Manhattan Woody Allen (USA 1979) Woody Allen; Diane Keaton
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne; 13 March 2014; ticket: £5
retrocrit: Dark clouds over Manhattan
Viewed today Woody Allen's Manhattan provokes thoughts about the dark magical forces that forge the twisted links in the relationship between life and art. The pact with their daemon, that an individual makes, when wresting the creative out of the actual.
At the core of the movie is the flip flop relationship between Woody Allen and Tracy, a seventeen year old high school girl. This relationship bookends the script as 43 year old Allen struggles to establish a relationship with women his own age, in a culture that he characterises as emotionally regressed. His fictive mildly transgressive relationship with Tracy who is a minor, points to how the later complications allegations and developments of Allen's relationship with his family (Mia, Dylan and Soon Yi) are all cut from the same clothe of his life: late twentieth century infantalised culture. And just as part of the Manhattan script takes in an ex wife 'tell all' subplot, so too could Woody Allen's current circus of relational atrocities with its child abuse allegations and intra family marriage irregularity, all too easily be absorbed into the Manhattan script, without Woody Allen pausing for breath or a gag.
My feeling is that Woody is avoiding personal territory these days as being too close to the knuckle. However he did outline Bernie Madoff's Ponzi racket in Blue Velvet without letting the material get up front personal. Did Woody or his family give money to Madoff?
Allen's daemon aside, Manhattan proves Woody Allen as a consummate movie clown. Both in the traditions of Harold Lloyd, Groucho and Stan Laurel and of later 'directed' understated performers such as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Allen of course has a perfect complementary foil in Diane Keaton. In Manhattan it's his performance that stands out as he plays off not just Keaton but Meryl Streep and the very straight Mariel Hemmingway. Playing himself, as clown's must, he personifies the core clown ideas: innocence and self delusion, an inability to prosper out in the world on any terms but his own. Hence the inevitability of failure, but a failure that never results in disillusionment; just the reverse, failure it is that sustains energises reinvigorates faith in being. The gags and one liners are a wondrous flow of ideas and throw away wicked associations. But it is the clown in Woody that allows the writing to communicate: the exaggerated changes in body language. the use of eye muscle tension and eye lines as expressive gestes and the micro regulation of voice, in tone and pitch and attack.
It's interesting to note that in the long opening montage of Manhattan the views of the city tend to be intimate shots. There is no shot of the Twin Towers. Allen's NYC is old school, the prewar city.
And the whole movie is beautifully shot, old school, on black and white stock with Gordon Willis giving the shots and sequences a look based on a minimal uncluttered aesthetic. As director, Allen's two strongest points in Manhattan are that he trusts the cinematographer to deliver the signifying classical optical contents of the shot and uses the script performance and sound track to counter-vale the visual element. The Manhattan scenario is characterised by a number of long static carefully composed shots that establish the idea of a mood, the idea of a stability, the idea of a classic aesthetic. But Allen uses these visual attributes as the contrasting dynamics that drive the film's development.
For instance there is one early big wide shot of Woody and Tracy in Woody's first and grand apartment with its spiral staircase. It is a still shot that frames the performers' movements, and is of long duration. The protagonists movement within the set which has the aesthetic of shadow play. But the shot is used to offset the banality of the relationship between Tracy and Allen. The pettiness, the self serving but truthful nature of Allen's dialogue, heighten the interplay between the image and the script, creating the sort of inner tensions that energise Manhattan and shift it out of the realm of self indulgence.
The characteristic feature of the film is that Allen manipulates the sound track and image tracks so that they interpenetrate and offset each other. The call of Gershwin's lush compositions that flood romantically over the screen are counterposed by the unromantic calculating nature of post '60's relationships that manipulatively unfold in the dialogue between the protagonists. The worlds of Gershwin and Allen are poured together in a sour cocktail that is like an emulsion that blends temporarily before separating into its separate and bitter components.
Woody Allen’s life has become a parody of his own films. Allen a little like Oscar Wilde ends up trapped within the confines of his own art. Sometimes there is nowhere else to go except self parody. And sometimes parody like paradise turns out to be the interesting but unavailable illusion of the clown.