Revisiting Manhattan

01/17/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just saw Manhattan again at the Music Box Theater in Chicago for the first time in twenty years.

It was magnificent.

Not as much for the story, which is a little creepy at the fringes: a 17-year-old girl having an affair with a 42-year-old man, but for how the movie expresses the vitality of New York, of America, of the American experience.

It depicts a New York to be missed. Manhattan, triumphantly glowing in the night's sky, magnificent with Gordon Willis's soft black and white cinematography caressing every panoramic view of bridges and buildings as if by a lover, made even more dramatic with the sheer exuberance of George Gershwin's music. Big cars, people wandering past stores clearly selling food made with trans fats, people smoking in bars and restaurants, I sat in the Music Box and ticked off what behaviors have been regulated or made illegal these days, or what would now be subject to citations and fines.

The movie shows a vibrant city on the make, in a country where anything was possible. Thirty years ago, before New York became synonymous with a nanny government presided over by a Mayor who hasn't found a simple pleasure yet that didn't need a bureaucrat's oversight.

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue the movie's anthem to a city bursting with people striving to achieve the American dream. It is, as has been often noted, Woody Allen's love poem to New York. A Valentine's card to a city and country that gave those who tried, those with talent, those with grit, an escape from the pogroms of Eastern Europe or the slums of the rest of the world. The city that transformed Allen Stewart Konigsberg, son of Nettie and Martin, grandson of Jewish emigrants, into Woody Allen.

The movie follows a group of friends drinking at Elaine's, lovers walking in Central Park, bookstores and apartments, art galleries and concerts, lives being lived in the universe of the second best big city in the world.

As with all great stories, Manhattan tells a story of love and loss, of that maddening roller coaster of having a lover, being a lover, losing a lover. The movie's characters, with humor and pathos, try as we all do, to determine what is real and what is not in our very modern lives.

It's that same old story... what is love, can anyone really love or be loved, can one find that true conjunction of the mind, and, most importantly, will love last?

The universal stuff of Shakespeare, Marvelle, Hemingway, Marquez.

It wasn't a particularly good print and the Music Box's crackly audio made following some of the rapid-fire dialogue difficult, but, even with that, it was on a big movie screen, making me pity those who have only seen Manhattan on television. I had not remembered how daring the 1970's Woody Allen was as a Director: dialogue spoken in complete darkness, the scenes in the Planetarium, the camera tracking a couple falling in love amid the planets and stars.

The sudden cuts from intimate scenes to screen filling vistas of the city, the audacious beauty of Manhattan glowing under the clouds, dazzling us with what a muscular big American city can be.

Then there is Mariel Hemingway.

She reminds of Ingrid Bergman's screen filling close ups in Casablanca. Not when we first see her and hear her querulous voice, but later, as the movie moves on, Mariel becomes one of the screen's great beauties, made breathtaking by her suffering and the innocent purity of her feelings for the frenetic, self-absorbed, twenty-five years older than she, Isaac Davis.

The end of Manhattan is perfect.

Mariel Hemingway is asked by the first man she ever loved, by the man who used her so cruelly even cynically, to stay with him in Manhattan, not to go to London. She, only eighteen, looks at him with absolute love and even kindness. It is a look any man hopes to experience from a woman of spirit once in his life. Older now beyond her years, in the movie's last scene, she will not allow herself to be used again.

I'll be back she tells him. Perhaps, you're right, life will change me, maybe I will change, but it's only for six months. I'll be back. I love you, she tells you love me, she has to ask.


You have to have a little faith in people...

Screen to black. Gershwin. Manhattan.