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Manhattan By Numbers
Visually, director Amir Naderi's independent 1993 feature represents an eerily beautiful, hypnotic ode to a side of Manhattan that's uniquely human in its manufactured alienation. From a narrative standpoint, the shaggy dog story leaves a bit to be desired, starting strong before ultimately crumbling a bit under the weight of a churning, less-and-less plausible conceit.
George Murphy (John Wojda in his debut) is at the end of his rope on the island metropolis. Idly smoking cigarettes in his pretty fabulous two-bedroom walk-up, measured shots and phone conversations reveal a man without gainful employment, six months behind on the rent, and about 17 hours from losing his pad. Yet, he seems to have some idea that if he finds his old friend, a curious chap who owes him about 1200 bucks, then everything will turn out all right. So let the search begin.
And with a full slate of tragic, artful shots of Manhattan's grimy side yet to spool out over 88 minutes, let the plot end. What remains is for George to move from payphone to payphone, acquaintance to acquaintance in a vain attempt to find this friend, over the longest afternoon in recorded history. Seriously, I've had occasion to go from my sister's therapist to some Italian restaurant in a transportation nightmare that ate up more time than George uses hoofing and subbing from one end of the island to another multiple times. Of course realism isn't the objective of Manhattan By Numbers, and character arcs or storylines aren't a focus either. Our trajectory is to chase the mystery friend and Manhattan itself as the pair of ciphers slide from legendary good guy - and welcoming city of dreamers - to homeless weirdo - and wasteland of empty eyes, empty lots and chaotic architecture agglomerated from trash.
As an artistic construct, the movie works marvelously - for a time - displaying vistas only a Manhattanite could love, or at least appreciate. But at feature length, the whole combine begins to churn. Ideas lose their punch through overuse or simply by coming too late in a story that will have viewers begging for resolution by the 60-minute mark. It's a small but significant loss. To the buoyant jazz strains of Gato Barbieri's sweet, underused score, powerful shots of subways burrowing into hills, (Naderi seems to have found every mountainous region of the island) eyeless tenements sharing space with bombed-out lots, and time-worn, weary faces staring from windows move from wistful observations to overcooked tropes. The fashion in which these landscapes decay from the modest but darn nice environs of George's apartment to homeless camps seemingly soldered together from dead hubcaps smartly mimics George's increasing desperation and his missing friend's potential. To wit, everything's going downhill in this brick and cement hellhole. One wonders if a bit of actual human kindness amongst the sterile towers of Wall Street represents redemption or pyrrhic defeat for both George and director Naderi, a pair of men who both might have allowed dreams to carry them a little too far.
Non-anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 ratio) will likely have you watching Manhattan By Numbers in fullscreen with black bars on all sides. While beautifully filmed, deficiencies in the source shine through. The movie looks like it may have been shot in 16mm, with plenty of grain apparent. Digital mastering is adequate, without any truly glaring compression artifacts, though overall grain and an essentially monochrome palette might mask such things; washed-out blues and grays dominate colors. It's an evocative look for the subject.
Stereo Audio shows off Barbieri's lovely score to nice effect, though it's by no means reference-quality. Most dialog sounds to be recorded live, or at least looped with lots of room noise inherent, so it's not the greatest sounding mix, no matter how you slice it. Obviously this is an independent production, so you shouldn't expect much. In all, everything you need to hear, you can hear just fine.
Two extras accompany the film, a Stills Gallery and an 18 minute featurette, Behind The Scenes: The Music Composer Gato Barbieri represents raw footage of a scoring session with Barbieri et al in the studio. In the best of circumstances (i.e. watching your favorite band record your favorite song) time spent in the studio is mostly boring. It's a lot of sitting around, lots of setting up, lots of tech-talk, and lots of hearing the same thing over and over again. 18 minutes with Barbieri is more than enough, and holds very narrow appeal.
Naderi and cinematographer Callanan compose a beautiful ode to the most dehumanizing aspects of Manhattan and its cold, stone environment. It's a visual feast of human endurance in self-imposed alienation and isolation. However, the thin, shaggy dog plot line, and eventual churning through repetitive visual and dramatic themes diminish the film's power, so - artistic beauty aside - this one merits only a Rent It. By the loopy, irritating end you too may feel you've lived a few too many winters in a cold, harsh environment.