In the big city the twin spirits Romance and Adventure are always abroad seeking worthy wooers. As we roam the streets they slyly peep at us and challenge us in twenty different guises. Without knowing why, we look up suddenly to see in a window a face that seems to belong to our gallery of intimate portraits; in a sleeping thoroughfare we hear a cry of agony and fear coming from an empty and shuttered house; instead of at our familiar curb, a cab-driver deposits us before a strange door, which one, with a smile, opens for us and bids us enter; a slip of paper, written upon, flutters down to our feet from the high lattices of Chance; we exchange glances of instantaneous hate, affection and fear with hurrying strangers in the passing crowds; a sudden douse of rain--and our umbrella may be sheltering the daughter of the Full Moon and first cousin of the Sidereal System; at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous, changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers.
--O. Henry, "The Green Door," from the collection The Four Million
E.B. White once divided New York, like Gaul, into three parts. First is the New York of the native, who takes the city and its treasures for granted. Second is the New York of commuters, "devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night." Then there is the last, and what White considered the greatest, the New York of the immigrant, "of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something."
For her contribution to the Derelict's New York City blogathon, the Siren is indulging herself with a mighty piece of presumption, and adding another New York to White's three categories. For it's always seemed to me that there is a New York of the mind, where the past incarnations of the city bump up against its Neo-Gilded Age present. Which corner of your psyche the city occupies is a personal matter, of course. You may think of it as "Gomorrah on the Hudson," as O. Henry called it, a daily assault on all that's otherwise righteous in the country. You may see yourself reflected in Tiffany's window, eating a bagel like Holly Golightly, or sipping a cosmo like her spiritual offspring, the Sex and the City ladies. But over it all hangs the spirit that O. Henry describes above. Could he be describing any city besides this one? It's easy to set a movie in New York because in the city of our minds, any type of adventure--or debacle--is possible.
The Siren knows that Lists Are Bullshit because Glenn Kenny told her so, and this is not a list. Truly, if it were a list it would horrify the Siren, as there are some big omissions. This just a group, an agglomeration if you will, in which each movie represents something the Siren has observed, experienced or yearned for in New York, some good, some bad. And this is the New York of the mind, not geography, so you will notice that not all were even shot entirely on location. In fact, we'll start with one that captures a great deal of New York's allure, and did so almost entirely on a Paramount soundstage.
Jeff, you know, if someone came in here, they wouldn't believe what they'd see. You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known.
People-watching - Rear Window. The word voyeurism is usually linked to sexual matters, and lord knows there is plenty of that in Rear Window, both overt and implied. But for a New Yorker there is more than a mere sexual thrill in observing other people. It's part of the attraction of the place. There is an endless amount of people-watching, and most of all, the people are interesting. Usually not trunk-murder interesting, but more vivid and watchable than what you'd see across a backyard in Plano, I'll bet.
Sally: But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?
Sidney Falco: Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players... In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.
Ambition - Sweet Smell of Success. Ambition is New York's defining characteristic, as everyone from Billy Wilder to Kander and Ebb could tell you. That's why this poisonous, cynical, glittering little fable is, for most of us, the defining movie about New York. Burt Lancaster is superb as J.J. Hunsecker, the Walter Winchell-based columnist with an unhealthy obsession with his sister. But the real thematic meat of the movie is Tony Curtis's Sidney Falco, and watching him try to climb the ladder, suck-up by suck-up. He gets told off a lot, if you notice, by people who have a lot of noble things to say, but he keeps right on keeping on. His persistence is more realistic than some of the huffy speeches directed at him, in fact, as is his fitful self-awareness. Falco knows he's throwing away pieces of his soul, but he's had his soul wrapped up in an old newspaper in the back of the closet for some time. Curtis later told what attracted him to the part: "All I had to hear was New York. I was raised in that city."
It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent.
Addiction - The Lost Weekend. For years the Siren worked retail at a rambling store in an old building below 8th Street. Her coworkers were usually young and hungry, just like she was. Come late afternoon on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Siren would be rearranging the fingerless lace gloves over at the accessories counter, and it would start: "BAM! BAM! BAM!" The hammering. Customers would almost jump through the display case as part-timer Janine (not her real name, believe me) came through on her hands and knees, wielding a hammer and whacking down any stray nailheads in the old, buckling floorboards. "What is WITH her? I don't even see nails anymore," the Siren asked coworker Bill one day, tired of the ritual. "Her shift's almost over. She's got to burn off the time before her next line somehow," came the reply.
When the Siren saw The Lost Weekend a year or two later (at the much-lamented Theater 80) and watched Ray Milland staggering up Second Avenue in a fruitless attempt to hock his typewriter on Yom Kippur, she immediately thought of Janine. If you live long enough in New York, you'll know someone either bottoming out or (we hope) recovering. In many ways Wilder's movie is truthful about the city, as Ed Sikov discussed in his Wilder bio. In production meetings Wilder insisted that the skyline be visible in the shot of the whiskey bottle hanging from Ray Milland's window; he fought to make sure the kitchen was a realistically tiny specimen. Wilder filmed from a camera concealed in a truck, and then spent weeks cutting out footage of New Yorkers scratching parts of their anatomy that the Breen Office didn't want to know about. But most of all, in the character of Don Birnam, Wilder got at a certain type of New York addict. He's smart, he's talented, he has standards, but in all categories he's a near miss. None of it is quite getting Birnam to the spot he feels he should have--none of it, that is, until he has that drink.
We sailed the seas and played a bit of poker
Way in Mandalay
We've walked the streets till the night was over
And we can safely say
The most fabulous sight is New York
In the light of day, our only day.
Adventure - On the Town Okay, so they jettisoned much of Bernstein's landmark score and put in some novelty numbers. But can anything beat that opening, even with the bowdlerized lyrics? That's the spirit, damn it. That's the way to approach the city, wide open to appreciate anything it brings. Those boys are O. Henry's "true adventurers," and honorary New Yorkers if ever there were any.
Roberta kept a diary. Great stuff. "Couldn't sleep. Went into kitchen. Gary came in, turned on light. Gary left. Finished birthday cake." Pages of it. It's got to be a cover, nobody's life could be this boring!
Romance - Desperately Seeking Susan Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was the Madonna movie, back then because it was her first, and now because it's the only one where she's good. But the Siren loves this film for the sweet-natured love story between Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn. Seidelman's movie is one of the few that has any sense of what 1980s downtown New York looked like. The movie also shows how finding a place to crash in this overcrowded, overpriced town can lead to all sorts of entanglements, good and bad. The scene where Arquette is trying to leave Quinn's apartment, then accidentally dumps her suitcase and winds up kissing him on the floor, is pure sex to me, without so much as a button unbuttoned. Of all the films in this post, this is the one to make the Siren all maudlin and nostalgic for the things she found when she first came to the city, and the things that took her a lot longer to find.
On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company - Consolidated Life of New York. We're one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of uhh... Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.
Drudgery - The Apartment. The Siren could file this one under ambition, too, but that's a peripheral theme. In addition to the love story, it's about being part of The Crowd (the masterpiece to which it is indebted). There's the loneliness, the grind, the way you search out something interesting--preferably cute and interesting--in order to feel like you aren't just another cog. But in reality, you know that Fred MacMurray is right, and for most New Yorkers, it's gonna take years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor, and thirty seconds to be out on the street again. One of the Siren's favorite moments in this movie is a very small one--Jack Lemmon finally returning to his empty apartment to nurse his cold. Bosses and their affairs aside, the Siren's lived that scene. Haven't you?
Bin Laden can drop another one right next door. I ain't moving.
Resilience - The 25th Hour. Spike Lee is the Siren's favorite working American filmmaker. That's my story and I'm sticking to it, boys. And one of the many reasons is the way he gets New York, not just the look and feel of the city--hell, all kinds of directors have managed that--but the way New Yorkers react and process things. With a few simple images and a bit of dialogue, this movie got at something fundamental in the way New Yorkers reacted to 9/11 in a way almost no other artist has. 9/11 has been so thoroughly and, in many cases, disgustingly co-opted that having it crop up in a movie based on a novel written before the attack set off some warning signals. But instead Lee used it to underpin his story about the pursuit of redemption. The 25th Hour was about making amends for the wrongs you've done, but it was also about the far more difficult task of moving past the wrongs that were done to you.