The thing about New York that always defeats and trivialises attempts to analyse it is its elusive quality. It’s a city that becomes whatever it is you want it to be, and the metaphor is always changing.
In a sense, it’s like a Woody Allen movie. Ten different people might see Manhattan and see ten different movies, the way ten different visitors might leave New York with ten different impressions.
All of which makes it difficult to write about Woody Allen movies, the way it is almost impossible to describe New York for someone who has never been there. As soon as you get the words on paper, they’ve become obsolete.
Manhattan is not Woody’s best film. The final half-hour is tedious and vague, and the entire territory was explored better in Annie Hall (1977) with more sophisticated results. Still, with its flaws and its missed opportunities, it is nevertheless more endearing and entertaining than nine out of ten movies. It is certainly not a movie you should pass up.
Woody plays Isaac, the kind of anxiety-ridden “everything happens to me” schmo who gets followed around by life’s plagues the way a terminal cougher and militant non-smoker always end up in the smoking section on a ten-hour flight, complaining all the way.
“When it comes to relationships,” he moans, “I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.” With two alimonies, child support, and no job, his insecurity increases.
One ex-wife has ended up working for the William Morris office. The other ex-wife (Meryl Streep) has left him for another woman and is publishing a book about the horrors of her marriage to Woody for all of his friends to read.
His current amour (Mariel Hemingway, pictured at right) is a seventeen-year-old student at the Dalton School who has to leave Elaine’s early to do her homework.
Clearly, Woody is not the kind of loser who needs the burden of another affair, but when his best friend (Michael Murphy) introduces him to his own mistress (Diane Keaton), a hostile, neurotic journalist, it’s hate – and love – at first sight.
Keaton has an instant opinion on everything. She hates Ingmar Bergman and Norman Mailer, whom Woody considers “achievers,” and all they do is fight, while some negative energy keeps them going. But not for long.
Murphy leaves his wife, Keaton goes back to feed her self-destructive needs, Woody returns to the woman-child who really understands him – but she’s grown and moved to London.
Like all Manhattan survivors, Woody will wait, like the city itself, until another neurotic attachment comes along.
The characters pretend to have old-fashioned virtues. Keaton keeps talking about how bright, beautiful and lucky she is to come from a stable Philadelphia family in which marriage is an institution, yet she lives with a dachshund named Waffles who serves as a “penis substitute” and gets involved with men who don’t deserve her.
Woody pretends he believes in monogamy (“People should mate for life, like pigeons – or Catholics.”) yet he gives up the one girl who worships him to seek more challenging thrills with women who torture his frail psyche. Streep sees nothing wrong with exposing her ex-husband to ridicule because in her book she has told the truth.
These are the people of Woody’s world – not the leeches and drug-crazed dropouts in the discos, but the battered intellectuals who hang out in revival houses, concert halls, and the Russian Tea Room.
To reiterate and emphasise the point, Woody has set his characters and action in a romantic soft-focus Manhattan orchestrated by Gershwin music and photographed in mellow, beautiful black-and-white images by Gordon Willis that make New York look like a modem photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
Woody believes Manhattan can still work as a faithful metaphor for survival, but it is an explosive comic effect when his characters waft through the landscapes of the moon at the Planetarium or watch the sun rise gracefully at dawn over the 59th Street Bridge, while chattering incessantly about Freud, self-delusion, and Bella Abzug. There is no welfare, crime, violence, racial unrest, or garbage in Woody’s Manhattan.
Woody Allen is probably the only filmmaker who can show contemporary Manhattan and play Rhapsody in Blue at the same time and make everyone else wish they had thought of it first.
You don’t have to love Manhattan to like Manhattan but it helps.