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Recently, as I was watching Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night came to mind. Both spectacles generate much of their comedy from the cross-dressing of their protagonists. Equally, both are initiated by a more serious note: while the play (almost) opens with a shipwreck, Some Like it Hot‘s Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must don dresses because they accidently witness (what looks like) the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.
But with hindsight, the specifics of Joe’s cross-dressing feel closer to those of As You Like It. Joe, dressed as Josephine, discovers that Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) wants to meet a millionaire with a yacht, a railroad car and his own toothpaste. (S)he then dresses as a man, posing as a millionaire, in an attempt to woo the unsuspecting Sugar. In As You Like It, when she flees her uncle Frederick’s court, Rosalind must dress as a boy (Ganymede) to survive. (S)he, then, to help Orlando court Rosalind, pretends to be a woman and allows him to practise. In other words, in the film, a man dresses as a woman, who then dresses as a man; in the play, a woman dresses as a man, who then pretends to be a woman. It’s all less confusing on screen or stage.
It is from such multi-layered cross-dressing that the picture derives its structure as well as its laughs. It begins loosely when the dresses go on and ends when identities are revealed. Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) provides an unexpected reaction to such identity shifting in the famous final exchange: to Jerry’s revelation “I’m a man!”, Osgood calmly acknowledges that “Nobody’s perfect.” The line was coined the night before shooting finished by producer I.A.L. ‘Iz’ Diamond.
The tone of Osgood’s reaction is at once extremely funny and subtly philosophical. Much of the success (and comedy) of the film stems from such (only slightly but nonetheless) muted psychological and aesthetic choices. The main source for the picture was the German farce Fanfaren der Liebe (1951) in which two unemployed musicians are emphatically camp. Joe and Jerry, though, are clearly heterosexual: they need an extremely good reason to masquerade as women and, while being broke is not enough, being chased by mobsters convinces them to shave their legs. The scene on the train, with the two men surrounded by beautiful women, does not reach the pitch of a camp farce but instead becomes comically excruciating. Joe must remind Jerry: “Steady, boy. Just keep telling yourself you’re a girl.”
Wilder overrode arguments against filming in black and white, not only to enhance the 1920s period setting but also to mute the makeup. If rendered in colour, the men’s transformation would slide from amusing to grotesque. Thankfully, it is not: the result is, for the American Film Institute at least, the Best Comedy of All Time.
I found myself wondering recently why I laugh at Woody Allen’s films so long after watching them. There are certainly moments of physical comedy and lines perfectly timed and weighted: for example, in Sleeper (1973), when Miles Monroe (Allen) wakes from cryogenic freezing and struggles to walk or, later in the picture, when he is asked to explain a photograph: “This is some girl burning a brassiere [pause]: you’ll notice it’s a very small fire.” Equally, once the laughs die down in the theatre, there are lines which niggle the viewer: Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) asks in Manhattan (1979) “why is life worth living?”; in Deconstructing Harry (1997) life is summed up: “it’s nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.” Allen’s work seems to blend the comic and the philosophical in an odd way: the relationship between the two is ambiguous and hard to decipher.
Cliff Stern (Allen) says in Crime and Misdemeanors (1989) that “nobody committed suicide: everyone was too unhappy.” The remark is witty because it feels paradoxical and almost certainly yields a laugh but the mental state described is tremendously bleak. There is a fuller development of the sense in Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist: he cites “Paris in the 1920s” and Marcel Arland who “discusses self-destruction, remarking that just as the limit of daring was to be found in silence, so ‘the real despair lies in acceptance rather than suicide.'” The city had an effect on Beckett: it is “notable how much of his outlook and concerns are reflected in the outlook and concerns of the younger writers of the decade […] He was, in a sense, made for twentieth-century France.” He expresses this sentiment of despairing acceptance in the opening line of his (originally French) poem Dieppe: “Again the last ebb”. Woody Allen glances towards this last ebb starting again – this terrible inability to end – in the quoted line above. Beckett finishes The Unnamable without a full stop, only allowing the narrator to say “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Allen often voices equally grim attitudes but delivers them through smiling lips.
The Unnamable ends ambiguously, as the reader is unsure if the narrator is trapped as a puppet in the perpetual speech of someone else or instead performing joyous self-affirmation: Allen’s films are quite often less ambiguous at their closes, leaning more towards optimism. That last ebb may come again but it’s certainly a fun one at times. Deconstructing Harry offers pragmatism at its close, when the writer Harry Block (Allen) comes literally face to face with his characters: “life sometimes takes very strange twists and turns”; “Death is a natural part of life: you have to embrace them both”; “accept your limitations and get on with life.” It’s said in Manhattan that “the important thing in life is courage.” Allen suggests courage helps us to face this mix of “nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm”. It can apparently make us laugh if we feel like we’ve made a mistake, if we feel like Holly Reed (Mia Farrow) in Crimes and Misdemeanors when she says: “My husband and I fell in love at first sight. Maybe I should have taken a second look.”
The address for this blog is, in part, a rehashed line from Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan: “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white”. I’m already thinking what Isaac (Allen) says a few moments later: “Uh…no. Let me start this over.”
I’ve not begun with Manhattan because it’s my favourite film. In fact, it’s not. If pressed, I’d have to admit that I’m not sure that I have one. Instead, the film, which I only recently watched in its entirety, was the one that first sprung to mind when I decided to begin a blog. I like the line “a town that existed in black and white”: its iambs could have come from poetry. It also encapsulates my belief that film is an art and not just a recording of reality. It may seem obvious, but while Manhattan exists in black and white, Manhattan remains in colour. Even films that attempt total verisimilitude are constructs and it’s enjoyable to consider these works as such. In later posts, I’ll try to clarify and build on what I mean but that seems to be enough for now.
I was introduced to Manhattan in a school English class a few years ago, during 2007. (We were studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night at the time, as part of a paper on twentieth-century American prose.) Our teacher showed us the film apparently to bolster our notions of what it means to be American though also, perhaps, to take a break from teaching the class himself. My first viewing was fragmented: at most, fifteen minute chunks were separated by days filled with other lessons. Often, we would be rewarded with just five or ten minutes at the end of a particularly difficult class. We did not finish the film: our viewing ended mid-scene, just after Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) have excused themselves from Mary (Diane Keaton) and Yale (Michael Murphy). I think it was around the point when Isaac exclaims: “Nervous? She was overbearing. She was, you know, terrible! She was all cerebral.” I remember that line made my teacher laugh.
Manhattan stayed with me for a while, the opening especially. The visual elegance of the series of black and white cityscapes is undeniably cool, as is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which accompanies the images. The jazz, and this sense of cool, is undermined when Allen’s goofy voice attempts to put what we see and hear into words. The music’s status is toppled as it reenters the picture through Allen’s mouth: Isaac tells us that the city, what we see before us, “pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.” We laugh when he admits: “Ah, corny. Too corny for a man of my taste.” When I returned to the film, recently, as I’ve said, the presence of this (not too) cool tone was reaffirmed for me.
I think such a tone extends throughout the film: the beauty of the visuals is restrained and balanced by the goofy wit of the dialogue. It is shot well. Beyond the iconic scenes of the Queensboro Bridge and the carriage ride through Central Park, another example is the scene in which Isaac and Mary escape the city for a few days. Our eyes are guided to the important figure through the camera’s gentle panning back and forth between Isaac on their bed and Mary typing in another room. Each character remains in their respective third of the screen, the other two being taken up by the dead, flat space of the walls between them. The limiting of the action on the screen to a third of the frame lends a cleanness to the resulting shots. The camera’s movement and the careful composition generate a meaning that runs concurrently to the dialogue which reveals little: Isaac begins “Boy, you’re really typing away” to which Mary replies “Yea, it’s a cinch.” The viewer is told visually that, while the pair may be on holiday together now, they are ideologically and emotionally apart.