Sunday, August 26, 2012

Manhattan and Woody Allen's Non-Neurosis

(Which Looks a Lot Like Neurosis When You're Surrounded by Nutcases)

            During the film Manhattan, Isaac (played by Woody Allen) walks down the street with his girlfriend Tracy, his friend Yale, and Yale's mistress Mary (played by Diane Keaton).  Mary is laughingly listing off her nominees for a special list of overrated artists which she and Yale are compiling, and when she mentions Ingmar Bergman, she hits a nerve.  Isaac has thus far tried to ignore/avoid this highly nervous and annoying woman, but Bergman, Bergman he has to stick up for.  He states unequivocally that Bergman is one of the only real geniuses in cinema.  Sounding exasperated and maybe even a little bored, Mary replies:
            "His view is so Scandinavian.  It's bleak.  My God, I mean all that Kierkegaard, right?  Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism.  I mean the silence, God's silence.  Okay, okay, okay.  I mean I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but I mean alright, you outgrow it... Don't you see, don't you guys see, that it is the dignifying of one's own psychological and sexual hangups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues.  That's what it is."
            So on the subject of psychological and sexual hangups...
            The funny thing about this movie to me was that I ended it feeling like Isaac (yes, that's Woody Allen's character) was the sanest person in the whole thing.  It made me realize how much I come to Allen's movies with expectations about how crazy/neurotic his characters are.
            Don't get me wrong: Allen is the perennial nebbish.  (Sidenote: learn this fun word!  Learn it, and use it!)  He mutters constantly, wanders physically and verbally, and while we might tend to find it funny, the truth is that little he says is very important or meaningful.  And he's sort of pathetic, with his novel writing, and his own terror at the one decisive action he takes during the movie, leaving his miserable job.
            But I couldn't help feeling some shared suffering with Isaac.  He is fixedly moral, but he is driven to being almost obsessively so by the lack of morality around him.  Everyone around him seems to think the solution to confused morality is to relax and not get so wound up.  Meanwhile, Yale is cheating on his wife, Mary announces that she and Yale are going to move in together, and when Isaac points out that Yale is going to destroy his marriage for something that can't make it past two weeks, Mary (all shock) says, "Two weeks!  I can't think that far into the future!"
            I should probably mention that Isaac is something like 42 years old, and his girlfriend is 17.  Okay, okay, okay.  I know this is frowned upon for a million reasons.  All I can say in my defense is that, like Isaac, I'm pretty committed to the idea of fidelity in marriage, and when I was 17, I was no fool about men.  If I'd had a relationship with a 42 year old man, I would probably just grow up to be vaguely embarrassed by how wrinkly he was.
            I wonder what it says about me that I think Isaac is the sane one in this movie.  He certainly seems to have the smallest number of psychological and sexual hangups.  He's just awkward, and I can confirm one bit of his experience: nothing will drive a slightly-more-morally-strict-than-average person to the deep end of self-righteous isolation and judgment faster than a bunch of loosey-goosey heathens who destroy themselves while insisting they're having a good time.


  1. Very interesting angle, Leigh. It is fascinating how one's self-definition can change because of the surrounding people.

    It's been years since I saw that movie, but I remember the four of them walking down the street, and Woody going nuts with all the pretense. I think the clearest memory for me is the way they pronounced Van Gogh, (which was probably the correct Dutch) with the raspy CCCCHHHHHHH sound at the end.

    I think I liked Manhattan better than Annie Hall, which preceded it, and which was lavished with Oscars. There was more pure story about people, and less Woody talking to the camera. And it was the first time I'd ever seem Meryl Streep.

    But I remember Annie Hall being described as a man coming to terms with a world in which there is too much choice. And that is writ large in Manhattan. It felt like it was partly a love letter to his city, but also a lament that the city's denizens had changed lately, had let him down. These people around him were the new New York, and it made him feel lost in his own city.

    Yes, if I were surrounded by these people, I'd feel downright prudish for having a moral spine at all. The thing that would really get to me in that crowd, though, was their above-it-all air with the arts. When beauty gets dismissed like that, there's almost a (gender-neutral) macho complex going on, where appreciating beauty is just a sign of weakness. When you get to that stage, when you can no longer allow yourself to be awestruck, your life might as well be over. Isaac seems to feel that, too. He doesn't want to live in a world where he can't admire Bergman.

    I was also sad when Isaac broke up with the young woman at the end, if I'm remembering the story right. That kind of age spread is usually so weird, but then she was really attached to him. Genuinely. Touchingly. He should've just waited until he was 52 and she was 27. Then she'd know how wrinkly he was gonna be, and she'd be an actual adult, and everything would be fine. Or not.

    I love the word "nebbish," too, and Yiddish words in general. My favorite, I think, is "mishugina." Looks Japanese; doesn't sound it at all.

    Thanks again for this, Leigh.

  2. I like the idea of a gender-neutral machismo. It certainly seems to exist, though I couldn't begin to define it here. But yeah, appreciating beauty definitely comes off as weakness in their social circle. I think it's interesting that they (Mary and Isaac) clash so strongly over an art museum, and they're only able to first connect in what appears to be a natural history/science/astronomy museum of sorts. I wonder if they're unable to connect anywhere where opinion might be involved.

    I might have also liked this better than Annie Hall, though it's been a long time since I saw that one. Oh my, but Meryl Streep in Manhattan is breathtakingly beautiful. I don't know if I'd ever seen her when she was young. It makes me happy to see her in something like this, where she was a beauty, and then in It's Complicated, where she is also a kind of beauty, but one with droopy eyes. It's good to see actresses age, as well as actors.

  3. Oh yes. Ditto everything you said about Ms Streep. She does so many things so well, including getting wrinkly.