“Manhattan” (1979)

Thanks to my film professor, I’ve finally been exposed to Woody Allen’s genius. First we watched Manhattan and then Stardust Memories, although we weren’t required to write anything on that. Here’s my response to Manhattan.

Directed by Woody Allen
US, 96 minutes
Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway

The slinky clarinet opening phrase to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” provides the backing for the opening shot of Manhattan for Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. It is perfect, really, because there is no other music any one could ever choose to romanticize New York City. Gershwin’s music moves through the whole film, as if it is another character commenting on the events that torture the little lives of Isaac and his friends.

Another hidden character in this film is the city itself. It almost overwhelms the characters. Yale’s wife comments that Isaac could never live anywhere else and the audience can tell that not only Isaac, but all the other characters, could never survive in any other kind of environment. Isaac would appreciate a Fellini reference, but the truth is that the best example I can think of to relate this to is Rome in La dolce vita. The characters in that film could never exist outside of the frantic Rome of the early 1960s and Woody Allen’s characters really are just like those in a Fellini movie.

Gordon Willis’s cinematography was the highlight of the film for me. To see New York portrayed in such a beautiful, black and white look was incredible. The opening and closing montages of the city were fantastic, again building on the theme that what happens in this film is just one little event in the lives of a few people in one of the largest cities in the world. That famous bridge shot was the ultimate summation of that feeling to me.

Willis and Allen were also obviously devoted to making sure that every frame of film looked right, down to the sequences of heavy conversation – and there are many of those. When Yale and Isaac have their argument in the science class room, the camera is constantly cutting to whoever is talking. Yale is always on the extreme left half of the screen, a bookcase visible over his shoulder. Isaac keeps on the right, with a monkey skeleton over his shoulder, staring at the screen. I had a feeling like Allen purposefully makes us wait for Isaac to make reference to it, but when he finally does, it’s perfect. (“We’ll turn into him.”)

That leads into my final point. Having never seen a Woody Allen film before, I had no idea just how funny it would be. The entire subplot with Isaac’s second wife leaving him for another woman was fantastic. It produced some of the finest scenes in the movie: his interaction with his son. We see that only with his son does Isaac feel free. He is actually having fun without a care in  the world.

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