Unlike many other aspects of life, good cinema does not present one with a straight answer of how to achieve it. Something bubbles inside a person and they try to put it into a kind of structure in order to make it accessible for others. But what is that structure? How will it be achieved? Should the artist strive towards elaborating a story the same way a sculptor carves the perfect proportions of a statue? In other words, should writing a narrative mean creating an enclosed abstract form, where all the threads perfectly tie into each other at the end? Perhaps the answer can be found in one of Woody Allen’s most prolific masterpieces, Manhattan, screened as part of the Vintage Sundays series at City Screen recently.
Looking back at this gorgeous black and white film, one values the charm of the bygone era it carries. There is a sense that with all the superhero films and expensive studio blockbusters nowadays there is a lack of mainstream high concept films. To a certain extent this is true, however as we know Hollywood is still pretty far from burying drama or romantic movies. Rather it is the unique approach of Allen to structuring and creating a narrative that makes this film stand out to this day. But Manhattan consists mainly of lengthy conversations, almost no action, bourgeoisie individuals debating ethical questions and, most of all, issues that seem applicable only to a specific type of social milieu. At first glance, this seems like a piece of work which would last little more than a few years in the conversations of members of the New York intelligentsia before it fades into obscurity. However, this is a film which has stood the test of time (38 years to be exact) and is screened at cineclubs, resonating with young audiences. What is it about the Gershwin-filled melancholic vibe of Manhattan that is still attracting filmgoers?
I believe it has to do with some very fundamental principles in Allen’s work. Firstly: a sense of the bitterness in life. Even though they deal with romance and love, there has hardly ever been an Allen film where the story unfolds to reveal a sugar-coated version of reality. Even his comedies rarely go without a serious degree of sadness and nostalgia, such as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) or Radio Days (1987). Secondly, in Manhattan intellectuals are presented as a rather self-deprecating and pretentious bunch rather than the cream of the crop of New York society. We are all human and the flaws, vices and good intentions of Isaac, Mary and Yale present a colourful picture of neurotic and conflicted individuals, unsure of what they really want in spite of a seemingly impeccable knowledge of philosophy and art. Thirdly, and in my opinion the most essential aspect, is that Woody Allen recreates his interior world through that of an outside landscape, in this case Manhattan. Each of the characters represents the conflicts of his inner self, debating them out on the big screen. This is suggested by the fact that the film opens with the words of Isaac Mortimer’s novel, which links his reality and his thoughts. As the film plays on, we witness people with similar yet varying ideas trying to cope with insecurities, mostly related to the main character’s issues.
Manhattan is ultimately about people. Its message is about accepting that nothing in life can be absolutely certain and that in all the chaos surrounding us sometimes we have to trust others. Isaac’s oscillations between different women and the casual daily events which bring about huge change all contribute to a film where there is a sense of randomness and spontaneity. Of course Manhattan is very carefully structured, with its subplots emulating the unpredictability of the real world, sacrificing valiant protagonists and merciless villains for a more realistic and chaotic image of the world, one in which no one is sure of anything and everyone is struggling to cope emotionally. I believe it is a prolific example of character-driven screenwriting, which resonates with all those confused by love who ask: what is it that I really want?