Hearts have been rapturously breaking in Woody Allen’s Manhattan for 35 years, and will likely continue to do so for as long as human beings cherish cinema.
Last week marked the anniversary of the film often hailed as Allen’s masterwork. It’s easy to see why Manhattan is so beloved. The film is a perfect confluence of story, sight and sound. Gordon Willis’ stunning monochromatic Panavision tableaus, George Gershwin’s rhapsodic instrumentals and an iconic cityscape make a majestic setting for a story of reckless romance.
Whatever genre you’re working in, Manhattan remains a trove of inspiration for filmmakers seeking to steal from one of American cinema’s best-loved auteurs.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from Allen’s ode to The Big Apple.
Kick the Dog
There’s a school of thought among some aspiring screenwriters that every commercially viable movie must contain a scene wherein the protagonist earns the audience’s goodwill by doing something endearing — like saving a cat.
Then there’s the Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet school of thought that contends it’s better to have your hero kick a dog. In his 1995 memoir Making Movies, Lumet notes, “Bette Davis made a great career kicking the dog, as did Bogart, as did Cagney.”
Maybe there’s something about being weaned in NYC that toughens artists up. Because Allen’s protagonist, TV screenwriter and wannabe novelist Isaac Davis, goes through this film kicking and kicking and kicking like he’s trying out for the Jets. Despite his bad behavior, Allen’s onscreen persona remains persistently likable. He’s just so bewildered, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him.
Directing Begins with Casting
As an auteur, Allen shares more with Tarantino than you might suspect. Both filmmakers have a penchant for ensemble pieces in which their verbose characters constantly drop cultural references.
Also, both of them have a tendency to write characters who seem to speak in the same voice. Take the scripts for Manhattan and Pulp Fiction, redact the characters’ names and – if you’ve never seen either film – you might be hard-pressed to tell who’s speaking to whom.
That’s why, for both Allen and Tarantino, casting is at the heart of their craft as directors. Mariel Hemingway imbues the part of 17-year-old Tracy with precocious fragility. Diane Keaton’s Mary is cerebral and cocky. Woody Allen is a sarcastic nebbish. If these parts had been cast with less skill, you’d end up with a slew of characters indistinguishable from one another.
Enjoy the Silence
As chatty as “Manhattan” gets, there are times when the dialog is dropped altogether and the visuals tell you everything you need to know. These are moments of pure cinematic poetry, when the lush black-and-white cinematography and Gershwin’s music give the film the feel of a silent movie. Body language and sight gags advance the scene and give the viewer a chance to rest.
Let the Moments Breathe
A noteworthy difference between Manhattan and most films you see today is the pace of the editing. Manhattan is a film that pauses to breathe. Entire conversations play out in a master shot. Tracking shots run longer than you’d expect them to and instead of coming off as self-conscious, these gliding camera movements pull you in.
You see the characters cocooned in an environment that teems with energy and life. That’s actually more visually stimulating than if the film were edited at a staccato pace.
Don’t Fear the Voice-over
Some screenwriting gurus will tell you to avoid voice-over at all costs. It should definitely not be the first tool you reach for, it can be a hackneyed device and a lazy way out of showing-not-telling the story.
The thing is, regardless of whether a voice-over is poorly or well-written, it’s always a distraction. Voice-over breaks the fourth wall. So have fun with it. Make it a knowing wink, not an insult, to the audience’s intelligence.
The opening sequence to Manhattan consists of Allen’s protagonist dictating humorously self-conscious alternate beginnings to his novel-in-progress. By the film’s end, Allen subverts the voice-over convention. Isaac is speaking on-camera into his recorder and listing off the things that make life worth living. After an inventory ranging from his favorite songs and artists to “the crabs at Sam Wo’s,” Isaac poignantly ends the list with “Tracy’s face.” It’s a deeply satisfying emotional payoff.
‘Talent is luck. The important thing in life is courage.’
This lesson is the first line Woody Allen utters on-camera in Manhattan. It’s ironic, considering that his character seems to painfully shrink away from the tough decisions life throws at him. But it’s an absolute truth. It’s a motto for any filmmaker who wants to tell a story – or have a career – that makes a difference.
The universe has given you talent. But that’s just the start. Now you’ve got a responsibility. You must find the will to tell the stories you were born to tell. You must have the heart to share the truth as you know it. You must summon the determination to pick yourself up after every failure and keep creating.