Top 250 Tuesday: #213 – Manhattan (1979)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #213 on the list, Woody Allen‘s Manhattan. For a longer introduction and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll be posting that info later in the day.

manhattanSometimes it’s funny the way things work out. I’d originally planned on writing about Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, but it got delayed by my chance to see both L’Avventura and In the Mood for Love on the big screen. (Click the titles for my write-ups on those two movies.)

As it turns out, those two films, along with Manhattan actually provide an interesting triptych of films as they each serve as contemplations of love and relationships that particularly relate to the place and time in which they are set.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these are all three very dissimilar movies in most every other way, as they should be, again considering their varied settings, but at their heart, in a way, they all three seem to be asking, and trying to answer the questions “What, really is love?” and “How do we express (or repress) our feelings for each other?”

Just a little bit of recap: in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s L’Avventura, we follow protagonists Sandro and Claudia as they ostensibly carry on a search for their missing friend (and Sandro’s lover) Anna against a backdrop of early 1960s Italy. I say “ostensibly”, because the film actually turns into am exploration of their own developing relationship, which seems to only be more and more encouraged by the society they are in. Wong’s In the Mood for Love, on the other hand, is set in a very different society, that of mid-60s Hong Kong which is much more stifling, meaning that the two eventual lovers at its core, Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen must be extremely discrete in expressing their growing affections, not only publicly, but even to themselves and each other.

?????????Which brings us to Manhattan. Allen’s film, obviously set in late ’70s New York, also depicts and explores various interpersonal relationships, and is also very much a depiction of the mores of its time and setting and how it affects not only the development of those relationships, but their expression.

At its core, Manhattan actually explores three different relationships: that of Allen’s 42-year-old Isaac Davis and  his 17-year-old lover Tracy (and no, I’m not going to get into any reflections on Allen’s real-life relationships, I’m only here to write about the movie), Isaac’s best friend Yale Pollack and his wife Emily, and Isaac’s ex-wife Jill and her lover Connie. Oh, and into this already potentially volatile mix, we also have to throw Diane Keaton’s Mary, with whom Yale is having an affair.

So how dooes this particular time-and-place setting affect these various couples and how they carry on their relationships? Well, fist of all, because of the hustle and flow of the city itself there is a certain immediacy gained by the proceedings that, unlike the bed hopping of Antonioni’s film, feels much more natural and less forced. Also, because of the large city setting, it is possible for these people to carry out their interminglings in a way that is actually very public, yet at the same time still feels intimate and private. New York is, in this film, at least, a place where for the most part, secrets can be kept, even if they are not really secret. That is, I think, a large part of the outrage that Isaac feels about the pending publication of his ex-wife’s tell-all book. Even though most of his inner circle already probably know everything that is going to be in it, it is the concretizing, especially against his wishes of those details that is the real betrayal, even beyond the actual circumstances of their break up.

Manhattan_5454_MediumThird, it is a time and place of exploration and acceptance. This is why there is not much questioning either of Isaac’s affair with the much younger Tracy (beyond the question of is she right for him) or of the lesbian relationship between Jill and Connie at a time when such relationships were much less accepted or even spoken about in the much broader world. Thus, unlike Wong’s lovers, none of these couples have the pressure upon them to hide their developing feelings or to find reasons for the kind of subterfuge that Su and Chow must undertake even though they really haven’t acted inappropriately toward one another at all. There is not that oppressive feeling that even the suspicion of improper activity could bring doom and discredit both to man and woman.

Finally, the city, with its hustle and bustle, which to an outsider can often seem massively confusing and impossible to navigate, provides an apt reflection of the interweaving of these people’s lives as they flow into and out of various relationships with each other, much as one eventually learns how to navigate into and out of the hustle and flow of its streets and sidewalks.

As far as the rest of the film goes, yes, it is beautifully rendered, with it’s sweeping shots of the title city and the music of George Gershwin which permeates the proceedings. The choice of shooting in Black and White as opposed to color I think was a very smart one, as there is no way that Allen could have achieved the timeless feel that he has here otherwise, and the introduction of color would probably have seemed more intrusive rather than actually adding anything of value.  There really can be no denying that Allen has created a masterpiece, but to be honest, this is another film that, now that I’ve seen it, I doubt that I’m going to feel the need to revisit it.

So what are your thoughts on Manhattan? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Let me know below.


3 thoughts on “Top 250 Tuesday: #213 – Manhattan (1979)

  1. Hi,

    I love this project. I am trying to watch all of Woody Allen’s films in 2013 after I saw the documentary early this year. I have always considered myself a fan but I realised that I have not actually seen all of his films. It has been interesting, seeing films that I have not seen before and revisiting others that I have seen many times.

    MANHATTAN is one of those that I fall in and out of love. On the one hand, like you say, it makes brilliant use of the city and music, yet on the other I feel uncomfortable with some of the relationships that he depicts. The central triangle is difficult to empathise with as he seems to be saying: I love Keaton’s character because she is so interesting yet she is complicated and difficult, whereas this young 17 year old can be moulded into whatever I desire. Yuch!

    The cinematography is excellent. The scene in the planetarium where their petty concerns are dwarfed by the scale of the Universe, probably earns its place in the Sight and Sound list on its own!

    1. Thanks for the feedback!

      Yeah, I’ve really been enjoying this project as I am finding myself not only exposed to a wider variety of films and discovering a lot of new ones along the way, but it’s also making me finally “get around” to a lot of those movies that have been on my “I really should watch that some day” list. Obviously, Manhattan is one of the latter.

      Isaac’s relationship with Tracy is definitely a troubling aspect of the film, but I find it interesting that at the end she actually seems the more mature of the pair. His almost pleading “I don’t want the things I love about you to change” seems almost childlike (if not childish) and in that moment it is obvious just how powerless he feels in his relationships. Perhaps Keaton is right when she says (at least if memory serves it was her) about finding out his ex-wife was a lesbian that the experience must have been emasculating.

      As far as Allen’s other films, I have to admit that though I have seen quite a few of them, there are a lot (especially the more recent ones) that I haven’t. Eventually I would like to catch up on them, as I know there are quite a few gems out there that I’ve missed.

      Anyway, I’m glad you liked the post, thanks for reading and commenting, and I’m looking forward to catching up on and following your “Woodython”.


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