Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Great Movies: "Manhattan"

Woody Allen, 1979

Previous Contact: I've seen this one a couple of times before, but it kind of blurs in with all of the other Woody Allen movies. I think I was expecting Annie Hall.

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It's hard to give Manhattan a fair trial. The culture has changed around it in the three decades since it was made, and its dark comedy has become less funny and more unsettling. The obvious case in point: Allen's own character is a 42 year old man dating a 17 year old schoolgirl. In the late 1970s, this by and large seemed amusingly sleezy, a just-acceptible form of rakish bad behavior. By our current mores, it renders the character downright vile, and since the comic content depends on him being a basically sympathetic character, this pretty much kills the movie right in its tracks.

Give the film its due, though. It levelled a social critique on the self-indulgent behavior of a certain class of Americans, and does speak some truth about the ways that people can screw up their lives by inventing pointless romantic entanglements for themselves. At one point, Allen's character, a writer, speaks into a dictophone about:
An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these really unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves - because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable terrifying problems about the universe.
Manhattan is that short story, of course, and as an uncomfortable cautionary tale it does retain some power. Too, the movie was part of an ongoing American critique of a status quo organized around male convenience. And, it's this very critique that brought around the changes in our culture that renders Manhattan hard to watch today. To radically oversimplify: Manhattan made its points so well that it made itself almost unwatchable.

Plot: A tight circle of bored and lonely people keep falling in love in various combinations, in order to have somebody to talk to.

Visuals: Impeccably photographed in artsy black and white, with lots of glamour shots of North America's most densely-populated East Coast island.

Dialog: I have an old record of Woody Allen doing stand-up, and he kills. He's really, really good. Once you've heard him in that element, though, you recognize that his movie dialog is almost always a stand-up routine grafted onto a short story. It's not the most natural way for a movie character to speak.

Prognosis: An interesting movie, a well-crafted movie, but not a movie that has stood the test of time. Woody Allen fans and students of gender politics will want to watch it, of course; not especially recommended for anyone else.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 22

Danish postage stamp, 1940.


d said...

i have an abject, very real, very visceral hatred for this movie. and subsequently woody allen.

although i am a fan of 'annie hall'.

Cartophiliac said...

You forgot to mention the soundtrack. It is a fabulous collection of Gershwin tunes performed by the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta.

I had an LP record of the soundtrack that I listened to often.

Just as Annie Hall bumped the career of Diane Keaton, Manhattan introduced Mariel Hemingway. I had forgotten that Meryl Streep was in it too, before she was super famous. I remember great performances from the actors...

But I have not seen the film in many years. Now that I have had a 17-year-old daughter, I would probably be equally squirmy about the whole thing.

Jenners said...

I had some books of Allen's stand-up routines and they are just freakin hilarious. And I heard him give a few of his routines and they were so funny. I kind of wish he had just stuck with that.

boo said...

I know I have seen this film more than once, but the odd part is that I do not remember it save for pair of sunglasses one female characters wore. And I wasn't even into fashion back in that day.

I just watched "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" for the first time a month ago and realized how far he'd come in terms of making movies. Can't say I love everything he's made or obviously even remember it, but he has pushed the medium forward a bit. Watching "Sleeper" as a kid had me trying to write science fiction.

"Synedoche" looks and sounds like an Allen film. I suspect his flavor will go on even after the coot kicks it.

DrSchnell said...

More than one news report I read about the whole Roman Polanski arrest cited this movie in a "the times they have a-changed" sort of way.