There is a Japanese word for it, I am sure. A word I probably even knew at one time (now there’s money well-spent on my East Asian Studies major). It had to do with poetry and a kind of punning resonance, a use of certain characters or phrases that made reference to ancient and classic Chinese poems. The reader or reciter would come upon these familiar stones in the river of words and a host of associations would be called up. The past briefly bubbling forth, thus enriching the experience of the here and now. Kind of like sampling from an older song, I suppose. Watching Manhattan is a similarly layered and muddy experience at this point. It’s not just having seen it so many times. It’s also its function at one time in my life as a touchstone of what it would be like to live here, then what it would be like to be older than I was living here, then to be essentially the same age as the characters themselves. In ways somewhat embarrassing to admit, it was for a time when I was green and stupid one of the yardsticks against which I measured my Are we a New Yorker yet? existence. Luckily, I’m hardly alone in that regard.
As a 15-year-old, I took the requisite summer trip to Israel. We passed groups exactly like ours everywhere we went. What my group consoled ourselves with— fallaciously in retrospect—was that we were somehow materially different from the other American teens who yearly overrun the country. We were young socialists, after all, working on kibbutz not as lifestyle tourists, but with an actual eye to moving there for good, living out the remainder of our days in socialist-collective utopian bliss. Militantly secular and (we thought) devoutly anti-materialistic, we wanted nothing to do with the God-fearing kosher stylings of the Izod-worshipping diaspora strivers. Or so I thought until we reached The Wailing Wall where more than a few of the girls in our group were overcome. One was consumed with weeping for a dead grandfather, another dramatically could not advance to the stone face as she was sure it was emitting sparks. I remember being appalled and disappointed at this Salem-like hysteria. It’s just a fucking wall, I thought. How embarrassing, then, to realize that I have virtually the same reaction as those teen girls to the Gershwin-scored montage of the fucking walls and spires of New York City that begins Manhattan. Like many immigrants, I cannot be objective about the city and its role in my life. I habitually give it almost exclusive credit in the forming of my character, as if I moved here at age seventeen as protoplasmic and inert as one of those human larvae in The Matrix. Still, to paraphrase the movie, I idolize the city all out of proportion. And like all great loves (and I’ve said this many, many times before) I have been contending with some disappointment over the last few years. As if my once interesting boyfriend suddenly became a Wine Bore. What do the young kids who dream about moving here picture themselves doing? Going to the sample sale at Manolo Blahnik? I don’t even want to think about it.
But the city has always been drunk on ambition, connection and real estate (although there was a time when young people with dreams of making art could still move here). The bohemianism of Manhattan is at a very rarefied level: ERA fundraisers in the garden at MoMa, simple grocery lists filled at Dean & DeLuca. Joan Didion, in a 1979 New York Review of Books article, writes about the film “…toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. ‘Groucho Marx’ is one reason, and ‘Willie Mays’ is another. The second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues. Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry… and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.”
It’s a typically astute observation on Didion’s part (as a self-conscious teen, I was not above filling my knapsack with a curator’s eye so that, should I buy the farm in front of a bus, some EMS technician, going through the personal effects next to my lifeless corpse might unpack the Mishima novel, the small kit of watercors, etc., and think “What a waste.”) but it’s also a curiosity since, reductively stated, “Joan Didion in The New York Review of Books” might just as easily be added to that list of cultural shorthand. It’s like being guided through a Picasso exhibit by one of the Demoiselles d’Avignon. And then of course Woody Allen completes the list by saying, “Tracy’s face,” and you can virtually hear the screech of the brakes. Earlier in the movie, Allen describes Mariel Hemingway as “God’s answer to Job.” That the Almighty, in copping to all the suffering and horror of the world, could point to her and say, “Yeah, but I can also make one of these.” And watching her on screen, with her eyebrows like gypsy moth caterpillars, he kind of has a point.
And her hair! It is at least in part a movie all about hair, both Temporal (Diane Keaton’s not entirely successful late-70s perm) and Divine: the birch plank of Meryl Streep’s mane (and seeing her, the greatest living actor in the world, so young, so strikingly lovely and already so compelling that you cannot watch anyone but her when she’s on screen. The book her character writes in the movie, Marriage Divorce, and Selfhood, sounds suspiciously like ex-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s recent tome). But it is Mariel Hemingway’s impossibly silken horsetail chignon that reigns supreme. I remember being at camp as a 12-year-old, reading the girls’ Seventeen magazines in which unfathomably clear-skinned, cute girls—this was the mid-to-late 70s, the absolute heyday of Brooke Shields at her Pretty Baby height along with her other teen girl model cohort—were always shown laughing with faces smeared in bright green skin masks, or with cucumber slices over their eyes (still laughing), or coiling their hair up in playful ways that seemed both effortless and impossible: use pencils to wear it up in this kicky twist. Or better yet, add an actual desk chair for a terrific back to school look. And there she’d be, walking through some leafy quad with some equally lovely boy. It wasn’t just their beauty that was a foreign country (although it seemed as other-worldly to me as that scene in Bread And Chocolate when the Italian migrant workers, absolute untouchables in Switzerland, forced to live in a chicken coop, look out through their wire windows and watch the blonde teenage children of the local land-owners as they skinny dipped). It was also the unoccluded pleasure of it all. The desire identified, owned up to, and fulfilled.
I knew enough not to confuse a magazine spread with reality. There is a reason girls like Mariel Hemingway get cast in movies, after all (she is also, it must be said, a fucking remarkable actress, at least in this film and in Personal Best). But reality—actual reality—kicked me in the teeth when, seven years after summer camp, as a college junior away in London, I spent Christmas break in Paris. For two hours of work a day, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, hard by Notre Dame, would give you a bed for the night. I was feeling pretty damn pleased with myself, sitting at that little desk fielding questions, the answers to which I had no idea. The bookstore was labyrinthine and foggy with cat hair. To relieve ourselves we had to go to the toilet in the café nearby and to the public baths for actual ablutions. How authentic, how bohemian, how ridiculously cool it all seemed. Until one day, in walked a boy with whom I went to college. He was the one who made the connection. I had never seen him before, or perhaps it was that staring into his flawless face, or at the brilliance of the white broadcloth of his perfectly rumpled Oxford shirt was like looking directly at the blazing sun. Even his name, Mark Marvel (his real name), seemed to perfectly evoke that whole mid-80s-new-romantic-Brideshead thing he had going. It was as if the cast of Rodin’s “Thinker” that sat outside the East Asian Studies Library where I spent most of my time had come into the store and sidled up and asked me, “Do you go to Columbia?” Small world, we mutually declared.
“So what are you going to do for the holiday?” he asked me.
Do? I thought? Aren’t I already doing it? I’m here, in Paris, “working” in a bookstore, smoking cigarettes, sleeping upstairs under a coverlet of navy velvet, a midnight sky festooned with a Milky Way of dander. I didn’t understand the question. Why? What was he doing.
“Oh, I’m going to Sardinia to see my friend Isabel Fonseca. Do you know her? I bought her this bottle of brandy.” Brandy? How did he know about brandy? That same year, I had walked into a liquor store in London looking for a hostess gift and said that I wanted a nice bottle of something brown. “Maybe some good gin?” I inquired. What did I know. I didn’t learn how to drink until years later when hatred of my job in publishing essentially medically required it. As for Sardinia, I was at sea. I knew it was near Sicily but briefly confused it with Corsica as Napoleon’s birthplace.
And there it was, all over again. The girls of Seventeen magazine, Mark Marvel, Mariel Hemingway’s hair, all of it conspiring and leading me to that same conclusion that so often rings in my head: the referendum on the ways in which I am found wanting, leading to the chronic conclusion I shall never catch up. As I’ve gotten older and the race is no longer open to 42-year-olds, I’ve simply replaced the word “catch” with “measure,” and it has worked just as well. I still hope I get to live in Manhattan when I grow up.