Notes on Manhattan

Workshop last week with screenwriter and director Mark Norfolk, so it’s movies from me today. I feel I should pick a movie by my favourite director, Woody Allen. Manhattan is one of his best, but I’ve picked it largely because it’s got plenty of useful youtube clips available.

Here are some scribbles:

  • How to end a film brilliantly – The idea could have been swamped by clichés, but this scene of Allen trying to stop his ex-girlfriend from leaving is elevated by the pitch-perfect acting into something revelatory – Allen’s charming hesitancy, that combination of courage and shyness; the dove-tailing of Mariel Hemingway’s words with the sound-track; most especially the last, silent moments of Allen’s changing expressions… This is truly one of cinema’s most romantic films. Here’s that final scene:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x57-vdn908w&feature=related

  • It’s a cynic’s film, actually…. that final line: “You have to have a little faith in people” – isn’t it completely at odds with the story? The trigger for Diane Keaton chasing Woody Allen in the film is largely that her lover has spurned her. Allen only changes course to stop Hemingway leaving because Keaton has gone. Allen is all about the destinies of relationships being changed by tiny decisions, that could have gone either way, as if at the flick of a coin.
  • No, it’s a romantic’s film. The sweeping, swooning, lush Gershwin soundtrack. The moody black and white visuals.
  • Ok, a compromise. Perhaps the love affair is with the town, the architecture itself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHkLSi7oEuw&feature=related

  • Empty rooms – So many conversations happen off-screen, especially inside apartments, with characters moving from room to room and through hallways, past the view of stationary cameras. The device is a Woody Allen staple, used in virtually every movie from Annie Hall onwards.

In a similar style, there’s also a neat moment on a pier, Allen’s friends reading from his ex-wife’s book (Meryl Streep, sensational in an early role). As Streep’s words tear Allen’s reputation apart, the camera briefly looks out over wooden posts marking out territory in the empty, ramshackle harbour. I love the loneliness of the moment. (below, 40 seconds in)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ohw8jqyLPpU

  • Great bit of character writing – Mariel Hemingway as Allen’s 17-year old girlfriend – is she not in fact the most mature character on screen? The most patient, the most open, the least often dragged into petty or grand emotional deceptions?
  • Uncomfortable bit of character writing – Manhattan (1979) is the first of many movies where Allen writes his character into a plot where he is dating a young girl. This would be creepy enough, as he gets older and older. But then off-screen in 1997 he marries Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long term partner Mia Farrow. The girl was 35 years his junior at the time. (Farrow had left Allen after finding nude photos taken by Allen of Soon-Yi as an 18-year old). Does real-life biography spoil this aspect of his movies in hindsight – or, after it’s been gossiped about in such depth, are we even bothered now?
  • Favourite visuals(1) the conversation between Allen and Keaton that takes place in silhouette in the planetarium. (below, poor quality, and not the whole clip – best I could find)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p52N81eX6To

  • (favourite comedy fragment – at the start of that last clip, with Allen and Keaton running in from the rain, the scrap of newspaper he is holding over his head to protect himself becomes farcically small, Allen still clinging).
  • Favourite visuals(2) the confrontation between Allen and his best friend Yale (Keaton’s ex) that takes place in a classroom, a skeleton standing next to Allen. Allen isn’t a director who is always thinking about imagery – he often emphasises dialogue, plot, character (at least when his career as an auteur gets going he does). But Manhattan (like his other black and white movies such as Broadway Danny Rose and Stardust Memories) is oriented towards the visuals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeqbRbAyC4M&NR=1&feature=endscreen

  • Comedy moment #2: “my doctor told me it was the wrong kind”. Allen’s momentary pause afterwards is priceless.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQPu0KLJu1I&feature=related

  • Favourite relationship insight – Allen and Keaton, completely at odds with each other at first meeting when their partners are in tow. They’re so destined to get together. And so destined to fail afterwards.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8FpnM0NlXk&feature=related

  • Life-affirming moment – Allen recites into a dictaphone his list of reasons why life is worth living, ending with his ex-girlfriend, and then realises how much he wants to get her back. (first two minutes of link below)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIugrczLUl0

  • Copy / Paste moment – running along the streets to go back to Tracy at the end of the movie. Reminds me of Billy Crystal doing the same in When Harry Met Sally. They’re both naff runners as well. At least Allen doesn’t try to be heroic – stopping with a stitch and looking around awkwardly for a taxi (same link, 3 minutes in. This link also has the full dialogue for the end scene of the movie, 5 minutes in)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIugrczLUl0

  • How to start a film brilliantly – We hear Allen drafting the opening of his book several times – first too corny, then too preachy, then too angry… A sly way to ask us: how much of our identity is self-narrated myth, and how much do we try to perfect our fictions? How much of our self-image is shaped by where we choose to live? Should we be living as cynics or romantics?

How much faith should we have in another person?

Here it is, complete with fireworks and Rhapsody in Blue:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o6QKpNK9Cc

– Mike Loveday

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