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Essentials #4: MANHATTAN (1979)

New York City in Black and White. The genius of Gordon Willis and George Gershwin on display, starring the city’s greatest local, Woody Allen [sorry Spike and Marty].

I’m not a fan of ANNIE HALL.

:gasps: There. I said it. But why?

Woody Allen has directed over 47 feature films in the past the 50 years, starting in 1966. I’ve seen all of them except the one coming out later this year (I know. I have no life). He’s also written all of them (a few with a co-writer) and acted in a lot of them but due to age, has refrained from the stage as of late. Let’s not forget his theatrical plays, touring jazz band, as well as his stand-up comedy acts. Because of this, Woody Allen is an artistic juggernaut. He is, perhaps, the last of his kind and he continues to work.

Let this be a lesson: if you want to be successful at anything, you must continue to work. “Stay busy” as the saying goes. Allen claims the reason he makes movies and indulges in other art forms is because it is the “ultimate distraction” to the bigger problems in life such as death, despair, and ultimately, the meaningless of human existence. But let that figure sink in for a second…

47 films in 50 years (50 if you count short films).

-FUUUCCK. That’s practically a film a year!

And here I am struggling to write my third feature script! Instead, I’m doing movie reviews to fuel my procrastination. Anyway, this is probably why I’m not big on ANNIE HALL. It’s just about everyone’s favorite Woody Allen film and most likely, the only Woody Allen film people will ever see.

If you get anything from this review, all I ask is that you watch a Woody Allen film other than ANNIE HALL. Trust me. It’s worth it. Start with this one. Then watch 9 more. Then come back and watch ANNIE HALL. I guarantee you’ll feel the same way in that Mr. Allen has produced an impressive canon of work besides what the masses have seen.

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The iconic opening shot of the Manhattan skyline:

MANHATTAN opens with a beautiful black-and-white montage of skyscrapers set to a nebbish monologue only Woody could deliver. He nervously waxes on about how much he loves his city and the struggles of writing his book; it’s funny because after a few viewings, I realized this sequence doesn’t really add much to the story other than showing off and setting the tone that this is a black-and-white romantic comedy starring neurotic New Yorkers (an archetype Allen practically invented). But the opening draws you in because the dialogue and images are so well-matched and choreographed with one another, it just feels right.

What I’m most impressed with is Allen’s writing. His films contain such a witty and intelligent dialogue, incorporating philosophical themes that in a lesser writer’s hands, would sound pretentious and preachy. This is the genius of Allen’s writing. He can find the humor and absurdity of life, death, love, relationships, infidelity, and the metaphysics of happiness without being too ham-handed about it. The recipe for MANHATTAN follows: one boisterous George Gershwin orchestral score, a love-triangle in the big city, a dash of philosophical comic relief, cooked in black and white film and you have this wonderfully romantic and funny movie. Some critics complain:

Do his characters sound like people in real life?

-No. Probably not.

Are they intelligent, entertaining, and/or more revealing than most movie characters?

-Damn straight.

The movie was also shot by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis (of GODFATHER trilogy fame) who is in his own right, a master filmmaker. Allen credits Willis as teaching him the art of blocking and framing and it certainly has evolved in his later work. If you watch any Woody Allen film past 1976, you will notice his development as a master of film blocking. He even has the confidence to play out entire scenes of dialogue in one shot and most importantly, it works.

The rhythm and timing of the actors and camera are pitch-perfect. It’s become a novelty nowadays to do things in ‘one-take,’ but Woody’s been doing this for 40 years now. People rarely take notice of it because the storytelling is so subtle and organic. Plus, he doesn’t need the spectacle of explosions or gunshots for the ‘one-take’ to lead up to.

That, my friends, is skill.

There should be a reason to shoot a scene in one-take other than showing off a huge action set-piece.

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Look how sparse that lighting is!

Aspiring writers, like myself, struggle writing just one movie, yet here is Woody with the stamina of a thoroughbred racehorse. True. Some of his films don’t quite hit the mark and there’s considerable amount of thematic overlap in his oeuvre, but none of them are worth skipping. I’ve sat through all of them; some of which, multiple times. You know why? Because they’re good! Even when they’re bad, they’re still worth watching.

When people ask Allen about his work, he’s extremely humble and a bit facetious about it, usually saying something along the lines of, “It was an okay gig but now I’m onto the next one.” To paraphrase the great Stanley Kubrick, who was actually a huge Woody fan and considered casting him in EYES WIDE SHUT (I would have paid good money to see that), “Genius is 10% natural ability, 90% hard work.”

I think I know who he was referring to.

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Controversial by today’s standards, Isaac dates a 17 year old girl. Image:

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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