Defending Manhattan

Woody's valentine to our fair city should finally be embraced for what it is: fantasy

The most perverse view in the Voice was presented by Ellen Willis, who parsed Manhattan's "Jewish sexual politics" and proposed that Keaton was the movie's aggressive, argumentative, angst-ridden, and frizzy-haired crypto-Jewish Rebecca, with Hemingway as the resident dewy WASP Rowena: "Critics, as a group, can't stand grown-up Rebecca and love innocent Rowena's ass. This is clearly an anti-feminist bias. But could it also be anti-Semitism?"

Willis read Manhattan as an allegory of failed assimilation. But it is also the celebration of a promised land. In 1979, New York was still reeling from the 1975 default and summer of '77 blackout; the prevailing mood was apocalyptic. Graffiti was ubiquitous. CBGB trumped Elaine's. Chantal Akerman's 1977 News From Home, not Manhattan, was the definitive vision of the city's decayed industrial moonscape. Punk Super-8, not Ingmar Bergman, spoke to the zeitgeist. The irony of Isaac's complaint that "it's difficult to live in this town without a big income" was outrageous—this was virtually the last moment when one could live cheaply in Manhattan.

What's most authentic about Manhattan is its fantasy. The New York City that Woody so tediously defended in Annie Hall was in crisis. And so he imagined an improved version. More than that, he cast this shining city in the form of those movies that he might have seen as a child in Coney Island—freeing the visions that he sensed to be locked up in the silver screen. In a way, Manhattan is Allen's personal Purple Rose of Cairo—the movie in which he successfully projects himself into Hollywood make-believe. It's his version of an Astaire and Rogers musical, as romantic as Casablanca, as slickly metropolitan as Sweet Smell of Success. It's also as haunting a celebration of the transitory as a Lumiére actualité.

Woody and his ever-present storm cloud
photo: MGM
Woody and his ever-present storm cloud


Written and directed by Woody Allen
July 13 through 19, Film Forum

Manhattan's last shot, concluding an exchange between Isaac and Tracy as she leaves for London, has been compared to the miracle of recognition that ends City Lights. I read it differently; it doesn't seem an open ending. There's no question that something is over. Youth fades. Love never lasts. Everyone is forever trying to retrieve the past. Only the skyline remains. Allen's subsequent attempts to recapture Manhattan have often been embarrassing, but he (and we) will always have this.

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