen’s earlier work.

The film’s dominant theme is man’s need for personal integrity in a decaying culture. In an empty anthropology classroom, Isaac attacks Yale for having undermined their friendship and his marriage by resuming his affair with Mary. “Well, I’m not a saint, okay,” Yale admits, but Isaac holds fast: “You’re too easy on yourself.” Yale charges that Isaac is too rigid and self- righteous: “You think you’re God.” Isaac replies: “Well, I’ve got to model myself after someone.” In this exchange Isaac prefers to follow a remote, even impossible, ideal rather than adhere to the corrupt human norms around him. Behind Yale we see a showcase of skulls that suggest a kind of unsupported cerebralism or rationalization. Isaac’s lecture is undercut by the 5’4′ ape-man skeleton that stands grinning beside him. Compared to Yale’s skulls, the skeleton associated with Isaac is the full man. “What are future generations going to say about us?” Isaac asks, as if the skeleton has reminded him of man’s responsibility beyond his own desires: “Some day we’re going to be like him. . It’s very important to have personal integrity. I’m going to be hanging in a classroom someday. I want to make sure that when I thin out I’m well thought of.” From the mottietito mori Isaac draws the need for an assertive morality. There may be a comical denial of death in the euphemism “when I thin out”—after Allen’s fear of the cold, analytic touch of film teachers—but Isaac admits moral imperatives which Yale and Mary deny in their indulgent pursuit of tortured pleasure.

In Manhattan Allen continues his satire against man’s foolish use of logic and culture. Hence the skulls when Yale rationalizes his betrayal of Isaac. Often there is a comical discrepancy between what the characters know and what they can effectively use in their lives. As Isaac admits, “When it comes to relationships with women I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.” Although he still wants her himself, he warns Yale that Mary is “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.” Both quips combine intellectual knowledge with emotional deficiency. As Isaac tells the cerebral Mary, “Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind,” for “the brain is man’s most insignificant organ,” and “everything really valuable has to enter through another opening.” Similarly, Mary’s first husband may be a semantics professor, but he has trouble putting together a sentence. At the Museum of Modern Art reception, the sophisticates applaud a biting satire in the Times against the neo-Nazis marching in New Jersey, but the verbal and fragile Isaac prefers the more direct persuasion by brick and bat. Man’s culture is no defense against his greatest dangers. Greater truths are told by the heart and the senses than by the mind. Not for Isaac the problem reported by the dim girl, who finally had an orgasm but was told by her analyst that it was the wrong kind! Isaac’s orgasms are all “right on the money” because they are experiences untouched by analysis. He learns to accept his relationship with Tracy in the same way. Tracy’s last line, “You have to have a little faith in people,” is really a call to trust his instincts. Tracy’s own faith in her relationship with Isaac overrides her sense that “maybe people weren’t made for long relationships, but for a series of relationships with different links.”

Otherwise Isaac is a character of exemplary integrity. He wouldn’t court Mary (“never in a million years”) as long as Yale is involved with her—a courtesy not reciprocated. Rather than accept the approval of an audience whose “standards have been systematically lowered over the years,” Isaac quits his “antiseptic” TV show and undertakes a novel—about the decay of culture. On a minor, but telling, level, Isaac resists the temptation silently to assent to Mary’s and Yale’s flippant consignment of major cultural figures to their Academy of the Over-rated (e.g., Lenny Bruce, Mahler, Boll, Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman). When it would have been easy to smile along, Isaac affirms that the attacked artists “are all terrific, every one you mentioned.” Here he supports his earlier claim (reminiscent of Allen’s Joey in Interiors) that “Talent is luck; you’ve got to have courage.”

In a parallel scene later, Isaac enumerates the things that make life worth living. They vary fr^m unpretentious popular culture (Groucho Marx, Willie Mays) to various forms of the classical (the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues,” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra), and from art to experience, when he turns from Cezanne’s apples and pears to “the crabs at Sam Wo’s” and, climactically, to Tracy’s face. This scene begins with a full-screen close-up of a tape recorder. At first we do not know whether Isaac or the machine is reciting the list. When we see Isaac speaking, Allen’s point is that values are due sole­ly to man, not to the things in his setting. The resolution of this ambiguous opening establishes man as the center of values and choice in his world. At the end of the scene, Isaac retrieves the harmonica that Tracy gave him at their last meeting. The harmonica is not just another thing, like the tape recorder; it embodies and revives the harmony between Isaac and his lost Tracy. In coming to accept his love for Tracy, Isaac receives his own sentimental education.

The theme of integrity relates to the feel of the film. As Isaac describes himself as “a non-compromiser” who is “living in the past,” the film assumes a rigorous, classical spirit from its straight-forward romantic narrative, its resolute black-and-white photography, and its George Gershwin score. Moreover, Allen’s choice of songs provides specific settings in which to read the scenes. For example, the orchestrations of songs over the scenes between Tracy and Isaac are direct expressions of love. Behind their first intimate scene in his apartment, “Our Love is Here to Stay ” undercuts Isaac’s detachment from her. Over their ride through Central Park we hear “He Loves and She Loves,” which is reprised when Isaac’s list of life’s rewards concludes with Tracy’s face. When he finds her in the apartment lobby, about to leave for London, his sense of her remoteness is suggested visually in the intervening door, a bar across its glass, and musically by the song, “They’re Writing Songs of Love, But Not for Me.” On the other hand, the selections of music in Isaac’s scenes with Mary are ominous: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” at the MOMA reception; “Someone to Watch Over Me,” when they take her dog, “a penis-substitute,” for a walk (and he mentions his short story about his mother, “The Castrating Zionist.”) When they drive in the country to ‘”S Wonderful,” it is at first unclear whether Isaac is with Tracy or with Mary. We hear “Embraceable You” when Isaac and Mary dance, enjoy a murky boat- ride, and walk in the city. When this song is repeated over the end credits, the emotion refers to the more embraceable Tracy. When Isaac frolics with his son, Willie, the song, “Love is Sweeping the Country,” relates to the later scene of a football team of single fathers with their sons, as if the phenomenon of fractured families, not love, were what is sweeping the country. When Isaac first sees Jill’s book, we hear “Oh, Lady Be Good.” In these ironic references, the songs establish a setting which either expresses or undercuts the attitude of the characters. The musical setting is analogous to Allen’s use of Manhattan as the symbolic setting of his film.

Manhattan opens with a three-minute abstract sequence which establishes the setting and its characters, first the skyline, then individual buildings, then the streets and population. We hear Allen’s voice, which turns out to be Isaac’s, choosing from a variety of openings for the first chapter of his novel. The different tones of Isaac’s openings suggest the different meanings that Allen’s Manhattan may carry. For instance, in one opening, the hero admits that he romanticizes Manhattan “out of all proportion.” In another he presents it as a virile force, in another as “the metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture.” But the reading of the place depends upon the character of the reader, whether it is “as tough and romantic as the city he loved,” or a sexual power, like the city, “coiled like a jungle cat.” Isaac’s hero—and so Allen’s—describes the city as a projection of his own character. Rather than the setting influencing the character, the character projects his own mood and nature onto the setting. When in the mellow dawn Isaac tells Mary, “This is really a great city. I don’t care what people say. I’m really knocked out,” this is a tribute not to any real Manhattan, but to the mood between Mary and Isaac, which the city at that point seems to embody.

Similarly the setting offers both elegant beauty and the rough streets, with a citizen­ry “desensitized by noise, music, drugs, and garbage.” The city is in constant change, as one scene of a demolition crew at work reveals. Of the innumerable and contradictory aspects which will characterize the setting is the individual’s choice. To both Allen’s and Isaac’s heroes, “New York still existed in black and white and pulsated tc the great tunes of George Gershwin.” But this is due to the idealism of the characters When we hear “New York was his town and it always would be,” we see a contradictory shot of gleaming, modernistic high- rises, denoting the change in the cityss physical nature. The setting is a projection of the human viewers. What one is and does, therefore, is one’s own responsibility and not to be attributed to any influence from the setting. As Isaac works around to an affirmation of life’s pleasures and his love with Tracy, the opening montage concludes with an exuberant harmony between the climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the spectacular fireworks against the night skyline. The delicate and precise editing here discovers harmony in an ambivalent and discordant setting.

This point also lies behind the film’s most striking visual technique. Allen often holds his stationary camera on a physical space after the actors have vacated it. The pretense is that the setting has its own personality independent of the human life that passes through it. But Allen’s point is the opposite. The meaning lies in the human choice. In this spirit, the film does not have a title shot. We read “Manhattan” from a flashing hotel sign in the opening montage —but we also read a static “Parking” in the same shot. The film does not announce its name or identity, but rather seems to discover it in the setting. This is a formal equivalent to the characters’ rooting their behavior in what they find rather than in their own ethical core.

Similarly, Yale joins Isaac and Tracy at the art gallery by stepping into the frame from an off-camera position and from behind a pillar; then Mary makes her first appearance by coming out from behind Yale. Here Allen uses the space of his shot to express the arbitrary framing of elements and the continuous life beyond the shot. In the marina scene, Isaac passes through a stationary shot while his wife’s book is read out loud, railing against his Jewish-Liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy and his narcissistic obsession with death. The camera holds on the beautiful waterfront both before and after the harsh quotation and Isaac’s sullen reaction. The shot establishes an ambivalence in the peaceful beauty. The calm waters seem to confirm Jill’s shallow cheer and to deny Isaac’s gloom. But in the earlier boating scene, Isaac reached into the water and befouled his hand. Beautiful waters run yucky.

In Manhattan Allen’s compositions avoid the sometimes obvious symbolism of Interiors. For example, in a single shot at the symphony we view a line of profiles. Isaac, Mary, and Yale shift restlessly and shuffle to avert each other’s eyes; Emily stares straight ahead. Later, we learn that she has known about Yale’s infidelities but chose to ignore them; Emily’s rigid stare may be as evasive as the shiftiness of the others. Similarly, when Mary phones Isaac to invite him out for an afternoon walk, Isaac is outside, but photographed from within his apartment. No, he tells Mary, he hasn’t read the Times piece about the faceless masses in China; he’s been too busy with the lingerie ads. As he chooses between two contrasting cultures of faceless­ness, his own face is obscured from us by the plants and Venetian blinds through which he is seen. Moreover, the shot of him outside expresses his sense of remoteness from Mary, that he must not intrude upon his friend’s affair.

The richest scene occurs in the planetarium, in which Mary and Isaac take refuge from the rain. The once-antagonistic characters are drawn into an emotional attraction against a backdrop of the moon and stars. The location suggests that their love may require such an other-worldly setting. Moreover, as they grow more intimate, Isaac and Mary assume more of the screen, and the lunar landscape is allowed less. The setting disappears altogether for their most intimate exchange. Also, their inchoate love seems to be extravagantly literalized by the moon imagery, given the June-moon lyrical tradition over which Gershwin reigns supreme. This setting brings down to earth the “problems about the universe” that Isaac’s Manhattanites avoid. Finally the force of human habit is comically imaged in the Japanese tourist who walks across the moon and pauses to take a snapshot (effectively of the cinema audience). This scene suggests that Manhattan contains the cosmos.

As an emblem of moral and aesthetic choices, Manhattan means something rather different in Manhattan than it meant when Annie Hall compared the insular Alvy Singer to it (“this island unto yourself”). In Manhattan Allen’s hero reconciles a compromised, new Manhattan with his old idealized one and extends his rigorous ethics into a romance that exceeds logical and conventional limits. Despite the familiar Jewish, sexual, and paranoia jokes, Isaac is Allen’s most competent and confident role. He smokes, drinks, drives, has no trouble getting girls, and at one point invites his audience to share his self­acceptance. When Mary compliments his “good sense of humor,” Isaac replies, “Thanks. I don’t need you to tell me that. I’ve been making good money off it for years now.” Allen is still drawing his fictional character out of the limbo between his own experience and his public image. Thus the first sound we hear is the instrument Allen is associated with, the clarinet solo beginning Rhapsody in Blue, and the first scene is set in Allen’s favorite hangout, Elaine’s. (On the other hand, Yale warns us against taking Isaac as Allen: “Gossip is the new pornography”).

Allen expands and inflects the vocabulary that his comedy has developed over the years. When Isaac comes home with shattering news from Jill—her book may be made into a movie and their son is taking ballet classes—and is about to hear that Mary is returning to Yale, there is a fleeting image of his vulnerability. When he closes his door we see that it has three locks and a security pole as defenses against the outside world. This passing joke is not even paid the emphasis of a close-up. Because Allen developed it more fully in Bananas, the image can be quoted quickly. Similarly, the sidewalk cafe where Yale breaks off with Mary recalls the health-food restaurant where Annie Hall declined Alvy’s proposal. The point of this echo is the common occurrence of such scenes. Behind Yale we see another couple lunching happily—at a rather early stage in their inevitable separation! Behind Mary we see another romantic mismatch, an elderly man and a young lady, that parallels both her situation with Yale and Isaac’s with Tracy.

The familiar Woody Allen hero, for all his competence, remains shivered by the impossibility of justice. At one point Mary, before making love, asks Isaac what he’s thinking. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” he replies, “because I’ve never had a relationship with a woman that’s lasted longer than the one Hitler had with Eva Braun.” Here Allen is at the peak of his artistry. He freezes in a one-liner the aspiration, compromise, horrifying history, and rueful resignation that comprise the ethical man’s response to the ambivalences of modern life.

This review is excerpted from Professor Yacowar’s book, Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen, published by Frederick Ungar. Copyright © 1979 by Maurice Yacowar.


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