Manhattan forever

Saturday night my friend (and TGW West Coast Wednesdayer) Wendy and I went to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan outdoors at Hollywood Forever cemetery, where a summer film series transforms the broad side of Rudolph Valentino’s mausoleum into an enormous projection screen. We arrived two hours early but the hipsters were already out in droves, lined up by the hundreds in a queue that wound around on itself like a snake made up of greasy bangs and lowrise rocker jeans. Lucky for us Jeremy had already been there for half an hour, holding a place in line.

infinity indeed

It’s hard to think of a better space for al fresco films, preceded by two hours of BYOB, cheese, grapes, and picnic blankets spread across the lawn. I wasn’t sure how excited I was to see Manhattan yet again — after all it’s on the syllabus of the large Writing New York class I team-teach each spring. But from the opening notes of “Rhapsody in Blue,” followed directly by the opening lines of Isaac’s voiceover, in which he famously writes and rewrites the opening lines of his New York novel, I realized I was going to be as hooked as ever. And I wasn’t the only indie-bespectacled spectator to laugh out loud at the opening sequence’s comic finale: “Chapter One: He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. New York was his town and it always would be.”

Laughing out loud is, of course, one of the great pleasures of outdoor films. Little pockets of friends here and there react differently to various lines and scenes, which makes for scattered laughter rather than a crowd cracking up in unison. You wonder what inside jokes animate each section in turn, or whose date is being mercilessly ribbed and why when a particular line apparently opens up something personal. A rather obnoxious group to our left — more middle American suburb than Williamsburg wannabes; imagine guys for whom a night out means you tuck your XL t-shirt into your oversized silky basketball shorts — seemed rather bored by most of the movie, which they had apparently never seen. They were more interested in throwing popcorn at each other, spilling wine, and stepping on our food as they staggered toward the port-o-potties than they were in the film itself, at least until one stray line struck a chord: “I’m 42,” Isaac says to his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tracy, as if their age difference alone weren’t enough of a clue that he’s in the middle of a mid-life crisis. “I’m losing hearing in my left ear.” The group next to us turned on one of its members, obviously the same age as Allen’s character, and let him have it.

A good portion of the audience’s bursts of applause came directly in response to Gordon Willis’s stunning cinematography, those iconic black and white shots of Manhattan landmarks. As good as they all are, none of these outstrips the famous shot of the 59th street bridge. You know the one I mean:

 do not attempt to format this picture to fit your TV screen

For this and various other classic shots, clusters of viewers clapped away happily — even wistfully — calling attention, I think, to the subtle LA/NY tension that organized most of the evening’s affair. Imagine: here we have, projected onto a Hollywood cemetery wall, with palm trees swaying above it, the classic defense of New York as a cultural center, a defense launched in the late 1970s, one of the true lowpoints of the city’s history. Allen mounts this defense against the claims of those like Annie Hall (the eponymous heroine of the film he’d released only a year earlier) who believed that New York was dying, rat-filled, run down, and that LA might offer a sunnier alternative. Allen acknowledged Manhattan‘s function as a rejoinder to such sentiments in interviews around the time of the film’s 1979 release:

What I feel about New York is hard to say in a few words. It’s really the rhythm of the city. You feel it the moment you walk down the street. There’s hundreds of good restaurants, thousands of brilliant paintings, you see all the old movies, all the new ones. … It has to do with nerves, with the blood that runs through the city. It’s dangerous, noisy. It’s not peaceful or easy and because of it you feel more alive. It’s more in keeping with what human beings are meant to feel about the world. … There’s more conflict than anywhere else. The struggle to survive here is much more exciting than Los Angeles, say, where everything is pleasant. I mean, all those people sitting in their tubs, can you imagine it?

By no means am I attempting to stage such a debate here; I’m having too good a time this month with old and new LA friends. I’m simply recognizing what I sensed in the audience — that a certain portion had a real fondness for particular places in New York, for its delis and restaurants, its theaters, its architectural landmarks. Maybe these were transplanted New Yorkers. Maybe they were bicoastal, like Wendy. But there seemed to be a palpable affection for the city from these hundreds of Angelinos that belied the rivalry Allen referenced more than twenty-five years ago.

It’s almost impossible not to feel nostalgic about a movie that revels in nostalgia as much as this one does. From the black and white filming to the all-Gershwin soundtrack, Allen seems to be reaching for a city already half a century gone. Against social change — here epitomized, most of all, by transformations in traditional gender relations — Allen wants to throw up barricades, to preserve the past, the way Isaac hopes to preserve his son’s masculinity by showing up at his lesbian ex-wife’s apartment wearing a macho black t-shirt and jeans, all Marlon Brando or Joey Ramone. No, Manhattan‘s city’s not dying (forget the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headlines); it’s simply going through the same sort of mid-life crisis Isaac is. Just as his buddy Yale tries out an affair or rushes toward the new Porche, Isaac’s got Tracy on the line, returning, as it were, to the scene of the crime, though with decades of sexual knowledge in his back pocket. When he lectures on this movie, my team-teacher asks our students to consider what it means that the film ends where it does. Why go back to Tracy? What does it mean to make her the film’s moral center? What does it mean that she refuses to put off her London plans, that she delivers the final injunction to have a little faith in people (even as she acknowledges that everyone gets corrupted sometime)?

Post Soon-Yi it’s hard not to read backward into Allen’s longtstanding Lolita fetish, but the film has all along been asking us not to take such appearances at face value. Is Tracy meant to be something as simple as a pretty young thing, a forty-something’s fantasy girl? Or does she stand for some larger longing? Consider what’s covered up, for instance, in the opening sequence: the skyline shots and Gershwin score, the triumphal fireworks — these things overwhelm the narrator’s narcissistic preoccupations; the skyline dwarfs the individuals below, just as the 59th street bridge moves Mary and Isaac to the frame’s margins. Are individuals important here? The rest of the movie obscures our views at every turn: extras pass in front of the principal actors in the early interior sequence at the Upper East Side restaurant Elaine, and by the time we get to the MOMA scene we find the characters left in total darkness for long stretches. If our view is obscured, then, neither can characters see one another clearly, for the most part. They speak to each other in alternating panes, through walls. Isaac increases the scale of this dilemma when he contemplates an idea for a story about New Yorkers who “are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” Cause for mid-life crises indeed.

Is the return to Tracy too easy, too predictable — a reaffirmation of traditionalist masculine fantasy in the face of things like the ERA (invoked in Bella Abzug’s MOMA fundraiser cameo)? Or can we take it seriously that Tracy’s face, which Allen’s camera has lovingly preserved for posterity (remember that scene when she cries? The size of those tears!), belongs at the end of his index of things that make life worth living? Here’s the list in full, delivered by Isaac to his tape recorder/proxy therapist:

Well, all right, why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Um. Well, there are certain things I — I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um, for me … oh, I would say … what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing … uh ummmm and Willie Mays, and um, uh, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and ummmm … Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potatohead Blues” … umm, Swedish movies, naturally … “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert … uh, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra … ummm, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne … uh, the crabs at Sam Wo’s … tsch, uh, Tracy’s face …

Every one of these items reaffirms not only the film’s nostalgic tone, but more specifically its nostalgia for traditional masculinity, bodily pleasure, or male artistic prowess, even as they can be read more innocently as merely celebrating a range of human productions that do indeed counteract the universe’s terrifying problems. The film manages to convince its viewers of this second reading, at least if viewers like us, nestled among the graves of dead celebrities, can be taken as representative. You’ve seen Tracy’s tears, how many times? You’ve seen the sun come up over the East River, dirty as it may be, rats scurrying along its shores. And wouldn’t you hold onto that forever if you could?



6 responses to “Manhattan forever”

  1. MF says:

    What a great night! I wish I could have joined you. Will you still be around Thursday when I come into town?

  2. WW says:

    I believe Tracy’s last lines of the move are “Not everybody gets corrupted. You gotta have a little faith in people,” an idea which only reinforces Tracy’s role as the film’s moral center – and the hope that we all have that cities and lovers will be the same when we return to them, even though we know, really know that they won’t. The very act of watching this movie, which won’t be corrupted – it will be the same every time we watch it, no matter where we see it – is one way for us to live Tracy’s last lines. In this sense the movie becomes our Tracy. That Diane Keaton will always say Van Gogh “Van Gawk” or that the soundtrack to fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge will always be Gershwin is a way for us to have a touchstone that is pure, that is faith-inspiring, no matter how your life has changed since the last time you saw it.

    Such a great night, BW. MF, you were missed (as was all of the Waterman clan). I love how the sky was white, pregnant with the possibility of rain, and how the palm trees were silhouetted against it – our own black and white movie playing above Woody Allen’s (and instead of Gershwin, the soundtrack to the city that night was “Tainted Love.”)

  3. oops. thanks, wendy, for the correction on her last line. obviously i heard it how i wanted to hear it … i like the idea that everyone gets a little corrupted & that may just be something you have to deal with. but i like your reading of her line as well.

    yes — thank God for those almost-rainclouds, which certainly cooled things off for the night.

  4. Jeremy Zitter says:

    The first (and only other) film I ever saw at the Hollywood Forever cemetery was the quintessential Los Angeles film, Chinatown (in which the theme of corruption plays a similarly primary role), so for me it was interesting to see Manhattan in this foreign context–and, obviously, to get a NYer’s take on it. I rarely think of the context in which I see movies, since the multiplex has a way of homogenizing all filmgoing experiences, but I’m glad you called attention to the LA/NY tension inherent to this scene: and, indeed, there is something disorientingly postmodern about watching this particular film, “projected onto a Hollywood cemetery wall, with palm trees swaying above it.”

  5. Dave says:

    Manahattan is my favorite Woody Allen filim, although I acknowledge the superiority of Annie Hall. But I’ve never really thought about it that much, just enjoyed the cinematography and characters and the goddamn sophisticated romance of it all. Mariel Hemingway’s tears — incredible. And the slight falling of Woody Allen’s face as he watches Tracy leave for London, knowing he has to let her go, is masterfully understated acting. I’m going to have to watch it again with this post in mind.

  6. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I remember reading an interview with a director (I believe it was David O. Russell) who said he thought of the ending of Manhattan as a Rorschach test for how much of a romantic someone is. This intrigued me because I had never thought there could be another reading to one of my favorite films, I mean, it’s Tracy with that voice, skin, and those duly noted tears, right? But that last look of Isaac’s, how knowing is the character? How about the man who wrote/acts/directs him? Is he calling himself for his own delusions regarding his young fantasy girl or are we to buy into it all and swoon? Tracy as the romantic ideal works brilliantly and yet seems like a bit of a cheat in this regard, I mean, how can you not want to desperately believe inheras your moral center?

    As for the famous list, I loved it as a younger person but it strikes me as more than a little self-aggrandizing now. I realize that part of the point is that it makes us consider what our own lists might look like but Woody veers dangerously close to those NYRB personal ads where the people define themselves by all the devastatingly perfect and culturally precise things they like to do and places they like to go. In his defense, I remember a specific joke of his about those ads, something along the lines of “Sensitive intellectual would like to get together for discussions of Kafka and sodomy.”

    But c’mon Woodman, “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne” and the “second movement of the Jupiter symphony” sound like someone who says Van Gawk, doesn’t it? Nah, when you’ve got a trump card like Tracy’s face you don’t need to impress me with anything else.

    I know this L.A. boy feels like pushing Personal Best to the top of my queue (supplanting Star 80 just this once) and settling back for yet another evening in the hot tub…