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A Renaissance Of American Film Comedy

By Vlada Petric

THROUGHOUT the silent film era, comedy was one of the most cinematic genres due to the tremendous visual dynamism of slapstick. With the advent of sound, film comedies became merely photographic recordings of funny dialogue and burlesque situations which could be effectively mounted on the stage. Even comedies of the 30's (including those made by the Marx Brothers which were unique in their own way) continued to exploit non-verbal, absurd gags. More contemporaneous comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Mel Brooks also rely heavily on verbal puns and physical mise-en-scene, yet still with no attempt made to convey it in cinematic terms. In contrast, Woody Allen has gradually and continously cultivated a singular approach to the comedy genre, stimulating laughter by auditory-visual devices which contribute a unique dimension and meaning to his films. Allen's work, consequently, marks a significant step in the evolution of sound film comedy.

With Manhattan, Allen's creative imagination came to its full cinematic realization. His acting/directing style which has oscillated for years between an appeal to the mass audience and his own artistic demands, finally achieved the thematic-formal balance which makes Manhattan a film comedy par excellence. Allen's achievement becomes even more significant considering that it takes place in a genre which has always been little concerned with cinematic values-a genre which has been commonly satisfied to use the camera merely as a vehicle to record physical gags, comic facial expressions and amusing dialogue. Despite the risk of reducing his popularity with movie fans, Allen courageously broke with this former concept of film comedy and revived the style exemplied by the best works of Chaplin and Keaton which, at times, emphasized aesthetic considerations to the detriment of box-office success. In Manhattan Allen demonstrates his growth from entertaining performer to genuine film auteur, yet maintaining his bond with millions of movie-goers. Contrary to all expectations, current reports confirm that Manhattan is booming at the box-office throughout the country, testifying that Allen has resolved what had been considered impossible-a reconcilement between art and entertainment; to put it bluntly, without compromising his aesthetic standards, Allen continues to divert the average man.

ALLEN'S auteuristic attitude has been apparent in a number of his films: Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall and, especially Interiors. More and more he has been concerned with not only the thematic-interpretive aspect of the film narrative, but also with specific cinematic devices which convey the film's content and message in a cinematic way. Accordingly, Interiors marks the crucial point in Allen's directorial evolution, expressing much of the script's meaning through purely auditory/visual means instead of via dramatic situations, mise-en-scene, dialogue and acting. Like Chaplin (in A Woman of Paris ), Allen, too, decided not to participate as an actor in Interiors, a decision which permitted him to concentrate on directing the film. In a further parallel, while Chaplin appropriated certain stylistic features of the "Lubitsch Touch," Allen conceived his film as an homage to Ingmar Bergman and his "cinematic thinking."

Some film reviewers expressed disappointment with Interiors for its lack of "comedy flair," failing to realize that this film possesses more psychological depth and metaphorical ideas than the great majority of recent American films. Historically, Interiors can be considered as Allen's prelude to Manhattan in which psychological complexity is successfully integrated with refined lyrical humor. From the structural standpoint, Manhattan is realized with an extraordinary sense for pictorial composition, mistage and camera movement. Most germane is the tight unity between these properties and the narrative continuity; at its best, this unity in itself becomes the film's message. Hence, a closer scrutiny of the cinematic structure of Manhattan will aid in a clearer understanding of its meaning and impact.

THE spectators' visual perception is seized from the very outset of the film: stunning views of Manhattan's urban setting introduce the location of the film's action in a dynamic montage flow. Black and white photography together with wide screen ratio ideally combine to present the architectural-pictorial aspect of the metropolis. With its metal, stone, dark brick, glass and concrete structures, New York projects a black-and-white vision. Color belongs to San Francisco, Palm Beach, Las Vegas and even Washington, while dark and bright contrast, especially at night, is what makes New York visually the most exciting city in the world.

Photographically, Manhattan is a film in which almost every shot is designed to expand its narrative meaning through pictorial composition. Many sequences contain shots of memorable visual beauty-never for their own sake, because the composition of the images is always subordinated to the pictorial event. The conversation between Allen and Diane Keaton in the planetarium is saturated with chiaroscuro density which can challenge, graphically, the famous "Aquarium Sequence" in Welles' Lady from Shanghai. The function of darkness and use of galactical phenomena which often dominate the stationary frame, add considerably to the philosophical implications of the Allen-Keaton interchange in this sequence. Although highly sophisticated, the optical effects are not far-fetched; rather, they are subtly interwoven with "critical" points during the conversation and are sustained just enough to intensify the emotional, as well as ideological aspect of an intimate relationship. In many other sequences, the stationary shots are composed with an evident concern for pictorial arrangement executed in a manner that enhances dramatic conflict, by either equilibrium or disharmony in the distribution of white and dark areas over the screen. Often the shot is divided into two equal segments-one occupied by close-ups of the characters, the other compact with decorative objects (sculptures, pictures, ironwork and flashing neons), or architectural detail (walls, windows, panels and storefronts). In these moments the camera often remains stationary while the actors and actresses perform and move within the flat surface of the image, creating a mise-en-frame (which is the cinematic equivalent of a painting). For example, in the sequence in which Allen talks to his girlfriend in his apartment and then climbs a spiral staircase, the concept of mise-en-frame is presented in a most effective fashion: at the beginning the screen is predominantly dark, with two bright accents only on the left and on the right; when this pictorial stasis reaches a motionless peak, the movement (of the characters) within the frame changes the composition and brings the shot to an end. The conversation between Allen and his friend (Michael Murphy) in the classroom (executed by the shot-counter-shot editing principle)clearly illustrates how an inanimate object (skeleton) can be inventively included within the stationary shot composition, creating irrepressibly humorous reverberations, which are both complementary to the dialogue and contrapuntal to the player's facial expression.

MOST OF THE cinematic dynamism in Manhattan is contributed by camera movement: it is the major expedient by which Allen transforms mise-en-scene into mise-en-shot (i.e., the kinesthetic interaction between the camera's mobility and the movement of objects or characters within the shot). The tracking camera ideally relates to the theme of this film, merging into the film's content. If any environment can be epitomized by incessant and omnipresent movement-both physical and psychological-then that locale must be New York. As a New Yorker (perhaps even more as a Brooklynite who observed the "pulsating" panorama of Manhattan from the opposite bank of the East River), Allen captured the sense of urban movement by executing 90 per cent of his shots using a panning, tracking and dollying camera. Assisted by his director of photography, Gordon Willis, Allen created scores of dynamic long takes penetrating the New York City streets from different angles. Accompanying the characters, their camera embraces a characteristic part of the environment while maintaining a compositional coherence of the moving image. The background in these takes persistently changes in design and perspective while the foreground is periodically "disturbed" by the turbulence of passing vehicles or silhouetted pedestrians. While the exterior long trackings are executed in medium shots with a pronounced depth of field(except in one specific case), New York streets are clearly visible and constantly changing as the characters walk across the avenues or turn street corners: similarly, in interior sequences, moving characters are followed by the camera in close-ups (with the background exposed as an abstract milieu).

Many films have used great cities as a "stage" which has been no more than a backdrop, however beautiful, for their action. In contrast, Allen and Willis perceived New York's irresistable dramatic force and succeeded in making it an integral part of their film. Even in the brief montage inserts(i.e., Allen and Keaton sitting under the 59th Street Bridge; Allen running through traffic or playing in the park with his son), the architecture of New York functions as an "emotional ingredient" of the photographed event. Supported by characteristic musical compositions (of which Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is the most prominent), these inserts serve as auditory-visual transitions which intensify the editing pace of the film and connect the plot junctures.

IN ADDITION to the constant movement of the camera, as well as the movement of characters/objects within a shot, the characteristic rhythm of New York life emerges on the screen through the order and juxtaposition of the sequences within the narrative flow. The principle of their organization is contrapuntal: a predominantly brightly lit sequence is succeeded by a dark one, while a long take is almost invariably replaced by a sequence composed of many edited shots (principally of characters conversing in close-ups). This concept of the film as a juxtaposition of visual events unforcefully related to each other is in accord with the modern tendency in art to conform to an open structure rather than to depend on tight dramatic unity. With such an "indented" narrative line, Manhattan can be seen as a cinematization of Allen's personal diary as opposed to novelization of a film (ironically touched upon in the film with Keaton's involvement in this type of "literary" work).

THE FILM begins with a documentary-like montage of brief long views showing the New York skyline at night and in the early morning. The ensuing conversation between Allen and his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) takes place in the bar (Elaine's), composed of a dozen brightly lit medium and close-up shots. then the first long tracking take occurs along the street with Allen and his girlfriend in the foreground; in contrast, this is succeeded by an interior sequence with Keaton and Murphy in their apartment, with several medium shots executed by a panning camera. Again there is a long tracking take with Allen and Hemingway walking through the streets, and turning corners, on a sunny day. An abrupt cut of the dark apartment with spiral stairs-a static shot with only two bright spots, a typical mise-en-frame. Next comes a "bright" sequence composed of shot-reverse-shot exchange between four characters in the gallery. An abrupt cut shows the same group of people walking down the avenue... etc.

This pattern of sequential order is carried out throughout the film-a rhythmic progression which, step by step, builds up the dynamic pace of Manhattan. Like a series of visual vignettes culled from a personal log (Allen calls them chapters), these sequences begin and end abruptly: the opening conversation between Allen and his girlfriend is, we immediately realize, a part of an ongoing relationship, while the closing conversation leaves us, as well as Allen, in a quandry; will they meet again and what will be the denouement of their romance?

It is widely known that Allen admires Bergman as "the greatest living filmmaker," openly attributing at least part of his inspiration to Bergman's work. Interiors drew upon the thematic and philosophical features of Cries and Whispers, while Manhattan reveals many shooting devices typical of Bergman's films, including the temporal prolongation of shots made possible by photographing characters in close-up with the moving camera. By doing so, Allen decreases the theatrical nature of mise-en-scene characteristic of his previous movies (including Annie Hall in which dialogue has been filmed mainly by a stationary camera in front of which the characters perform their parts while the audience views the "scene" from a single perspective). In Manhattan, such a histrionic camera set-up is almost entirely replaced by the everchanging panorama of the tracking camera. It appears as though the camera is tenaciously chasing the characters (particularly Allen) who run frenziedly along New York streets or through their apartments, which can be construed as a modern variation of the chases characteristic of the old silent slapsticks.

THE INTERACTION between the camera movement and the characters' invariable locomotion contributes to the dynamism of conversation and exuberance of mentality singular to the New Yorker. As a result, the screen is perfused with optical changes so that the human beings appear to be animated marionettes in an ambience of rich urban decor. Inevitably, such visual dynamism provides an appropriate frame for a casual style of acting, freed of the contrivance and pomposity prevalent in contemporary comedies. The most spontaneous actor is, of course, Woody Allen himself, noted for his extemporaneous manner of rendering lines and puns. His wit seems to be spur-of-the-moment, forged at the very instant of delivery before the camera. The effect of improvisation owes a great deal, as well, to Allen's (and Marshall Brickman's) extraordinary feeling for the vernacular. Their dramatic imagination is given expression through the camera's flexibility, with its constant exploration of the space as setting for the characters.

With all these formal distinctions, the thematic interpretation of Manhattan gains in complexity. It has been described as "harsh but very funny meditation on what it means to be a moral man in an amoral age" (Boston Pheonix), or, according to a more "profound" reading, as a film which shows "the cultural collapse that influences personal deficiency, striking the balance between the tenderness for the victims of these disasters and toughness about their contributions to the moral lassitude of the time" (Time). These and similar "readings" of Allen's ideological concept seem to me less pertinent when compared to the genuineness of the experience we undergo in watching Manhattan. This experience is, above all, cinematic in every aspect of the film's structure-an experience virtually non-existent in commercial Hollywood films engulfed by literary and theartical conventions. At the same time, Manhattan possesses literary values (mainly its dialogue), and dramatic development (the characters' conflicts). Successive amalgamation of these narrative elements with visual dynamism produces humorous imagery imbued with dramatic lyricism and verbal humor. This is, indeed, of greater relevance than the moral and ideological connotations which film reviewers try to extract from Manhattan.

HISTORICALLY this film is significant not merely in the context of Allen's own career, but also as one which marks a substantial advance in American film comedy (which, for a long time, has been epitomized by trivial burlesques such as those by Mel Brooks). In an even broader sense, Manhattan stands as a cinematic achievement which successfully integrates authentic environment with narratives structure. As a film about New York, it represents an artistic contribution to a distinguished group of films, from von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York, to Scorsese's 1977 New York, New York.

If Woody Allen continues to nourish and expand the cinematic aspects of his work, thus proving that the comedy genre is in no way inferior to other acknowledged "artistic" and "intellectual" genres of the sound cinema, he will become not only the foremost American director, but will as well join that select circle of exceptional film actors/auteurs.

WOODY Allen is one of the few popular filmmakers who remains true to his personal vision of life and art without forsaking the great tradition of the comedy genre. He knows how creatively to employ the new modes discovered by other directors involved in different genres. He flows with the current of contemporary cinematic trends, utilizing all the resources of modern technology. In contrast to Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix who explore the present potential of silent comedy gags, Allen blazes the trail for a renaissance of sound film comedy. He is rapidly approaching the point when-it is my hope-we will be able to say that Allen is the Chaplin of our time.

Vlada Petric is a Visiting Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University.

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