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Friday, January 18, 2013

Woody Allen's Manhattan, after all these years

We recently watched Manhattan, the 1979 Woody Allen movie. It hasn't aged well, or is it just me?

This is alleged to be a comedy drama. Apart from a constant stream of weak verbal gags by the autobiographical leading character Isaac (played by Woody Allen), it isn't at all funny. The situations are pretty sad; a middle-aged man sleeping with a teen-age girl, the terrible shame he feels that his second ex-wife has left him for another woman - we no longer find either of these situations amusing now in the same way as they were intended. The first situation is not funny; Lolita is barely acceptable now. The second is no longer shameful, just part of life.

Nor is this a drama in my opinion. It is a series of static scenes showing a group of New York intellectuals, each of whom live by some kind of role in the artistic-industrial complex without really having to work. There are authors, writers for TV and magazines, college professors, a student of acting. There is a constant sexual square dance, partners switching joylessly; without much passion or excitement. A running chatter about tennis lessons, ex-wives, alimony, art gallery openings, analysts, going to the Hamptons, worries about what other people will think, and other purported concerns of the New York rich.

This is often cited as one of Woody Allen's "best movies". It has a cast with several well-known female actors.

Diane Keaton plays her usual character in Allen's movies: channeling Kathryn Hepburn on anti-depressants;  kind of crazy, kind of clever, kind of dumb, with unsuitable men but they find her adorable...continually making indecision into a sort of angst-sodden group sport. She did have nice breasts - her nipples feature prominently under clothing in several shots. Woody Allen was nothing if not a connoisseur of the female form.

The other female lead (played by the 16-year old Mariel Hemingway) appears to be made of some kind of sapwood. She's pretty but granite-jawed and mumbling, like a teen-aged Marlon Brando with a mouth full of marbles. She is completely unbelievable as a talented 17-year old actress who is having a passionate affair with 42-year-old, short, balding, self-centred minor celebrity. (Although in reality several young girls did pair off with Woody Allen, but that's a real-life story; dramatically, I remain unconvinced.)

The scenes with Meryl Streep as the long-suffering lesbian ex-wife who has custody of Isaac's son are painful by today's standards and like much of the movie seem to exist just to support a single gag:

"How's Willie?"
"Well, give me some details, does he play baseball, wear dresses, what?"
"He doesn't wear dresses. You'll find out the details when it's your turn to see him."

The thing that really upsets this man is that his ex-wife is writing a tell-all story of their marriage. The fact that his wife was compelled to do this about someone so pretentious and annoying did have a unique ring of truth.

There are visits to galleries with protracted discussions of (mostly) unseen artworks; again with a few funny lines but the scenes go on too long. There were a few items of interest from a nostalgic point of view where typewriters, tape recorders, and old push button telephones were being operated.

The squash game shown in this film may be the lamest example of athleticism in movies, deliberately so I suppose. Isaac, holding his squash racquet along the shaft not at the handle and without appearing to look at the ball, conducts a (for him) profound conversation with his best friend. One man serves, the other misses, the ball is returned for another serve. Repeat, until we get the point that this is funny. Both players are breathing normally when they leave the court.

This is the kind of lifestyle that gives liberals a bad name apparently. It may be sort-of amusing for the time and demographics as a parody where rich Jewish New Yorkers are copying WASP stereotypes, but I didn't really care at the end. The talk throughout about how much in love with New York everyone is was not convincing, there was not really anything to show for it. There is a night ride in a Central Park carriage which is pretty, a walk thorough late-night streets, a number of motor vehicle rides on local highways, ho hum. The only real love depicted was self-love. Is that the point? New York allows one to be absolutely selfish?

The moral of the film is clumsily revealed near the end by Isaac as the author, explaining everything into a tape recorder. Perhaps all these people are running around having affairs, creating dramas and difficulty to distract themselves from their empty lives.

The film does look good; filmed in glorious black and white to emphasize the shots of a brooding New York skyline - sinister towers looming behind shots of Central Park, and a black-silhouetted illuminated bridge at dawn. After a while you stop noticing it isn't in colour. The music, all by Gershwin, is excellent.

So it may be that Manhattan will be viewed in the future as a kind of time-capsule of  interesting details of  New York life in 1979, but I'm not sure that the plot, scripts or acting will ever be anything but silly and implausible. I much prefer Allen's Radio Days, made 8 years later which is much less self-indulgent, funnier and more affectionate.

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