Mark Hay may not be a native New Yorker, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.
Bloomberg wins New York. Sometimes it is hard to understand the city we live in. But certainly the last week, the introspection brought about by Bloomberg’s hegemony and victory, has given me the time to realize that, torn and confused as we are by this city, we cannot help but love it. So this week I honor New York City, despite mayor Bloomberg, with a love-letter to Woody Allen. I recognize that many movies could, and probably should, be put on a list of Allen, but I’ve specifically chosen his greatest love songs to New York City, our beautiful home.
The ultimate ode to New York, Manhattan backs almost all of its dialogue and human interaction with absolutely breathtaking, towering, and now iconic shots of the city. Without the cinematography of Gordon Willis – who, despite his focus on the urban over the human, does not drown out humanity, but rather melds it into the streets and bricks with perfect balance and accent – the film, for all the talents of Allen as a director, would be another notch of nothing on Allen’s bedpost. But likewise, without Allen’s characters and his knack (so strong during the late 1970s and 1980s) for a great story of snaking and seedy (but ultimately sympathetic) love, all of Willis’s work would amount to nothing more than a nice slideshow.
As with so many Allen movies from this era, this is the story of several couples whose desires get the best of them (your reviewer has often seen this as a portent of Soon-Yi Previn that Mia Farrow probably should have caught), despite their best intents. Childish, middle-aged television writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), twice divorced and living under the stress of his lesbian ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) writing a tell-all about their marriage, squirms in his relationship with seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Meanwhile, his happily married friend Yale (Michael Murphy) grapples with his guilt over his adulterous relationship with Mary (Diane Keaton in a role reminiscent of her Annie Hall character). Both men struggle to extricate themselves from their questionable relationships- resulting in a web of lies, trysts, disbelief, and eventually revelations and acceptances of one’s own character.
Bracketed by montages of the cityscape under the hand of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and colored constantly by the monologue of Isaac in the book he is attempting to write about his love affair for New York, Manhattan is a story of love, loss, neurosis, and all other things that happen on the streets below your window with alarming speed and frequency. It is the poetry of desire subsumed by the city – urban transcendentalism at its best.
Oedipus Wrecks (1989)
Actually a short, Oedipus Wrecks appeared as the final film in a three part series entitled New York Stories featuring odes by Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese to the city that nursed, inspired and abetted them. Not commonly regarded as one of Allen’s greater films, Oedipus Wrecks is more simply comedic than most of his better works. The tale of love is not nearly as complex, the characters not nearly so interesting as in other Allen films, yet there is a basic sweetness and blunt magical realism to this film making it at least appreciable (and probably more palatable to many who consider Allen’s serious films too questionable, esoteric or dull.
Wrecks features the ultimate Jewish mother archetype (Mae Questel – the voice of Betty Boop). The mother of a real progressive professional type by the name of Sheldon (Woody Allen), dearest mommy doggedly hovers over her son’s shoulder, insinuating herself into ever intimate detail of his life. When Sheldon tries to get his mother’s blessings to marry his fiancé Lisa (Mia Farrow), his mother disapproves. In an attempt to win her approval, Sheldon takes the lot to a magic show where his mother is vanished in a trick – and does not reappear. It is only days later that her hovering, giant head appears above New York City, criticizing and embarrassing Sheldon to strangers, putting pressure on his relationship, and forcing him to seek the aid of a ridiculous psychic/mystic, Treva (Julie Kavner – the voice of Marge Simpson).
The film has often been criticized for the reaction of New Yorkers to the presence of a gigantic, disembodied head in their lives – with absolute and inconsequential acceptance – and for the rather shameless and blunt way the film deals with the subject of Sheldon’s Oedipal complex. Perhaps I’m alone in thinking that this nonchalant address to the paranormal is not only hilarious, but probably a spot-on representation of the seen-it-all, gruff humor of our city. Regardless of minor quips and qualms, the film is damn funny and features one of the most endearing and strange revelations of love in cinematic history – it involves a long, viscous glob of chicken fat as a stand-in for a woman. Now, I know you’ll watch it just for that.
Annie Hall (1977)
Another film where possibly nothing can be said that hasn’t been said before, but not enough praise may be heaped on such a masterpiece. So here is another love letter for the pile. Annie Hall is one of the ultimate stories of love, loss and acceptance and one of the most influential films on popular culture to this day – the lobster scene, the spider scene, the movie line scene, and of course the eerie appearance of Christopher Walken, among many others. But some of Bwog’s favorite scenes are those of Alvy (Woody Allen) in Los Angeles, hating every moment of it, and longing for the comfort of the womb-substitute that is New York.
The film unfolds as a series of flashbacks, often intercut with varied perspectives and digressions into the absurd re-imaginings, of the relationship between comedian Alvy Singer and the airy, waspish Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The two are so quick-witted that it is hard to imagine them with anyone else, but their basic outlooks on life, the core of their humor, is so divergent that it is hard to see them together at all. This tug and pull between life and cynicism running at high speeds and launching into volleys of wit and wrath creates one of the most realistic and sympathetic relationships in all of film.
Alvy is the quintessential, stereotypical nebbish New Yorker and Annie the free-spirited and floating Los Angeles girl. In some ways, this is a story of the sunshine state and the empire state – of two cities in two people, utterly incompatible, but each so rich and fascinating it is hard to see them without each other. But just as Alvy cannot survive in the California sun, his relationship with Annie cannot last, and there is an inevitable and silent acceptance of this fact. Oh, unique New York – a city so strange and isolated, so full of long and neuroses, so torn and self-involved, who else but Woody Allen could do you so much justice?