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A Hymn and a Prayer

If Woody Allen’s greatest films are Annie Hall and Manhattan, is it because, though ostensibly comedies, they carry within them the weight of feeling closer to the tragic? In Manhattan‘s closing sequence we view Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) running through the streets of New York determined to see the teenage girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) he had rejected after falling in love with a woman closer to his own age. Throughout their relationship he kept his distance, insisting she shouldn’t stay over, should be wary of expressing how strongly she feels about him, and that she should see Isaac as a man who is just part of her journey in life. Yet in the film’s closing three scenes she has come to his mind with a new force. In one, he talks to his best friend Yale’s wife Emily (Anne Byrne) about how he really let something great go; in the penultimate scene he is listing what makes life worth living. As he dictates into his tape recorder his love for amongst others Groucho Marx, Louis Armstrong, Sentimental Education and Marlon Brando, he mentions Tracy’s face as a disconsolate look appears on his own.

Now in the scene with Emily he is talking about how wonderful Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) happened to be now that he has recently been rejected by the other woman: Mary (Diane Keaton), who has gone off with Yale (Michael Murphy). Emily thinks maybe she should blame Isaac for introducing Mary to Yale: believing that Yale and Mary were strangers to each other when Isaac turned up at their place with his new date. We know and Isaac knows of course that wasn’t so: one reason Isaac started dating Mary was because Yale had ended the affair with Mary to save his marriage, and Isaac was the rebound. The film cuts from Isaac’s face to the next scene, where he is at home and where he starts talking into his tape recorder. He talks about having an idea for a short story where New Yorkers get themselves into all sorts of emotional problems because of their neurotic natures. Where at the beginning of the film Tracy is presented by Isaac as naivety incarnate, by the conclusion she is closer to innocence personified. As she says, about to go off to study in London, now eighteen and having finished high school: “not everybody gets corrupted”. Whether it will happen or not to Tracy, it is an unequivocal fact for Isaac.

Clearly the film flirts with various problematic areas that only a militant critic would be inclined to see as troublesome rather than complicated. If we insist this affair between a forty two year old writer and a seventeen year old girl is troublesome we would be going into the film with ideological arsenal that could get in the way of the complications the film so deftly explores. In this closing scene where Isaac tries to convince her to stay, we can be moved by Isaac’s pleas, yet much more so by Tracy’s remark that he really hurt her when he finished their relationship. But after Woody Allen’s affair and subsequent marriage to his step-daughter, and after Mariel Hemingways’s memoir announcing that Allen was interested in seducing her in Paris not long after the film, remarks like Erin Keane’s in AlterNet, where she sees the complications as predatory special pleading (“Blah, blah, blah your conflicted male desire”), are easy to offer.

We don’t want to turn this essay into a gossip column, but neither do we want to insist that Allen’s work of art is so brilliant that we can ignore the power play of sexual politics and concentrate on the work to hand. Part of the work to hand resides in the film’s sexual politics, but in its complications and not simply its troublesomeness. It finds in form and feeling the means by which to generate nuance. While we might accept that ideologically-oriented criticism has more than proved its usefulness in analysing films that suggested over-simplifications in their characterisation and narrative throughlines, an ideological criticism that simplifies what is complicated in a work of art has no real useful function at all. What can we do with blah, blah, blah? What interests us much more is working with the film’s emotional tenor; one which ought to leave us feeling not unlike the characters within the film, but sensing, equally, that we aren’t hopelessly caught in a conundrum because of the work of art that contains it. If Isaac is going to discover a means by which to find ethos in the messiness of his existence, then it might have to reside in the book he talks about writing, rather than a simplified emotional situation.

Let us think again of the film’s closing scene. Where do we stand, and where do we think the film makes us stand? One might think it is reasonable for a viewer to feel something of Isaac’s pain without believing that its eradication if Tracy stayed would be any sort of answer. However, if a viewer insists that Isaac is getting exactly what he deserves, after leaving Tracy for Mary, that would be to miss an even bigger point. Rather than assuming Isaac is in the wrong and feeling indignation at his last minute attempt to get Tracy to stay, better surely to feel with Tracy rather than to judge Isaac. The ‘right’ response is surely one that sees that Tracy is still clearly hurt, still has immense feelings for Isaac, and should still go to London: this would be the response that seems to capture most accurately the affect the film seeks to generate. If we must have ideological criticism that attacks the predatory nature of a relationship between a seventeen year old girl and a forty two year old man, then let it pass through the subtlety of the aesthetic. To do otherwise is to impoverish our own experience of the film we are watching, and to reduce the work to an account of Allen’s suspect personal morals.

What the film wants us to examine is the ethical chaos of Isaac’s circle and the aesthetic possibilities in assuaging and understanding them. The film begins with Isaac’s voice-over narration as the narrator tries to find an opening for his book about New York. He goes through various approaches as the film offers us various images of New York during Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn. Accompanying the images and voice-over are the sounds of George Gershwin directly invoked by the narrator. It is a stunning opening, but come the conclusion we might believe it is also the film’s ending: the book the narrator Isaac is finally getting round to writing after recent events that the film has explored. Is the film itself a variation of that novel, with Allen casting his own lover Diane Keaton in a leading role, and a tiny one for Tina Farrow, the sister of Allen’s next major lover and co-star Mia Farrow?

One feels however just as the film invites and resists the autobiographical, so one should approach the work aware of its relationship with reality whilst acknowledging chiefly this is a work of art. Perhaps the more representational the art form, the more inclined we are to see in it aspects of the biographically real. Cinema cannot help but draw on this dimension: we see places that we might know, and we acknowledge the thin line between a character and an actor. In most instances actors and the characters they play are the same height, with the same voice and the same physiognomy. Do we not go to the cinema partly to see reality made celluloid flesh? If so, where do we draw the line between the biographical, the ontological and the fictional? If Woody Allen’s affair with Keaton was a biographical fact, the presentation of Manhattan in the film is an ontological one. Both of these would be missing in literature as we would have characters that are no more than words on a page and places likewise. Of course real people could be invoked, and real places mentioned, but they would remain clothed in words and not exposed by film. When Gilberto Perez in an essay on John Cassavetes quoted Julia Roberts he captured this issue well. “I’m really against nudity in movies…When you act with your clothes on, it’s a performance. When you act with your clothes off, it’s a documentary.” (LRB) Perez is actually drawing on Anthony Lane’s quotation in the New Yorker, with Lane adding “it shows how remote she is from any European visions of cinema – not just from the relaxed, Old World attitude toward sex but from the European assumption (found lingering in the work of Americans like Robert Altman) that the scent of documentary can and should be allowed.” Characters can take their clothes off as often as they like in a novel, but nobody is documentatively exposed. Roberts’ point is conservative, but it is a point.

Allen (whose films almost never show nudity) often flirts with film as a medium of exposure: Annie Hall, Manhattan and Husbands and Wives especially. When Isaac, Mary, Tracy and Yale walk along the street after the two couples meet accidentally at a gallery, they discuss artists whom Yale and Mary think are overrated, Bergman gets a mention. Isaac insists that Bergman is the only genius in cinema today, and we might be well aware of Allen’s fondness for the Swede whom he so obviously homaged in his previous film Interiors. This is Isaac speaking, but Allen cannot pretend that many of his viewers will also be thinking this is Woody Allen speaking too. We could see Allen on a talk show saying exactly the same thing. This is to say that cinema in its ontological nature works with the real, and Allen in his work goes further and flirts with the autobiographical. It would be vaguely hypocritical and philosophically contradictory to insist that we dismiss all attacks on Allen’s person as low-brow gossip, and at the same time to play-up the self-reflexivity of Allen’s work. Only if we refuse the real can we argue coherently for the intrinsic nature of the art work, but even then the ontology of film as recording device gets in the way. Early film theorist Hugo Munsterberg wanted to make art as pure as possible, saying, for example, that “we do not want to know what is going on behind the hills of the landscape painting or what the couple in the comedy will do after the engagement in the last act.” This is partly why he sees an enormous difference between say a story and a report. In the latter when we read of a flood or a burglary we may try and find out what happened later. In a story, we “have esthetic enjoyment only if the author somehow makes it perfectly clear to us by the form of the description that this burglary, flood…do not belong to our real surroundings and exist only in the world of imagination.”

However, another thinker on film, Stanley Cavell notes that in some way we do often wonder what is going on beyond the film. “In paintings…clothes reveal a person’s character and his station, also his body and its attitudes. The clothes are the body, as the expression is the face. In movies, clothes conceal; hence they conceal something separate from them…” Cinema is both report and story we might say, and an example of this would be to go off after seeing Manhattan and checking Allen’s and Hemingway’s dates of birth; seeing that Allen was born in 1935 and Hemingway twenty five years later. It is this dimension of film that allows so many to read into it questions of exploitation, exposure and emotional revelation.

It would be too easy to say that we should see Manhattan simply as a work of art as Munsterberg believes we should read a story. The film’s greatness cannot easily be separated from the reality it films. The opening sequence is a homage to the now, an attempt at capturing New York as it was in the late seventies. When the film then cuts to the restaurant as we see Yale, Mary, Tracy and Isaac talking, it is made clear the restaurant is Elaine’s, a well-known New York eatery. The film often works in long takes as characters pass through the streets, picking up the location as readily as placing the characters within a dramatic context. Let us not ignore this dimension of the photographic image.

But it is also a work of aesthetics. It is a film shot in Widescreen monochrome, with each shot working as if off an internal logic. When cinematographer Gordon Willis says in Masters of Light, “most movies today are recorded, they’re not photographed. They’re not mounted; they’re just recorded”, Willis adds: “they make the cuts required and they move on….as opposed to thinking out exactly what the film is supposed to accomplish; and then thinking about how we put that up on the screen appropriately.” If we assume the film is about the messiness of people’s emotional lives in New York in the late seventies, and the film wants to explore this predicament whilst also finding a means by which to remove itself from that messiness, how should it be filmed? Black and white would be a useful starting point, but only an initial one. Throughout, the film finds a way of working a contrast between the immediacy of these lives and the emotional distance one perhaps ought to have concerning them. A number of scenes are done in one, mobile shot: the discussion about the overrated on the street, a following scene in a store with Tracy and Isaac, and a later sequence when Isaac takes his son out. Others are briefer but based much more on framing than movement. The moment for example when Isaac and Mary talk late into the night with Brooklyn Bridge in semi-silhouette and the pair of them sitting on a bench. Or the scene where Tracy and Isaac talk in his first, plush apartment and we see the pair of them in the left side of the frame in a pool of light, with light on the right hand side by the spiral staircase and a shaft of light in the centre by the door.

In the essay on Cassavetes, Perez says: “the notion that a work of art representing untidiness should itself be untidy, that art should be messy because life is messy, comes under the heading of the fallacy of expressive form. But the idea of a fallacy of that kind depends on the assumption that art must keep a distance from life – an aesthetic distance – and Cassavetes’ films are not alone among works of modern art in rejecting aesthetic distance and aiming to break down the boundaries between art and life.” (LRB) If Manhattan is such a masterful film, it resides partly in its acceptance that life is both messy and a reality worth capturing (it is a time capsule of late seventies New York), but that it also needs to find in form a feeling that makes us aloof from its moment in time and the feelings the characters display. We might think for example of two car scenes in the film: the first with Yale and Emily returning from upstate; the other with Isaac and Mary. In the former Yale and Emily talk about dinner with her family as they drive back into New York, and the scene is a long take shot from a few metres behind the car. The sound is in close up, the image in long shot, and the combination captures well the intimacy of a couple whose conversation contains both a blatant lie and emotional honesty. The lie comes from Yale as Emily asks him why he seemed a bit odd at dinner and he talks about a book rather than about what has obviously been on his mind: Mary. Emily is honest as she admits to Yale she has been thinking again about the idea of having kids. The camera remains aloof to this marital deceit, as if rather than revealing the crisis in close up (as Bergman would be inclined so brilliantly to do), it does the opposite. We might feel for Emily and feel contempt for Yale, but the film asks us to do so at the one remove the camera positioning demands.

In the later scene, Mary and Isaac are getting a taxi back from a restaurant and the image becomes even more removed. We hear their voices in close up and watch a series of cars driving along the highway, but cannot know for sure which one they are in. This is an intimate moment where we can imagine the couple snuggling up in the back seat, but it is only when the film cuts to a shot of them in Mary’s apartment that we see them getting close. Even then the camera keeps its distance: unequivocally they are kissing, but is the film equivocally wondering what that kiss is worth? Doesn’t Mary still clearly have feelings for Yale, and isn’t Isaac still seeing Tracy? This is no romantic comedy moment where we are on the couples’ side. A moment later Mary turns off the light and the couple continue kissing and canoodling in the darkness, before the film cuts to a daylight shot of Isaac waiting for Tracy at the school gates. This is a sharp contrast for our eyes: most of the time films cut from one scene to the next as smoothly as possible. However, a sharp cut from darkness to light can almost hurt our eyeballs. Something of the transition from the black screen to the bright screen can’t help but have us thinking of the contrast between Isaac’s abrupt affair with Mary, and the effect it will have on Tracy.

If our eyes are a little sore from the contrast, Tracy’s are tearful after Isaac takes her for a milkshake and tells her it is over: that he has fallen in love with someone else. It is another moment where Isaac is economic with the truth. He doesn’t tell Tracy who it is; though of course she met Mary earlier at the gallery. Now this doesn’t mean Isaac is presented negatively in this failure to disclose. It might seem, like the later scene where he doesn’t tell Yale’s wife that her husband had been having an affair before, closer to tact than to hypocrisy. But it does create a sense of aloofness too, and this has nothing to do with the contrived withholding that will later prove a significant plot point we sometimes find in a rom-com. We know that these secrets and lies that people tell are part of the fabric of life more than the furnishings of plot. We know that life holds many secrets and that certain films refuse to shape them into narrative purpose. And just as we know that Isaac will be withholding this information because it would hurt Tracy; so we might assume he doesn’t reveal it because it would reflect badly on him: this woman he has fallen for is the woman whom he was moaning about to Tracy in the market after the gallery. He could claim understandably that he isn’t telling Tracy knowing that it would leave her in even more pain; but he might also have to admit to himself that he isn’t doing so aware that Tracy would be entitled to regard him with even more contempt.

Taking into account the film’s innovation of form and complexity of situation, the idea of an ideological assertion over the material would be too diminishing. This is a great and emotionally intricate work that deserves the most subtle of instruments. We don’t expect keyhole surgery to be done with a bludgeon. To talk about Allen’s personal predatoriness, evidenced in the film, would be a bit like using Dostoevsky’s characters for a perspiration advert. It kind of works, but so would many other things equally well.

We commonly use the phrase doing justice to something, and one of the worrying things about an overly assertive ideological position is that whatever injustices it might feel it is correcting, it is happy to create a few injustices of its own in the process. This is evident even in serious film critics’ work. Jonathan Rosenbaum says “it’s been noted more than once that part of what makes the Manhattan in Manhattan so “attractive” apart from the strains of Gershwin and black-and-white Cinemascope, views of favourite spots and haunts – is the nearly total absence of blacks and Hispanics.” Rosenbaum adds, “Manhattan both validates and romanticizes this highly selective view of the city.” (Placing Movies) Yet hasn’t the film itself announced that it is a romantic and very subjective account? “New York was his town and always would be.” And don’t we see in the opening montage sequence of city streets numerous blacks and Hispanics? They may not be part of the core milieu that Isaac moves in, but is that the US’s fault or Allen’s, or perhaps a combination? And aren’t the white comfortably off characters he focuses upon presented as generally smug and self-satisfied, too concerned with their own problems and not enough with the wider world?

We can certainly agree with Rosenbaum that Allen has hardly been equal opportunities in his casting and characterisation throughout his work, but it is often better to look at the prejudices present within a film than make assumptions about what is absent from it. Part of the film’s point would seem to be that the characters live in a bubble; to comment on the lack of blacks or Hispanics in that bubble would be missing the point rather than making one. To do justice to something is to make a point; to do injustice to something is to miss it. How can we write about Manhattan by making points without missing them, and without simply falling into denial about the film’s wider socio-political failings? We might even say Woody Allen would be the film’s harshest critic both aesthetically and morally. In Woody Allen on Woody Allen he says: “In the case of Manhattan I was so disappointed that I didn’t want to open it. I wanted to ask United Artists not to release it, I wanted to offer them to make one free movie, if they would just throw it away.” On the question of relationships while discussing the film he would say: “The American dream is, you grow up and you meet some woman or you meet some man, fall in love – and you get married. And then you raise children and you’re faithful…I think that’s ideal. I definitely think so, though hard to achieve. But that is what everybody tries to achieve, a deep, lasting permanent relationship with someone.” Allen is responding to interviewer Stig Bjorkmann’s remark about the scene where Isaac says: “I think people should mate for life like pigeons or Catholics”, and asks if this is an opinion he shares with Isaac. If many feel watching the film they don’t much care for the behaviour of the characters, Allen would be one of those people. It is like a variation of an amusing aside made by someone about his aforementioned previous, sombre, more or less humourless film Interiors. What would Woody Allen make of this, the critic wondered, and then had to remind himself that Woody made it.

But of course an art work is always more challenging than the general remarks of a given artist, and this is partly why we need to be very careful about ideological analysis that doesn’t do justice to the work, but wants to be judge and executioner without much of a fair trial. Surely a work of art can claim the mitigating circumstances of imagination and hypothesis. If one takes the work too literally doesn’t it leave the critic not too far removed from the person who starts abusing a soap star on the street because of the negative character they play in the show? Yet someone could answer we might be inclined to feel the abuse isn’t unjustified if the actor behaves a lot like his character. Is this partly the accusation levelled at Woody Allen?

Indeed it would be, and perhaps one reason Allen would have liked to see Manhattan buried was that it happened to be a little close to home in more than geographical specificity. Yet one reason why it is such a masterful film is that it is close to home in its delineation of characters within geographical specificity. Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism was published the same year Manhattan came out, and, whatever we think of the book, certain remarks would seem to hold true for the characters in the film. “Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the “psychological man” of the twentieth century seeks neither individual self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly militate against it.” If the film is a hymn to New York; it is a prayer for some of the characters: forgive me for I know not what I have done. When at one moment near the film’s conclusion, after Yale starts seeing Mary again, Isaac moralises and Yale says: “Who do you think you are, God.” Isaac replies that he’s got to model himself on someone. It is hardly the most integrated line in the film, but it reflects well an element of hypocrisy on Isaac’s part. He is annoyed that Yale has snatched Mary back, and Isaac is speaking from emotion more than morality. Can he really claim the moral high ground after sleeping with Mary and ditching Tracy?

The difference between a morality tale and a prayer, in fictional terms, is the difference between having a moral point to make and a milieu of moral turpitude that one wants to explore. One doesn’t doubt that come the end of the film when Isaac announces how much Tracy means to him, that he would, at that moment, want to spend the rest of his life with her. Yet is this not the ending of a romantic comedy. Can we really expect Isaac, who “when it comes to relationships with women I ought to get the August Strindberg award!”, to devote his life to Tracy? Would Tracy be likely to remain faithful to this man many years her senior? She is so grown-up at eighteen that we can imagine numerous more growth spurts that would take her out of Isaac’s realm. When Tracy tells him at the end of the film that he just needs a little faith in people, this is like a secular prayer (however paradoxical that sounds): that we all need to trust each other a bit more.

Yet one reason why Manhattan is not at all a morality tale (nor quite the immorality tale the Woody Allen detractors wish to point up) is because much in the film has shown that trust isn’t easy to find, and truths hard to reveal. In the scene near the beginning where Tracy, Isaac, Yale and Emily are in Elaine’s, Isaac brings up a moral conundrum where he wonders who amongst them would dive into the water if someone were to jump of a bridge. Isaac admits that it is a problem he needn’t face because he can’t swim. Is this an example of ethical bad faith (as well as an amusing joke)? That Isaac will often claim that he can’t be held responsible for his behaviour because of some greater inadequacy? Is there a sense in which many of the film’s characters would make a similar claim: that they don’t feel they quite have the tools required to act well in certain situations? But let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Allen might say, with usually lesser films more inclined to offer moral reassurance that could be offered in tablet form.

A moment before Isaac’s gag, Yale says “the essence of art is to provide a working through situation for people…so that you can get in touch with feelings that you didn’t know you had.” It could be the film’s motto. Rather than seeing Manhattan as a smug exemplification of a culture of narcissism, can we not instead see it as an attempt to have faith in people, in the complexity of flawed individuality? Now in this sense people are quite different from characters, if we think of character as a value and a person as a fact. Aristotle thought of character as a value: “First and foremost, goodness. As we said earlier, speech or action will possess character if it discloses the nature of a deliberate choice: the character is good if the choice is good.” (Poetics) Aristotle suggests characters should have character. Manhattan proposes that people are neither good nor bad. They may lack character, but they are still people, and the film tries to explore their lives not so a lesson can be drawn, but so a milieu can be explored. We cannot learn very much from Manhattan, no lesson can be extracted, but as with many of the greatest American films of its decade, where morality became a question rather than an answer, we can get in touch with feelings we didn’t quite know we had.

One of the biggest problems with an ideologically assertive attack on Manhattan is that the critic goes in not to find out a little bit more about themselves and others (having some faith in people), but to insist on a belief system with which the work fails to comply. This leads not to a broader mind but a narrower one, and the justice that it thinks it is practising resides in an injustice of the mind and of the art work: an impoverishment of sensibility. Manhattan deserves we hope, a far subtler response than blah, blah, blah. It deserves, we believe, to be seen as a secular hymn and a prayer.

©Tony McKibbin