Defending Manhattan


Manhattan—back for a week at Film Forum in a new 35mm print—is not just Woody Allen’s dream movie. Wistful as it is witty, it’s his dream of the movies.

Forty-four when he made Manhattan (1979), Allen was never more vividly himself than as the self-absorbed, Nazi-obsessed, horny TV writer and babe magnet Isaac. As a further improvement, the artist lopped two years off his character’s age and gave him a 17-year-old adoring girlfriend, a Dalton senior named Tracy (18-year-old Mariel Hemingway). Whether or not Manhattan is Allen’s most personal movie, it enshrines everything from his morality to his milieu. The opening, Gershwin-scored skyline montage segues naturally to a table at Elaine’s, the then über-fashionable boîte for literary celebs, where Isaac and Tracy are introduced sharing a table with his insecurely married friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne).

Isaac’s liaison with the perfect, preternaturally perceptive Tracy gives Manhattan an outrageous premise (or so it seemed back then; it took another dozen years for the power of this fantasy to become evident). But it is Diane Keaton’s Mary, the alluring neurotic with whom both Yale and Isaac fall in love, who provides Allen’s psychodrama with both psycho and drama. Manhattan is famously a movie about relating to “relationships,” but the key relationship is to oneself. All the characters, save the sublimely innocent Tracy, are in analysis and/or working on a book—most provocatively, Isaac’s second ex-wife (a scary Meryl Streep), who has written a hostile memoir of their marriage. With this character, Allen acknowledges the Other.

Solipsism reigns supreme. No less than Quentin Tarantino, Allen can be the sum of his references; this is the movie where he offers his checklist of what makes life worth living, beginning with Groucho Marx. You are what you dig. Mary is defined by her snotty dismissal of Ingmar Bergman and Tracy by her incongruous enthusiasm for W.C. Fields. Fetishes abound, but art is what makes a fetish potent beyond its cult, and Manhattan is the Woody Allen movie where it all came together. The city is gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Gordon Willis; the apartments are lovingly cluttered with cultural detritus; the mainly East Side locations have been fastidiously selected. Every line is a one-liner, but the dialogue flows—it’s not only funny but also seamless. “You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eye on the meter,” Isaac exclaims as he takes Mary home from their first date.

When Manhattan opened in April 1979, Andrew Sarris began his Village Voice review as though granted a vision: Manhattan had “materialized out of the void as the one truly great American film of the ’70s.” Leaving aside the decade’s avant-garde and documentary productions, this is still a remarkable claim to make of a massively mythologized period. Where was the void? Why did Sarris love Manhattan so? For the first time, Allen’s visual rhetoric was equal to his writing. For the first (and also the last) time, he graced the screen with a fully realized vision. And then, of course, there was the shock of recognition: Manhattan‘s world was a glamorized version of Sarris’s.

As steeped in ambivalence as Manhattan is, it inspired the most complicated response of any Allen film. I well remember my own mix of admiration and contempt for what, as an almost thirtysomething, I experienced as a self-satisfied celebration of bourgeois bushwa. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Joan Didion crafted a disdainful, almost nonsensical put-down that reveled in inexplicable class distinctions. “In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan . . .” Could this sarcasm be the narcissism of small differences?

Where Sarris was enchanted with Allen’s worldview, Didion felt only disgust. Allen seemed a parvenu, a poseur, an intellectual phony. She marveled that people identified with the movie’s “false and desperate knowingness.” It was high school writ large, the ” ‘class brains’ acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life.” Manhattan seemed gratingly cliquish, even if it represented a clique of one. His town was not her town. Nor was it ours—as acknowledged by the two pages of critiques the Voice ran a month after Sarris’s review.

Manhattan is the movie where Allen successfully projected his own self-absorption as a universal condition—and people responded with their personal identity politics. Stuart Byron scored Allen’s inability to endorse any sexual lifestyle other than his own phallocentric sense of heterosexual serial monogamy; Stanley Crouch mocked the notion of a Manhattan populated exclusively by WASPs and Jews: “I have never seen an intelligent black character in a Woody Allen film.” Carola Dibbell’s half-hearted feminist take concluded that, although hopelessly mired in the ’50s, Allen’s sexual politics were still more evolved than his race or class consciousness. (Where Louis Armstrong and Willie Mays were only referred to in Manhattan, Bella Abzug actually appeared as a signifier of the Equal Rights Amendment.)

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.

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.