I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Objects as Central Characters: Tales of Manhattan

by Timothy Misir
Dec. 5, 2014

In film parlance, an anthology or portmanteau film is made up of several short vignettes or chapters with their own plot lines. "Tales of Manhattan,” by the then-exiled French director Julien Duvivier (his country was occupied by Nazi Germany) a 1942 Hollywood comedy is such a film — a multi-story narrative with an all-star cast made up of six interconnected short stories.

Anthology films work in many ways: Jim Jarmusch’s "Night on Earth" (1993) puts together five separate stories only sharing the same premise: taxi drivers and their interactions with passengers in different cities around the globe, while in Robert Altman’s "Short Cuts" (1993) nine short stories happen in parallel and are interwoven with loose points of connection.

By its very nature, different plot lines in this sort of movie do not add up, and remains the sum of its parts, said Roger Ebert in a review of another New York anthology film "New York, I Love You" (2009).

A particular object tying together disparate stories is another common way anthology films are presented. Like “Twenty Bucks” (1993), a film that boasts a similarly star-studded cast, which follows the life of a $20 bill that is passed from person to person encountering various absurd and hilarious situations, or “The Red Violin” (1997), which chronicles the owners of a mysterious violin over centuries, the stories that make up "Tales of Manhattan" are tied together by a hand-me-down. In this case, an jinxed tailcoat with exquisite lapels that moves through a variety of owners from different New York City backgrounds (though not all sequences are set in the city), from the idle and wealthy upper class to thieves and the rural poor.

The transactions that occur in "Tales of Manhattan" that allow the tuxedo jacket to be passed from one person to another function, like other hand-me-downs in film, "a means of potential freedom while scenes of purchase and acquisition initiating the episodes provide sugary doses of commodity fetishism" and "manifests some of the tensions of transnational and inter-ethnic border-crossing by bringing to the fore the socioeconomic conditions impinging on material as well as cultural recycling," Diffrient explains in a paper about the hand-me-downs in the history of film.

In such films, these props become central characters, taking a life of their own “Objects are assumed to both connect and divide people, and their recycling might just as well hinge on institutional intermediaries like the Salvation Army in lieu of direct giver-recipient relations," Diffrient continues. He speaks about how the hand-me-down object, instead of being a thing that is owned, instead has control over its owner, but ultimately highlights that like all material possessions, ownership is impermanent.

Diffrient points out that the “down” in "hand-me-down" suggests "a waning of value that may be culturally encoded as much as economically determined,” which is particularly salient in the final sequence, perhaps the best one of the lot (though politically incorrect), starring African-American actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson in his final Hollywood role.

Here, a thief in possession of the coat stuffed full of cash, loses it while flying to Mexico. It falls out of the sky, landing in a rural and impoverished community, where it is picked up by some farmers, who believe it a miracle from heaven. A champion of the black movement, Robeson was disappointed with the stereotyping of blacks in this film and the kinds of roles given to black actors in Hollywood and left acting there for good, though he was given the chance to share his communist sympathies through his final role.

Director Duvivier would return to France after the war, but not before making another anthology film with stars Boyer, Robinson & Mitchell, "Flesh and Fantasy," in 1943, while screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, like Robeson a Communist Party member and blacklisted during McCarthyism, left for England with his wife in 1951.

Ebert, Roger. Reviews - New York, I Love You. Oct. 14, 2009.

http://www.rogerebert.com/ reviews/new-york-i-love-you- 2009

Diffrient, David Scott. "Stories that Objects Might Live to Tell: The "Hand-Me-Down" Narrative in Film," Other Voices 3:1 (2007).

http://www.othervoices.org/3. 1/sdiffrient/index.php

Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at tim.misir@gmail.com.