Manhattan (1979) “Woody Allen’s Monochromatic Nymph”

It is 1979 and in Manhattan the psychoanalyst is on acid, as well as the editorial staff of a comedy show and most likely half of the town Woody Allen is in love with. At the beginning of the film, his character Isaac talks about the decay of his times in regard to “drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…” This referral to decay may be nothing more than a pose, a phantasm of a nervous mind, since this stance seems to appear in almost all cultures regardless of time and place; in a more articulate manner, yet perhaps no more truthful. In Manhattan the Freudian psychoanalysis is not yet replaced by Xanax, present in his recent film Blue Jasmine; the woman at a party claims that ther doctor told her that she has (finally) had a “wrong orgasm”, Isaac’s friend’s lover Mary, which is later involved with Isaac himself, claims that her dog is a “penis substitute” for her; Isaac admits that he tried to run his ex-wife’s girlfriend over with a car, after being cornered via Freud.

To comprehend the movie, we must turn to its end in which Isaac says and records: “An idea for a short story about, um, people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves cos it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable terrifying problems about the… universe”. The “real unnecessary neurotic problems” seem to operate according to the logic of the iron necessity; the characters can’t escape them, yet Isaac sees their illusory lack of substance. Both Mary and his ex-wife told Isaac, or wrote in the memoirs, that his recourse to the “terrifying problems of existence” is sort of a diversion aiming to escape the immediate realities of everyday life.

His narcissism mostly consists of the fact that he sees grandiose narratives involving cosmic ideas in his everday experiences (his paranoid character in Hannah and Her Sisters does the same). Isaac’s “unnecessary neurotic problems” result in a unnerving relationship between the mundane and “cosmic”. During a confrontation with his friend toward the end of the film, he says that he has to model after someone – God.  His recourses and  the embrace of life’s pleasures come in form of the romantic relationships and humor. Groucho Marx is one of the “things” that give his life meaning, since via humor, one can grasp the immediate and mundane, as well as universal, in a manner that affirms life.

 

During a scene at a planetarium, where the interplay of dim light from the planets and shadows forms a beautiful visual imaginarium, in the context of discussing Saturn’s moons, Isaac says to Mary that the facts “mean nothing ’cause nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind…You rely too much on your brain.” Mary suggests that he finds her “too cerebral”, but Manhattan can be described as such as well. The emphasis is not on the “rational thought”; the film seems to project an impression of the elaborate rationalization of characters’ romantic issues, life stances and emotions, yet passion is the main drive that fuels the narration.

The main objects of passion in the film are New York City and Tracy, Isaac’s 17 year old girlfriend, in whose company he feels free and natural. The irony is that while trying to escape commitment with Tracy, (he does not take her seriously since she is a teenager), he gets entangled in strong feelings toward her. Isaac says to Tracy: “You know what you are? You’re God’s answer to Job… He would have pointed to you and said, ‘Y’ know, I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these.” As he recalls all things in life that make it worth living, he singles out Tracy’s face as well. In Nick Cave’s words:

He said that in the end it is beauty

That is going to save the world, now

(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Nature Boy, Abattoir Blues, 2004)

 

Vigorous line:

Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it out of all porportion… To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.

 

 

The film opens with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue playing and Isaac’s voice-over telling us of the start of his new book which is inspired by New York City, the city he romanticizes and adores. The City for him means, in a customary Allenesque style – beautiful women –  the crowds and “street smart guys who seemed to know all the angles”. In sum, for Isaac the city is its  people, but also its surreal black and white landscape. The city pulsates; it vibrates to the tunes of the great American composer. The city is his nymph, an inspiration and a muse. It is not uncommon for men of all nations who live in urban areas to form a strong connection with a city they live in, to idolize it: a man and the city coalesce; the city’s streets are his veins, the main square a heart beating with crowds and the street lamps windows of his soul.

In her study Fragmented City: The Intersection of Surrealism and Urban Reality, which will be quoted more extensively, Lauren Hackett writes: “The contrast between modernist rationality… and the surrealist pure thought, is exemplified by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. He recounts the individual experiences of Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier upon their arrival in New York City. Le Corbusier sees in New York City the potential for a rationalized, truly modern city. He critiques its shortcomings as ‘utterly lacking in order and harmony and the comforts of the spirit which must surround humanity.’ He believes that the city wants such rationalization, but he ignores the capacity of the psychological space of the city to overcome its physical rationalization. The only order in Manhattan is the grid. Everything else is able to ocurr freely upon that grid.

Dali immediately realizes the playful imagination of New York. While trying to sleep, he is disrupted in a dream by the roar of lions from the Central Park Zoo. ‘This silence, broken only by roars and savage cries, was so unlike the din that I had expected – that of immense ‘modern and mechanical city’ that I felt completely lost…’ He has realized that the actions that take place in the city traverse the rationalization of the grid. The grid exists only as a field for urban realities to establish relations upon. In this sense, New York City is Surreal. The common person feels liberated by the absurdity of physical relationships.”

The contrast between over-rationalization which most of the characters in Manhattan force upon themselves and the Surreal New York City is the main tension in the film. They should feel liberated due to the “absurdity of physical relationships” and enjoy the Surreal New York City, yet mostly they are entrenched in their own rationalizations. The scene in the planetarium and the one by the Queensboro Bridge are the precious moments in which the characters are lost in their surroundings and truly enjoy life in the night that is theirs and in the city which is their own.

 

 

References:

Hackett, Lauren “Fragmented City: The Intersection of Surrealism and Urban Reality” (2009), Architecture Senior Thesis. Paper 84.