Ken Okiishi, (Goodbye to) Manhattan
Ken Okiishi. (Goodbye to) Manhattan
based in Berlin, Berlin
8 June – 24 July, 2011
Trying to find ways to say something will have us searching for words and enter a repetitive mode. Stopping and re-starting, stutter come again. This is somehow what structures the entire film (Goodbye to) Manhattan by Ken Okiishi from 2010. It opens with the famous opening sequence from the classic 1979 Woody Allen film Manhattan, where the main protagonist is trying to formulate the first few lines of his novel. At once a declaration of love to the city and an attempt to take revenge on his ex-lover’s tell-all book in which he is prominently featured, it’s a question of getting things right. As opening lines are important, they set the tone for the rest of the work and draw you in, both either as writer or a reader. They will somehow influence how what follows will develop. Or not. Sometimes these books never get written.
As indicated by the title (Goodbye to) Manhattan, in Ken Okiishi’s film it’s more about a farewell letter, and also a way to erase or neuter somehow the towering presence of the Woody Allen epic. Of saying goodbye, thereby switching out the light, emptying the store. This is done in a rather hands-on manner, where through green-screen and other tricks with voice-overs, translation and simultaneous over-cuts, Woody Allen’s film is omni-present, but quite literally reshuffled to the state of a controlled obsession, or the way people who stop drinking too much, sometimes say that they are now sober alcoholics.
The transition is from New York to Berlin, and in this sense is semi-autobiographical since the artist himself has made frequent trips between the two cities, and has been moving from one to the other. Together with many other Americans of his generation and even younger ones, one might add. It is this phenomenon of a New York exodus to Berlin that Ken Okiishi’s film is set to portray, among many other things. While typical New York activities such as MoMA fundraiser galas or endless walks in Central Park play out in the background, we get to see sets of new footage of “typical” Berlin things such as the KdW meat counter, visits to the collection of the Gemäldegalerie, or a street scene with a couple of buskers running out of batteries for their transistor.
What is at the heart of the film though, is a certain big city alienation, a type of verfremdungseffekt brought out through the way the actors speak past each other, sometimes from different picture planes or in mixes of German and English at the same time. As Diane Keaton as Mary (in a cameo appearance by the artist’s boyfriend Nick Mauss) tries to pay for her purchases, she can neither find any appropriate coins or bills nor any credit cards that are accepted and finally her entire purse is spilled on the floor where she leaves it lying as she trots along in a hunched over gait. All the characters of (Goodbye to) Manhattan seem to share the loopy logic of a similar type of movement in place. As if the elegant strolls through Central Park from Woody Allen’s original had been replaced with the mad determination of a treadmill. Examples of how to expediate the maximum amount of energy while doing a bare minimum. Or else thinking about what to do, or else talking about another typical big city activity. Talking to oneself even, the way typically in which big cities house large amounts of people while many of them still go around feeling quite isolated and lonely.
A section of a city breakdown plays out images of Roberto Rosselini’s Germany Year Zero, with the heartbreaking scene of the child jumping to his own death through the rubble of the bombed-out city. Here it’s not a question of isolation, but rather of people being outright hostile and unkind. The film’s status as a semi-documentary purveys the mood, shame and desperation that must have haunted the city of Berlin only little over half a century ago. The crying voice of teenage heartthrob Mariel Hemingway in the break-up scene with Woody Allen is acted out alone by a character strangely swaying back and forth as if she was on a tricycle, while the street wildly whirls about around her. This is how the film ends, except for another Manhattan outtake where the traffic flows in reverse as we are magically transported into the sky and away, panning out on the famous skyline.
What’s conspicuously absent from the film is any stand-in for the Woody Allen character himself whose narcissistic presence holds such a center stage in the original adaption. This creates a type absence-presence for the artist himself as if the entire film represented one long attempt at trying to make it as a statement. As if it was all playing out, inside his own head, as a memory or a dreamlike obsession. The way we don’t really star in our own dreams, even if we steer its narrative. Should I stay or should I go? Big City mythology day and night in color and black and white. What’s the use of any of it? Will there never be a place or moment where I can freely breathe? Is this what we have come to define as civilization? Culture? The meaning of art? A rapture. Screened out of doors as part of the survey exhibition based in Berlin’s extensive program of performances and lectures, this film is a contemporary classic on issues of transition and migration.