July 23, 2011

The Importance of Being Familiar

This is the first scene (the overture) of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). I have borrowed 'action' from the Ebert review, and the lines, obviously from the movie itself:

George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays over powerful black-and-white visions of Manhattan and its skyline, and the mighty bridges leaping out to it from the provinces. We go through its people and places as a voice, filled with uncertainty and hesitations, plays as a monologue.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion."

Uh, no. Make that "He romanticised it all out of proportion."

"To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin."

Uh... no. Let me start this over.

"Chapter one. He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle- bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles."

Ah, corny. Too corny for a man of my taste. Let me... try and make it more profound.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of integrity to cause so many people to take the easy way out... was rapidly turning the town of his dreams..."

No, it's gonna be too preachy. I mean, face it, I wanna sell some books here.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitised by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage..."

Too angry. I don't wanna be angry.

"Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat."

I love this.

"New York was his town and it always would be."

We later realize that these lines were probably the protagonist’s random blabbering into his cassette recorder. Though we do not know that yet, these set him up for us. I was already laughing as this montage ended, hardly a few minutes into the movie. To all those who are yet to discover the cinema of Woody Allen, these lines would appear hardly humourous. But most of those who know him (both the writer-director and the character(s) he plays), will react as I did, and the ‘Woody’ humour will hook them into the movie at once. Moreover, going beyond what the protagonist in this movie feels or conveys, these lines communicate, to all those who are familiar with Allen’s cinema, the writer-director’s sentiment for New York.

I wonder how it would have been received if it were the first work of the maker. I wonder how some filmographies become more important and memorable than the individual films. Most Masters are more than the sum of their individual movies.

Somebody asked me once, what is so great about ‘Annie Hall’ (1977). I could not answer him then. I can not answer him today. The only answer, probably, would be – watch more of Woody Allen. And then we will share a laugh together.

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