Not Everybody Gets Corrupted
This is my entry for The Lovesick Blog-A-Thon at 100 Films. Check the hub for more links. And have a happy Valentine's Day.
Woody Allen has made a career out of using his films as relationship therapy. Hell, Annie Hall's flashback structure is supposed to invite us into Alvy's head like a therapist. And yet Manhattan stands out from his work, mainly for the visuals it provides. It is the work of an artist telling two love stories: a tragic romance of egomaniacs, and the story of a man and the city that will never leave him. And it is with the camera that he tells the hidden tale under each story.
Isaac Davis (Allen) loves New York, as is clearly stated in his opening monologue. Every attempt at an opening both talks about himself and the city he loves. The first attempt even begins "He adored New York City." Those are the first words of Manhattan, besides "Chapter One." And if that doesn't convince you that this is a love letter to the Big Apple, then Woody is willing to take you all over town. From the Queensborough Bridge to the Guggenheim, cinematographer Gordon Willis gives us a new view of the city, avoiding tourist traps and leaving us speechless at the city we can find instead. In its near fetishism of the backgrounds, Manhattan shows just how much it prefers the scenery to the characters who make its story.
As much as Manhattan is about Woody Allen's love for his hometown, it also tells a magnificent story about our self-destructive nature and loss. Isaac is in a relationship with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), but he has feelings for Mary (Diane Keaton). Mary is in a relationship with Yale (Michael Murphy), but Yale is already married. Of these four characters, the only innocent one is Tracy, cruelly dumped by Isaac for Mary. Each of the others equivocates on their relationships, leading only to heartbreak for those cast off. Where Mary and Yale are unsure whether or not to end their romance and Isaac fears that Tracy is too young for him, Tracy has only love for Isaac. In fact, by the end of the film, we are unsure if anyone other than Tracy is capable of love.
Allen captures the lack of communication by isolating his characters within his camera. Most of the movie is shot in extended medium/long shots, giving his characters room to breathe and time to carefully craft their words. There are some scenes, though, which break from this tradition by creating a shot/reverse shot pattern. The quick cuts and close ups are jarring to the viewer and indicative of the abrupt shifts that take place in the story. Notable examples are Yale and Mary's mutual break up and the final scene, which shows just how much Tracy has grown since we last saw her.
Manhattan is supposedly based on Woody Allen's real dating life in the 70's when he dated Diane Keaton and a 17 year old girl. Whether he's saying that he doesn't deserve what he got or that he regrets letting the best thing in his life slip away, this is an enduring work, showcasing an artist at his peak. Each image lends itself to one of the two love stories, and each line rings true. Happy Valentine's Day.