Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – Manhattan
In Woody Allen’s prolific career it’d probably be easier to list the films he’s made that haven’t featured writers. From Play it Again, Sam, Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters to Husbands and Wives and Bullets Over Broadway, right up through Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity and on to more recent work, such as Midnight in Paris and Irrational Man, novelists, screenwriters, comedians, critics, playwrights, journalists and academics have given Allen multiple ways to access his characters’ neurotic obsessions with the big themes in life: love, sex, death, money and artistic integrity.
Manhattan, though, remains his most subtle and brilliant use of the writer as conduit for exploring his other preoccupation. No, not his penchant for younger women (although that’s definitely in there…), but the way human experience is frequently cannibalised and shaped by art. If the opening lines – “Chapter One. He adored New York City…” – set the film up as a love letter to Allen’s home town, once you burrow beneath Allen’s ability to romanticise the city out of all proportion – via Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the great tunes of George Gershwin pulsating on the soundtrack – Manhattan is really a melancholic examination of loss, in which the craft of writing is variously used to confront and avoid the painful truths that life repeatedly throws up.
It’s all there in that tone-setting early scene in famed New York eatery Elaine’s. Allen’s character Isaac Davis and his friend Yale (Michael Murphy) are in the midst of a perennial debate about the essence of art. Yale thinks it’s a way for people to work through things in order to get in touch with feelings they never knew they had. Isaac reckons talent is luck. “The important thing in life,” he goes on, drunkenly, “is courage”. The ensuing film is a carefully crafted exploration of the way these two theories overlap, with Allen filling the film with writers to illustrate it.
Isaac, for instance, wants to write a book but subconsciously is terrified of revealing too much about his own life. Instead he writes for television, hiding behind glib jokes and paranoid about his reputation, something fueled by his insecurity about dating a high-school girl. “Somewhere Nabokov is grinning”, quips one character sarcastically upon meeting Mariel Hemingway’s 17-year-old Tracy. The discovery that his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their soured marriage is distressing him even more – her observations on their life together destined to be a permanent record of humiliation, but also throwing back in his face his own fear of baring his soul for the sake of the career he says he wants.
Yale, meanwhile, repeatedly uses his proposed biography of Eugene O’Neill as an excuse to avoid starting a family with his wife, Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman). Really, though, he’s in love with Mary (Diane Keaton), a super-smart journalist with whom he’s embarked on an affair. He gives Emily and Mary the runaround, even palming Mary off on a clearly smitten Isaac to make himself feel better. Mary’s inability to reconcile her adulterous behaviour with her homespun morality (“I’m just from Philadelphia”, she repeatedly protests) leads her to misapply her intellectual prowess to the writing of rock-star profiles and well-paid novelisations of popular movies – a phenomenon Isaac dismisses as “truly moronic”. All through Manhattan, we get the sense that writing is an avoidance strategy. Until avoidance is no longer an option.
That’s most clearly expressed by Isaac, who impulsively quits his job to concentrate on his book, an act of courage that gradually leads him to figure out when he was happiest in life. Though the film throws up plenty of amusing asides about the economics of writing a novel (“I have enough for a year… if I live like Mahatma Gandhi”, quips Isaac), it’s only through becoming a proper writer that Isaac figures out that he missed a “good bet” with Tracy, whose infatuation he repeatedly rebuffs, breaking up with her, ostensibly for her own good but really because her presence in his life draws too much external scrutiny. His subsequent fling with Keaton’s Mary may be genuine, but when he’s making post-break-up notes on a short story – about people in Manhattan who create neurotic problems for themselves to avoid confronting the more “unsolvable” ones in the universe – it’s not his memory of Mary sitting in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge watching the sunrise that comes to mind. It’s Tracy’s face.
Allen has said that he hates Manhattan and begged the studio not to release it. Perhaps he panicked and felt it revealed too much about himself. Whatever. The film works on levels beyond that. The final scene – in which Isaac tries to win Tracy back – is about two characters realising their moment has passed. Writing has forced Isaac to confront his true feelings and now he has to deal with the consequences. Maybe he’ll write a novel about it. Chapter One…
Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 13 November 2015