Manhattan (1979)

A few weeks ago, my husband was surprised to find a new copy of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, still encased in shrink wrap, sitting in our priority mail pile. “What’s this doing here?” “Well, Midnight in Paris arrives on DVD in a few weeks, and before I write about it, I need to watch Manhattan again.” Since I had said “I need to watch…” (rather than “we need to watch…”), he just nodded and moved on.

When I ordered the DVD, I was operating purely on instinct. But when Midnight in Paris received four Golden Globe nominations on December 15th, I decided to dedicate the rest of my day to Woody. First I watched Manhattan (a film I hadn’t seen since its initial release in 1979), and then I watched Midnight in Paris (a film I saw last summer the day it opened in Chicago). Then I started writing.

In my review (posted Friday on JUF Online), I say:

It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal. Watching Midnight in Paris is the ultimate staycation. But this sugar-loaded holiday treat has a few worms, and I wouldn’t be me (‘the kvetch who dissed Paris’) if I didn’t point them out.”

And then I proceed to counterpoint these two films, but I really only scratch the surface.

What’s amazing to me now is how sure I was that Manhattan was so relevant. After all, Manhattan was released over 30 years ago and Woody has famously released a film almost every year in the interim. And yet watch them as a Double Feature, as I did last week, and the evidence is overwhelming.

From the very first moments, the opening montages of each film are mirror images of one another. In each case, the hero is a successful writer who decides to quit his job in order to finish a novel. In Manhattan this character, “Isaac Davis,” is a television writer (played by Woody himself); in Paris this character, “Gil Pender,” is a Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson. But though these two characters may look different, they sound exactly the same (with the same cadences and verbal ticks), and the dialogue runs totally parallel. Isaac and Gil are both victims of ball-busters (Meryl Streep in Manhattan and Rachel McAdams in Paris), promising relationships with age appropriate women are shown to be fantasies (Diane Keaton in Manhattan and Marion Cotillard in Paris), and both films end with the hero finding “true love” with a gamine who is decades younger.

Now I understand why I had such an aversive reaction last summer. Word of mouth was overwhelmingly positive. Midnight in Paris played for months in local theatres, and now that it’s on track for multiple Oscar nominations, DVD copies will start flying off the shelves next week. But I’m “the kvetch who dissed Paris,” and I simply must protest.

After watching Roman Polanski’s travails, Woody is smart enough to make his Paris gamine legal, but he still cast a woman so young looking that the two characters–“Tracy” (Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan and “Gabrielle” (Léa Seydoux) in Paris–could be twins.

Woody has publicly supported Polanski and he makes no apologies for his own pedophilic longings. If we don’t even notice (much less condemn them), then why should he?

In Manhattan, the book Isaac wants to finish is a sequel to an earlier book about his mother called… are you ready… The Castrating Zionist. The party scene (filled with caricatures of New York intellectuals) is an ERA Fund Raiser presided over by Bella Abzug (in person!), and in the end, after Isaac has deserted Tracy (a high school student!) but wants to win her back, he says: “I don’t want the thing about you that I like to change.” Sorry, Woody, but most girls grow up and become women, and me, I applaud that fact.

Sure Woody has pragmatically softened the edges in Paris. The screen is filled luscious images and the soundtrack is filled with delightful music. But for all that, Paris is just a new variation on the same old story. And now that I’ve pointed all of this out to you, I hope you will pause for a moment before you actually buy that Paris DVD and sink yourself into another misogynistic fantasy.

Photo Credit for Midnight in Paris: Roger Arpajou © 2011 Mediapro, Versátil Cinema & Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. (Note that I converted Arpajou’s photo into black & white to make the two photos easier to compare. The photo from Manhattan is widely available on the internet.)

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