Oct. 19, 2011 - Issue #835: Colleen Brown
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
The 10-minute short Manhatta (1921) was one of the first in cinema's "city symphony" genre, which offered a quasi-documentary sense of the life and rhythm of a metropolis; three years later, George Gershwin's innovative jazz concerto "Rhapsody in Blue" debuted in New York City. In its famous, four-minute opening, Woody Allen's black-and-white Manhattan (1979) takes us through the city, riding Gershwin's chords.
The story—TV comedy writer Isaac (Allen) turns his romantic interest from 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, in a role apparently based on 17-year-old Stacey Nelkin, with whom Allen had a relationship) to his best friend Yale's ex-lover Mary (Diane Keaton)—offers an excuse for conversations on Manhattan's sidewalks, in the city's restaurants, parks and shops, and beneath Queensboro Bridge (used for the film's famous poster shot). But looking back at Manhattan, especially given Allen's now-familiar formula, much of the movie seems like a thin script, spattered with quips, that's padding out a visual love letter to New York. It's the city that Isaac/Allen has a nostalgic faith in, not people, or love or even the film itself. (Allen was unhappy with it afterwards, telling United Artists he'd direct another, free, if they didn't release it.)
Isaac's insecurity around Tracy—he thinks she's too young or, as Mary puts it, "Somewhere Nabokov is smiling"—makes one wonder how they ever got together and her precocity never quite rings true. Certain scenes, such as Isaac's dismay that Yale still likes Mary, are overplayed. Some of the intellectual banter descends into name-dropping one-liners; the funniest scene's wordless—a concert where a fidgeting Isaac's wary of any spark still between Yale and Mary. Unlike Allen's classic Annie Hall (1976), which had a dynamic visual style, Manhattan really just has the one look to it—the black-and-white that doesn't let us see the grit of '70s New York. (Largely because Allen never leaves the upper-middle-class, writers-in-therapy milieu, the city's not much more complex here than the thank-God-it's-not-LA Manhattan of Annie Hall.)
Still, if not the place, some amusing glimmers of the city's time—post-Stonewall, seemingly post-women's lib—shine through. Isaac's threatened by his ex-wife now being with a woman, so he tries to heterosexualize their young son by playing basketball with him and talking about girls. Keaton plays Mary as more Allen than Allen—well-educated but still insecure, she captivates with all her intellectual questioning and emotional self-doubt. "I'm from Philadelphia" is her feeble moral touchstone-mantra when she can't quite believe what she's doing—as if New York's corrupted her—and she can spout knowingly false narcissism: "I could sleep with the entire faculty of MIT if I wanted to."
A few times, when existential concerns flash beneath the banter—Isaac and Mary's tentative affections dwarfed by stars at the Planetarium; Isaac next to a skeleton in a lab as he confronts Yale about his betrayal—Manhattan feels like mature, full-fledged art. Otherwise, it's a film with a sharp look and some glinting lines, though that's at least more than most movies nowadays.
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