If you’re lucky enough you may have a couple friends you’ve met blogging who inspire your own work or you give you a special kick, sometimes in the butt. That’s my friend Ross at Drinking Tips for Teens, aka my pimp daddy, who read and commented on all of my early posts, when it seemed like no one else was noticing (because they weren’t).
A love letter to a love letter
by Ross Murray
Chapter 1. He idolized his brother-in-law. Whether it was going to movies with him or mailing funny letters back and forth – letters that might be assembled to look like ransom notes – he felt at last that here was an adult figure who actually seemed to like him.
(No, too self-pitying, and not necessarily true.)
Chapter 1. He had forgotten the fast talking his brother-in-law had done at the box office to get his 13-year-old companion into an R-rated movie. It was 1979. The boy had come to visit his sister and her husband in the city. Movies were something to do in the evening. His brother-in-law had already reached godlike status two years earlier by taking him to see Star Wars, making him the first person in his Grade 6 class to see it, a status he continues to claim to this day.
(Too confusing. All those third-person masculine pronouns. Is his brother-in-law in Grade 6? Better just tell it straight.)
Chapter 1. I forget sometimes that, in 1979, even though he was 10 years older than me, my brother-in-law was essentially still a kid himself. But I couldn’t see that. He was a big, bearded, funny guy who gave me his time when I visited Halifax on my own. Still, it may not have been his best judgement to take me to see Manhattan, Woody Allen’s love letter to New York.
I’d been going to movies all my young life. Besides the Disney fare I might see with my family, my town’s single cinema showed Saturday matinees, often older run movies, like every single Jerry Lewis film.
Star Wars had introduced to me the idea of film as experience. That same year, I had my first movie date: Close Encounters of a Third Kind. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, mostly because I was so nervous about the girl. She didn’t help matters by sending me out to the concession stand every half hour. We did not date again.
Manhattan, though, was a different experience altogether.
My original memories of Manhattan have been shaded by subsequent viewing, just as my interpretation of the film has changed over the years. As a 13-year-old, for instance, it never occurred to me that the relationship between Allen’s character and Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy was unhealthy. To me, she was just a pretty, younger girl he had to make some hard decisions about.
Still, even I knew there was something different going on, something complex, something a long, long way from Jerry Lewis.
For starters, there was the opening. Chapter 1. I grew up in a musical household, so I knew Gershwin. Pairing that purely American music with scenes of black and white – I remember sitting in the dark theatre wrapped up in the wonder of its beauty, the way it seemed…perfect. I watched that opening sequence again to write this piece, and I got goosebumps. I do every time.
And then the film itself. Watching Manhattan at age 13 (and a half) was like sneaking through a portal into a sophisticated world where adults strolled through urban landscapes with dramatic lighting while talking about sex, art and relationships. They agonized. They spoke in roundabout ways, not as dialogue but as conversation. They had sex and lay about afterward.
I was eavesdropping. Of all the great lines, for some reason, I remembered and repeated this sequence for months afterwards: Isaac and Mary are stretched out, post-coital. Mary says, “You’re someone I could imagine having children with.” “Really?” says Isaac, removing his glasses. “Well, hit the lights.” It was like overhearing a dirty joke and getting it. I had passed some kind of test.
Manhattan, then, became a cinematic initiation of sorts. It served as a free pass to see further adult fare: Kramer vs Kramer later that year, The Elephant Man the following spring. “But Mom,” I could always argue, “I’ve seen Manhattan!”
Beyond opening up a world of cinema to me, Manhattan exposed me to something about relationships: they were messy. Unlike the tidy resolutions of most of the films I had seen, Manhattan is not just ambiguous but wonderfully unsatisfying. What kind of relationships are these? What kind of relationships could such people possibly have? Is this what I was heading into? And did I want it? God, yes!
Years later, my sister and her husband moved to New Zealand. They split up after 25 years together, acrimoniously. He re-married a mutual friend and is estranged from his sons. I saw him about 10 years ago when we both happened to be back in Nova Scotia. We’ve since lost contact. I still think of him fondly and remember how he treated me. Manhattan was right: relationships are messy.
Ross is a writer living on the Canadian side of the Quebec-Vermont border. He writes a weekly newspaper column and runs the blog Drinking Tips for Teens. Last fall he published his first novel, A Hole in the Ground, a story about small town life, newspapers and endangered turtles.