Thursday, July 10, 2008

New York City of the Mind


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.


Karen said...

Nailed it in one, Siren. AGAIN.

I've been here in NYC for 30 years and a lot of days it's know, home. My apartment, my office, my nabe. But there are movies that bring back to my life my dream of NYC, which always seems to exist still, just outside my field of vision.

Here are some of the ones that work best for me, apart from, like, ALL the ones you listed:

The Seduction of Glamour: the "Lullaby of Broadway" number in Gold Diggers of 1935. In my 1980s bartending days, I was living that kind of life, and came precipitously close to that kind of fall. Which isn't to say I wouldn't do it all over again.

The humanity--oh, the humanity!: The Naked City. From the crowded streets to the crowded subways to the crowded beaches...this movie feels more like my idea of NYC than anything else.

Mythical landscape:
There's a scene in Hands Across the Table where MacMurray and Lombard step out on to her apartment's roof, where those bizarre Kremlin-dome vent things are spinning, and even though it's a set, it feels almost more like NYC than NYC. Those weird vents and the wooden water towers--that's the real NY skyline, not the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. From my bedroom window, I can see three water towers in my little patch of sky. But that scene makes me tear up nonetheless.

Vanwall said...

Surely there's room for "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" - this was the film with an enormity of view that made me want to know what the hell was going on in the East with all those buildings, while I was setting, and sweating, in a desert classroom, reading textbooks that talked about whole streets full of umbrellas in pouring rain. What the hell was that? And the four full seasons! How'd that work? I'd've killed to see the snow-filled streets and towering skyscrapers between swirling snowflakes back then - I could look out any window in my house and see three days ride in every direction, my father's preferred existence, but I could see snow on screen, and that sufficed. NYC was this mind's eye thing for me by high school, existing in myriad slight variations from any number of films, including all on your list up to that point. Yeah, I've been schooled since then by the young turks from the 70's, none having done more so than "Across 110th Street" - see that at an impressionable age, and we'll talk. Not that I have craved visiting, or maybe living there sometime any less, but it never seems to work out for me. I'm a desert rat for good, now - I travel there on film and through friends. Maybe it's better that way - it's more real for me this late in the game. Hey, you've just added to my vicarious travelog, thanks!

VP81955 said...

When you made a reference to "Walter Lippmann" in "Sweet Smell Of Success," didn't you actually mean Walter Winchell?

That's my only quibble; I too have fond memories of New York City -- real, imagined from film and inherited (my parents were both Brooklynites). And since you mentioned Theater 80, which I recall well from the late '80s and early '90s, I thought you might enjoy reading my memories of the place:

(that's "29850.html," for those of you who can't read the entire URL)

The Siren said...

Oh lord VP, I can only plead exhaustion. I will fix. Thanks for the heads-up.

Exiled in NJ said...

My father's first auto was a converted NYC taxi, a 1940 deSoto that he painted gray with surplus paint. It had the jump seats and the sliding roof I see in so many shots in film.

Film gives us view of New York thru the decades: those gritty post-war black and white cop stories of Dassin and others; the business world of the Ike's 50s as John Williams drives Bogart to his office on Wall Street; all those silly romances of the 60s with an oh so perfect 5th Avenue bus of the time, and shots of the Plaza of those days, then Post-Lindsay. to the gritty days of a nearly broke city, like Friedkin's French Connection.

To my mind the best travelogue of the city in the past fifteen years is the original Law & Order television show when the cops take to the streets.

Was the Siren being ironic to list Rear Window, where the viewer's state of mind takes him from a Paramount back lot to a New York apartment building?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I spent part of my film film education at Theater 80 St. Marks as well.

As a former NYC resident and lifetime film enthusiast, I was the only one in the large Denver movie theater who laughed at the last line in Sleepy Hollow. When asked about NYC, Johnny Depp replied that all you need to know is "the Bronx is up and the Battery's down".

Andrew Grant said...

Ah.....what a fabulous post, Siren!

As a born-and-raised Manhattan-ite, this is obviously a subject near-and-dear to my heart, and I couldn't agree more with your choices, save for one: romance.

Not that I have an ideal answer mind you, but strangely enough the first film that popped in my mind when I read the category was Moonstruck. Maybe that's because I live two blocks from the bakery where it was shot? (Sadly, now a cafe.)

Anyway...though it's past the deadline, your post has encouraged me to add a little something to the blogathon. With the amount of free time I have of late, it should be up around November.

The Siren said...

Karen, Lullaby of Broadway is a constant source of wonderment to me. It's so glittering and so somber at the same time. And when I saw Hands Across the Table I was struck by the same shot! I could (and maybe will) do a whole post on the Deco visions of the city in 1930s movies.

Vanwall, I have not seen The World, the Flesh and the Devil although I would like to, despite the depressing premise. Across 110th Street I have seen, years ago, and it was awesome. There was a Sunday radio program playing the Bobby Womack song a couple of weekends ago and I was pleased to find my son listening intently. Such a great song.

VP, I am dying to read your Theatre 80 piece but I am not getting the link somehow, and also I am getting a stern "dangerous website--spywar" warning from my firewall when I try to access your site! Can you check? because I love your site and want to go back. I got the same warning for newcritics last week and it turned out to be some sort of hackery, in fact I don't know if the open thread is going on tonight.

The Siren said...

Exiled, I love those taxis though they're gone for good. They were still around a bit when I arrived and because I spent years dating musicians (another thing Desperately Seeking Susan gets right) I spent a lot of time trying to hail them. They were great for fitting in amps and such. My complaint about Law & Order is that for years they have been doing the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous crimes, and the grit that made the first five or six seasons so brilliant is gone. I mean, with Columbo (and I love Columbo, I am mild-mannered but I will brook no criticism of Columbo) that's the set-up from the beginning. There's no pretense of basic realism so you never really sit around and wonder why the upper classes of Los Angeles are so murderous.

I think I am definitely going to need a part II because you're reminding of those big Cinemascope 1960s comedies and dramas. The Best of Everything and the "three girls" movies inhabit a large portion of my psyche.

The Siren said...

Peter, aw really, nobody else got that? I swear, the lack of familiarity with old today!! **shakes walker**

Filmbrain, Desperately is probably the iffiest movie in this constellation, but I love it with a love that passeth all reason. It was simultaneously the city I moved to, and the city I dreamed I had moved to. Moonstruck is lovely, though. It got some snideness there for a while but I am glad people like you and Kim Morgan are around to champion it. But are you telling me that bakery is CLOSED? Oh that's terrible, it was one of the last of its kind. One thing that always amuses me in that film, though, is the bizarre geography. Cher parks her car in Little Italy and then walks to her Brooklyn brownstone. Olympia Dukakis walks out of her door and around the corner to a Greenwich Village restaurant. The subway scenes at the end of Crocodile Dundee were similarly disorienting to a New Yorker.

Bob Westal said...

Believe it or not, though I'm absolutely the right age to have seen it when, I never saw "Desperately Seeking Susan" for whatever reason, but I will speak up on behalf of "Moonstruck." It's been a decade at least, but I'm pretty sure we could use more like it now. We could have used more like it then.

You know, on my two trips to NYC (both pre-Bratton/Giuliani/Times Square clean-up), I was even more impressed by the boroughs -- so much older and vastly different than anything you get in Southern California (the Bay Area is a lot closer, but not all that much). I don't want to say they were "quaint" exactly, but, even more than Manhattan, they were so oddly familiar from a life of movie going that I felt like I was on the world's most realistic film set.

I couldn't stop thinking of "Do the Right Thing" and "The French Connection" -- mostly the latter for whatever reason -- maybe because no one would let have come within miles of Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time, though a diverted subway train (someone fell/was pushed onto the tracks and his/her death -- perhaps that homeless man done in by Michael Caine in "A Shock to the System") put me in the center of Harlem (pre-Bill Clinton) where I found a. You really couldn't find a taxi there, b. as in most of the rest of NYC, the people were great. (When I asked a woman where I could go to get a taxi, she smiled slightly and told me precisely where I could go to find one. It felt like we were both in on the same bad joke.)

I remember stepping into a comfortably dank Russian-Jewish restaurant near Coney Island and having an absolutely wonderful meal (can't remember the details but cold borsht was definitely involved and I think some pretty wonderful chopped herring) on a typically muggy/hot early summer afternoon served by an elderly lady. It all came back to me a few years later when I saw James Gray's "Little Odessa," not the greatest movie ever, really, but that atmosphere never hurts.

This L.A. boy really loves New York, though why does it have to be the one place on earth more expensive than L.A.'s priciest areas and San Francisco combined? Because you get what you pay for. On the other hand, I still argue that Pink's is way better than Nathan's or any dog in New York, so there.

The Siren said...

Bob, I commend you for going so far beyond the usual tourist haunts. We New Yorkers ourselves don't like to admit that there are parts of the city as remote to them as, well, L.A. Queens, for example. What I don't know about Queens could fill Shea.

I did live at the edge of Harlem for many years, though. Most cabs were fine with going there, especially after I started ostentatiously writing down their livery numbers. Getting one out of the neighborhood could be trickier.

Despite the difficulties, sometimes I miss the old days.

Karen said...

I live in Morningside Heights now, and trust me even Harlem isn't really Harlem anymore.

I will absolutely speak up for Desperately Seeking Susan, which I think gets that period of downtown Manhattan life so dead to rights that it feels like a documentary (unlike After Hours, which always felt like a Hollywood version of downtown). I've owned a copy of the movie ever since it first came out on VHS, and it--along with Party Girl--capture a moment that is really and truly gone, now that well-heeled moms with expensive prams wheel their kids through Tompkins Square Park.

I used to live around the corner from Love Saves the Day (the store where Madonna exchanges her pyramid jacket for the sparkly boots that are almost EXACTLY like a pair I had in 1984), and still when I pass it I mourn a bit for days gone by.

I'll also speak up for Moonstruck, which I think is almost perfect (tho' less as a NYC film per se; my favorite scene is actually when John Mahoney explains to Olympia Dukakis why he sleeps with his students.

Siren, I hadn't seen the 1935 Gold Diggers in a while, but the Lullaby of Broadway number is excerpted in the Unseen Cinema disc called "Picturing a Metropolis" (which I highly recommend, by the way). I had forgotten that it begins with a showgirl's face shining white against a black background, a face that fades into the shape of Manhattan Island. So brilliant! So perfect! That's NYC: I am large, I contain multitudes.

Vanwall said...

I'm not so sure it's so plain to people from NYC, that movies and TV are almost all about NYC, & somewhat less about LA, or at least partially or wholly corrupted by the sensibilities of those two key places, and especially NYC. And I don't just mean the USA, I mean everywhere that people are able to watch film - H'wood's so dominant as a marketing engine, and it's been that way since the beginning. I can't watch many films that don't have an unconscious visual or scripted reference to either place, and mostly NYC. That's one reason I'm hard on westerns, most of which I can't stand to watch because they are so artificial to me - too citified for my tastes, which would run to "Culpepper Cattle Company" levels at a minimum. Don't get me wrong, I'm not carping about NYC sensibilities projected on to some Midwest drama from the fifties, or injected into an English film from the 60's, or hell, "Metropolis" and it's visuals - I'm glad there's been a continuing thread of New York woven into most things on screen. It's funny how even the smallest, most obscure films of NYC, often using the City itself, not sets, as a kind of unspoken, unscripted actor, from shambling Norman Alden wandering the streets in "Andy" (the first film I really remember identifying NYC as such an interesting place) to the late, great Adrienne Shelly's quirky "Sudden Manhattan", it's quite plain the City is its own thing, and it says a helluva lot that it permeates so much of film and TV. And I don't see it changing for the foreseeable future. A good... no...a great thing.

Frank Conniff said...

Beautifully written piece, as always, Siren. I think that in addition to drudgery, "The Apartment" also represents loneliness. I may be wrong, but I don't think a single moment of that movie was shot in NYC, and yet it really seems to capture an emotional truth about my beloved hometown (sorry, couldn't resist getting in a mention that I am a native). The other great movie about New York drudgery and loneliness is "Taxi Driver." It is also a time capsule of what Manhattan, especially Times Square, was like in the 70s. I know it's wrong, but I think I prefer the stark sleaziness of midtown in that era to the Disney version of today. I realize that it's a safer, cleaner city now, but if I'm ever there and I get the opportunity to take Cybil Shepard to a porno movie, I will have much fewer options than I did back then.

Gerard Jones said...

Siren: an eloquent and brilliant incisive essay (but not stuck up about it). I love New York, though I live 3000 miles away, the physical New York that I get to as often as I can and that New York of the mind I engage in so often through books and movies. My own private list of New York movies is flooding into my mind, but too many to bore everyone with now...

Frank, thank you for what you wrote about The Apartment and loneliness. That's the emotion and the theme I take from that movie more than any other (and I do love that movie) the overwhelming loneliness of the crowd, the loneliness imposed by the architecture and scale and urban design, and the miracle of two people rescuing each other from loneliness in the middle of it. Am I right that it was one of the first American movies to articulate the idea that the crowded city doesn't bring us together with others but instead presses us into our private concerns and isolates us?

And in fact, quite a bit of it was shot in Manhattan. Wilder and Joe LaShelle used just a few location shots, but for an extraordinary evocation of the city. The image of Lemmon walking across the empty street to the bench in the park and waiting in solitude is one of the great New York images.

And Karen: when you speak of coming precipitously close to a fall like that in GD35, how literally do you mean it? Was there a balcony and a pressing crowd?

Thanks for pointing us to a disc including the "Lullaby" sequence excerpted. The rest of the movie is pretty damn lame and has nothing to do with New York City. Dick Powell as a bellhop in a lake resort. Zzzzz. But that one Busby number is a great cinematic poem.

Karen said...

And Karen: when you speak of coming precipitously close to a fall like that in GD35, how literally do you mean it? Was there a balcony and a pressing crowd?

No, there was a Toyota Corolla and a Fifth Avenue lamppost. After I recovered from the broken bones, I restructured my life.

And Frank Coniff, I totally agree about the old Times Square vs the new. How can NYC maintain its mystique, its unique landscape of the mind, with a neihborhood full of Olive Gardens and Outbacks you can find in any suburb in America?

surly hack said...

I have a feeling that Sidney Falco's soul is a doomed done deal, as certain as "Cat's in the bag, bag's in the river."

Exiled in NJ said...

Another Siren favorite, Portrait of Jennie, though made in 1948 shows a city from a time before most of we visitors can remember and I doubt many natives can either.

"I'm not so sure it's so plain to people from NYC, that movies and TV are almost all about NYC, & somewhat less about LA, or at least partially or wholly corrupted by the sensibilities of those two key places, and especially NYC." (vanwall) I wonder if our many posters from San Francisco feel films set there absorb the scenery but not the mindset or 'sensibilities?'

The Siren said...

Karen, I still go in to Love Saves the Day but there are very few clothes there anymore and the selection is meh. I used to get many cute things there back in the day. So glad you also love DSS. Another thing it hits: Bleecker Street Cinema, where Aidan Quinn works. God I miss so much about that period.

Vanwall, I love NY and movies set here but occasionallly I wonder if it's too much of a good thing. Other parts of the country do not necessarily find New York as fascinating as New Yorkers do. And it's refreshing to have different settings every once in a while. WKRP in Cincinnati comes to mind, as does my long-lost Frank's Place. In fact, post-Katrina New Orleans would make one hell of a weekly drama setting for anyone bold enough to attempt it.

The Siren said...

Frank, Gerard is right that some of The Apartment was shot on location, mostly the exteriors to Baxter's apartment and the lobby of the office building. Wilder chose a recently built Wall Street tower for the lobby scenes because it had just the right shiny sort of menace. That scene where poor Baxter is soaking wet and waiting to go back to his apartment? It was 16 degrees outside.

BUT you are also right, because it was so damn cold that at some point they gave up and went back to Los Angeles. Most of the exteriors were re-shot there. In Sikov's bio Wilder said the only real NY shots that made it into the film were some street shots and Central Park. It isn't clear to me if poor Lemmon sitting in the park as the crew sprayed him down with water and antifreeze actually made it in, or they reshot it. If they did reshoot it's a tribute to Lemmon that he did not resort to violence.

All of that is a digression anyway, because you are so beautifully right -- loneliness is a key part of The Apartment and you make a great case that it's a better summary word than drudgery. They do go hand-in-hand, as you point out. I would never have thought of Taxi Driver in this context but you are right, it captures the isolation of the city brilliantly. There's a loneliness to New York in all of Scorsese's best movies about the city.

The Siren said...

Gerard, I love your summation of the heart of The Apartment. At the time of its release and even to this day it was so often described as cynical, and in fact I find it a work of real romanticism. That's the beauty of Wilder, combining that wry, sophisticated cynicism with a belief that people do find one another.

I think that your thematic description could apply almost as well to The Crowd, though that movie is more earnest and melancholy.

The Siren said...

Surly, you're right of course but Falco does have flashes of humanity from time to time. By the end it's curtains, however.

Exiled, Yes! Portrait of Jennie! great example. For a long while my wallpaper was a screen grab of the skaters in Central Park.

Karen said...

Siren, they did try to set a weekly drama in post-Katrina NOLA: it was called K-Ville and, by all accounts, it was dreadful. I think it was cancelled after 4 episodes or so.

The city I feel I know from movies and television is Chicago. I went back in 2005 after not being since 1968, and I was struck by how much I recognized. But I don't think I've ever gotten the sense, that the Siren describes, of a Chicago of the mind. The only other place I really have that sense of is LA, because of film noir.

Noel Vera said...

Ach, no time, no time. I'd have wanted to write about Escape From NY--New York in the future (or Planet of the Apes, if I wanted to go that far), or Pickup at South Street for some unusual views, or even the rare Filipino film set in New York. No time...

Ben Alpers said...

A great post, Campaspe. With the exception of The 25th Hour, which I haven't seen, I love all your selections.

But let me stand up for After Hours as a rightful companion to Desperately Seeking Susan in the '80s downtown category. As a very frequent visitor to the Village, Soho, and TriBeCa during the 1980s, I loved (and love) both films for the way they capture that time and place. After Hours is meant to be a bit of a modern fable, so its view is perhaps less realistic. But Scorsese knows his NY and captures the feel of downtown in the '80s wonderfully.

Speaking of which, where are the other Scrosese movies? Shouldn't Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, or the underrated Bringing Out the Dead have a place on this, in this group?

I'd have included Do the Right Thing, but perhaps The 25th Hour is standing in for all of Lee's New York films.

I'm also a bit disappointed that you reduced The Crowd to an aside, as it's surely the greatest silent New York film. (And pimping Borzage seems to have become my little place in the Self-Styled Siren commentary ecology.)

Isn't it interesting that Woody Allen is nowhere in this discussion? I assume that a similar (though obviously not online) exchange a quarter century ago would have featured his work prominently.

Ben Alpers said...

That was an odd brain fart...of course The Crowd is Vidor, not Borzage.

But I'm more than happy to pimp it, too...especially since, like most of the Borzage catalog, it's somehow never come out on DVD.

The Siren said...

Ben, The Crowd would rank way way up on any list I were to make of The Greatest American Films. Certainly it's the greatest silent film I have ever seen. Plus, I am a big fan of the (occasionally) underrated King Vidor. So my omitting it wasn't a slight, it was me looking at K-2 and saying, nope, not gonna climb that today. Don't have the proper equipment.

The fact that it isn't on DVD is just fucking criminal. It's like owning the Burial of the Count of Orgaz and saying don't mind me, I'm just going to stick this in the vault for about 30 years or so. I've seen it twice on TCM.

VP81955 said...

VP, I am dying to read your Theatre 80 piece but I am not getting the link somehow, and also I am getting a stern "dangerous website--spywar" warning from my firewall when I try to access your site! Can you check? because I love your site and want to go back.

Did you add the ".html" to the end?

If you can get to the regular link, which today (7/11) has a story on this weekend's San Francisco Silent Film Festival, go to the archive, check September 2007, and look for "Memories of a revival house."

I apologize for any inconvenience.

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks for mentioning The Crowd, Siren. But I do think it stands in a very different place historically. More about anomie as a product of our rapid movement and ceaseless ambition--very '20s in that. That the danger of the city is almost too much growth, change, chaos. In The Apartment it's the rigid, ossified, monumental metropolis, destructive because it doesn't allow us enough movement, spontaneity, growth. It imposes loneliness and a sort of silence upon us. The overcrowded street in which the little girl is killed in The Crowd and the freezing, empty street in which Lemmon sits letting his life pass him by are almost like bookends, opposite poles of the mid-century urban experience. And the overcrowded but inhuman elevator drives the point home. The Crowd and The Lonely Crowd.

Operator_99 said...

All your selections hit the mark and as always are perfectly packaged. My personal thoughts on film and NY revolve around venues like The Regency where the curtain was opened using a hand crank, The Thalia, with its threadbare green seats and the Bleecker Street Cinema, one half flight up, with Stan Vanderbeek and Tuli Kupferberg films shown before the main feature. Those theaters introduced me to so many wonderful films never to be seen at the major movie houses. Where else but at the Bleecker could you see Come Back Africa, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) and Hiroshima mon amour on a triple bill - what a depressing, but amazing evening. And it was at the Bleeker street that Chelsea Girls was screened if memory serves. That film flipped me out at the time - and hey, its definitely a NYC film. Of course it was also great being able to see Andy roaming around the Village streets.

And then there was 42nd street before the meltdown and subsequent clean up. Wanna see three features for $1.00, running all day and night, take your pick of half a dozen theaters. Some of them still had ushers that actually ushered!

Karen mentioned Naked City and of course so many great noir films use the city (as we say) as a backdrop, and that includes the people, not just the scenery.

Well that's some of my NYC of the mind as it relates to film. I now leave the downtown nostalgia stop at West 4th where the graffiti on the passageway walls then read "Bird Lives" - you dig?

Dan Leo said...

In the background some drunk is getting bounced from a nightclub.

In the foreground Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker says, "I love this dirty town."

Belvoir said...

Absolutely marvellous post, Siren. You had me at the idea of New York as a place where the past lives, is there for the imaginative to see, and what better document of the past than film, for the dreamers and nostalgists among us?

The past is there, overlaid by the layers of time, including the present- it's a never ending process: even Sex and the City is nostalgia, the depiction of a particular tenor of the late 90's. Dollops of fantasy are a given.

Past, present- and in your citing the 25th Hour, the future.- Thanks for that picture of those beautiful Towers of Light- what makes me proud of being from NYC is not only the solidarity and heroism of that awful day, but the incredible human resilience in getting past it. NYC stops for no one, least of all bearded fanatics in caves. New York doesn't always love me, I feel, but I shall always love it- past present and future.

Thank you so much for that perceptive, feeling, imaginative essay. Yer a sharp dame!
:) (a lil antique NewYorkese there)

Gerard Jones said...

This has nothing to do with New York...just wanted to let you all know that I'm spending this lovely weekend indoors at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, one of the great film festivals in the country, and thinking of all my movie pals on the blogosphere. I hope some of you can make it out here one of these days.

Belvoir said...

Oh, Gerard Jones, I hope it's at the Castro Theatre, with its Might Wurlitzer. Enjoyed the fest there before, am very jealous, hope you have a fantastic time.

Andrea Janes said...

Chop Shop (2007) by Ramin Bahrani features Willet's Point, Queens, and definitely deserves a spot on any list of NYC movies! It's on DVD, and I highly recommend it.

Gerard Jones said...

Yes, the SF Silent Film Festival was at the Castro--and will be next year! I know it would seem odd to book a trip to SF and then spend two days indoors...but I can't recommend anything more highly. A magnificent festival.

As for New York, I must mention the two great Empire State Building movies: King Kong and Love Affair (the original version).

The last act of Kong is one of the great New York romances, really it is. Not "romance" like hearts and flowers, but Romance like a work of mysterious beauty and emotional power. It's what created my fascination with New York in the first place, and skyscrapers, and urban landscapes. The sheer power of buildings, of elevated trains hammering through the night, of a vast crowd at the Music Hall of the New York stage, of vertiginous modern heights. The Empire State and the Chrysler Building in the background look so glitteringly beautiful...and are so stonily aloof in the face of death.

And in Love Affair we hardly even see New York. A little stock footage. The Empire State Building is suggested mostly by characters looking up at a place in the sky so mythic that we don't have to--even shouldn't--actually see it. When Irene gets hit by the car the entire scene stays low...and when CB waits for her in the darkness it stays entirely high, contained within the observation deck. But just that suggestion of the building as the vast, fantasied structure that was to bring them together but holds them apart--there's a New York City of the Mind for you!

Noel Vera said...

What I always loved about Kong was that he was a symbol of male potency climbing to the top of a huge phallic symbol, a vestal virgin (we assume, ostensibly, possible if unlikely) in one hand. Hey, how heavily symbolic can you get?

Raymond De Felitta said...

This is quite seriously brilliant writing--the stuff about "Lost Weekend" and the Birnam character as smart but a "near miss" unexpectedly made me think of an old friend (drunk) who I haven't seen in years whose life eerily resembles Birnam...this take also explains what I had previously thought of as an implausibility: his attendance of the Metropolitan Opera. I always thought this was shoved into the script to provide the "dancing bottles" seen--and the meet-cute with Jane. But no, Birnam moved to New York for some specifically, culturally related reasons--and the fact that he still gets his tickets to the Met and attends (and alone yet) makes his inability to stay through the due to his jones even sadder.

Thanks for this Siren. Back to the pre-production wars (blogging the movie btw, check it out).

Lou Lumenick said...

I love the haunting Manhttan footage that plays under the opening credits of "Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men'' (1933). It's a trip up the old Sixth Avenue elevated line, with the horizontal neon sign of Radio City Music Hall -- this was an RKO picture -- blinking in the distance. The movie almost delivers on its nutty premise: the undeservedly forgotten Wynne Gibson helps wimpy playboy Charles Farrell impersonate her redneck boyfriend, William Gargan, who's in jail -- and vice versa, when Gargan gets out.

The Siren said...

Dan, but don't we all?

Belvoir, thank you so much.

Andrea, I haven't seen Chop Shop but I do love movies set in parts of New York I don't see often.

Gerard & Noel - I don't know why but someone Kong always left me a bit cold. That isn't to say I don't admire the movie as it's a landmark. But somehow I just don't get much out of it. By the time I saw it (just after all the Di Laurentiis remake hype had died down) I was suffering from Kong fatigue and I guess I still am.

Raymond, I'm delighted to see you here as your blog is a huge favorite of mine, and I'm happy you liked the post. Hope the movie is going well, and hope everyone goes over to Movies Til Dawn to check out its progress.

Lou, there's nothing like someone bringing up a movie I've never heard of, let alone seen. It sounds great. I have a soft spot for any movie with an elevated train in it, as I once lived over one myself.

Noel Vera said...

Ah, but I love it that Kong never asked for sympathy--you (okay, most people) gave it to him when he toppled, and only because we're given glimpses of his last few moments.

The De Laurentiis Kong, and Jackson Kong, they ask for it from first frame onwards (well, maybe somewhere in the middle). They're rank sentimentalists.

wwolfe said...

"It was simultaneously the city I moved to, and the city I dreamed I had moved to." I love that sentence.

It applies perfectly to "Manhattan" - I saw that as a college sophomore in Ohio and immediately decided I had to move to the city in the movie. Of course, it didn't quite exist, but there was always enough of a hint of it somewhere nearby that I never felt like I'd made a bad decision.

There's a category of New York films that I'm trying to think of the right name for. The closest I can come is something like "The Charm of the Vanished Past." One of my favorite movies, "The Strawberry Blonde," would be the best example. I think most of us have picture in our minds of what Old New York looked like, and that picture is one of the things that makes us love the city now. It doesn't matter if that imaginary past is exactly that - imaginary - it's still dear to us. As the years go by, more of New York's past becomes vanished, but its charm is still preserved in the movies people are talking about here.

chrisb said...

Andy Warhol's Empire, seen nearly in its entirety, with liberal breaks for smokes and snacks, was an exercise in devotion to screen purity. Particularly surreal, as I recall, since I viewed it in Manhattan, where the screen was on the south side of the screening room, thirty blocks south of the Empire State Building itself. My own Klaw, containing defaced 8mm footage of kids snorting heroin uptown, might make someone's list were it not for the fact that Stan Brakhage's brother accidently stole it in the aftermath of a small festival where it was shown with one of Brakhage's works. Bits of its more abstract sections resurfaced years later in the Persian Series, which I stumbled upon in dismay at the Whitney Biennial. Oh well, at least I can say I was shown there.