Manhattan is one of my favorite movies, but I still expected to enjoy on some level Joan Didion's 1979 pan of the movie from the New York Review of Books (you can read the whole thing online), to which I saw several references today, thanks to a Slate piece on dismissive replies by literary heavyweights. Instead I find it surprisingly petty; she seems to willfully misread Woody Allen throughout:
It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, 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. The second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. 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, preferring Madame Bovary.
This is an interesting point to be sure, but I'm not 100% convinced by Didion's apparent contention that this "new class" is defined only by a fear of liking the wrong thing. The class in question seems to be artists and wannabe artists or general art-obsessives, people who define themselves through aesthetics rather than, say, a sport or an active hobby like cooking. But so what? The ultimate reason to stay alive is programmed in our DNA. Any other reason is what we tell ourselves and others in order to appear interesting or unselfish. What if the list included "active" items like skiing and making bread? Is that really any less bougie? Ask someone dying of malaria what they want to live for, what if they say "to see the sun rise another day," are you going to point out that watching the sunrise is passive?
When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”
Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents.
I'm not sure what her point is here either. Analysis is a recent phenomenon, yes, but so are movies and tiramisu. Again, so what? Analysis exists to address "first-world problems," of which America, fortunately or unfortunately, has plenty.
These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics.
I eat dinner and talk about art and ethics, I just don't get paid six figures to do so. Didion's life actually feels just as "faux" to me as anyone in a Woody Allen movie (movies are "fiction" by the way, so of course the characters are faux): sitting around writing all day in the same room as her husband, writing movie scripts, drinking scotch in glamorous Bohemian dresses etc.
In Manhattan [Diane Keaton] is a magazine writer, and we actually see her typing once, on a novelization, and talking on the telephone to “Harvey,” who, given the counterfeit “insider” shine to the dialogue, we are meant to understand is Harvey Shapiro, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. (Similarly, we are meant to know that the “Jack and Anjelica” to whom Paul Simon refers in Annie Hall are Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, and to feel somehow flattered by our inclusion in this little joke on those who fail to get it.)
Or maybe we're supposed to laugh at how pretentious the comment is? Annie Hall is after all a comedy. This seems to operate in the same way as the scene in Manhattan where Diane Keaton talks about "the academy of the overrated" and we're meant to understand her as insufferable. Also I never knew who "Harvey" was and don't feel I missed anything by not knowing; it just sounds like the name of an editor.
Surely Joan Didion isn't entirely humorless, so can someone explain to me what her problem is here? Woody Allen has of course created his share of shit but I think Manhattan and Annie Hall represent a peak in his career (late 70s through mid-80s) when he transcended screwball comedy without becoming unbearably pretentious. (I'd put Hannah and Her Sisters in the same category.)