Sunday, August 31, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: Manhattan

The Set-Up:  Everybody loves Annie Hall.  It's the only film of Woody Allen's directorial career to win more than actor awards—it won Best Picture, and maybe deservedly so. It was a quantum leap from Allen's previous film Love and Death, which still had the feel of his sketch-comedy movies.

But, I think Allen's best film may be his next one, Manhattan.  It would set the standard of his "rondeau" relationship films to come and although he would explore other genres and do variations on his themes, borrowing from the dramatic style of authors and film-makers he loved, Manhattan served as a template for the relationship dramedies that follow. 

Filmed in gorgeous widescreen black-and-white (by ace cinematographer, Gordon Willis—Allen's films never looked so rigorous or painterly with anyone else) and accompanied by the music of George Gershwin, it would make the most of the city that Allen loved—New York (he sets his films in foreign locations now and they inform the plots, playing a bit of a character in them as the joys and vagaries of life in New York informed and inhabited his 20th Century films).*

Although he's never explained why, it's Allen's least favorite of his films (conversely—and probably appropriately—it was the most successful at the box-office), going so far as to offer the producing studio United Artists to make another film for free if they would never release it. All he's expressed is amazement that he "got away with it."

Maybe it's too personal and "on the nose." The wonderful opening (which we'll dissect next year...promise) has Isaac composing the opening to a book taking place in New York. It starts as an honest description of the city and his relationship with it, but at the end, it falls back to a ludicrously romanticized version of the city...and himself.

As is typical with Allen characters (even when not played by him) Isaac is a neurotic ditherer, more concerned with the fall-out of his words than their honesty. He hems, he haws, he does another draft that might be better and make a better impression. He's a writer.  And if you're a writer, you're a re-writer. And if you're drawing from life, the temptation is to re-write that, too.

But, it's not the same. You can't edit life and only keep the good parts. You can't manipulate it and bend it to how you want it to be. You have to "let it go"...and trust. The Book of Life is not a series of drafts and revisions; it is chapters and only some of them are good in their impact. And hopefully, summed up and taken in total, you learn from them if you're being as honest with yourself as Life is with you. 

If you don't, that's a tragedy.

For A.H.

The Scene: Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), comedy writer, has gone from a divorce from Jill (Meryl Streep) to a May-December romance with 17 year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), then met Mary (Diane Keaton) through his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), which resulted in a torrid affair that left Tracy in the dust...until Mary started seeing Yale...which ended his marriage** and...well, you'll see.


EMILY: No, I knew Yale had affairs. But then, nothing's perfect. Marriage is a... requires some minor compromises, I guess.
ISAAC: It's funny 'cuz, I mean, I'm just a non-compromiser. I mean, I can't... I can't see that. I think it's always a mistake to look the other way 'cause you pay for it in the end. But then you saw what Jill wrote about me in that book. I'm...I'm living in the past.
EMILY: How about you? You seeing anybody?
ISAAC: Yeah. You know, I... I never had any problem meeting women. I mean, that's...But I was thinking about this just about a week ago. I think, and I know this sounds strange, but I think I really missed a good bet when I let Tracy go.- You remember Tracy?
EMILY: Yeah. I always liked her.
ISAAC: Yeah. I was thinking about this at home last week and I think, of all the women I've known over the last years, when I actually am honest with myself, I think I had the most relaxed times and, you know, the nicest times with her. She was a terrific kid, but young, right? So that's that.
EMILY: Why don't you call her?
ISAAC: No, I would never do that. I think I blew that one. I really kept her at a distance and I would just never give her a chance. And she was so sweet, you know. She called me. She left a message with my service about a month ago that I should watch Grand Illusion on television and I never returned her call. Cuz I, you know, I didn't wanna lead her on or anything. She really cared about me and I...[sighs]
EMILY: You know I was a little pissed off at you.
EMILY: I figured if you hadn't introduced Mary to Yale, this might never have happened.
ISAAC: An idea for a short story about, um, people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves cuz it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about... the universe.
ISAAC: Um...Let's ...Well, it has to be optimistic. Well, all right, why is life worth living? That's a very good question. Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Uh.  Like what? OK... uh..for me...uh.. Ooh, I would say, what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing.  And Willie Mays. And... the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony. And... Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato Head Blues. um...Swedish movies, naturally. "Sentimental Education" by Flaubert. Uh...Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra. Ah...Those incredible...apples and pears by Cezanne. The crabs at Sam Wo's. Uh. Tracy's face. [chuckles]
TRACY: What are you doing here?
ISAAC: Well, I ran. I tried to call you on the phone. but... it was busy so I knew that was two hours' worth of...So I couldn't get a taxi cab, so I ran.
ISAAC: Where you going?
TRACY: London.
ISAAC: You're going to London now?
ISAAC: What d'you...What d'you mean? If I got over here two minutes later, you'd'd be going to London?
ISAAC: Well, let me get right to the point then. I don't think you oughta go. I think I made a big mistake. And I would prefer it if you didn't go.
TRACY: Oh, Isaac.
ISAAC: I mean it. I know it looks real bad now, but, uh, you know, it...
ISAAC: Are you seeing anybody? Are you going with anybody?
ISAAC: So... well...D'you still love me, or has that worn off or what?
TRACY: Jesus!
TRACY: You... pop up...You don't call me and then you suddenly appear. I mean... What happened to that woman you met?
ISAAC: Well, I'll tell you, I don't see her any more. Yaknow, I made a mistake. What d'you want me to say?
ISAAC: I don't think you oughta go to London.
TRACY: Well, I have to go. I mean, all the plans have been made, arrangements. I mean, my parents are there now looking for a place for me to live.
ISAAC: Well...Do you still love me or what?
TRACY: Do you love me?
ISAAC: Well, yeah, that's what... Of course. That's what this is all about, you know.
TRACY: Guess what? I turned 18 the other day.
ISAAC: Did you?
TRACY: I'm legal, but I'm still a kid.
ISAAC: You're not such a kid. 18 years old. They could draft you. In some countries you'd be...
ISAAC: You look good.
TRACY: You really hurt me.
ISAAC: It was not on purpose, you know. I mean, I...You know, it was... I mean...You know, It was just the way I was looking at things then.
TRACY: Well, I'll be back in six months.
ISAAC: Six months! Are you kidding? Six months you're gonna go for?
TRACY: We've gone this long. I mean, what's six months if we still love each other?
ISAAC: Hey, don't be so mature, OK?
ISAAC: I mean, six months is a long time. Six months! You know, you're gonna be, you're gonna the thea... working in the theatre there, with actors and directors. You know, you go to rehearsal and you hang out with those people. You have lunch a lot and before you know it, attachments form and... you know...I mean, you don't wanna get into that...I mean, you'll change. You know, In six months you'll be a completely different person.
TRACY: Well, don't you want me to have that experience? I mean, a while ago you made such a convincing case.
ISAAC: Yeah, of course I do, but, you know...I mean, I just don't want that thing about you that I like to change.
TRACY: [sighs] I've gotta make a plane.
ISAAC: Come on, you don't... Come on. You don't... You don't have to go.
TRACY: Why couldn't you have brought this up last week? Six months isn't so long.
TRACY: Not everybody gets corrupted.
TRACY: You have to have a little faith in people.


Words by Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen

Pictures by Gordon Willis and Woody Allen

Manhattan is available on M-G-M Home Entertainment.

* Allen has stated in interviews that he's made most of his recent films in European locations because it has become too expensive to film in New York. And,'s nice to get out of town once in awhile.

** The comedic "bump" of the first scene is that Yale introduced Mary to Isaac, not the other way around as Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman) has been led to believe, another case of "re-writing" to make a better impression. Live by the sword...