a commentary by Tony McRae
Manhattan is New York City's smallest borough measuring only 23.7 square miles, and one of the most densely populated places in the United States. Woody Allen's Manhattan, on the other hand, is expansive, rarely crowded; its inhabitants have space to walk unimpeded, to run if needs be, to be liberated. It's an exhilarating place to be.
The movie opens and closes with some of the most lush and stunning Manhattan vistas ever put on film. Shot by Gordon Willis in widescreen Panavision (with an aspect ration of 2:35 to 1), its horizontal breath is a masterstroke. Rather than emphasize the city's verticality--and putting the viewer in the role of neck-craning tourist--we become inhabitants of this black and white world where a Gershwin tune is just around the corner.
I stress the movie's widescreen look because space, both actual and metaphorical, is at the heart of this film. Manhattan the town takes center stage. The characters often occupy the screen's periphery, or are cut off from each other by walls and hallways. The viewer's gaze sometimes roves around the screen in search of the speaker or the one spoken to. To illustrate, in a sequence nears the end of the film Yale (Michael Murphy) phones Mary (Diane Keaton) with the hope of reviving their relationship. It is a crucial moment in the story. Allen's approach to this sequence is non-traditional. Instead of cutting to the two in alternating closeups we first see a busy Manhattan street and hear Yale's voice--but we don't locate him immediately. And no wonder. He's at the extreme right of the frame, nearly off camera, just a guy making a phone call. When we finally cut back to Mary on the other end of the line, she's at a typewriter in the cramped apartment of her current lover Isaac (Woody Allen). As she talks to Yale she occupies only the right third of the frame, the rest taken up with a hallway wall. She appears confined spatially and, by extension, emotionally. Yale remains a tiny figure throughout this exchange, perhaps to imply his good looks blandness, perhaps to show Mary's hesitation to take him back into her life.
Many of the film's intimate moments are shot and framed in this same refreshing manner with little regard for normative film conventions. The first time we see Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) together in Isaac's apartment, the stationary camera is put at a distance, so that we observe the actions of the two lovers as though they were on stage. The scene is at once intimate and inaccessible, the characters so a part of their surroundings that they seem diminished by them. (The two characters are, in fact, seen in one long shot, the apartment dominating the scene.) But it is precisely this emplacement, this optique if you will, that informs the characters' motivations, especially Isaac's ambivalence about the relationship.
To take the Isaac-Tracy relationship to its conclusion, in the last shot of the movie, after Tracy has made it abundantly clear that she is going to London, Allen the director frames Isaac in an over-the-shoulder shot which should resonate with anyone who's seen Chaplin's City Lights. In that film Charlie is revealed to the once blind girl in all his hopelessness; yet he is still the man who saved her, who is responsible for her sight and her flower shop and her happiness, but he is still and forever the tramp. I read his expression as the realization that the chasm between them is unbridgeable. Perhaps only Chaplin, with his incredible face, could show this while conveying to us not only his acceptance of their changed relationship but of his gratification knowing that she is who she is--no longer approachable, no longer dependent. I think Woody Allen the director plays with the same dynamic in this last scene of Manhattan. Isaac knows that Tracy will leave, perhaps for good. In a strange way he is the one who has set her on her path to self-reliance. Though he tries his best to dissuade her from leaving, he finally comes to trust her, no mean feat for one so self-absorbed throughout the film. His expression is at once one of regret and of acquiescence.
Allen's willingness to show the on-screen vulnerability of his character has prompted movie critics to place his screen persona in the line of the venerable smallish clowns of the silent movies, not only Chaplin but also Keaton, Langdon, Laurel. If there is merit in this, it is due in large part to the early Allen films (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper, etc.) in which Woody is at odds with society--or at least at odds with those who govern society; he is obviously the one "sane" character in these movies. In Allen's second period, roughly from Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors, the analogy to these silent clowns is more difficult to sustain. This is especially true when we think of Chaplin and Keaton, whose moral superiority over their adversaries more than compensates for their shortcomings. The Isaac of Manhattan, on the other hand, is self-centered, his self-deprecation a barely disguised ploy to elicit our approval. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of either empathizing with a forty-two year old man who is ready to stop an eighteen year old girl from getting on with her life, or writing him--and the movie--off.
So Allen has Isaac do the one thing he must do--he lets Tracy go. He knows he is losing her, probably permanently. He is left, alas, with only himself. But there is still that one constant in his life, his true love if you will--Manhattan, with its capacious ability to overcome shortcomings and failures, even Isaac's. It's a lot to ask of a city, but Allen's Manhattan is up to the task.
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