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Manhattan (1979)

Drama Rated R

Has self-flagellation ever been this elegant?

Gershwin music. An expansive widescreen format. Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (handled by Gordon Willis, no less). All of this in service of Woody Allen’s bracing and very funny confessional of his own fallibilities and neuroses. The aesthetic beauty of Manhattan – so rich, so refined – is at constant odds with the relational messiness that otherwise defines the picture. The juxtaposition is fascinating.

Allen plays Isaac Davis, a twice-divorced comedy writer with intellectual aspirations and a 17-year-old girlfriend named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Pontificating at a museum, Isaac and Tracy run into his friend Yale (Michael Murphy), whose mistress Mary (Diane Keaton) lectures them on the legitimacy of the art on hand. She’s particularly insulting to Isaac’s tastes, so naturally sparks fly between them.

The rest of the movie is a fumbling of romantic partnerships – a bit like Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, only within a tighter circle and far more grim. Driven by past failures, current hang-ups and an insatiable desire for something newer, truer and more exciting, everyone in the film is caught in a hamster wheel of romantic misery. This is especially true of Isaac, whom the movie pins to the screen with such precision that he’s something like a specimen of a moth. Romantis fallibus, perhaps.

Driven by past failures, current hang-ups and an insatiable desire for something newer, truer and more exciting, everyone in the film is caught in a hamster wheel of romantic misery.

Consider two instances in particular. On their first meeting, Keaton’s Mary launches into a diatribe on the pretentiousness of filmmaking master (and acknowledged Allen obsession) Ingmar Bergman: “It’s the dignifying of one’s own psychological and sexual hang-ups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues,” she says dismissively, aptly describing Allen’s own work at its worst. Later, Isaac’s friends are reading out loud a particularly mortifying passage of a book that Isaac’s ex-wife (Meryl Streep) has written about their marriage, in which she describes his “male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy (and) nihilistic moods of despair.” Again, terms that have been used in reference to Allen’s later career.

Something remarkable happens in that last scene: Allen shuts up. His friends have been reading from the book as they’re walking along a pier, and Isaac gradually falls behind. The camera stops with him, then holds as he pauses, looks down, and then shuffles on. There is no self-deprecating defense, no forced jokes. Just a moment of true introspection, and perhaps Allen’s finest moment as an actor.

I think it’s revealing that Keaton is in both of these scenes. Here and elsewhere, she proves to be the Woody Allen tonic that I, at least, need. If Ginger Rogers gave Fred Astaire sex appeal, something similar happens here. Allen’s romantic allure is never as believable as when Keaton is responding to it. In their shared banter and basket-case qualities, Mary and Isaac are endearing counterparts. His one-liners aren’t tossed at her as if she was a wall (something another Allen idol, Groucho Marx, tended to do), but are instead caught by Keaton, juggled and tossed back.

For this reason you hope Mary and Isaac wind up together. But romantic bliss is something unattainable in the Allen universe – at least for longer than a fleeting moment. Even with that Gershwin playing and those skyscrapers glowing, love doesn’t last. And here’s where the juxtaposition between the form and content of Manhattan comes into play. The opening montage of New York at night speaks to an ideal that the movie’s characters have, both for their city and themselves. If only life could look like this. If only our relationships always felt this way. These characters yearn for a relational perfection that they can’t maintain. Perhaps the reason this opening sequence is mostly free of human figures is that we’re the ones who mess things up.

There is one instance of relational peace in the film, and it is Manhattan’s most famous image. After walking and talking much of the night, Mary and Isaac share a bench as dawn comes up against the Queensboro Bridge. Why, amidst all the visual glory of Manhattan, does this stand out? Because it’s the one moment in which people and place are in harmony. If only it could last.