Film Glancing backwards through this list as we creep ever closer to the moment when I'll be choosing films released before the year of my birth, one pattern which is emerging is how often a film hasn't just been something I've enjoyed on a visceral or emotional level but also as a kind of gateway to something else, be it the art of Surat in the case of Ferris Bueller, the cosmology of Sunshine and Shakespeare's appearance in Star Trek VI (probably) (if I'm being honest). There's a sense that I'm especially drawn to films which don't just exist as pure entertainment but also have the weight of being a kind of cultural event in which the narrative and character are extrapolated through and drawn around cultural artifacts leading to a much deeper experience.
Manhattan's a case in point. When I saw the film on Channel 4, years after its original release I was overwhelmed, not just by Gordon Willis's mythologising photography of the city or the psychologically complex characterisation, but also the cultural references, most of which I didn't understand at the time but wanted to. This is probably the first time I heard Gershwin, of Flaubert, of Cezanne, of Fellini and Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also the locations: the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, Bloomingdale's, MOMA, the Whitney. When watching Manhattan, you're not just watching a film, you're listening to a concert, you're visiting an art exhibition, reading literature and you're being given an architectural tour and the director makes sure that you notice. He wants you to notice.
Recently, there seems to be less of these films as "cultural events" because film culture in particular is increasingly scared to alienating its audience by presenting it with culture (and even a culture) it might not necessarily be aware of in an otherwise familiar context. How often now do we see adaptations, even of contemporary novels, and the first element to be excised or neutered are the cultural references? Or in order to make the life of an artist or poet acceptable to a wider audience, the work they create is backgrounded in favour of a love story or some other historical moment. Pollock's a rare example of a film in which you actually learn something about his method and inspiration on top of his psychological underpinning and biography (indeed it's the very film which finally led me to understanding why his earlier work, at least, is great).
Which is why the rare occasions when films do embrace such things can be a joy. The underrated Liberal Arts has a sequence in which its protagonist is introduced to a ton of classical music in a montage sequence through which we watch him experience a cultural awakening and I expect most of us are right along with him and straight to Spotify to listen to these pieces in full. Which isn't to say that sometimes filmmakers don't get such things horrendously wrong. Welcome as it is to see Jane Austen feature in The Rewrite, she's generally ridiculed and there's no way on earth a scholar of the calibre Allison Janney's apparently playing wouldn't be aware of Clueless or not seen any of the adaptations. I have a theory that the professors Janney plays in each of these films are somehow related and argue the toss over such matters at Thanksgiving.
I've often talked about a kind of cultural awakening which happened in the early 90s and Manhattan and plenty of Woody Allen's other films and films in general will have been a contributing factor (and since it's important to credit the gateway, it was probably Ed Chigliak in Northern Exposure and his various dream sequences) (Northern Exposure was also a huge factor but this list doesn't feature television) (ahem). Which isn't to say that they're designed that way. When Alvy pulls out Marshall Mcluhan in Annie Hall, it's in front of an audience he expects to know who Marshall Mcluhan is (even if it's not necessarily necessary in order to understand the joke). It's worth noting I've yet to see The Sorrow and the Pity and it's The Last Action Hero which led to me watch The Seventh Seal.
Nevertheless this seems to me to be one of the embraceable cliches. From the moment we're born, we're constantly absorbing the culture around us, accepting some, rejecting others, leading to a set of behaviours or something to live up to. Much of the time it's a manufactured fantasy but the trick, if we're to remain sane, is to counter intuitively follow Cypher's request in The Matrix to be re-inserted otherwise we'll spend our lives like Neo, nostalgically glancing out of car windows at restaurants we used to eat, with really good noodles, that we now know don't exist. When I saw Manhattan, I didn't see any justifiable reason why, even if I could never live in this 1979 city, I couldn't at least enjoy some of its benefits. Hello Rhapsody in Blue. Hello Fellini. Hello as many other films set in New York as I could find which included Jon Jost's All The Vermeers in New York. Hello Vermeer.
Which isn't to say I actively wanted to live my life like the characters in the film. They seems so old and stressed out and I didn't really fancy Muriel Hemingway (because it would have felt like I was cheating on Debbie Gibson and the girl I fancied on the 80 bus) (teenage boys are curious beings). But it was the idea of having that sort of cultural awareness which was attractive, of being the sort of person who would sit in the evening listening to records or reading the latest novels rather than playing Wizball on the C64 and watching the Justice episode of Star Trek: TNG for the umpteenth time (like I said, teenage boys...). I still aspire to all that and manage it sometimes, through in present circumstance I have noticeably been watching more films which is always a fallback position but which it should be added I don't feel embarrassed about because why should I?
But when critics and audiences increasingly describe films as empty experiences, it's impossible not to attribute some of that to the loss of culture and of presenting characters connected to aspirationally higher art. Film companies necessarily want to present audiences with characters they think they'll identify with which means they're more like to go to a rock concert than an opera house and if they do visit an opera house, it'll be part of a "fish out of water" routine or an action sequence rather than their natural repose. Say what you like about Amazon's television selection, but between Mozart in the Jungle and hiring Whit Stillman and Woody himself to produce series it's unembarrassed by its high art tendencies. If only this was still true of the big screen. Still, we'll always have Manhattan.