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Search our database of more than 4,500 film reviews. We have been discovering spiritual meanings in movies for nearly four decades.

Film Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

 

Manhattan
Directed by Woody Allen
MGM Home Entertainment 03/79 DVD/VHS Feature Film
R

The only necessity one need feel under today is that of enlivening one's days, making an interesting life, and discovering ever fresh possibilities for personal happiness.
            — Joseph Epstein

Woody Allen's Manhattan is not as funny or endearing as Annie Hall. Nor is it as well acted or profound as Interiors. However, this film is an important one in that it reveals a personality type which is becoming more and more predominant in urban areas across the country.

The fluid sense or protean individual has trouble achieving genuine and fulfilling relationships with others. Love is too hard to maintain, and commitment rubs these people the wrong way.

Change is in the wind that puffs their sails, and the port they seek is always around the next bend. Jobs, cultural values, world views, and religious stances are there to be embraced, modified, and let go. The protean wo/man shifts ideas and interests according to mood or whim. One never knows where s/he stands. By nature, the fluid self is always in transit.

The characters in Manhattan are all well off, financially speaking. They live and thrive in a fabulous culture garden of plays, films, books, and art galleries.

Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is a successful TV comedy writer. In the opening scene of the film, he is trying to set down thoughts about New York City. He both loves and hates the place. Isaac is ambivalent about another thing as well. Right after he quits his job in order to write a novel, he wonders whether he's done the right thing. (Protean individuals change so often they never know what they really want.)

Early on this twice divorced character tells us: "When it comes to relationships with women, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg award." (Self-deprecation in a witty ways is in vogue.)

His wife, a kindergarten teacher left him, started using drugs, moved to San Francisco, took est, and then became a Moonie. The last Isaac heard of her she was working for the William Morris Agency. (In this whimsical scenario of one woman's odyssey, we see a familiar protean passage from escapism to pop therapy to religious authoritarianism to the safest of all harbors — materialism.)

Issac's second wife (played by Meryl Streep) has left him for a lesbian lover. They are raising his son. Although this troubles Isaac, he is even more worried about having his private life exposed when her book Marriage Divorce and Selfhood is published. (Gossipy autobiographies that tell are popular.)

Isaac's best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), an energetic, nervous journalist who is a Radcliffe graduate. (The mind is just as much a turn-on as the body for this type of person.)

Yale is unhappy with his job teaching literature. He knows he should write a biography of Eugene O'Neill but he just can't get down to it. (For the protean individual, the grass is always greener on the other side of the career fence.)

His wife Emily (Anne Byrne) wants to have a child but Yale has other needs to attend to. (Narcissism blinds one to the wishes of others.)

Mary knows the price of everything in the world of her mind. But she doesn't know the value of anything. When Yale can't decide whether or not to leave his wife, Mary zeroes in on Isaac. (Go with your feelings; nothing else counts.)

They work out an uneasy relationship, not quite sure where to go. To make room in his life for Mary, Isaac dumps Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), the seventeen-year-old he's been dating. Her love for him proves too constricting and demanding. (Don't fence me in is the theme song for the fluid self.)

Once Yale finds out that Isaac and Mary are together, he buys a new car to play around with. (When all else fails, consume, consume.)

Isaac tells his best friend that he quit the TV job because it was like working for a pharmaceutical company. Everyone was on pills or coke, trying to escape the humdrum of daily life. Almost all of the characters in Manhattan are trippers in another sense of the word: their appetite for self variousness and possibility propels them from one person or job or dream to another.

Romantic music by George Gershwin forms the basis of the score for this film. It seems at odds with these self-absorbed characters. Gordon Willis's black-and-white cinematography captures the cityscape of Manhattan in all of its contrasts. The characters move in a blur, changing partners, positions, and ideas faster than the speed of light.

The lesson of Woody Allen's urban parable can be found in a text by John Dewey written many years ago:

Experiencing like breathing is a rhythm of intakings and outgivings. Their succession is punctuated and made a rhythm by the existence of intervals, periods in which one phase is ceasing and the other is inchoate and preparing. [We compare] the course of a conscious experience to the alternate flights and perchings of a bird. The flights are intimately connected with one another; they are not so many unrelated lightings succeeded by a number of unrelated hoppings. Each resting place is experience is an undergoing in which is absorbed and taken home the consequences of prior doing, and unless the doing is that of utter caprice or sheer routine, each doing carries in itself meaning that has to be extracted and conserved…If we move too rapidly, we get away from the base of supplies — of accrued meaning — and the experience is flustered, thin and confused.
 

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by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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