On the island city of MANHATTAN, Woody Allen’s masterful study of how every person is an island.
Opening montage is enough to make you want to move there; a scintillating montage of the Manhattan skyline, the streets, the people, the shops and streetside vendors, from the scum to the scenic, Allen’s narration starting out purposely melodramatic and settling into wry admiration, “a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
Gershwin’s music has never sounded so glorious, as it accompanies 42-year-old TV writer, Isaac (Woody Allen), in his search for something akin to true love in the big city; dating a high schooler (Mariel Hemingway), yet finding a kindred spirit in his best friend’s new intelligent mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton). Mary’s intellectualism is simultaneously her allure – Isaac falls for the talky, beautiful writer – and her downfall, as she overanalyzes herself into relationship confusion.
The beautiful thing that separates MANHATTAN from most American movies is that no one apologizes for their intelligence. They never have to qualify their observations with “I read it in National Geographic” or “I saw it on the History Channel.” All the characters are writers or teachers, they’re involved in the entertainment industry as intellectuals, not as marketers or low-rent hustlers, and their animated dialog reveals their storied lives.
Whatever happened to this type of mature onscreen love story? It disappeared with the advent of the Jennifer Garners and the Jennifer Lopezes and the Jennifer Anistons. (Am I sensing a deadly trend?)
When two couples (including Keaton and Allen) are simply walking the sidewalk chatting, the conversation is a welcome breath of fresh air – and this movie is over 30 years old! – as they complain about overrated artists and writers. There is more content in that one scene than in every romantic movie of the 80’s combined.
Some complain about the “pseudo-intellectualism” of Keaton’s character, but it’s not “pseudo” if it’s actually subjective criticism. Mary is by no means a brainless Valley girl trying to sound smart. She IS smart – her failing is that she’s also insecure and she uses her intellectualism as a shield and a prop, rather than resorting to drugs, therapy or makeovers. Maybe the Great Unwashed would understand Woody better if he just wrote a character more in line with the morons in line.
A very young, very handsome Meryl Streep shows off her brilliance in her first few seconds onscreen – even in this, her second major film role – when she appears startled at meeting Isaac on the street. She’s his lesbian ex-wife, penning a tell-all book about their failed relationship which gives Isaac much agita.
Diane Keaton shines above them all – so luminous, beautiful, natural, it’s a wonder she did not gain the rep that Streep accrued over the years as THE actress’s actress.
As lighting director, Gordon Willis once again braves the darkness (as he did so effectively on THE GODFATHER movies) and lights scenes by daring us to see silhouettes and muted patches of light; characters moving from one shard of illumination through darkness to another shard in the same frame; long shots held for incredible amounts of time with characters in almost absolute darkness; adding volumes of emotional depth to this black and white production. Unless it’s a “horror” movie, modern directors, cinematographers and lighting directors rarely utilize absence of light the way Gordon Willis did in the ’70s; truly the Prince of Darkness, no christian overtones intended.
Of his bevy of beautiful consorts, Isaac doesn’t “end up” with anyone – in the best art, as in life, there IS no “ending up,” there is constant flux. Isaac tries to reconcile with Hemingway’s schoolgirl, who is moving out of town – on his advice! In answer to his pleas not to immerse herself in show business for fear of being corrupted, she tells him she won’t change, that she’ll be back in six months and “You have to have a little faith in people.”
And for a man who cultivates such a reputation as a frenetic neurotic, Allen underplays his final closeup in a wondrous melding of emotions as we see a virtually unreadable smile cross his face: that he knows she’s right, or that she’ll find out how wrong she is; maybe wondering what will become of him; or maybe he has turned into enough of an island to realize that none of it matters in the least.
We’ll never know. Such is the beauty and mystery of MANHATTAN.