As a Jazz fan, I grew up dreaming about going to New York. Whether because of the many references to the city in some of the most famous songs or because of the many Jazz clubs located in the Big Apple, I just wanted to make a brand new start of it in old New York. That fascination with the city always inclined me to watch films set in it, and that’s how I got introduced to many of my favourite directors.
Woody Allen is one of the best known New York lovers. Never pretending to hide or deny his love for his hometown, he set many of his films in it. One of them in particular not only is set in it but is also about it. Manhattan (1979) is Allen’s homage to the city and is also considered to be one of his best works. Part of that comes from the fact that the story steps back and lets the city be the protagonist, as the title suggests. The cinematography and camera work help to highlight the metropolis as the main character of the movie. Allen’s long time collaborator, cinematographer Gordon Willis, shot the film in monochrome with low light, which reminisces the golden days of the city that Allen’s character idolises so much.
The opening montage sets the tone for the rest of the film. Allen has admitted many times that he has always associated the portrayals of New York he has seen in old black and white photographs, movies and books with the music of George Gershwin. With that in mind, that’s how he opens his film, with beautiful shots of the city’s most famous skylines and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ playing in the background as the use of voice-over allows his character to go on a long ramble on why he adores the Big Apple so much.
Another worthy of mention aspect of Manhattan is the pace of the editing. It’s not hard to see that Allen used aspects of the Soviet montage theory led by Sergei Eisenstein, which defends that the assembly of edits into a montage creates meaning as much as the script itself. His typical fast, overlapping dialogue is eased out in master shots that carry entire conversations. The duration of the tracking shots are surprisingly long, pulling the viewer right in. The film is mainly composed of period tracking, high angles, dolly shots and static medium shots to show the characters interaction with one another and with the environment surrounding them. The camera movements links the characters and with their space, bringing out the beauty of New York and making it not only a setting, but a character as central as Allen’s or Diane Keaton’s.
The centrality of the city can be particularly noticed in the scene that Isaac (Allen) and Mary (Keaton) chat on a bench as they appreciate the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge. Since their first meeting, the two characters were always seen together in small, often crowded spaces in order to highlight their contrasting intellectual views. In this scene however, they’re in an open, quiet environment. At first, the spectator’s attention will be drawn to the bridge because of its size, the gray light cast in it and how it horizontally occupies the entire frame. Mary and Isaac are small, darkened figures next to the enormous bridge that, in a metaphor to the whole of Manhattan, is looked upon from the outside. In this extreme long-shot, the two figures are framed by streets posts both on the left and on the right of the shot, and their darkened shades are complemented by the gray allure of the bridge. In spite of their almost insignificantly small size next to the bridge, it is clear to see that the two are sitting quite comfortably and intimately together. That is suggestive of how they grew closer over that night. In that way, the scene emphasizes emotional ease over the anxious interactions the two characters have shared before, uniting them in a shot by relating them to their so beloved city.
It has been a couple of years now since I have watched Manhattan for the first time and I still haven’t been to New York, but the idea of it in my mind remains quite the same. To me, the Jazz songs about it are all an accurate account of the city. To me, the Jazz clubs are all still there at their top form. To me, no matter how many years have passed, it’s still a town that exists in black and white pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. I blame Willis’ gorgeous black and white shots for creating Allen’s perspective of a city that not only never sleeps, but that also will never exist.
Article by Malu Barroso