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Ed Driscoll

Deconstructing Manhattan

January 11th, 2014 - 2:02 pm

Movies have long had flashy and impressive opening title sequences. In the 1950s, graphic designer Saul Bass lashed up motion graphics and modernist stylings to movie credits for such classic Alfred Hitchcock films as Northwest by Northwest and Psycho and revolutionized the industry. Following his lead, Maurice Binder made the opening titles of the James Bond movies into their own miniature productions, filled with silhouetted scantily-clad girls moving in hypnotic slow motion across the giant Panavision screen. And Star Wars’ opening crawl, inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of a generation earlier, but  created using then-bleeding-edge Industrial Light & Magic technology, combined with John Williams’ stirring music and ending with a giant Star Destroyer spacecraft swooping in from atop the screen blew audiences out of their seats, and raised the bar for a generation of movie makers and completely upended late-‘70s-era Hollywood.

But is it possible for an opening title sequence to be so powerful, it completely distorts the meaning of the film that follows? The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Manhattan certainly qualifies, mixing Woody’s very funny opening narration, (“Chapter One, he adored New York”), George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gordon Willis’ knockout black and white cinematography, and, of course, the carefully selected and rhythmically edited underlying images of New York itself. It’s absolutely stirring stuff, which must have been doubly so seen on the big screen, and I suspect that sequence alone left a lot of 1979-era moviegoers thinking Manhattan would be like the sequel to 1977’s warm, ingratiating Annie Hall.

Beyond the title sequence, in a way, the rest of Allen’s Manhattan is as much of a triumph of production design and background music as such stylized high-‘80s movies as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or Tim Burton’s Batman movies. With the exception of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, who’s clearly having lots of fun receiving an six million dollar paycheck (ultimately at least $60 mil once ticket grosses were counted) for rehashing his deranged but beloved Jack Torrance character from The Shining, these films are stuffed with dark, unsympathetic characters, behaving immorally, but surrounded by brilliant music and production design.

Similarly, Manhattan is no Annie Hall. Manhattan’s characters are much crueler than Alvy Singer and the eponymous Annie. Michael Murphy’s sidekick character in Manhattan is cheating on his wife with Diane Keaton’s coarse f-bomb-dropping wannabe critic. There’s a cameo appearance from Michael O’Donoghue, at the height of his lecherous “Mr. Mike” phase on the first iteration of Saturday Night Live. And of course, Woody’s 42-year old character is dating a 17-year old student played by Mariel Hemingway, foreshadowing Woody’s own fall from grace a decade later with Soon Yi; and then goes on to betray his best friend by cheating on the teenager with the best friend’s cheatee/mistress. His character has a young son being raised by his passive-aggressive and vindictive divorced wife (played by Meryl Streep in an early role) and her lesbian partner. For a film in which Woody’s character says he’s writing a novel “about decaying values,” the characters in his film seem to display them in Weimer-sized abundance.

Perhaps the best example occurs near the climax of the film, when Woody’s character, dictating ideas for his novel into a tape recorder, asks “what makes life worth living?”

Notice who’s missing? Merely his son.

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Top Rated Comments   
Saw the first five minutes and the credits, slept through the movie. At the time I thought it was a waste of five dollars, but I'd pay five dollars to sleep like that now.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Where that vision fails is that it is false. Denying reality does not make it so. Saying, or even believing, God doesn't exist doesn't mean He doesn't exist.

Woody Allen's crowd -- the rich, as it always done, -- has insulated itself from the traditional consequences of bad behavior-- cruelty, indifference, sexual promiscuity, etc. It just means the payment is going to be that much more when it comes due.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Woody Allen is about existential angst. While any number of trendy intellectuals say God is Dead, he actually believes it and understands its implications: We are not connected to one another as children of God, we have no purpose, there is no morality or truth. At most, there is a feeble, self-obsessed "will to power" desperately trying to justify itself and restore all the things lost along with God.

The opening sequence is an impressive distillation of the crisis. He knows he loves Manhattan, he just can't bring himself to believe any of the reasons; he knows they're BS. He would love to find communion with others, but he struggles to consider them more substantial than he considers himself. He tries "I think therefore I am," then "I screw therefore I am" (and maybe "I make movies therefore I am") to make himself feel better, but of course, it doesn't work. And ultimately, he goes off the rails morally, as in any existentialist novel, but as you point out, he has people who can prevent that from happening in his movies (if not his life) at least some of the time.

The is the end point to the vision of left-wing atheism that we've been pushed towards for more than a century. Everyone's a child because we can't bring ourselves to believe in God, morality, honor, and duty enough to become adults. Brave new world indeed.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (33)
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45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
He's a putz.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Notice who’s missing?" asks Ed Driscroll. "Merely his son."
Meanwhile, to his own question, "Why is life worth living?"
Woody Allen provides among his answers Frank Sinatra (00:45),
the man who would indeed appear to be the real father
of Woody's son (with Mia Farrow) in real life (Ronan)…
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent column. The only beef I have is this: "In contrast, the cast of Manhattan, who scurry off to their next sexual dalliance, in-between crafting their next magazine article or next novel, are surrounded by the last remnants of brilliant architecture and music to which Woody and his generation of Boomers put the wrecking ball." Woody Allen was born before the Boomers, as many of the the true wrecking balls were: December 1, 1935 -- 1946, first year of the Boomers. The Boomers have enough creeps, please don't attribute this one to us. Thanks.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr Driscoll:

What a wonderful essay! I followed all the links, including Death Wish. I remember visiting New York in the early 70s, up near Columbia U, edge of Harlem. Drove down from a New England college, a naive coed, and was warned to avoid driving through Harlem, and not to walk the streets there, as trash might come down on our heads as we passed through.

Manhattan was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world at that time.

Thanks for the flashback; we may be so lucky as to be able to view these Obama years as a similar time that we grimly slogged through, eventually rallying behind leadership that will restore us to more civil and lawful times.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Just as a postscript to this post, but older MSNBC viewers in New York, or any of their 50-and-up viewers across the country who fancy themselves as urban sophisticates of the type Allen obsesses over, are going to be extremely conflicted the next time they see Ronan on the cable channel:

http://www.mediaite.com/online/ronan-farrow-pulls-no-punches-with-estranged-father-woody-allen-on-golden-globes-night/
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have to say Ed, your typo was rather jarring...at least to me.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Class Brains Acting Out a Fantasy of Adult Life" us old folks call them Baby Boomers.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ed: GR8 "Update" ! Amazing that Woody had something going on with S Nelkin budding actress 17 yrs old in 1976 when she was in high school and he was 41.......what a coincidence few years later in Manhattan ! Sick stuff, I wonder what Nelkin's parents thought of it. Well, I'd think they didn't know until sometime later.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Radio Days" came out well after "Manhattan" and was a lovely movie, more akin to "Annie Hall" in that way. "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" was hilarious. I saw those movies at theaters when they were originally released (and yes, the title sequence of "Manhattan" was gorgeous and lyrical when seen on the big screen. The movie itself was depressing). I haven't felt compelled to see an Allen movie since "Radio Days".
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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