Friday, October 12, 2007

Manhattan has an almost perfect opening...

No, I'll start that again. Manhattan does have a perfect opening. No sooner has the film started than you're hit by the sublime synthesis of George Gershwin's music, Gordon Willis' black and white widescreen photography and Woody Allen's voice-over. It's a combination that spoils the senses and one that plainly states Allen's intentions. This is a movie with a capital M.

It's also a poem to New York. The opening monologue expresses all of Allen's contradictory feelings towards the town through a series of possible openings for a novel his character is writing. It's beautifully written and very funny. But it's also very romantic, as even when he's criticising the place, it's clear he loves it. And with Allen's words you have Willis' images. The city has never looked better.

Then the voice-over stops and you have fireworks set to Gershwin's music. It's a New York that doesn't exist in real life, only on film and in Allen's mind. Yet it's ridiculously appealing. Just for a little while you fall in love with this version of New York too.

Such a great opening raises expectations, but Manhattan more than lives up to it. My favourite visual is another one of the romantic moments in film. It's the shot that is used on the posters of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on a bench in front of the 59th Street Bridge. It's probably one of the best shots in cinema – it's ridiculously simple but it's also ridiculously beautiful.

But my favourite scene is the party. Isaac (Allen) goes to a party full of pretentious snobs who are talking about orgasms. One of the men there is a filmmaker. He explains his concept. "I'm just about to direct a film of my own script. The premise is this guy screws so great that when he brings a woman to orgasm, she's so fulfilled that she dies." Then a woman brings up that she finally had an orgasm but her doctor told her it was the wrong kind. To which Isaac says that he's never had the wrong kind that even his worst was right on the money. Oh, and before this, they talk about a Nazi parade that is being planned in Manhattan. Another one of the women chimes in with her vapid viewpoint. "But biting satire is always better than physical force." And again, Isaac is the voice of sanity. "No, physical force is better with Nazis." I really do hope that rich parties are actually like this. I'd be terribly disappointed if they weren't rife with pretension and champagne posturing.

But although the party scene is essentially a throwaway, sexual politics is a definite theme (as it is in most of Allen's films). Isaac, who's 42, is going out with a 17-year old and his second ex-wife divorced him to live with her female lover. And to make it worse, his ex has written a book about their marriage. This leads to another funny scene where his friends read aloud extracts detailing his many failings. But from this marriage he has a young son. And Isaac is worried about two women bringing him up. "I always feel very few people survive one mother." But to complicate things even further, Isaac starts seeing Mary (Keaton) who's the lover of Isaac's friend Yale who's married. Fidelity is a quaint concept in Allen's world.

However, with everyone indulging their whims, you'd expect them to be happy. Only they're not. It seems like when you can have everything you only end up making yourself miserable. What people need is stability. They need grounding. But in a place as vast as Manhattan, you never stay still, a point illustrated by Isaac having to move halfway through. He may love New York but he has no roots. And he's frightened of putting them down. After all, he has a great thing with the 17-year old Tracy. She's smart, she's fun and she's half his age, yet he seems intent on sabotaging their relationship. He cheats on her with the more neurotic Mary. And it's quite clear that Mary and Isaac aren't really right for one another. They may be pretty much the same age, but they don't have the same taste in movies, books and art - all they have in common is neuroses. And there's a funny scene where Isaac first meets Mary and they all talk about their tastes. Isaac gets visibly annoyed when Mary criticises Ingmar Bergman. I share Isaac's pain. There's nothing more annoying that someone ragging on your favourite director (or writer or musician or band or...).

But amidst the quiet despair there are moments of ease and happiness. You have the moment on the bridge, the scene where Isaac and Tracy ride through Central Park and the bit when Isaac and Tracy are watching TV in bed. But they're all fleeting and they all seem to be private moments. In public Isaac seems to be embarrassed by Tracy. He's dating a girl who does homework and he's older than her father. He doesn't seem to be able to handle the scrutiny that their relationship attracts. And when he goes out publicly with Mary it results in more awkwardness – he goes to the theatre with Mary who's next to her ex-lover who's next to his wife. And besides, his relationship with Mary seems to be more of a product of loneliness. Therefore the ending is bittersweet. He finally admits his feelings for Tracy but it's possibly too late. He might have screwed up his opportunity. But that doesn't mean the ending is sombre. If anything, it's upbeat. You may feel there's no hope for this immature man (he baulks at having to wait six months for her as she studies in London) but you feel there's a lot for this mature girl, that if this relationship doesn't work she'll have a better chance than most of finding the lasting happiness that elludes everyone else.

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