Sunday, 13 December 2015

Annie Hall and Manhattan

Is it wrong to find Manhattan a beautiful film? Many people think so, and it's understandable that they are uneasy with the film, with the relationship between the 42-year-old protagonist played by Woody Allen and a 17-year-old girl, especially after Soon-Yi and Dylan Farrow.
And yet, if we can separate the man from his works, which I think we should, Manhattan is a beautiful film. Place it next to Annie Hall. Manhattan seems to be in dialogue with Woody Allen's earlier work: both are about NY, both are about uncertain, insecure, neurotic people, who don't quite understand their own feelings, messing up relationships. Both are not about love in the present, but love in the past. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer has the love of his life, and loses it, and tries going out with other women but it's apparently when he tries to recreate the lobster moment with another woman who only stares at him, asking if he's joking, that he realises how much Annie means for him and how much fun they had together, but it's too late. Annie has made up her mind. Their relationship doesn't work out, and it cannot. Both are neurotic and unstable and have to see an analyst, Annie is so tense that she has to rely on grass and she has self-esteem issues, Alvy is too cynical, judgemental, domineering and paranoid (incidentally, Isaac's remark to Mary sort of fits Alvy "You rely too much on the brain. The brain is the most overrated organ."). In the end, they don't get back together, but there is a sense of consolation- it is over, but it's enough that it happened.
In Manhattan, Woody Allen does something different, something sadder. The film is also about love in the past, but as Roger Ebert puts it, it's about "the wistful pain when we realize we had a beautiful thing, and screwed it up". Like the Alvy Singer- Annie Hall relationship, that between Isaac Davis and Mary Wilke doesn't work out, and cannot, but the consolation isn't there, the feeling that in spite of everything they were in some ways perfect for each other isn't there. Though they do like each other, Isaac remains to Mary what he has always been from the start- a substitute, that somebody to call when Yale isn't around and she has no one else to call, whilst Isaac is mistaken about his own feelings for Mary because he doesn't realise the depth and seriousness of his relationship with the much younger Tracy. His relationship with Tracy, to many people, is nothing but creepy and disturbing. But it has a point. Like Alvy of Annie Hall, Isaac is negative and neurotic and seems quite unequipped for a relationship, but his immaturity and instability is stressed more strongly as it is contrasted with Tracy's maturity, benevolent acceptance and serenity, which is ironic. She is similar to Annie Hall in that she's more flexible and open to changes than the man she's with and that she notices and now and then remarks on Isaac's condescension the way Annie sometimes asks if Alvy doesn't think her smart enough, but compared to Annie, she is calmer, more serene, more stable. A simple, artless, direct performance, Mariel Hemingway portrays Tracy the way she should, without exaggeration or sentimentalisation. The irony in the relationship is that although Tracy's the one that goes to school and does homework, in a sense she watches over Isaac, who hasn't really grown up, who quits his job before knowing where to go and jumps from 1 relationship to another only to realise the truth 2 minutes before it's too late (that is, if we assume their love remains the same after 6 months; if Tracy meets someone else in London, he has lost her then).
In Manhattan, it is only when Mary has left Yale, Yale has turned Mary to Isaac and Isaac has hurt Tracy that each of them realises they had a beautiful thing and screwed it up and now want it back. It is irrational and crazy and absurd, as Alvy says about relationships at the end of Annie Hall, but they are people, as Yale says in Manhattan. Will it work? We can't say- Tracy still goes to London and Isaac, thinking 6 months is a long time, is afraid, whereas Mary is not even sure that her relationship with Yale, now resumed, may last 4 weeks. It may work out, it may not, they have to try and figure out, stumbling along the way, sometimes they make mistakes and try to fix them, perhaps everything would come to an end, but it doesn't matter, the journey may still be worth it. The beauty of the film lies in the loss and the pain, and in the openness, the uncertainty of the ending.
Regarding techniques, Manhattan doesn't have much that can be called remarkable. Annie Hall has characters talking to the audience, split screens in which the characters address each other, schoolroom and family dinner scenes that are reminiscent of Amarcord, flashbacks in which the children that are now adults speak to us of their future careers, characters standing by as observers in each other's memories, subtitles revealing the characters' real thoughts, a sex scene in which Annie's mind detaches from the body, etc. Woody Allen hardly does anything like that in Manhattan. One may say that Annie Hall, with those postmodern devices, seems to focus on the present or point to the future, whereas Manhattan, shot in black and white, seems to point back to the past, with Gershwin's music adding to the melancholic, nostalgic tone of the film. In the former, the relationship is over, but Alvy has come to accept it, and he is glad that he has known Annie. The latter is more about loss and pain and the attempt to retrieve the past and the uncertainty of it all. Manhattan is technically simpler, "ordinary", less comic, albeit also being full of one-liners and references to films, cinema and psychoanalysis, and another disadvantage is that it has less screen time for Diane Keaton, who is wonderful and charmingly quirky in Annie Hall, but the film is sadder, more subtle and complex.
But why compare. Both are brilliant, witty, charming and well-done films that should be watched over and over again. And both will prove Woody Allen's self-assessment "None of my films will be remembered" wrong. 


  1. I have great doubts about the ethics of Manhattan, but yes, it is beautiful. Allen must have asked Gordon Willis to turn the camera's beauty setting as high as it would go.

    1. That leads to another question: What do you think about the ethics of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point?

    2. I dit not see Match Point, and I saw Crimes and Misdemeanors when it came out - in a movie theater, as was the practice in the old days - so I doubt I remember it well. I remember it as being especially well-made and well-acted.

    3. Hey I still go to the movie theatre!
      You should check out Match Point, and then watch Crimes and Misdemeanors again. They go together. The former is 1 of the best among his recent films.


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