Sunday, July 7, 2013

Woody Allen's "Manhattan" in Black and White

Movie Review: Manhattan

Director: Woody Allen

Reviewed: 1 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Woody Allen's films revel in the intimacy of walking New York city streets, conversations among intelligent people about art, psychoanalysis, and literature, taking place amidst the backdrops of planetariums and awe-inspiring bridges, and the shifting concerns of a small orbit of people wrestling with love. "Manhattan" depicts Isaac (Woody Allen), a television producer with a change of conscience about the work that he does, who happens to be dating high school senior Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) left him for another woman and is about to publish her memoirs of their intimate details to his chagrin. Isaac's best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), but his loyalty to his wife leads him to break it off, allowing a friendship between Isaac and Mary to grow.

Shot in luminous black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the film seems both modern and classic. I do not pretend to pick up on everything that Allen is doing here, but the multiple narrative starts that are broken off in the beginning by Isaac offer a hint. Set to George Gershwin's soaring "Rhapsody in Blue" and holding marvelous shots of New York City architecture and culture, Allen begins the film by having Isaac wrestle with capturing the right romantic adoration of this place that he loves while acknowledging the passage of time. He starts, stops, tries to get it right, restarts, stops, repeats. The black and white offers a window into the past, showing the New York that is long gone but exists lovingly in the mind. As a meditation on both relationships and memory, "Manhattan" features many very funny moments, and Allen's eye for writing and framing deep intellectual conversations is never stronger than when he employs space, perspective, and shadow during a scene between Isaac and Mary in the Hayden Planetarium. He places their burgeoning relationship amidst the grandeur of the cosmos in that scene, as well as in another scene that features them sitting in the shadow of a bridge. His shot sequence simultaneously diminishes and heightens the reality of newfound love. We are in both in the stars and insignificant when compared to them. " Boy, this is really a great's really a knock-out, you know?" he muses at one point.

The film involves a trading of lovers and Isaac's search for what he may want. Multiple paths and futures exist to him. The final conversation between Isaac and Tracy is wonderfully written and acted, leading to Isaac's litany of the reasons that life is worth living: "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..."( quotes).

The amalgamation of food, music, baseball, film, comedy, and romanticism is reflected in "Manhattan" which is also deeply funny. In both this film and "Annie Hall," Allen wrestles with the impermanence of love and foreshadows his statement later in life when he married his own adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn: "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that" (Walter Isaacson's 1991 interview with Woody Allen, 0,9171,160439,00.html). I do not mean to read Allen's personal life into his films; rather, I think that his depiction of relationships, equality, love, and timing are as timeless and thought-provoking as the black and white cinematography.

The heart wants what the heart wants.

The ineffable and the unexplainable swirl and dance around in the air of Woody Allen's best films, and in my meager study of his canon, I put this film, "Manhattan," among the best.

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