Friday, July 3, 2015

Cinematography as Romantic Catalyst in Woody Allen's Manhattan

Of the many great eras of American film, the 1970s, are often considered a return to form—an almost filmic Renaissance. Here, films, directors and actors grew increasingly cynical and increasingly complex. By the 1970s, film had not only become an established medium, but an acceptable form of expression and art. American directors became post-French New Wave auteurs, not only creating a filmic style all their own, but skewing Hollywood convention in the beginning stages of postmodernism.

Relationships became increasingly complex in the cinematic realm, possibly as a mirror to what film auteurs saw as an increasing societal complexity. Here, seen most clearly in the work of Woody Allen, the camerawork becomes increasingly complicated as the character relationships become increasingly complicated.

Allen's 1979 follow-up to Annie Hall and the less successful Interiors extends the thematic elements of the prior two films yet becomes even more relational than Annie Hall (Manhattan, while still all too autobiographical, is much less about Allen's neuroticism and much more about interaction) and more focused on space than the aptly titled Interiors.

Much of Manhattan's magnificence is due to the fact that it is seemingly unclassifiable, but unmistakably romantic comedy. Allen knows how romantic comedy works, both thematically and formally. One look at It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby will lie out the framework for the romantic comedy Allen reconstructs. In these classic, quintessential screwball comedies, lovers move from careful one-shot to two-shot compositions, always bringing the couple together in such a way that the audience knows who will end up together before the characters do.

A further exploration into comedy reveals that physical comedy (as evidenced in Allen's own Bananas and Sleeper) takes place in long-shot, only moving into the range of medium-shot for a character to deliver a one-liner. Manhattan acts within these cinematic rules as the characters move from one-shot to two-shot depending on the nature of their intimacy, and the physical distance always has us questioning what exactly is funny about the human condition and the desperate search for love.

Even more so than the intentionally funny Annie Hall, Manhattan presents us with greater complicated situations shown, again, though increasingly complicated camerawork; situations are less funny to the characters and more challenging to the audience. In a scene where the Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton) converse though in separate rooms, the fragmented nature of their relationship and the tension and uncertainty of their future (due, in part, to their own personal issues) is dealt with almost exclusively through Allen's camerawork.

Allen demanded that the video version of Manhattan be letterboxed—the first of its kind—for aesthetic reasons: to preserve the aspect ratio of intentional one-shots so that they are not mistakenly formatted as conventional one-shots. In this particular scene, the two are communicating from separate rooms and are never seen on screen together. Not only that, even the one-shot compositions are not conventional one-shots. As Isaac talks to Mary, he’s in the far left of the screen with a wall taking up the majority of the frame. The same is then shown when the camera cuts to Mary who is to the extreme right of the screen, with wall still taking up the majority of the frame. The emptiness of the visuals speaks more clearly about the character's situations than Allen's witty, brilliant dialogue ever could.

Of the myriad relationships manifest throughout Manhattan, the one that works best is no less complex. The relationship between Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) is complicated in that she is less than half his age and still in high school. In what would be a typically romantic scene in conventional Hollywood cinema (thought this particular scenario would never manifest itself in traditional Hollywood cinema), Isaac descends the stairs to the right of the frame and moves to sit on the sofa with Tracy at the left of the shot. Yet, though the two are framed together, it would be hard-pressed to call the composition a two-shot. They are seen in extreme long-shot, barely recognizable if not for the voices, and far left of center. This is the least conventional “romantic” two-shot of anything in romantic comedy through the 1970s as the detached camera work expresses the intrinsic problems of the relationship.

Allen forces the camera to become a recognizable tool that draws attention to itself—more an omniscient character rather than a subversive apparatus. Yet Manhattan is much greater than the camerawork. The visuals are, quite uncynically, breathtaking. Perhaps a love deeper than any relationship explored throughout the course of the film is Allen's love for New York City. If Allen deconstructs the idea of the romantic, there is no cynicism in Allen's directorial eye and Gordon Willis's cinematography. One need look no further than the cover to see that Allen can make the 59th Street Bridge become a place you'd actually feel safe observing from a park bench at night. Only in the movies.

Whether or not Isaac believes the naïve Tracy when she tells him that "not everybody gets corrupted," (despite the optimistic conclusion, Allen's cynicism has no one convinced he believes it possible) New York is so painstakingly uncorrupted that we understand where Allen's heart lies. Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" underscores Allen's narration in one of the finest opening sequences in film history, challenging both the human desire and instinct (which is the true joke of the piece: the long-shots are examples of physical comedy at the characters' expense—love is funny) while simultaneously embracing Manhattan who, despite the barrage of complex relationships, becomes the true star.

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