"God made everything out of nothing; but the nothing shows through."
- Paul Valery
- Paul Valery
Upon its release, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris embraced it as "the only truly great American movie of the 1970s" and later listed it as one of the ten greatest movies ever made. (This was actually defended a few years back by a fellow VV chucklehead.) Pauline Kael dismissed it as "mere out-takes from Annie Hall." And there were reports of New Yorkers -- still smarting from the slings and arrows of the "Ford to City: Drop Dead" era -- standing and cheering its opening montage.
What were these people, Kael aside, looking at? Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979) is about the most despicable and hard to sit through movie I can think of, an Advertisements for Myself told by an idiot, intriguing only for the sad, smug, and smarmy future it pointed us toward: the death of New York City and its takeover by the Mutant Elite. NOT -- as its creator mind-bogglingly once suggested in an interview -- via a Death in Venice sort of prescience, but by embodying so much of the coming shit-storm: class apartheid, the creation of an ever-thickening bell jar protecting the culture class (and the culture business) from the obviousness of its mediocrity and irrelevance, Art as Therapy, the Poseur Wad (Zagats, Time Out, Yelp, and the NYT "Arts and Leisure" section), and the final tragedy: a New York City with no root to the past and no suggestion of the future; a city that celebrates our loss: that we're left with less and less sense of the lives of the men and women who came before us.
Wouldn't that continue to be the case with Woody Allen? For forty years in control of a directorial freedom unmatched in American movie history (or perhaps a good example of a dog not knowing it's chained because it never wanders very far from the peg), Allen has completed his 48th feature film, without for a moment engaging:
-- the Ed Koch/Ronald Reagan 80s
-- the people's city under Mayor David Dinkens, so beautifully captured in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant
-- the Seinfeld/Clinton/Giuliani miasma
-- post 9/11
-- or our current financialized Prison Island
Nothing. Not a damned moment of any one. Yet, perhaps Allen is an ivory-tower artist, someone dealing with Great Themes and Eternal Truths. What are the suffocating 92 minutes of Manhattan truly about?
The story: middle-aged TV writer Isaac Davis -- with book contract as back-up -- quits his SNL-type job out of creative and spiritual pique, while dating 17-year-old Dalton student Mariel Hemingway. His best friend "Yale" -- God, what a snob wannabe Allen is -- is having an affair with the nails-across-the-blackboard Diane Keaton, whom Yale eventually dumps out of marital guilt, leaving her to desperately glom onto Isaac, causing Davis to dump Tracy-the-teenager, supposedly out of boredom. Yale has second thoughts, leaves his wife to live with Keaton, who dumps Isaac, causing Isaac to re-evaluate Tracy's blank face, along with Mozart's "Jupiter Symphony," Swedish movies (at one point we're forced to watch Allen leave a revival house and shake his head over Inagaki and Dovzhenko!), Louis Armstrong, and the crabs at Sam Wo's. Isaac rushes madly to his now-revealed True Love, only to learn it is too late: the teenager is off to London. Cue the Gershwin.
Bad enough, but made even worse by Gordon Willis's entombed imagery, InstantArt©. (Much as the Gershwin provides InstantLonging© -- imagine this flick with the music turned off.) (And while we're at it, let's add Gordo to our own Academy of the Overrated, along with Allen, Keaton, and Andrew Sarris.)
Again, what is the movie about? That Woody Allen is:
A sexual genius
Not a homunculus
The smartest, realist, and most moral guy on the planet
And most empathically not:
a short, ugly, self-righteous middle-brow
How the movie appropriates -- beyond the Gershwin and the Black-and-White -- to no use at all: the lovely park at the end of East 57th Street, the sadly gone Russian Tea Room, the sadly not-gone Bloomingdale's, F.A.O. Schwarz, the Hayden Planetarium, hansom cab rides at night. While spitting out Catholics, pigeons, Lee Harvey Oswald, destructive moving-men, Porsche owners, Virginia Woolf, African diplomats, and poor kids in Bolivia. And what is this little kid Willie (as-in-Mays) doing in the movie, other than being a prop-ad for Woody-as-great-Central Park athlete/father? And why are we constantly looking at blank apartment walls and corners while characters chatter off-screen?
In this retardo version of Death in Venice, what are we told are the evils of dying '79 Manhattan, on the cusp of Reagan? (The only "politics" in the movie is an ERA event at MOMA and Isaac wanting to punch out some New Jersey Nazis.) The planned destruction of unions and New York's working class? The beginnings of what would become city-wide gentrification? The takeover of city culture by the Knowing? The deals cut to save the city from bankruptcy -- deals that would lead to its current totalitarian financialization? No. Instead: loud music, drugs, street crime and garbage, bad TV, pizzas with too many toppings, and "people taking the easy way out." (Funny how Allen chooses to dump on TV sketch comedy during its Golden Age: the Belushi/Radner/Aykroyd SNL, Carol Burnett, Larry David's Fridays, and the best: SCTV.) The few laughs the movie retains are of that unintentional and reflexive sort: "Talent is luck. The most important thing in life is courage"; "Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind"; "I'm going to be hanging in a classroom one day and when I thin out I want to be sure that I'm well thought of"; and of course "It's worse than not insightful -- it's not funny."
While Allen was whining about people's brain cells being destroyed by TV gamma-rays:
Manhattan still has its many worshippers. (Let's throw J. Hoberman into the Overrated Academy as well.) It's defended as Allen sending up himself and his living-above-the-city clan. It is also, astonishingly, placed in the "Love is All" class of masterpieces such as Day of Wrath, Ambersons, Madame de, Vertigo, Ugetsu, Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, Dolls, Some Came Running, Europa '51.
Where? Where is any of this? (Gershwin is Gershwin. The movie is the movie.) Isaac Davis neurotically runs to Tracy at the end because he's been dumped. Amor Omnia becoming Ego Omnia. And the sending up? Well, there are those 30 seconds on the Southampton dock as Isaac listens to some ex-wife criticisms of him being read off-screen. Come to think of it , who would buy a book filled with "marital revelations" concerning a dime-a-dozen ex-SNL writer, to the point that an entire bookstore window is filled with copies?
In a way, the movie is tonic. For those of us who would love to take a machine gun to Manhattan's current taste-making vampire class -- the dumbest in our history -- but instead pine for the past, Manhattan reminds us: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Now, if we can push it back another 20 years. . .
What a gas!
Now for the root canal.