Woody Allen And His Critics
One of the stronger films of 1979 is Woody Allen's Manhattan, an urban comedy of manners which has drawn substantially larger audiences in its first run than any previous Allen film. Manhattan is not Allen's best movie. That distinction probably belongs to Love and Death, a glorious, improbable mixture of Tolstoy, Ingmar Bergman, and slapstick. Manhattan—relatively speaking—is set in a recognizable social environment: 1970s New York, where a small group of middle-aged intellectuals and one schoolgirl engage in a complicated series of love affairs. Manhattan's virtues and ambitions are uncertain at times, but then again they are unique in recent American cinema. Most of the early reviews recognized the film's merit. There were several excellent performances—Mariel Hemingway as the young girl Tracy, was most often praised—and no obviously weak ones. The script was well written. It told a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Given the sorrow most films come to in trying to end, the final scene between Allen and Hemingway, with its delicate treatment of love and egoism, innocence and experience, seemed especially touching. The portrayal of New York City was memorable, partly because of good black-and-white photography, partly because the interplay between the characters' lives and the urban environment was consistently kept in the viewer's mind.
All these virtues were recognized, and yet as the months went by the initial wave of praise was overtaken. A number of prominent magazines and journals, from the Washington Monthly to the Village Voice, found fundamental flaws in Manhattan.1 True, Andrew Sarris in the Voice thought Manhattan the finest of Allen's films. A week later, however, no less than four of his colleagues filed suspicious or actively dissenting reports complaining about everything from Allen's preference for "heterosexual serial monogamy" to his "anti-feminist bias" and apparently his "anti-Semitism." The dissents culminated (I suppose) in essays published by Commentary and The New York Review of Books—periodicals which haven't agreed on anything for the last fifteen years. The reviewers in question, Richard Grenier and Joan Didion, react to Manhattan with something surprisingly like bloodlust.
This emotion is especially evident in Didion's review, which is concerned to pile on Woody Allen all the supposed sins of the 1970s. For example, Didion quotes Allen as saying, "Even with all the distractions of my work and my life, I spend a lot of time face to face with my own mortality," and then comments—in the very last line of her essay—"This is actually the first time I have ever heard anyone speak of his own life as a 'distraction.'" Anyone acquainted with English syntax will see that she has wrenched Allen's somewhat pretentious declaration out of joint. His small foolishness is not enough. He must be made to seem a jackass. Didion's comments do so much, so cleverly, to obscure the excellence of Manhattan that one begins to think about the whole tradition of reviewing and how it can push otherwise thoughtful readers or viewers towards an absurd degree of aggressiveness. Manhattan needs to be freed from some unfair attacks.
A bit of historical background will be of assistance. "By and by," wrote Carlyle in 1831, "it will be found that all Literature has become one boundless self-devouring review." Carlyle, as he was well aware, lived in a great age of reviews and reviewers. The French Revolution had recently opened up the discussion of old orthodoxies; public opinion was beginning to make its influence felt. The review, in the hands of Carlyle and Macaulay, became an important literary form, and an influential one. To mold public discussion in witty or prophetic prose seemed—at least for the first half of the nineteenth century—the most urgent task of the writer.
The triumph of the reviewer has not lasted. Occasionally, in the twentieth century, someone has made a distinguished literary career out of reviewing—Edmund Wilson, for example. Most reviewers have followed the path of least resistance. One weakness of the tradition is germane to Manhattan's odd reception. Since the Quarterly Review attacked Keats (and according to a popular myth caused his death) reviewers have been fatally enamored of the put-down: the essay designed to demolish permanently some artistic or intellectual reputation. The put-down is a perilous form. In retrospect, it usually seems a drastic misjudgment or an unwarranted expenditure of energy. The put-down, no matter where it is directed, tends to reveal much more about the attacker than the object of attack. What generally happens is that some unfortunate novelist, or poet, or director is envisioned as a symptom, a product, of corrupt times. If reviewers persist in their attraction to the put-down, it is perhaps because the pace of change in the modern world has been so relentless and so upsetting. These cultural conditions gave the review its first real importance, and the review in turn searches for a voice of authority with which to scourge the foolishness of modern man. Thus it is that some artistic works provoke an almost miraculous quantity of irritation. The review thunders at us and we can no longer see the work itself. Such, I suspect, is the dilemma of writers like Didion and Grenier.
The objection to Manhattan which has occupied most space is that the film expresses a typical seventies snobbery and narcissism. There are disdainful references to "the audiences for whom Woody Allen designs his easy intellectual references," as if Allen's films would be improved by genuinely difficult intellectual references. Grenier says, "This is the world not of the intellectual or even of 'our culture,' but of the gossip columnists and Women's Wear Daily." Didion indulges in several long paragraphs attacking "the counterfeit 'insider' shine to the dialogue." I don't know what you would expect if you read these complaints before seeing the movie, but reading them afterwards is puzzling. Many of the intellectual references in Manhattan, including some of the easy ones, slid right by me—I think because the movie gives no signal that these references have any primary importance. They do, of course, serve a function, being one device among many which Allen uses to demonstrate the cliquishness and self-regard of the world he is describing. Didion's protracted attention to this fairly small matter dominates her review, blinding her to some significant distinctions. "Toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. 'Groucho Marx' is one reason, and 'Willie Mays' is another. . . . This list of Woody Allen's is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony. . . ."
Manhattan discriminates more finely than either Didion or her "sub-world." Having favorite books, music, and baseball players does not automatically mean that you are ready for People magazine, or that you are rigid with apprehension. By way of his experiences in the film, the Allen character had earned his right to express affection for Mozart or Willie Mays. His list does not identify him with the pretentious name-dropping of several other characters in Manhattan, or with the ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep) who is writing a book on "selfhood." Didion—along with other reviewers—has attempted to turn Allen's satire against himself. She can do so only by the most willful wrenching of the film's intent and effect. Manhattan is partly about the trendiness of life in big cities but it does not follow that the film has succumbed to this vice.
If random accusations about 1970s narcissism were all that Didion and Grenier could come up with, their reactions to Manhattan would be inexplicable. Both reviewers, fortunately, hint that there is some much larger problem of artistic coherence in the film. Here, it must be admitted, Allen may have helped his attackers along—not by his work on the film but by the treatment of it he has allowed in adulatory interviews and feature articles. Woody Allen's increasing reluctance to be perceived as a comedian suggests that he is reacting to a long-established dilemma. The problem with comedian-directors in American film is that they tend to degenerate into repetitive triviality (the career of Mel Brooks after Young Frankenstein) or to become pompous and dull (Chaplin's later career, cited by Grenier as a devastating parallel to Allen's recent work). We all know, abstractly, that comedy is just as serious an art form as tragedy. Americans, however, are still oddly haunted by feelings of provinciality. Once someone like Allen has established a reputation he is under pressure—from himself or from his culture—to "grow" into more significant work. Didion and Grenier imply that this growth has taken place, with the usual bad results. I disagree. Allen has fallen into a kind of comedy —for Manhattan is comedy—which allows him to reconcile his talent and his ambition.
The comedy of erotic disillusionment is not an American invention. It takes its finest form in European opera: outstandingly Cosi Fan Tutte and Der Rosenkavalier, where lovers fall out only to find some seemingly transcendent reconciliation—not exactly a return to innocence but at least a conviction of harmony in the world and a consequent willingness to forgive. Comedies of this kind are difficult to bring off, for they propose a final enchantment where all possible disenchantments may seem to have occurred. Music is usually important in resolving this difficulty. The people in Cosi Fan Tutte are even sillier than Allen's characters, but this does not prevent them from singing beautiful melodies—nor are these melodies used in a merely satiric or ironic way. Silliness and pettiness coexist with eros. This compromise cannot be directly explained but it can be dramatized.
One of the big problems with the term "comedy" is that it covers both jokes (wit or slapstick) and the emotion of reconciliation just described. The logical course of development for many excellent comedians is from mastery of the one thing to mastery of the other. No one can say by what process this metamorphosis occurs. Allen, in any case, has come closer than any other American filmmaker to doing the sort of thing that Mozart used to do. He isn't as talented as Mozart but quite talented enough to be taken seriously. In his development, moreover, he differs drastically from his distinguished American predecessors. Neither Chaplin nor Keaton managed more than the most sentimental or conventional kinds of romantic plot; the self-sacrificing hero of City Lights is the exception that proves the rule—the trickiest case of the usual new world attempt to preserve at all costs the illusion of innocence. Manhattan moves beyond the old stalemate in a series of extended conversations, or confrontations, between key characters. One sequence in which Allen and Michael Murphy are contemplated mournfully by a gorilla skeleton, is a wonderful argument about the ethics of sex. The question of whether all is fair in love has seldom been dramatized more tellingly than it is here. The scene demonstrates this comedy's flair for combining passion and detachment—not least by way of the gorilla, who makes unspoken comments on the evolution of the human race.
Set against Murphy, Allen (or the character he plays) becomes the film's moral spokesman. Another scene, at the very end, allows a character besides our hero to assume this role. Allen rejects the Mariel Hemingway character, despite all her efforts to keep his interest; when he decides that she's what he wants after all, she's on her way to London. The two of them may get back together eventually, but if they do their relationship will be different. In the meantime, as she gently explains to him, he must trust her. The situation and the emotions are hardly original with this film; when, however, have we seen them envisioned as comedy, and comedy especially of this kind? Manhattan uses the concerns and attitudes of 1970s people, yet it does so without becoming just another symptom of a bad time. The stylizations of erotic comedy distance and control the topical concerns of the film; satire is refined, very gradually, to a gentle, unmistakable affirmation of human possibilities.
The complaints of the critics have done little justice to this elegant film. When Grenier complains that "the Gershwin music is never used as contrast in any case, but supports the film's romantic moments in the most uncritical way possible," he has willfully missed the effect for which Manhattan is trying. When Didion observes that Manhattan glorifies a "kind of emotional shopping around," her prophetic cries of woe have been directed not at Nineveh, not even at the narcissism of a consumer society, but at an effort in good faith to move past the dilemma of the modern comedian. It was recently said of a fine poem, "What is in the American mind these days—the detritus of past belief, a hodgepodge of Western science and culture, a firm belief in the worth of the private self and in the holiness of the heart's affections, a sense of time and space beyond the immediate—is here displayed for judgment."2 Much the same can be said of Manhattan , which in intention and largely in accomplishment could be a significant turn in Allen's career—perhaps even in American film.
1. The most significant negative reviews of Allen's recent work are in Salmagundi, Spring, 1978 (a dissenting vote on Annie Hall); The Village Voice, 4 June, 1979; Commentary, July, 1979; The Washington Monthly, July-August, 1979; The New York Review of Books, 16 August, 1979. For the history of reviewing see John Gross, The Rise and Fall of The Man of Letters.
2. See Helen Vendler, review of James Merrill, Mirabell: Books of Number, The New Yorker, 3 September, 1979.