Manhattan is the film of a cineaste at the peak of his powers. Woody Allen’s 1979 feature is regularly referred to as his best work, alongside Annie Hall (1977). Allen, a self-proclaimed workaholic, has often referred to his obsession with death as a driving creative force. He constantly represses his fear of death by keeping himself busy. In many ways, the characters of Manhattan share the same repression through the complex and intricate interrelationships that define their private spheres, and the delusions of grandeur of their professional ones (they all seem to be writing books that may never see the light of day). This repression is most evident in one of the film’s final sequences, as Isaac (Allen) chastises Yale (Michael Murphy) for being too rational and honest with himself. The scene significantly takes place in a university lecture hall in which skeletons symbolize a Bergmanesque allegory to the inevitability of death, the temporality of the flesh, the Lacanian real, and all that humans fundamentally repress.
Distraction and rationality are evident driving forces of Manhattan. On a formal level, the depiction of the title setting – glorious wide-screen monochromatic film shots of Manhattan by Gordon Willis coupled with the unparalleled romanticism of Gershwin compositions – convinces the viewer of its romantic dimension. Even the perfectly integrated sense of humour allows us to get closer to the otherwise childish, self-absorbed and somewhat obnoxious characters. But these too are distractions, the distractions that Allen can work so well into a more sophisticated, revealing and complex psychoanalytical discourse on the politics of interrelationships and the human condition. Love, in Manhattan, is neither beautiful nor sacred; it is rather temporary and controlled by forces concealed by the human condition.
Isaac claims to love Manhattan; like most of Allen’s memorable leading characters, he appears to be ill at ease though, at the same time, it is impossible to imagine him being able to survive anywhere else. Isaac’s ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) threatens the very sacred nature of love by writing a confessional book about their failed marriage. Meanwhile, Isaac is having an affair with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl attending the Dalton School. Despite the age difference, Tracy appears to be the most mature character of the movie. Nonetheless, Isaac constantly encourages her to experience new things and see their romance as a fleeting affair that will inevitably come to an end. Meanwhile, his apparently happily married friend Yale cheats on his wife Emily (Anne Byrne) with Mary (Diane Keaton). Despite Mary’s cultural snobbery rubbing Isaac the wrong way, the two will get increasingly close and eventually end up together once Mary and Yale decide to finally break up.
Though the film is introduced in the first person (Isaac’s narration over footage of Manhattan), Allen reveals things that remain concealed from the character he portrays. This allows greater insight into the lives of the other characters and various manifestations of the politics of love: Yale and Emily, for instance, seem happily married though Emily secretly resents Yale for not wanting a child; Jill, in her marriage with Isaac, repressed her love of women; Mary explains to Isaac that she divorced from her ex-husband because she felt inferior to him, and when Yale breaks up with her, she reassures herself by telling him (and herself) that she is young, beautiful and could sleep with anyone she wants. As mentioned, humour allows us to get closer to the film’s protagonists while simultaneously disturbing the obviousness of the psychoanalytical discourse. Manhattan has some of the most famous one-liners of Allen’s entire filmography (“My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.”; “This is shaping up like a Noel Coward play. You know, somebody should go out and make some martinis.”; “I’ve never had a relationship with a woman that’s lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun.”); further, between scenes, Allen dusts off his physical humour and slapstick antics, particularly in the Central Park sequences, and through exaggerated mannerisms that recall his earlier works. The distraction prevents the viewer from seeing things with rationality, much like the characters, who seem to constantly avoid getting to the root of their problems. Through the art of cinema, the discourse is at once exposed – there for the spectator to see – and disguised, in favour of a narrative that is itself manipulated by its aesthetics (Willis + Gershwin). Nonetheless, the film also avoids conforming to the structure of the romantic comedy genre by failing to end with a kiss. Cleverly, the film ends by returning to the Manhattan cityscape, during which the viewer may be free to think “I wonder how many people are kissing while thinking of someone else at this very moment.”
As the writer, director and lead actor of the film, Allen has complete control not only over his story but also over the depiction of Manhattan. But his Manhattan is his Manhattan. He once admitted “my memories of New York are unrealistic. … I never knew a New York as it really existed. For that, you have to speak to Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese.” (The introduction of the film, for instance, was mostly shot from his own balcony.) Allen’s longtime producer-manager John Rollins found that this film most closely approached an autobiographical version of Allen’s life: “maybe he was most like himself in Manhattan.” Perhaps it is Allen’s closeness to the film that makes it seem so graceful, natural, and brutally honest. Allen’s Manhattan may be funny and witty but it is, most of all, one of the most poignant reflections on loss (lost time, lost love, etc.). It’s impossible to imagine any other director making a movie like it. – ★★★★★
MANHATTAN || 1979, USA || Comedy || Directed by – Woody Allen / Written by – Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman / Produced by – Charles J. Hoffe / Cinematography – Gordon Willis / Music by – George Gershwin / Edited by – Susan E. Morse / Starring – Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne / Running time: 96 mins.