“A Comic Genius: Woody Allen Comes of Age” (1979)

April 15, 2009 at 3:31 am (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Woody Allen)

This article comes from Time magazine,  April 30, 1979 – around the time of his masterpiece Manhattan. Unfortunately, I do not know the writer of this piece (anybody out there know?)…

In Manhattan He Blends Wisdom with Wit to Create a Triumphant Movie

The man has quit his high-paying, esteem-lowering job as the writer of a trendy TV comedy show to write a true and unsparing novel about the way he and his bright, privileged New York friends live. He is visiting the second of his two former wives. She was bisexual when they met, but after living with him for a few years she has become a lesbian. It is a choice he has still not come to terms with. “You knew my history when you married me,” she says in self-defense. “My analyst warned me,” he admits, but then, wrapping the tattered shreds—of his romanticism about him, he adds, “but you were so beautiful that I got another analyst.”

Later on the ex-wife publishes a book called “Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood” in which she unforgivingly exposes his every flaw. Appalled, he protests. But true to the spirit of her times, she regards confession not as an extension of the gossip column but as a value to be treasured more deeply than tact or taste. “Nothing I wrote was untrue,” she snaps, when he accuses her of humiliating him deliberately. She closes the discussion by citing her work’s endorsement by contemporary society’s highest authority: “I think I’d better warn you that I’ve had interest in a movie sale.”

The man is attracted to a handsome woman full of culture babble. Alas, he must bide his time until his best friend, who just happens to be married, breaks off his relationship with her. One day he does. She takes her dismissal with a chilling display of post-lib schizophrenia: “I’m beautiful, I’m young, I’m highly intelligent, I’ve got everything going for me except I’m all f-——up . . . I could go to bed with the entire M.I.T. faculty. Shit! Now I lost my contact lens.” The sentence runs together like that because her completely contradictory sense of self and her priorities run together in the same way.

Later, he tries to describe his first wife to this woman. “She was a kindergarten teacher, then she got into drugs and moved to San Francisco. She went to est, became a Moonie. She works for the William Morris Agency now.” In that throwaway speech he has captured the archetypal odyssey of our time. Wistful questings, the dopey cons with which our society too often responds, the inevitable end in materialism—they are all there in that ingeniously compressed comic moment.

“What does your analyst say?” It is the man’s first, natural response when the handsome woman tells him she is going to return to her last lover. Since she is on a first-name basis with the doctor, she replies: “Donny’s in a coma. He had a bad acid experience.” She sees nothing unusual in this. What do medical ethics or traditions weigh when measured against modishness?

“I give the whole thing four weeks,” he tells her, repeating rejected lovers’ immemorial cry. “I can’t plan that far ahead,” she counters, and, God help her, she is not kidding. Heartbroken, he muses more to himself than to her: “You always think you’re going to be the one who makes them act different.”

Who is this man? And why are these people doing these terrible things, if not always to him, then always in his shocked presence? His name is Isaac Davis, and he is directed by, played by and created by Woody Allen (with the assistance of his co-writer and friend, Marshall Brickman). Davis is the central character in Allen’s new movie, Manhattan, and to put the matter simply, he is the mainspring of a masterpiece that is that perfect blending of style and substance, humor and humanity that his friends and followers were convinced he would one day make. It is also a rare summarizing statement, at once assured and vulnerable, in which an artist casts a selective eye over the fantastical life of his times and shapes his observations into an unsparing, compassionate, always witty and radically moral narrative. Tightly constructed, clearly focused intellectually, it is a prismatic portrait of a time and place that may be studied decades hence to see what kind of people we were.

In essence, what Woody Allen is saying in Manhattan is that our mental diets consist very largely of cultural junk food. We eat it up eagerly, because we are under the misapprehension that it is actually health food. The harm it does is hidden from us for years, like that of environmental carcinogens. We do not connect the workings of these intellectual pollutants with those strange buzzings in our brains—that erratically sounding, endlessly distracting static that prevents contemporary men and women from hearing one another’s voices clearly, and therefore from making the connections they desperately need. The deftness with which Allen exfoliates failing and failed relationships, the delicacy with which he demonstrates how broad cultural collapse influences personal deficiency, the balance he strikes between tenderness for the victims of these disasters and toughness about their own contributions to the moral lassitude of the time give Manhattan its singular, touching resonance.

It is a very deceptive movie. Shot in black and white (actually in a rich variety of grays painstakingly rendered by Cinematographer Gordon Willis), it announces at once that it intends to be different from the general run of movies. Still, the picture induces howls of laughter in the opening reels, raising expectations that we are again simply going to see the superb comic character whom Allen has been developing since the early ’60s. After a while, however, the raucousness dies down. The movie never ceases to be funny, but it starts to be something more. In the end, by administering a series of steadily intensifying shocks of recognition, silence in the theater is almost complete—and there is something awed about it. We are not prepared for the earnestness, integrity and palpable truthfulness that is offered in Manhattan.

The film should not come as a complete surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Allen’s doings lately. This is the movie that Annie Hall hinted at and to which last year’s Interiors, flawed as it was, seems to have served as a necessary prelude. It is even possible to perceive some of its themes in Allen’s work ever since he began making movies on his own in 1969 (Take the Money and Run was the first pure Woody). It could be argued that the difference between Manhattan and its predecessors is chiefly one of degree and control. But Allen has made so many changes that these differences now add up to nothing less than a transcendence.

Take simply the matter of visual style. His early films had a good workman’s lack of clutter, and since Allen was almost as fond of visual parody as he was of the verbal kind, they showed an ability to ape the masters. Beginning with Sleeper (1973), a conscious coherence, a striving for a certain elegance came into his films, growing through Love and Death (1975), becoming lush and nicely jumbled in Annie Hall (1977), turning austere to the point of being mannered in Interiors.

Now the impression is of sheer confidence. The black and white carries an air of nostalgic romance, and it suits Allen’s character in the film, who has, as Woody says, “the poignancy of age. He raps contemporary mores. He’s clinging to Gershwin, the music of the past and to black and white.” Beyond that, Allen lets long scenes play without break. The camera often just sits on its haunches and stares, without even a close-up or a reverse angle intruding. Variation comes from movement within the frame; sometimes, in fact, the actor moves right out of it, keeps talking off camera and then reappears. When a director trusts his material that much, he encourages the audience to trust it as well.

More important, there is the enriching of his own character to consider in evaluating Manhattan. The basic Woody persona has always been a well-loved figure, a projection of the modern urban Everyman’s privately held fantasies and terrors. Manhattan challenges that sense of instant identification, and makes clear just how much fictionalization Woody has practiced on himself.

For example, the sexual clown, the man who used to do jokes about making obscene telephone calls to a girl, “collect,” has now disappeared. Isaac Davis has his troubles with women, but he presents himself as a man who has “never had any trouble finding women.” At the center of the film there is his relationship with a teen-age girl daringly presented in idealistic terms, an affair the old Allen would have made a guilty joke about and passed quickly over. Now he makes some guilty jokes but stays around to explore the affair and its meaning with tenderness and concern. Gone too are the jokes about his deprived childhood in Brooklyn. Isaac Davis has, it appears, absorbed his early life; the present is oppressive enough for him to try to cope with. Even the preoccupation with the silence of God (jokey but overt) and with death are missing. We can only guess that Isaac still occasionally broods on these matters since, as Allen says, “death is the big obsession behind all the things I’ve done.” But “in this picture it seems to be more integrated into the drama; it is less didactically stated.”

No one, including Allen, who is now 43, knows just how this obsession began and what sustained its growth. His relationship with his parents was close and loving. Brickman, 38, also a Brooklynite, surprisingly claims Allen learned “street smarts” at an early age. He adds that Allen’s background was much more conventional than his own more bookish and politically oriented childhood. “Woody was little league and wanted to be an FBI agent and all that stuff,” he says, exercising his comedy writer’s prerogative to exaggerate, “while I was licking envelopes to help save the Rosenbergs.”

Allen Stewart Konigsberg, to call Woody by his real name, was a college dropout. But in high school he was already making money providing gags for pressagents and columnists to attribute to celebrities. He went on to that finishing school for an entire generation of comedy writers, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. When Woody became a performer, though he hated standing out there all by himself, he climbed quickly to big clubs and television. He began his movie career as writer and player in a film he came to hate, What’s New Pussycat? but it made money and helped establish him. Outwardly, Allen’s history is in the tradition of the great American success stories. All his anguish is internal, which, of course, is not to be held against him.

As the one-liners have turned into dialogue of a rather subtle kind, Allen’s old reliance on parody has also greatly diminished. He was an early devotee of the recent movie convention that comedy must live off the medium’s own history, satirizing once beloved forms. Take the Money and Run, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) and Bananas (1971) contained brilliant brief send-ups of Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. But parody, like one-liners, is distancing, a way of protecting yourself from the full implications of your obsessions.

Allen began submerging his parodic impulses, or, anyway, integrating them more closely into his story, as early as Sleeper. But as recently as Annie Hall he was still reluctant to abandon the security blanket he wove for himself out of one-liners and sight gags. Throughout that picture, he cut away from the story for straight-to-the-camera routines about his past life. After all, his career had been built on this direct style. He felt obliged, as he once said, to keep “going for the big laugh all the time.” Allen’s mind drifts naturally to quick gags that he jots down on matchbooks and napkins as he wanders through life; it is a form of whistling past the graveyard.

That is why last year’s Interiors was so important to his development. He forbade himself any jokes at all and forced himself to face up to the questions of how and why loving relationships fail—Annie’s softly stated theme sternly reconsidered. The movie did not work. The avoidance of humor is as false to experience as an excess of it. In Manhattan he has found a balance, an organic relationship between wit and his characters’ actions. We begin to see that it is not just through jokes that we practice denial of dread. Just about everything his people do here is a form of denial. Even ex-wife Meryl Streep’s devastating book is one, since it denies all that must have been good for a time in the marriage. Isaac’s friend, the one he keeps exchanging his girlfriend with (the roles are expertly played by Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton), is supposed to be committed to writing an important book. His wife (Anne Byrne) keeps asking him to make another sort of commitment, to drop out of the rat race and begin to have children. Instead, he wastes his substance on a Porsche sports car, for which he has no conceivable need. And what is Keaton’s endless chat about art, so superficial and vacuous (she and Murphy have an “Academy of the Overrated” in which they place, with much laughter, great artists they do not regard as chic, including Mahler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Heinrich Boll), but a way of denying its power to raise discomfiting truths. It is also a way to avoid making any real creative commitment herself. On the same day, she is seen writing a review of Tolstoy’s letters for a little magazine and indulging in that most superfluous of literary activities, novelizing a screenplay.

Allen, in fact, sees everything all his people do, especially their sexual la ronde, as a gigantic denial. Late in the picture, dictating an idea for a story, Isaac says, “People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe.”

In that statement, all the strands he has so carefully laid out in this movie come together. Visually, and with glorious help from an often ironically used Gershwin score, he has turned Manhattan, which is one of Allen’s passions, into a dream city, deliberately contrasting the awesome aspirations implicit in its construction with the distracted lives he sees taking place in it. He says: “There’s no center to the culture. We have this opulent, relatively well-educated culture, and yet we see a great city like New York deterioriate. We see people lose themselves in drugs because they don’t deal with their sense of spiritual emptiness. I intend Manhattan to be a metaphor for everything wrong with our culture.” He says that he and Brickman in their original script intended to make a direct comment on everything that they loathe about modern chemical, mechanized and ideological distractions. Though a few of these were lost in the final cut, it is hard to miss Allen’s meaning. He does offer some tentative solutions to the issues he raises. One is contained in the character of the young girl, Tracy, played affectingly by Mariel Hemingway, 17, Papa’s granddaughter. She is alarmingly direct and uncomplicated in her statement of love for Davis. His obsession with the age difference between them is something more than a bow to conventional morality; it is a convenient excuse for avoiding commitment. But while all the other characters are complicating their lives with excesses of cerebration, she is the one who offers to Isaac a reasonable definition of love: “We have laughs to gether. I care about you. Your concerns are my concerns. We have great sex.”

Allen, perhaps idealistically, believes that in the end, the commitments we must make to one another come down to something that simple—if we have a little luck. “Each of us is so finely tuned that to have two people meet and then intermesh is a matter of luck. I’ve had friends who when they marry say, ‘I know we’re going to have to work at it.’ I always think they’re wrong. The things that are really pleasurable in life, whether it’s playing Softball or working on your stamp collection, really require no effort.”

Allen is also convinced that the way to confront the spiritual emptiness that is much on his mind is by making a series of individual moral choices, based essentially on an instinctive sense of right or wrong. “We have to go at it the hard way, and come to terms with the fact that the universe seems to contain only the grimmest possibilities. We have to develop structures of our own that encourage us to believe that it genuinely pays to make the moral choice just from the pragmatic point of view.”

By all accounts, Allen lives by his own precepts. Says Brickman: “Woody is scrupulously honest and ethical in the dog-eat-dog business of entertainment. He is a good example, because he has a high moral sense.” That includes playing the not always grateful part of the only conscious moralist in Manhattan. Onscreen, Murphy accuses him of playing God (Woody’s reply: “I’ve got to model myself after someone.”) Offscreen, Murphy, who is a close friend, says, “Woody could have made a safer picture, like Annie Hall. This film is a lot tougher, harder-edged. And it was a bold step for Woody not to be a hero.” This, according to another frequent co-star and pal, Tony Roberts, is part of his character. “He seems to strive for some kind of excellence for himself in what he does that keeps him from anything that might smell of smugness.”

Allen is not one of those show-biz creatures who embrace highly visible causes while slyly accumulating oil leases on the side. Producer-Manager Charles Joffe despairs of ever making a businessman out of Woody, and handles most of his affairs. Allen’s “deal,” as they say in Hollywood, is not as lucrative as it might be, partly because he seldom sells his pictures to network television (he hates the commercials) and because he would rather sacrifice money than lose the unlimited creative control he has over his work. “All Woody wants to do is make a dollar profit,” Joffe reports. “He’s always saying to me, ‘If I make a dollar profit, then I can go on to the next picture.’ ”

Everything is submerged into his work, at which he labors compulsively, since it is the vehicle through which he exercises his self-determined imperative to keep growing intellectually and spiritually. His actors unfailingly speak of his kindness and patience, his refusal to let anyone but himself take the blame for a snafu. Yet, says Joffe, he can be “extremely arrogant and extremely hostile. He has to be goddam comfortable with you before he’ll show it, and it’s not really related to his ego. It’s related to the demands he makes on himself.”

Joffe considers Manhattan the culmination “of a 20-year ongoing discussion, a serious film that’s a drama with comedy rather than a comedy with drama.” So, it seems, the beloved loser was misleading everyone (well, almost everyone) all along, that the fierce, dogged spirit of a deeply committed artist lurked in side that scrawny frame. It is hard to say where he will go in the years to come, but perhaps Brickman offers the best clue when he talks about his disagreement with Woody about pizza. When they dine together, Brickman says, “I like the combination pizza. I think the true, important pie is the one with mushrooms, garlic and sausage. He likes the plain cheese pie, which seems to be unimaginative but he would claim is classic. I think now he’s tending toward the plain cheese type of writing.” Brickman pauses. “The other possibility is that he just likes the taste of plain pie, which I will never understand.”


Permalink 2 Comments