Manhattan

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in silhouette in Manhattan

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 September

 

 

George Gershwin born, 1898

On this day in 1898, the writer of Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Someone to Watch over Me, Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess was born in Brooklyn, New York. A school dropout, Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz, was playing piano in clubs at the age of 15, published his first song when he was 16 and was writing shows by his early 20s. His breadth was amazing – Tin Pan Alley songs, entire Broadway and Hollywood musicals and his “folk opera” Porgy & Bess all poured from him, with Gershwin all the time studying to broaden his range (though notably Nadia Boulanger, Ravel and Stravinsky all refused to teach him, believing they had nothing to offer him). Gershwin’s music is marked out by the influence of jazz – melodically, harmonically and rythmically – but also by the desire to fuse “high” and “low” culture. Gershwin died during surgery to remove a brain tumour at the age of 38, having just written the score to the Astaire/Rogers film Shall We Dance. His music lives on, though whether Steven Spielberg will ever get round to making his proposed biopic remains to be seen (Zachary Quinto is down to play Gershwin). Until then we’ll have to make do with 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue, starring Robert Alda (father of Alan) as the man himself.

 

 

Manhattan (1979, dir: Woody Allen)

Though he got going in the mid 1960s, it was only around 1970 that Woody Allen got up to speed. Since then he has produced a film a year, give or take. It’s a huge body of work. And in polls for his best film, Manhattan is usually up  there with Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Like Midnight in Paris, another hymn to a place, it’s a vastly affectionate work, bursting with love, tempered by cynicism, about the denizens of Allen’s home town. Kicking off with the slinky, opening clarinet glissando of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen then presents us with a series of picture-postcard views of Manhattan. This is Manhattan as icon, as artistic hub, as inspiration. And, in true Allen style, having set us up, he sucker-punches us with a pay-off – the joke being that his characters are just small people with silly obsessions, human weaknesses, Allen himself playing the twice-divorced man foolishly dating a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) and then getting himself even more hopelessly entangled with the mistress (Diane Keaton) of his best friend (Michael Murphy). Shot in black and white by Gordon Willis, it’s a beautiful film, a romantic film, and a funny one, with Allen reserving his best lines for gags against himself, with sex and personal insecurity the usual subjects – “Let’s fool around,” the 17-year-old Tracy tells him. “Let’s do it some strange way that you’ve always wanted to, but nobody would do with you.” Well it made me smile.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Meryl Streep plays Allen’s ex-wife
  • The amazing cinematography of Gordon Willis
  • Allen’s best film?
  • The best film about New York

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Manhattan – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Manhattan

manhattan image 2

 

 

Woody Allen’s 1979 magnum opus starts famously with a long montage which appears to suggest that New York is to the modern world what Paris was in the early half of the 20th century – the home of romance, intellectualism, art, sex and impossible glamour. To the sinuous jazz of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen treats us to a sequence of lush black and white images such as Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bresson might have taken. And then, in the filmic equivalent of dragging the needle off the record, he appears to say ‘Hang on – the French may be mature, worldly and philosophical. But New Yorkers?’ The next 90 minutes play out like a long comic pay-off to this short set-up, as we’re introduced to a succession of grasping, whiney, selfish Big Apple residents (played by Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Michael Murphy), each of whom believes he/she is the epitome of integrity, kindness and intelligence. Only Allen’s 17-year-old screen girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) escapes unscathed, too young to have been tainted by the ‘me me me’ culture. Surprisingly, Allen wan’t lynched by his fellow New Yorkers for this unflattering portrait. Perhaps they were laughing too much to realise how barbed it was.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Manhattan – at Amazon