Deconstructing Manhattan

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?”

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Notice who’s missing? Merely his son.

Clever Children Playacting at Adult Life

Foreshadowing some of the terrain later mined by Diana West in The Death of the Grown-Up, shortly after Manhattan’s release, Joan Didion wrote:

The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family. Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder “what love is.” They have “interesting” occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating. Many characters in these pictures “write,” usually on tape recorders. In Manhattan, Woody Allen quits his job as a television writer and is later seen dictating an “idea” for a short story, an idea which, I am afraid, is also the “idea” for the picture itself: “People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe.”


Or you could get on with life and accomplish something. 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. Unlike lovable Annie Hall, and Woody’s sympathetic even if somewhat pathetic manqué Alvy Singer, there’s nobody to root for here, particularly knowing that during this period, New York as a whole in 1979 was far more paranoid about Ronald Reagan taking the White House, than solving the crime, trash, graffiti and wall-to-wall porno theaters sullying their once great city. Underneath its beautiful photography and Gershwin music, Manhattan is a film that makes you root for the hardscrabble people who built the city in the first half of the 20th century, far more than the elites currently inhabiting it, at least based on their portrayal in this film.

A Kafka-esque Kamikaze at Zabar’s  

And the feeling is mutual, as far as Woody is concerned. He’s always had a self-destructive streak in his art; he’s either threatening to blow himself up, as he ultimately did with the Soon Yi debacle, or he’s attempting to enrage the audience enough so that they’ll publicly disown him. The original ending of his otherwise lighthearted and funny early movie, Take the Money Run, featured Woody machine-gunned down on screen in a violent slow-motion death courtesy of veteran special effects man A.D Flowers, who loaded up Woody with almost as many blood squibs as he used on the endings of dark crime dramas Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. Fortunately, heads cooler than Woody the tyro director prevailed, and Ralph Rosenblum, his invaluable first editor, would replace that ending with something much more audience-friendly, the first of many saves Rosenblum would provide to Woody’s movies in the 1970s.


Woody’s on the job learning as a director would culminate in the crowd-pleasing warmth of 1977’s Annie Hall, which awarded him with superstardom, and his film with four Oscars. His next cinematic outing was the cold, Bergmanesque Interiors, which quickly died a rightful death at the box office. Manhattan followed afterwards, filled with equally unappealing characters, except for one, its titular star; New York City, even as it was crumbling at the seams as result of the “Progressive” policies of Mayors Lindsay and Beame, never looked better thanks to the magnificent black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis, another Godfather veteran.

When Manhattan proved to be a hit, Woody would follow it with his second black and white film, Stardust Memories, in which the aggrieved superstar really took aim at the audiences who made him wealthy, who were represented in the film by dozens of Fellini-esque strange and distorted faces, representing the broken and disturbed people Allen imagined were out there in the darkness, paying money to watch his films. His career, which throughout the 1970s was wafting ever higher, would never be the same, at least with American audiences.

As a result, Woody’s box office took a distinct hit in the 1980s, with only the cheerful Hannah and Her Sisters and dark, nihilistic Crimes and Misdemeanors approaching the box office heights he regularly travailed in the previous decade. The latter film in particular foreshadowed Woody’s next downfall from the American public’s graces. In it, Martin Landau’s sophisticated, wealthy, erudite doctor has the stewardess with whom he’s having an illicit affair (Anjelica Huston) brutally murdered when she threatens to break up his marriage. After his temporary guilt passes, Landau’s character discovers, just as Nietzsche wrote a century prior, that God was dead, good and evil are relative manmade concepts, and actual morality was situational and fungible. Three years later, the name Soon-Yi Previn would become a household world.


If only we had all had some warning. But, of course we had.

Update (1/12/14): I mentioned Blade Runner in the above article, but I completely forgot the connection until today that it shares with Manhattan and the inspiration for Mariel Hemingway’s character in the latter film — actress Stacey Nelkin, who was 17 at the time the-then-41 year old Allen dated her.

Late Update (1/13/14): “Ronan Farrow slams his father Woody Allen’s Golden Globes honour on Twitter… while his mother Mia decides to switch off,” the London Daily Mail reports, quoting this tweet from Farrow:

Here’s the disturbing November 2013 Vanity Fair article that corresponds with Farrow’s tweet.



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