Manhattan - More A Painting

Thoughts On: Manhattan

What is heralded as Woody Allen's love letter to New York.

What I want to talk about with this film is aesthetics, is what is best expressed with the...

It's watching this film, seeing shots like those selected (of which I could choose a million more) that something became very obvious to me, and that was the true artistic difference between black and white and colour films. To talk about this, I of course could cite dozens of films, hundreds of shots, thousands of frames...

... as anyone could. But, to continue with that would be a masturbatory act in... pointlessness. Instead of trying to find my favourite shot, the best frames or whatever, I ask you to think of your own. And with that image compare experienced life with black and white cinema.

In doing so, you come to the crux of why colour film is now so dominant - it's closer to what we expect in perceiving. As humans we see things in colour and so for cinema to best communicate to us on perceptual levels it makes sense for it to mimic the way we see the world. However, this is a reduction that does have some weight, but, is for the large part, nonsense. If cinema had to replicate human perception to tell us stories we understand, then all films would be confined to long POV shots that can only capture the everyday. If people decided to only tells stories of this kind and in this way, cinema would implode. The whole point of film is to show us things we otherwise wouldn't, to make us feel things (entertainment, joy, awe, wonder, horror, excitement) through means we rarely, maybe never, do. We want to see heroes, miracles, the impossible, we want to see and feel the best and the worst moments in life - because life, being stuck in these heads and behind our eyes, doesn't afford us such leeway. Why I then chose Manhattan to talk about black and white, also the ideas that spring for such a notion of life and perception, come down to the opening 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. "

To me, the juxtaposition of this voice over and the images we see say almost everything about cinema as a world in black and white. There is an egotistical pretension about Woody Allen's films, especially the likes of his best works - this and, of course, Annie Hall. And I believe that's what we love about them - it's Allen's true persona, the means by which his voice (and what it resonates with within us) can be expressed. There is also a truth to egoism that, whilst hard to bear, can be more than refreshing - a bit like watching a fight, rebelling or listening to heavy metal (or some other teenage tendency).

And it's in this teenage-temper-tantrum-esque look at art, that I also see the truth of cinema as an art form, as a form that best resonates with people. It's exactly this that the opening monologue and juxtaposed images ultimately reveals. Firstly, we hear Isaac Davis' interior monologue projected and captured. The likeness of this to capturing the stories we want to tell are clear. But, again, we stumble upon an egoism and self-centricness. We want to extrapolate our interiors to open up a dialogue, to flaunt them for others to see as to get a response - such is communication in its essence. And it's in this that we see the self-obsession inherent to almost all human ideas of society, communication, integration, oneness, equality, equity that are almost universally attributed to human goodness. It's in love, it's in living along side your fellow man as a brother or sister, a fellow mensch on this speck of rock, water and atmosphere hopelessly careening through infinite space, that we get a warm feeling in our chest. In this idea, I think it becomes ever clearer why egoism is something not completely shunned in society. We are, in our very cores, selfish beings. To get along with each other we have to first realise that, but then come to the greater revelation about the speck of rock, water and atmosphere in this infinite void.

We are alone in this world, in this universe, in this life. We are as infinitely big as we are infinitely small under the guise of cosmic and quantum comparison - but with leanings toward curiosity, danger, pain and pessimism, we see the 'infinite bigger' before the 'infinite smaller', hence, we see ourselves relatively minute before gargantuan. This leave us alone and afraid in life. And whilst we want to survive as singular units, we recognise that to achieve survival, maybe life, something more than just scrapping by, we have to compromise, to barter favour, protection, love and solace from those around us through an idea of community and society. This is how the individualist ultimately survives: amongst the masses. This is also why goodness is seen in the fabrication of our selfish nature. Our selfish nature, if seen raw, has us liable to fall in ourselves, forget that we need others. However, I think it's obvious that this is the process of growing up - this is why teenagers are such assholes. They see the truth in life, that they are an individual (something captivated by the concept of an adult - a responsible and 'free' being). And in recognition of this fact, they see their raw selfish core - the fact that they are alone in this world, that oneness, love, community, answers--all existential enquiries of life--are great unknowns - again, they are alone, unknowing and infinitely small under the infinite pressure of greater cosmic truth. Because it's hard to simply accept this truth and see the light that is humbleness, that is admitting you are small and you need others, people go through a stage of rebellion and dickishness.

Now, this is a slight tangent away from cinema and black and white aesthetics, but understanding where egoism comes from, why we have it and where its traps and illuminations are, we see why cinema is so important. Cinema (all art for that matter) is a form of communication. Communication, through different fundamental senses, is how we reach out and tell others of our self-centricness, of what is ultimately our debilitating fear - the fears and anxieties we all carry in our chest or store away at the back of our minds - the idea that we are alone, stuck in ourselves. Art and cinema is the road from the rural confines of the individualist plight to the urban city landscape of universal problems. (Jesus, I'm aphoristic today - someone best be taking notes to quote here). In recognition of this idea of one wanting to exist amongst others, we can now come back to human perception. As we've talked about, cinema is not here for us to replicate what and how we perceive life. Cinema is a means of exploration, of making imagination and fantasy tangible. This divide between reality and fantasy in cinema is so important because projecting desire and fulfilling wishes is quite simply what sells tickets. And I'm not just talking about blockbusters here, I'm talking about all films. All great films allow us to escape ourselves (in large part, the job of blockbusters) or they allow us to fall in on ourselves as a means of introspective exploration (in large part, the job of arthouse cinema). When you face the dichotomous philosophical meanderings of cinema and human perception with the idea of aesthetics at hand, black and white film not being the dominant form is almost paradoxical. And it's here where we actually begin to talk about Manhattan specifically.

This shot is not life. This is romance, this is fantasy. This is the manipulation of the world to emote with great profundity something you can't grip, something that is nearly impossible to explain. This iconic shot expresses beauty, beauty in black and white. But, what is beauty? This is the something that is nearly impossible to explain. The only way I could approach this question is to return to the 'infinite bigger' and 'infinite smaller' idea. Beauty is, under my interpretation, two things. It is a biological or philosophical recognition of weakness, and, in this, it is either fear or relief. With a shot like this...

Or this...

We see the biological idea of beauty, of weakness, of relief or fear. It's buzzing chemical pathways within that indicate to us that an Ingrid Bergman, Paul Newman (insert anyone you think is attractive) is beautiful. It's my reduction that implies to me reasoning under the idea that, because we want to procreate, we want, or tell ourselves we need, these people. And, as we covered, wanting or needing others is the individualist plight tantamount to weakness. Our subsequent fear that we will never have these people, or our relief at the idea that we have someone like them (not likely) stems from this desire, and this desire is, in short, the means by which we recognise beauty. Beauty is in desire, beauty is in lacking--in weakness--beauty is in biological need, a chemical hole or fault line etched into us. It's seeing beauty in these terms that we can see the existentially driven need to procreate as apart of an 'infinite bigger'. Procreation is existence, is letting our lives carry on through another body - an idea we hope can infinitely perpetuate itself. The fear inherent to this is in denial, the denial of our infinite perpetuation. Again, self-obsessed, but, such is humanity. But, whilst Ingrid Bergman and Paul Newman are biologically beautiful, so is this...

The reason why comes down to our philosophical idea of beauty. Awe is inspired within us through this image because it heralds human capacity, ingenuity and construction. The same may be said when we look at the natural world - except we are seeing nature's capacity, ingenuity and construction. Recognising feats of society and nature forces us to recognise the 'infinite bigger', the fact that we could not do this on our own, or at least cannot fathom how. (Which is, in part, why babies are so beautiful to people - parents especially). When faced with the incomprehensible fruits of unknown labours and hidden workings, we are made to feel fear in the idea that we are not in control, that there is some threat in being in the presence of these things, or, we are made to feel relief, relief in the solace of benefiting from these constructions so much bigger than ourselves. In this we see a philosophical, higher functioning, recognition of the world around us - one that establishes itself from biologically driven beauty.

Now, paint over this perception of the world, of beauty, with shades of black and white. At first, this seems like a silly thing to do, to cheapen or lessen the experience that nature provides us. But, in remembering the idea of fantasy, we see the crux of artistic construction. The iconic shot above is the manipulation of the world as to say something about the individual, to give the singular artist a voice to speak to the masses. Black and white is then a means of reflecting a personal reality within us. And we can now recognise this as so important because of the 'infinite bigger' and 'infinite smaller' - because we need to calm the cacophonous noise of true reality in it's incomprehensible cosmic truth by zooming in on our personal lives; the worlds existent in our heads alone. Black and white is a means of better communicating our interior monologues because it sells a nuanced perspective of the world, a nuanced perspective of the artist. In this respect, I mean to communicate the beauty of human industry, contusion, manipulation, interference and design. It is then self-centred to revere black and white, an early human means of capturing the world, over the natural way of things - but, as I've said many times over, such is humanity. In this, I hope that the paradox of black and white cinema falling away becomes a little more obvious. Black and white film better distinguishes human creation from reality - a better means of personal projection - and so should be a thing we hold onto (somewhat self-centredly). All of this is not to say that the coloured or real world is not as beautiful, merely that with the combined ideas of beauty and an individualist plight, black and white cinema seems like an eloquent solution to the felt faults of the human condition. There would, however, be many ways to explain why colour still became dominant around the 60s - it was a new(ish) experience, people love technology (especially when its cheaper to put out there) and things moving forward, also with the new vibrancy of aesthetics also came a matching vibrancy of action and plotting in movies, meaning bigger, more exciting films.

I could go on, but, in the end, I think black and white films of the past, present and future will always hold a certain weight, will always be more of a painting than coloured film under the self-centric finger tips of the human artist, for when man lacks a mirror to sit and stare into, he paints a self-portrait. (Goddamn I need to be quoted). Anyways...

The End

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