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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.