"Six months isn't so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people..."
Woody Allen has always been polarizing. His name has resurfaced in the news due to new allegations from Dylan Farrow accusing him of molesting her when she was a child. Are these accusations true? I do not know. They could be. They might not be. I honestly do not want to focus on that right now, but I know that I also need to at least address it before I continue writing about the 1979 classic, Manhattan.
A lot of times artists are bad people. Does that make their art less significant? That's another question that I cannot answer. Should a viewer have an overwhelming feeling of guilt when they admit to enjoying a film by Woody Allen? I do my best to stay out of that mental trap. Don't get the wrong idea, I obviously think that if these allegations against Mr. Allen end up being proven true, then he is a monster. But nobody knows the truth other than Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. Honestly, I have trouble trusting either of them.
Now that you are educated on my "wait for the facts" approach on judging others, we can talk about Manhattan. Like with many of his movies, Woody Allan is the writer, director and star. He plays the ridiculously self-centered and perverted Isaac. It is hinted that Isaac could be an intellectual, but he is not willing to put in the work that comes with that distinction. He used to be married to Jill (Meryl Streep) before she left him for another woman and to write a tell-all book about their marriage and love life. In all of his glory, he is now in a relationship with a high school girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) who claims to be in love with him. Isaac believes that he is just a blip on her dating radar and that someday they will separate allowing him to become just another one of her memories.
Mariel Hemingway is perfect in this role. Her acting is so raw and unpolished that she outlines the truth and innocence in all of her lines. Tracy's character is living in a typical romantic comedy while Isaac and the motley group of supporting characters are inhabiting a story that is more about loss. A married couple is forced to deal with their adulterous ways, and Isaac falls in love with (leaving Tracy in the process) a bohemian played by Diane Keaton.
Keaton's character is simply the worst - though I would bet that is most likely the point. Her name is Mary and she is smarter than you, or at least she believes that she deserves that much credit. In reality, much like Isaac, Mary is using her ability to wax intellectualism as a defense against her insecurities. She is in love with a married man, and her shame is outweighed only by her immediate need for positive male attention. Mary has been criticized for being too similar to Keaton's title character in the Best Picture winning Annie Hall, but I have never been able to make the connection. Both characters are "bohemian" and they both battle insecurity, but those traits are not rare to any character created by a king of neurotic storytelling like Allen.
It is clear that the screenplay demands heavy focus on dialogue, but I think the excellent cinematography is something that is often forgotten about Manhattan. Here we have easily one of the finest cinematic paintings ever made. The black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis illuminates New York City in a way that is much more romantic than the many other late 70s New York flicks. The lighting may be some of the most famous in movie history. Several subtle moments are made more intimate with a simple sliver of light shining from the corner. Dark shadows are used to illustrate moments of conflict or loss. In one particular scene we hear Isaac and Tracy having an innocent conversation, but rather than focus the camera on the characters, Willis uses the camera's frame to show us the lonely landscape of Isaac's apartment. Tracy is bringing excitement and life into the otherwise shallow home of a very selfish and immature older man, and the artwork itself is all the audience needs to see that sensation in real time. Though there is a decent amount of dialogue in the movie, it can be argued that the camera singularly catches the most important moments.
Again, I am not forgiving Woody Allen for the things he may have done in his life. I think it goes without saying that he is a strange cat - and maybe even a monster. But that does not make Manhattan any less of an elite movie. The score is fantastic (and features the transcendent "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin), the acting is dry and natural, and the artistry in on par with the greatest of all time. Do not watch the film with a love story in mind - I believe that will cause you to miss the point. Watch this classic with an open mind toward fading glory days and inevitable loss. Like him or hate him, Woody Allen makes a helluva movie.