A lot of people don’t get it when I say ‘rolling eyes’. Is it an expression of disdain? Humor? Disbelief? I guess I can’t quite explain what it implies. But Woody Allen does. And man, how brilliantly he does it!
Manhattan is my favourite Woody Allen film - a film I haven’t written about before not because it didn’t dwell on my mind. Rather, because I was afraid I would be unable to adequately express everything that I experience every time I watch it. When I first watched it way back in college, things stirred inside and I knew I’d been privy to something that would resonate at different moments in my life.
Manhattan is Allen’s meditation on the nature of adult relationships, and also on what it means to be an adult. Is innocence the antithesis of adulthood? Is it possible to be wise and retain innocence at the same time? Is innocence an invitation to people to walk all over you or simply the inability to give up faith despite being walked on? Manhattan asks you all this and more.
Manhattan is the story of 4 people - Issac (Allen), a successful 33-yr old writer of television comedies, Tracy, his 17-yr old high school gf, Miles, his best friend who is having an affair with Julia (Diane Keaton), a sophisticated writer much better suited to Issac than young Tracy. From the beginning you sense that while Issac is fond of Tracy, he hasn’t completely bought into the idea that he might be sharing something precious with her; life has jaded him & taught him too much and he knows that there can’t be much in common between a cynical 33-yr old man and a slightly overweight high school kid. As a result, the relationship is always something of an amusing distraction, a ‘time-pass’, so to speak. Instead he pines for his best friend’s alluring gf Julia and when fate provides an opportunity, he doesn’t waste any time in dumping Tracy and rushing to Julia. Appropriately enough he breaks the news to Tracy at a soda fountain and as she wipes a lonely tear and says, “I don’t feel much good’, you know that this is a line this kid will have to repeat many more times before it ceases to matter anymore. Like it has for the 3 adults in the film.
After a brief affair with Issac, Julia realises that she still loves Miles and goes back to him. Rejected and lonely, we see Issac spread on his couch trying to recall the 10 things that make life worth living - Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Cezanne’s painting, the crabs at Sam Wo’s. And Tracy's face. He adds that almost as an afterthought and then realises something and runs to meet her. What happens next is perhaps the most beautiful scene I've ever seen in the movies.
I don’t know if his return to Tracy at the film’s close is to be construed as a too-late realisation of what he has lost. Issac is the epitome of a successful adult - someone like you, dear reader - popular, witty, incredibly smart, and though geeky, he possesses something that endears him to most women. So, no, I am not sure he has or will ever learn to value someone as rare, as unadorned, as Tracy. But there is something that happens in the last scene and it is the zenith of Allen’s vision as a director as well as his range as an actor that he shows us what is happening to the adult inside Issac.
If you see the video below, you’ll note that he rolls his eyes upwards – a clear unuttered ‘Oh c’mon! How naïve can you be!’expression on his face. At the same time, something softens inside him, and his eyes start to smile and then his whole face undergoes a change and it seems as if he is aware that this is the last time he’s seeing her and all he wants to do is capture forever her youth, the radiance and hope and innocence that makes Tracy who she is. As Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue breaks out and the end credits roll, you experience a bittersweet heartache.
And what exactly is Tracy? In a film where every character is seeking love in relationships, she is the embodiment of that love. But it is an embodiment that doesn’t really concur with our adult version of what love should be like, hence, Issac keeps dismissing it throughout the film.
Every time I watch ‘Manhattan’, I’m left wondering at the end – do they meet again? What will happen if they do? Is Tracy changed so irrevocably that she can’t share herself with Issac anymore? Then I remember: Tracy will always be one of the ‘innocent’s abroad’ because her capacity to mumble embarrassedly, ‘Not everyone gets corrupted. Sometimes you got to have a little faith in people’, doesn’t stem from blindness or naivete but simply a nature that makes her different from others. It is neither stupidity nor dumbness. Though we may roll our eyes.