Manhattan or Hope Through Heartbreak
[Note From The Author: I am not giving up on the Seagal movie analysis, its just man some of those movies are really brutal to sit through and I don’t mean the violence man. Some of those movies really suck. The following piece was started several months ago and I just finished it this evening. Yeah, I’m a Woody Allen fan…]
After my little headfirst dive with Annie Hall, the need to watch more Woody Allen films kind of slowly crept up on me. There was a period of a few weeks where I had no interest in watching anything by Allen for quite a bit. As much as I love most of his films, I really needed to sit back and actually not write any analysis of anything by him1. Then the Oscars happened. I say that with no real malice or anything but man seeing Allen win Best Original Screenplay kind of warmed my heart. I mean nearly 5 decades of film making and the man can still win one of those nice little gold statuettes. That is what got me wanting to not just see Midnight In Paris, the movie he won his most recent Oscar for, but to delve back into watching some of his older material, focusing on films I’ve actually never bothered to sit down and watch. This actually covers a lot of ground because this is a man who has made and released a movie almost every year since he released his first film in 19662. All told that is 44 movies he’s directed. You realize George Lucas has made six feature films and got a fucking Irving G. Thalberg Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “Lifetime Achievement”? The sad thing of those six movies only 2 of them are any good3. Allen has made 44 films to date and I’ve seen only a fraction of them, but my gut is telling me possibly 33 of them are pretty freaking great.
This brings us to Manhattan. Released in 1979, this revisits a few elements from Allen’s 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall. Those elements deal with marriage, male/female interpersonal relationships and just how great it is to live in New York City. It tones down the more fantastic elements of Annie Hall to tell a much traditional, linear story and what you get is a very funny, sweet and tender tale of man who wrestles with his own sense of morality, to find out what really makes him happy was the girl he left behind. Of course there are certain elements of the film that kind of… well… they kind of cast a new light on how Allen justified certain personal choices he made in his life regarding his relationship with both Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn. But fuck it, I’m not going to make the mistake of opening that can of worms too much because the moral of that story is that love, genuine real love, is love and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Manhattan has some of those elements that you will find in other Allen movies, those little seemingly auto-biographical touches that help flesh out the main character. Allen plays Isaac Davis, a divorced television writer who is dating a girl of 17 years named Tracy played, by Mariel Hemingway. Hemingway was actually 18 when the movie was released so there is a good chance she was probably true to her age during filming of the movie. Allen plays Isaac as torn between the fact that he truly cares for Tracy but he finds the difference in their age uncomfortable. He is also under stress due to the fact that his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) is preparing to release a book all about their time together, including the details of why she left him for another woman. So we’ve got Isaac, dabbling in pederasty, stressed out because of his ex-wife and loathing his job. Thank God he’s got friends in the married couple of Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne) right?
Not so fast there, Yale is having an affair with another woman, which he confesses to Isaac after a night out with their ladies. This blows Isaac away, as he always thought Yale and Emily had the perfect marriage. The woman in question is Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a somewhat snobbish intellectual upon first encounter. Mary is the opposite of Keaton’s portrayal of Annie Hall simply by being intellectual and having to show that side of herself off, something Annie would’ve been completely not comfortable doing. It is only when Isaac runs into her a second time that he begins to appreciate Mary’s intelligence and finds her to be an actual nice person.
This doesn’t help his moral compass any with dating Tracy, whom he still has very deep conflicts about being with. It gets even worse for him as Yale decides to break-up with Mary and encourages Isaac to date her. Isaac breaks it off with Tracy and starts dating Mary and then we get to see how that relationship goes from start to finish. But what could have been a great romance is ruined by Mary’s own self-doubt and by Yale’s inability to let go of something that ultimately destroys his marriage. Mary and Yale never really break contact, thus leading to their reuniting, leaving poor Isaac in the cold. Isaac is left alone, wondering what it is he has done to get him to the point he is at now. In deep depression one can find oneself being deeply reflective and in turn they can have one of those life changing epiphanies. For Isaac his moment of clarity is realizing that he needs to be with Tracy because the last time he was actually, truly happy was when he was with her. So in one of those utterly romantic moments that you would find in a Megan Ryan romantic comedy of the 1990s, Isaac dashes off to Tracy’s apartment building to confess his feelings. This is where the similarity to a Megan Ryan romantic comedy ends, as Isaac arrives to confront Tracy just as she is leaving Manhattan to study abroad in London.
It is this culmination of everything in the movie where we learn what exactly Isaac liked about Tracy. It was her pure and innocent nature, the fact that she was young and had not been beaten down by life. She was optimistic, sweet and genuinely a good person. It was all these qualities that drew Isaac to her in the first place, that and the fact she genuinely cared for him. Her final lines to him in the movie “Not everyone gets corrupted. You have to have faith in people” may seem sad but actually are meant to give both Isaac and the viewer hope. The fact that Isaac’s reaction to this sentiment is to smile only further hammers home the message and wisdom she is trying to impart on him. That smile by Isaac is a sign that if this teenager can see the world this way then maybe, just maybe, Isaac can too.
So I just gave you the whole plot of the movie, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go watch it. If Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s best example of an honest romantic comedy, then Manhattan is his best example of a bittersweet one. Sure in Annie Hall Alvy and Annie break-up, but the fact that Alvy looks back on it so sweetly to the point he realizes that they are better off as friends, still has a happy connotation to it. Manhattan is different. Manhattan is about deception and lies in romantic relationships. These are not very straightforward lies either. Yale is lying to his wife about his affair with Mary which dovetails into him thinking that he can save his marriage by cutting Mary off. Yale is lying to himself with that train of thought because in truth Yale forgets 2 things, he is actually in love with Mary and that cheaters always cheat, they just can’t help it. Of course Yale screws over his best friend in Isaac to get what he wants. Isaac is also lying to himself about his relationship with Tracy. He doesn’t want to believe he is happy with a girl that is so much younger than himself. Instead, he fools himself into breaking the girls heart so he can try being with Mary, who is really just using him as a substitute for Yale. Everyone is lying to each other. Even Yale’s wife Emily, she suspects Yale is up to something but she just doesn’t come out and say it. Emily is actually the most underdeveloped character in the whole movie, which is kind of a shame because it makes her seem sort of like a throwaway piece of exposition at the beginning of the film, just to demonstrate Yale is married.
Manhattan is a funny movie despite its bitter-sweet end. Allen delivers some truly great comedy bits in the movie, including a dinner party conversation about how when dealing with Nazis, a satirical piece in The New York Times is all well and good but really, physical violence really is quite more effective in dealing with them. Ironically, Manhattan might be the last of Allen’s more optimistic films in spite of its bittersweet ending4. The close of the 1970s and shift to the 1980s saw Allen delve in to just as much dark themed comedy as slapstick. Infidelity, lies and self-delusion all crop up in movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadows and Fog and Hannah and Her Sisters. The themes of betrayal and right and wrong also get explored in those movies, especially in Crimes and Misdemeanors. But those darker themes can trace their roots back to Manhattan.
Manhattan shows the darker sides of what Annie Hall explored. Love gone wrong on all fronts and how it affects everyone in one persons life and every persons life all at once. The real zinger of the movie though is that sometimes what we really want in life is right there in front of us no matter how much we protest it being there. No matter how cynical and jaded a person is, really they want love and hope to get it in their life. It is just much harder for them to recognize it when its there. It also makes Manhattan a story of failed love. That is one hard pill to swallow, yet simultaneously, that pill fills one with hope for tomorrow. An odd dichotomy that not many storytellers can pull of so well, yet Woody Allen makes it look so damn easy.
2He took a 2 year sabbatical after making Sleeper in 1973 and then came back in 1975 with Love & Death. He then took a year off in 1981 and came back in 1982 with A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy. Every year after 1982 he has released a movie and in some cases he would make 2 movies a year. No doubt he felt guilty for taking time off.
3American Graffitti , Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are three excellent movies. I’ll cut Lucas a little slack for his movie THX-1138 since he was remaking his short student film into a feature. The other 3 movies were the Star Wars prequels and no sane person or anyone with a sense of taste could ever consider those good films.
4This isn’t to say Allen didn’t make more than his fair share of whimsical comedies like Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo or Manhattan Murder Mystery, in fact many of his movies from the 80s are pretty fantastical and full of whimsy. Its just the ones that get the high praise tend to be the darker ones it seems.