A day in Manhattan, at The Office.

Today I watched two great comedies: Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and series two of The Office. Though they’re very different bits of film/TV, they made for an afternoon filled with laughter and truly poignant moments, spot-on writing, and some amazing cinematography.
Manhattan is, quite simply, a great piece of filmmaking: sharply written, visually gorgeous, well-acted, hilarious and touching. In some ways it’s standard Woody Allen fare: unattractive twice-divorced neurotic Jewish guy from New York deals with the travails of love and relationships while being mysteriously adored by several incredibly attractive women and injecting serious conversations with trademark wit. It also bears a significant resemblance to Annie Hall, which preceded it by two years, which also features Allen opposite Diane Keaton, not to mention a similar plot of guy-with-hangups coming to terms with his relationships with women. For the record, I love Annie Hall, but for all its similar poingancy, of the two it seems to be the more explicit comedy. Manhattan stands on its own — it just feels different.
For one, it’s the clear winner in terms of cinematography. Shot in black and white which somehow manages to never feel forced, it is full of crushingly beautiful shots from beginning to end. The opening montage — shots of New York set to Rhapsody in Blue — is one of the most starkly lovely bits of film I’ve seen, and the sequence in the planetarium is simply gorgeous. The soundtrack is entirely Gershwinn, and just works. The film gives the impression of being incredibly personal — even for Allen, who’s made a career out of thinly veiled autobiography — and this I think is a strength: the writing simply crackles with enthusiasm for the things Allen loves, for the art that has influenced him so deeply.
I will say that, in light of what has happened in Allen’s personal life in the intervening years, it is a bit weird to see him playing a twice-divorced man dating a seventeen-year-old. But this grim irony is definitely eclipsed by the utter quality of the film. It’s good, damned good.
Oh, and The Office. For those of you who are not familiar with the series, it’s a BBC sitcom about basically the worst imaginable office environment: staffed by an eclectic and weird bunch and led by boss David Brent, an egotist more concerned with being popular and appearing cool than with actually running an office. The action centers around the unbearable employees and the horrible faux-pas committed by Brent, casting comparatively normal receptionist Dawn and sales rep Tim as the de facto protagonists, both frustrated by their dead-end jobs and the idiocy of the people around them, both doing their best to amuse themselves any way they can (and usually at the expense of Gareth, Brent’s right-hand yes-man and Tim’s deskmate and practical-joke rival). It’s shot in documentary style, with no music or laugh track, the actors aware of the camera, and testimonial scenes interspersed between the action.
The show does an incredible job of evoking the dull, antiseptic, meaningless feel of the modern office, with intermittent telephone rings and short passage-of-time shots of the photocopier collating or of people typing and staring blankly at computer screens. What it does even better is make you squirm: this is a show that is often difficult to watch because it is filled with uncomfortable moments and embarrassing scenes. Brent’s endless inability to draw the line between the appropriate and inappropriate, his failed jokes, his desperate attempts to get in the good graces of his employees, and his latent misoginy/racism/homophobia/&c. make for positively jaw-dropping instances of pure discomfort. But it’s also amazing how human he (and the show itself) is (are): while you grip the chair and say to yourself, “No, he did not just say that,” you are being drawn in and made to actually care about these incompetent people who take so seriously such meaningless work at a paper company. And you may not realize this until the final episodes of series one, when you see the vulnerable sides of David and Gareth and realize that you actually feel sorry for them.
While Tim is busy putting Gareth’s office supplies in jello, an undercurrrent of romance is developing between him and Dawn, who is engaged to a fellow who works in the warehouse. Their friendship, their touching stabs at flirtation are acted and shot with astounding sensitivity and subtlety of a sort rarely seen on television or or film. The awkward tenderness of their unspoken attraction is expressed with honesty and acumen: it’s both thrilling and painful, and offfers so compelling a counterpoint to the awful office environment that you find yourself cheering for every stray glance — and there are many.
But if series one is about David Brent terrrorizing the office with his utterly inappropriate behavior, series two is about him being terrorized by everyone else. At first, this seems a strange turnabout, but once you get to the last two episodes, you understand what has happened: David Brent is no longer just some horrible monster, he’s a really small man clinging desperately to the only thing which makes him feel worth something: his job. Despite his repeated references to his wild night life, it’s clear that his real life is the office. It’s all he has.
Series two also features one of the most amazing sequences I have ever witnessed on film or TV, which I’m going to spoil a bit in the next paragraph. It should really be seen, not read about, so please skip the following paragraph if you think you may watch it at any point. I assure you, you’ll know the scene I’m talking about when you see it. If you are never going to watch this show or for some reason don’t care about knowing in advance, read on.
Dawn has decided to quit, and has just given a testimonial before the camera about how you have to settle in life and stick with the reliable. Tim, who has just found out about her departure for the States, is giving a testimonial to the camera. He is talking about how he’s not really concerned, how these things happen, how if the timing isn’t right there’s nothing you can do, being very nonchalant about the whole thing. And then. And then. He looks at the camera, says something like “forget it,” stands up, and leaves the room. The camera falls over, then follows him shakily down the corridor and up to Dawn’s desk. He brings her into the meeting room behind her desk, urgently pulling off his mic and turning it off. Then there is complete silence as we see, through the venetian blinds, him talking to Dawn, Dawn looking pained, a hug, an exchange. He leaves the room; the camera focuses in on Dawn, who is standing there in shock, then pans over to Tim, who has returned to his desk. We see him putting the mic back on, switching it on. He holds the mic up to his mouth and looks at the camera fleetingly. “By the way, she said no,” he tells us.
The scene is a departure, but not an incongruous one: it reminds us of the documentary/reality-TV nature of the shooting, the fact that, in the world of the office, the employees are agreeing to be followed and taped. Tim’s insistence on keeping this moment private is important and admirable, and the result is a shockingly powerful scene.
And that’s the thing about The Office: despite being a dark comedy about office life, it does the relationship bits astoundingly well, it knows its characters and is gentle with them, it recognizes their flaws and presents them with honesty. It’s really an astoundingly good piece of television.

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8 thoughts on “A day in Manhattan, at The Office.

  1. Have you ever seen Woodie Allen’s Radio Days? I think that is my favorite film of his and in my top 10. It seems to be his most personal, and he doesn’t even appear in it–he only does the voice over.

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