In the spring of 1979, with a new film to promote, Woody Allen agreed to a lengthy profile in the New York Times Magazine. In it, Allen talks a little about Manhattan, the film in question, which follows an alter ego named Isaac through a period of professional and romantic frustration, and a lot about his determination “to advance in the direction of films that are more human and less cartoon.” In this he appears to conspire with the profile’s larger thesis: that the 43-year-old filmmaker known for his broad comic persona and gag-driven films like Sleeper and Bananas was finally ready to hang up his sperm costume, unplug the Orgasmatron, and grow up. The headline hails “The Maturing of Woody Allen.”
More than the film itself, the profile can help us today to make sense of the divided response Manhattan inspired upon its release. The writer, Natalie Gittelson, typified the critical consensus, combining overstatement and an almost helpless flow of adjectives: “Possibly not since Chaplin...has there been an American film that captures with such tenderness, hilarity, and virile muscle what it means to be a vulnerable, selfish, innocent, corrupt, hollow, harried, loving, frightened, and terribly mixed up human being.” Meanwhile, Allen leaned into his characterization as an East Coast agoniste given to moral prescription, making observations that might have been lifted from Manhattan’s script: “Until we find a resolution for our terrors, we’re going to have an expedient culture...seeking nothing but peace, respite, and surcease from anxiety.”
It was all a bit much, for some. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion led the dissent, finding nothing mature or persuasive in this latest of Allen’s “recent, ‘serious’ pictures,” in which “faux adults” live out “a yearbook fantasy” in a bogus New York City tarted up for the masses with “counterfeit ‘insider’ shine.” The Times profile provided key ammunition for Didion’s rather proprietary dismissal, which centers as much as anything else on the audacity of Allen’s claim on a certain kind of creative, metropolitan life. To love Manhattan is to be the kind of person who loves Manhattan, Didion suggests, and she is most emphatically and indubitably not that kind of person.
Allen’s claim was indeed audacious. In the Times he characterized the film as “my own feelings — my subjective romantic view of contemporary life in Manhattan. I like to think that a hundred years from now, if people see the picture, they will learn something about what life in the city was like in the 1970s.” The tension between the first idea and the one that follows is part of what drove some people crazy about Manhattan. J. Hoberman wrote in 2007 that, confronted with Allen’s successful projection of “his own self-absorption as a universal condition,” critics like Ellen Willis and Stanley Crouch “responded with their personal identity politics.” Allen’s New York by way of classic Hollywood — shot in lustrous black-and-white and filled with straight, fickle, self-obsessed WASPs and Jews — was not theirs; the presumption that it could be made leaden a story designed to skim like chiffon over the city’s spires and rooftops.
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Almost forty years removed from the flush of opinion, debate, and statements of intention that first colored it, Manhattan is shackled to a new context, if one bound as ever to its creator and star, whose alleged and established behavior with women and girls in recent decades casts the film’s depiction of Isaac’s relationship with seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) into dark relief. To watch Manhattan today raises a fresh set of questions and further troubles the film’s conflation of realism and fantasy. Two things become clear: first, the extent of Manhattan’s influence, all that it captures and anticipates, from a style of persona-driven, reference-laden, talky social satire to the notion of music (Gershwin, in this case) functioning as a sort of personal movie soundtrack (the Walkman cometh). Second: the difficulty of maintaining a boundary between Allen’s work and the ongoing narrative of his life.
A third, uncanny thing emerges as well: a sense of the film’s sympathy with the latter predicament, its similarly deep, even sublime ambivalence toward its own characters. Isaac and his friends (Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton, the second and third points in a love triangle) belong in Allen’s dream of Manhattan because they hardly seem real to themselves, much less each other. Even their much-discussed tastes lack conviction: Isaac famously lists the things, including Flaubert and Groucho Marx, that make life worth living; we have to take his rather unreliable word for it. Allen’s allegiances are more persuasive for being more complicated in their presentation: Two of Manhattan’s most extravagant contrivances — the character of Tracy and the lush Gershwin score — are also the film’s best and perhaps only sources of pure conviction or solidity, of unashamed and unadulterated feeling.
Many platforms now exist for the listing of things that make life worth living, and the trading of those lists. Woody Allen no longer sits easily on any of them, having become a sort of political litmus test, a question often presented as having just two possible answers. And what of his work? Often held up as exhibit A in the case against its creator, Manhattan somehow argues for a third way, the way of emancipation. For all the talk of its seriousness, it stands as a fairly straightforward comedy of manners; for all that hindsight has made of its plot, the film sustains a perverse integrity, being ultimately about a failure to separate movie dreams of life from what’s lived in the real world. To partake of Allen’s vision of himself is not a freeing thing, nor perhaps should it be; but more than ever Manhattan confirms the idea that in order to survive, a great work of art must first set itself free.