“Manhattan” – Woody Allen

At the very least, the most extraordinary-looking film that still trusts reality, unconditionally.


(Note, first, how very much I would rather express my approval of this film in the form of a series of its stills, for this is an overbearingly photographic film. And particularly on the occasion of this new pressing, which does look new and worn and true.)


See how stubborn the camera is, how unwilling it is to accommodate the story; how supreme it is in its knowledge of the space of the city, and how deferent Allen is to it. If a conversation is happening between two rooms, the camera plants itself in the corridor and turns its head only enough to see the toes of each character.


Or how – and this is an Allen-ism – the frame of the screen is as obdurately inconclusive and unsympathetic as the frame around a painting. By this I mean, one is not usually so aware of a framing edge to a film; cinema’s usual sensation is that the universe continues in all conceivable directions around the image we bear witness to. Yet in painting – and so much more tragic for it – there is no such security. Not so much claustrophobia as agoraphobia. A joke is made of it – characters say ‘God, it’s you!’, long before the audience know – and that’s good: Pop-Modernism would be intolerable without it.


Someone should get onto engraving a plaque for Gordon Willis, and sticking it on the Statue of Liberty like a campaign badge. God knows what the film would be without him. He makes the strangest landscapes out of the simplest conversations. A visit to a planetarium becomes one of the unique inventions in Cinema. These are shots Man Ray would scalp for. Yet I like nothing less than nescient Surrealism, callow kook. If this movie undertook this lightly, I’d never forgive it.


Thankfully, blissfully, these are not ignorant men. No. This is not even Surrealism. This reaction alone is symptomatic of a death of a sort. Cinema – the apparent radicalism of the photography seems to say – is a different creature to that which was birthed. Is it possible that it was switched at the hospital for a duller, more pedantic child? Middle-aged now, it favours massive fur-coats and wenchy perfume and pearls, powdered skin and long gums, and has the coyly seductive strut of a heavily-laden mule. Coat off, the body is unfamiliar and weird-looking; its birthmarks and wall-eye, etiolated after years under tarpaulin.


Dry-mouths might call it Formalism, but it seems to me much more like some pure sensitivity to one’s practice, unsullied by context. Consider it like cave-painting. When the cavemen found the first projector, they remarked that it drew its images on the black wall with white light. Then look at Willis’ image-making. The screen is tarred fresh black whenever the opportunity presents itself, and acted upon with the clarity of a line-painting buggy on a free-way. Or perhaps it’s more like engraving in metal-point and wax. The fewest possible strokes – like the finest draftsman, he has, second the audacity, but first, the exalted innocence to work as such. It cannot be Formalism, for it is so joyously uninhibited by such things, like the anamnesis of Picasso or Matisse.


This is not stuff to ponder in situ. I don’t cry often in movies, but I do here – always twice, always at the same two points ** – and I doubt very much that I’m crying at the glory of the beauty of hypothetical Formal rehabilitations. Forget you ever read this article. Indeed, start over and decide not to read a first time. Manhattan is such concrete cinema it needs no words to qualify. A troublesome word, objectionable most times, but this film is unspeakable romantic. Damn, I’m beat… Someone wrote of this film that it made him ‘want to be a better person’. I don’t know about that, but it certainly makes me want to be a worse writer.


** You’re a gore-hound and a rubber-necker. At the explosion of the fireworks, and at the line ‘Tracey’s face’.

Owen Neve

Comedy, Drama | USA, 1979 | 12A | 12th May 2017 (UK) | Park Circus Films | Dir.Woody Allen | Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway

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