Almost 40 years on, Woody Allen's Manhattan is shackled to a new context, if one bound as ever to its creator and star, whose alleged and established behavior sets the film's depiction of its lead's relationship with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) into dark relief. To watch Manhattan today raises a fresh set of questions and further troubles the film's conflation of realism and fantasy. Two things become clear: first, the extent of Manhattan's influence, all that it captures and anticipates, from a style of persona-driven, reference-laden, talky social satire, to the notion of music (Gershwin, in this case) functioning as a sort of personal movie soundtrack (the Walkman cometh). Second: the difficulty of maintaining a boundary between Allen's work and the ongoing narrative of his life.
A third, uncanny thing emerges as well: a sense of the film's sympathy with the latter predicament, its similarly deep, even sublime ambivalence toward its own characters. Isaac and his friends (Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton, the second and third points in a love triangle) belong in Allen's dream of Manhattan because they hardly seem real to themselves, much less each other. For all the talk of its seriousness, Manhattan stands as a fairly straightforward comedy of manners; for all that hindsight has made of its plot, the film sustains a perverse integrity, being ultimately about a failure to separate movie dreams of life from what's lived in the real world. To partake of Allen's vision of himself is not a freeing thing, nor perhaps should it be; but more than ever Manhattan confirms the idea that in order to survive, a great work of art must first set itself free.
Woody AllenWoody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne Hoffman, Karen Ludwig, Michael O'Donoghue, Victor Truro, Tisa FarrowWoody Allen, Marshall BrickmanCharles H. JoffeUnited Artists