Friday, July 20, 2007

Movies: Manhattan

Film Forum is screening this classic Woody Allen masterpiece, giving me the opportunity to watch it (the fourth or fifth time around) as it should be seen: in the theatre, munching on a sandwich (it's actually in Crimes and Misdemeanors when Woody and Mia's characters play hooky and smuggle cheeseburgers into the movie theatre to watch classics, but eating and watching is featured in Manhattan just as tenderly). Though billed as a love-letter to the city, which is featured from top to bottom in beautiful black and white, the film more details how we (a very particular "we") live in the city—how the patterns and coincidences of our madcap, raging island affect our lives in ways we cannot—or maybe just do not—control.

Allen is Isaac, no far departure from his usual character: a brainy, funny writer who quits his tacky television show in order to write a book. Though in his mid-forties, he is dating the beautiful and limpid Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who, at seventeen, answers the question, "So, Tracy, what do you do?" thrown at her during a double date with Isaac's peers with the unassuming "I go to high school." (The Dalton School, mind you). Her quiet and straight-forward (some would say naive) speech is the perfect foil to Diane Keaton's frenetic, neurotic, dismissive, and high-pitched Mary, a hyper-intellectual journalist with low self-esteem wrapped under onion skin layers of mortar and barbed wire. Mary is the sudden object of affection of Isaac's friend Yale (Michael Murphy), another writer (who can't seem to write the Oscar Wilde biography he's been talking about for years), who is, unfortunately, already happily married to Emily (Anne Byrne) (although with some underlying tension: Emily wants a baby and house in Connecticut; Yale does not). When Isaac first meets Mary, her opinions and mannerisms rub his nerves raw, but they encounter each other at an opening at the MoMA, and end up passing an entire night in conversation, stopping at a diner for take-out and finally watching the sunrise over the East River. It isn't long before Yale decides that he must end his affair, and gives Isaac (over a very 1979 game of racquetball) the go-ahead to woo her.

For a moment everyone is happy, except poor Tracy, whom Isaac dumps over a chocolate milkshake at the soda fountain. Soon enough, though, Yale misses Mary, and begins calling her. It isn't long after that before Mary decides that she still loves him, and she breaks the news to Isaac, who, in classic Woody Allen fashion, hangs his chapped mouth open and looks at her, saying "I'm stunned. . . I'm just. . . I can't believe it. I'm stunned," and soon enough, Yale and Emily are separated, Yale and Mary have moved in together, and Isaac and Emily are sitting in the booth of a coffee shop, talking about their busted relationships, Isaac realizing that he had let a good one go when he parted with Tracy.

What affects us the most, perhaps moreso as New Yorkers, is the way the city pushes these people into these situations of desire, comfort, and then heartbreak. It's the romantic majesty of a walk during an 80˚ summer night that brings Mary and Isaac together, and it is in the dark je ne sais quois of the Natural History Museum's Planetarium, in which the two have taken refuge from a summer thunderstorm during their day in Central Park, that Mary softens her armor and allows desire to thicken between them (this is one of the most beautifully shot scenes in Allen's oeuvre, perhaps in all of filmic history). The film is brimming with such examples, too many to list here. Like all love letters, though, it is forlorn, and begs for satisfaction or release, rather than the constant tease that the city, worse than any vixen, provokes.

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