Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ Reveals the Meaning of Life

So many people say the greatest movie of all time is Citizen Kane. Whether they say this because they truly believe it or because AFI says so or because they think that is what they are supposed to say really doesn’t tell me anything. If you I were to ask someone what the greatest movie of all-time was and they responded, “Citizen Kane,” I would then follow that up asking, “Okay, then what’s your favorite film?” If they then said Citizen Kane again I would have to stab them with a spoon just to make sure they were alive. Because either a) they have only seen one movie and it is in fact Citizen Kane, or b) this is someone that just looks at film purely from a technical perspective and doesn’t have much to offer me in terms of conversation on the sbject. While I agree Citizen Kane is a marvel in terms of filmmaking it is hardly a film to top an all-time favorites list.

Roger Ebert recently weighed in with the question “What’s your favorite movie?” and while he pontificated on Citizen Kane for damn near his first seven paragraphs he finally got around to the question and the answer wasn’t Kane. Ebert came back with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita saying “it is one of the most visually fluid movies ever made, a movie that approaches music in its rushing passion, not simply because Nino Rota’s score is one of the best ever recorded, but because the characters seem to move with music within them (joyful, lustful, exciting, doubtful, sad).”

Of course, weighing in on your favorite film is a toss-up. Ebert approached it asking himself What movie would I most like to see again right now? This is probably the best way to approach such a question, but this article isn’t about what is your favorite movie, or my favorite movie or Ebert’s favorite movie; it is, however, about what makes a movie a “favorite”, at least for me.

Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) is the catalyst for this question, but I wouldn’t call it one of my favorite films even though its quality is undeniable and a film I recommend you see as soon as you can if you have not seen it and revisit it if you have. Allen is known for loving Manhattan so who else other than he should make a film with the city playing something of a supporting role as much more than a simple backdrop.

Manhattan is in fact a character in this film as the sun rises over the city, lovers kiss in the early morning, clothes are set out to dry, the snow falls, the cabs are running and the carriages are clip-clopping through Central Park. There’s a pulse to it all, and while a story of the complexity of love plays out among it all there is always Manhattan beating right along with it.

This is where I find the most enjoyment in film. When I am actually taken out of my environment and plugged into a believable alternate universe. Be it beautiful, dark, peaceful or savage; take me somewhere other than where I currently am and make me feel something.

Before Sunset is one of my favorite films, and a film I could watch at a moment’s notice, because I find comfort in every frame of that film. Paris never looked so inviting. Alternatively give me The Dark Knight as the fictitious city of Gotham envelopes the viewer and Heath Ledger’s Joker stabs at your very being. How about a game of chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, nothing disturbing about that is there? Throw in the cool confidence of Antonius Block and then tell me where you sit. Bounce back in time to Paris in 1899 with Luhrmann’s wildly colorful Moulin Rouge! and then skip forward to Amelie and see just how different one city can look and yet be so inviting at the same time. Getting back to Manhattan, you almost begin to feel as if a trip to Manhattan should always be in black-and-white, therein lies this film’s comfort threshold and it makes for one of the most extraordinarily photographed films I have ever seen.

The screen capture above of Isaac (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) sitting on a bench as the 59th Street Bridge sets the mood in the distance is one of the most breathtaking scenes I have ever seen and it is the only reason I am writing this article right now. The headline above, “Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ Reveals the Meaning of Life,” is a result of this image and a scene later on in the film as Isaac asks himself “Why is life worth living?”

For Isaac life is worth living because of Groucho Marx; Willie Mays; the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony; Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato-head Blues; Swedish movies; Sentimental Education by Flaubert; Marlon Brando; Frank Sinatra; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; and, of course, Tracy’s face. It doesn’t get any simpler than that and Isaac’s list would fill a lifetime and it’s understandable. So many people are searching for some deep meaning to life when in fact it is all subjective. What gives meaning to your life?

Personally, my life is all about finding peace and quiet. Those moments at the end of the day and the noise finally stops. I have never been to Paris or Vienna. I have never sat on a bench and looked upon the 59th Street Bridge. However, I have taken a moment of peace on my balcony as the sun is setting and the moon is coming out. I have looked upon the city of Seattle with a cup of coffee in my hand as Mt. Rainier glowed pink in the distance. I live my life for those moments of calm and I wish they never had to end.

I get a similar feeling when I see Isaac and Mary on that bench. There is a moment’s peace as Jesse and Celine take a boat ride and when a man serenades his lover in the moonlight. Woody Allen’s latest feature, Vicky Cristina Barcelona brought the same kind of atmosphere and I loved it for that.

The ambiance of a film does so much for me and it isn’t often I find a film that really does it well, but Manhattan sure does.

What makes Manhattan a living and breathing entity is also created beyond just the city itself as it uses different lighting techniques to manipulate and facilitate the narrative. You need only look at the scene pictured above as Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), Isaac’s 17-year-old girlfriend, sits alone in Isaac’s darkened house. Her presence is the only form of “light” in Isaac’s lonely world and we will soon see him push it away only to later regret his decision. Another scene features a darkened planetarium as Isaac and Mary almost seemingly walk on the moon, an easy to catch metaphor if there has ever been one. Each and every bar scene brings a smoky texture that makes you want to be there and share in the environment. It’s a hodge podge of warm and inviting surroundings that can sometimes be left cold by the people that inhabit them, but beautiful nonetheless.

The amazing thing about all this is that I have managed to go this long without mentioning the dialogue, a classic Woody Allen trademark. Sarcastic remarks seem to go unnoticed, but tend to have a lasting effect. In a scene just after Mary first meets Tracy she asks, “And what do you do, Tracy?” and Tracy replies, “I go to high school.” Facial gestures and a shared comment between Mary and then boyfriend Yale (Michael Murphy) make the scene, but it’s all relatively subtle whereas in the majority of comedies nowadays the reactions would be over the top. The subtlety is what makes it work.

Another scene features Isaac talking to his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) now turned lesbian, a situation Isaac still can’t fully comprehend, and as he still tries to figure out why she left him for her current live-in girlfriend she just responds, “You knew about my past.” He replies, “My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.” The situation passes as quickly as you read that sentence, but if you are paying any attention at all to the movie you are sure to laugh. Another scene I just love takes place at a party when a woman interrupts a conversation about orgasms:

Woman: I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor said it was the wrong kind.

Isaac: You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.

The way Allen delivers that entire line is just classic. It’s first met and questioned in bewilderment that someone would even say such a thing and be serious about it. He follows that up with a straight-faced mocking tone. It’s a brilliant scene and just one of the reasons Woody Allen’s early films are hailed as classics.

As much as I can respect and enjoy Manhattan I wouldn’t say it is one of my favorite films. I actually liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona a smidge more, but the fact this film got me thinking once again about why I love movies speaks volumes for its quality. I have recently been stuffing my NetFlix queue with Allen films I have yet to see, I only hope more of them can follow suit.


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