Tuesday, March 2, 2010

THE BASICS: Manhattan

What is The Basics?  In brief:

Drew McWeeny (of Ain't It Cool fame, now prolifically covering film over at Hitfix) will throw out a film that he considers a must see for any film fan, a film that William Goss (a film lover in my own vein, versed but not encyclopedic, chugging away over at Cinematical, surely as we speak) will watch and respond to. What McWeeny hopes is that in discussing these classic films he'll not only give readers an assortment of films to peruse in their own time, but also start a conversation about these important pieces of culture.

I love film.  You might call me a film "geek".  I might secretly feel sort of sad when I wake up to a sunny day, knowing that I'll spend it outside away from my precious films.  Truthfully though, the gaps in my film knowledge could fit whole theaters in them.  I haven't seen all the great works by all the great directors (let alone the American masters) or dug in deep to the exploitation genre.  I can't name off every film starring Steve McQueen or tell you what film won Best Picture in 1965.  But I want to.  Thus, with McWeeny throwing down the gauntlet, I've decided to follow along.

His second choice is Woody Allen's Manhattan.  Now I've seen a lot of Woody Allen, but somehow, someway, I've completely and totally missed out on this, his oft times claimed masterwork.

Check out McWeeny's post HERE, and then William Goss's response HERE.


I'm conflicted when it comes to Woody Allen.   As much as I love his classics (the one's I've seen) - Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sweet & Lowdown (minor classic) - I think at times the characters he writes for himself (or whatever high-profile performer he's shuffling in to the role of nebbish worry-wart) border on caricature.  I was shocked at times during my watching of Manhattan how much Woody Allen, both in delivery and appearance, reminded me of Groucho Marx.  The eyebrows, the softly spoken follow ups to his gags, the thick glasses and machine gun comedy - Woody Allen and Groucho Marx are like distant cousins.   But where Marx and company seemed blissfully happy to leap in to insanity, I alway expect a great sense of subtlety from Woody Allen, a restraint that reflects the intellectuals he always plays.

In Manhattan though, sweet, amazing Manhattan, Woody Allen sheds the cigar-chompin' caricature of Sleepers and Bananas and creates a film that shows not only the humor in the lost love and remorse of a broken relationships, but the deep pain and sadness it creates.

Woody Allen plays Isaac, a burgeoning writer dating a seventeen year-old.  His good friend Yale (Michael Murphy), is married and having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton).  When Yale introduces Isaac to Mary, Isaac begins to question his relationship with Tracy (the seventeen year old played with amazingly sincere innocence by Mariel Hemingway).  It's simple and direct, and allows Woody Allen to add a layer of emotion to the character he'd been building in films like Annie Hall.  

Manhattan is still a film about Woody Allen and the character he's defined and redefined over and over again throughout his career.  Insecure and anxious, quick with a razor-sharp bit of observation, Isaac is the nebbish ladies man Woody Allen always seems to write (and I consider a mark of his talent that he can always make me believe that 5'3" Jewish writer from New York could bag both Mariel Hemingway and Meryl Streep).  What's different in Manhattan is that this nebbish character doesn't just steamroll over the women in his life, instead Isaac makes errors, mistakes, and he feels pain because of it.  There's a scene near the end of the film when Isaac admits to Yale's ex-wife (Anne Byrne Hoffman) that he's made an error in letting go of Tracy, and instead of it being a joke or a gag, it's a truly personal monologue.  Isaac knows he's made an error, knows that he's lost the woman that truly inspires him, that he might actually love.  And as Isaac confesses to the camera you can see it in his eyes, his slumped shoulders, the slow-ish rhythm of his voice.  He's done something wrong, and in Manhattan those mistakes have true emotional resonance.

You might say that Manhattan is the logical progression of Woody Allen's stock cast of characters.  Diane Keaton's Mary isn't the bubbly goofball of Annie Hall, she's a hard-nosed writer, rife with nervousness and fears, Ms. Hall ten years in the future, her heart and persona battered around a bit by a rough series of break-ups.  And that's what draws me to Manhattan in a way so many of Allen's newer films (hell, early films) fail to do - the sense of consequence to the actions of these characters.  It gives a depth to Allen's humor, a sense of pathos to his witty repartee that just gets me right under the rib cage.


Criterion Counsel: I don't even want to talk about it.

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