I was a freshman in college the first time I saw Woody Allen's MANHATTAN. At my school, freshmen weren't allowed to live off campus or to keep cars on campus. I found this a little maddening, because while I got along fine with the people in my dorm, I didn't really have much in common with them and I didn't want to have to spend every waking hour with them. I wanted to be around people that I liked. So on Friday night, when everybody else went out, I often stayed in and watched movies. One night I rented MANHATTAN. I don't remember why I picked it out, but I remember that the film hooked me from the very first scene. It immediately dropped me into a world that I wouldn't want to leave.
The opening of MANHATTAN is a powerful reminder of just how beautiful black and white cinematography can be. New York City never looked so good. With the images set to Gershwyn's "Rhapsody in Blue," it never sounded as good either. This opening sequence is probably one of the reasons that I spent so many evenings in college watching Hollywood classics on TCM and AMC. Late at night, there's something profoundly reassuring about black and white. Black and white movies have a kind of purity and simplicity - not necessarily simple-mindedness, but a kind of earnestness belonging to an earlier time - that effectively draws the viewer away from real life and into a dream. I realize this is an over-generalization, but it's often how I feel. I think Woody Allen does too, because he uses the black and white cinematography in MANHATTAN to underline his character's romantic view of the world.
Isaac (Allen's onscreen alter ego) is not a simple-minded romantic. He's high-strung, cynical, sarcastic, self-righteous and painfully self-aware. Nearly everything that happens around him and to him seems at odds with the kind of ideal romance he yearns for... the type of thing he sees in Humphrey Bogart movies. I make that particular reference not because I'm a Bogart fan (and an even bigger fan of Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman) but because Woody Allen is a Bogart fan. He made his idolization well known in the earlier film PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM (1972), which finds much of its comedy in the differences between idol and idolizer.
I have a soft spot in my heart for PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM but I prefer MANHATTAN because it's a Romantic comedy instead of a romantic farce. Isaac believes in Beauty with all the philosophical zeal of Plato, and in Love with the blind faith of a relatively inexperienced college freshman. Jaded as he is, he can still rattle off a long, sincere list of things worth living for: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's recording of "Potato Head Blues," Swedish movies, "Sentimental Education" by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Cezanne's "Still Life with Apples and Pears," the crabs at Sam Wo's... and, belatedly, the face of young Mariel Hemingway, who plays Isaac's love interest in the film. Although he spends much of the film convincing himself that he has more in common with a neurotic version of Annie Hall, Isaac can't escape the fact that he's in love with Tracy. For him, she is God's answer to Job: "I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these."
Roger Ebert says that MANHATTAN is a film about "what lovers need: an ability to idealize the other person." Tracy has it; Isaac doesn't... at least, not until the end of the film. When Isaac finally realizes that he's in love, Ebert says, it comes too late - making MANHATTAN a film that is "not really about love in the present, but love in the past." Or, more to the point, "not about love, but loss."
Of course it's easy to idealize something in the past, easy to see it purely in black and white. With that in mind, the critic argues that Isaac and Tracy's love is already gone - nothing more than a blissful memory. He supposes that Isaac realizes this too, in the final scene in the film. Hence his bemused smile. Maybe Ebert is right, but that wasn't my assumption when I saw the film for the first time. I was enough of a romantic to figure that true love has to last. Whatever the future for these two characters, MANHATTAN culminates with a reprisal of the same cinematic ode to the stunning sights of New York and the same celebratory swell of Gershwyn -- proving that, for the filmmaker, the ideal still exists. It exists in the ideal landscape of Isaac's imagination and in the real woman who proposes that love is as simple as having "a little faith in people." The way she says it, you have to believe it's true. That's what makes MANHATTAN something worth living for.