Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies: Serpico and 25th Hour

Here we are folks, the last call for Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies. This post in no way goes into everything that can be said about Serpico and 25th Hour--it's more like quick thematic notes, the whole truncated by some domestic goings-on chez Campaspe. But the Siren will be at Newcritics at 9 pm Eastern time tonight, and she hopes many patient readers will join her to fill in the many large blanks.

The past decade has proved that any idiot can set a movie in New York. Or a television show. Pan up the building, pan down the building, crowd shot, shopping montage, colorful locals, done. Is the rest of the country getting tired of this? The Siren sure is. She would really much rather see a weekly drama set in Pocatella, Idaho (which is very scenic) than another show set in New York City that reduces it to a few downtown exterior shots and some wildly improbable apartments.

Making a movie that gets not only the look of the place (for the last time guys, Toronto exteriors look like Toronto) but the unique mentality of the residents--now that's hard. Two filmmakers who've been able to do it many times over the years are Sidney Lumet and Spike Lee. And the two movies for tonight, Serpico and 25th Hour, embody a certain spirit that is completely characteristic of New Yorkers, whether or not the quality is uniquely their own. You could call it persistence, or even flat-out cussedness, depending on your attitude. The Siren likes to think of it as resilience. The earlier movie concerns the celebrated police officer who torpedoed his own long career on the force by simply refusing to take bribes. The later film is aboutdrug dealer's last day of freedom before he goes to do a stretch in prison. Despite protagonists on completely opposite sides of the law, the Siren sees the two movies as pendants.

First, Serpico. You just saw a post and thread where the Siren got all damp-eyed about the 1980s, which also, let's be real here, was an era of crime, class and racial resentment, and saddest of all, the AIDS epidemic, which means that some of the Siren's memories concern very beautiful, funny young men she will never see again. Well, no matter how nostalgic the Siren gets about the 1980s she can't equal the amount of nostalgia people around in the 1970s pour over THAT era--witness David Edelstein's piece for New York magazine. Serpico (along with The French Connection and most of the ones that Edelstein mentions) does give a sense of a city that was just that much grittier, less expensive and less uptight. Still, it was probably harsher even than the 1980s, a dark time when the city's fiscal and social underpinnings were rotting away.

Judging by Serpico, New York had a bad case of nerves in 1974. It's not really an action movie, it's more of a character study, with each incident clicking into place until Serpico has nowhere to go but the Times and the Knapp Commission. The movie has enormous dramatic tension throughout, some of it due to the audience wondering when Serpico is going to get shot, but also from looking for the next betrayal from the next seemingly friendly cop. Lumet ping-pongs back and forth from Serpico's job--a string of police precincts, each revealing its rotten payoff system with depressing speed--and his offbeat, arty personal life, full of high-spirited blonde girlfriends, books, opera and white wine. Both sides of his life become progressively harder to maintain. At no point, though, does Serpico seem to consider taking the money he's offered. He just keeps trying to find new ways of refusing it.

As for 25th Hour, made in 2002--is anyone in New York ever going to be nostalgic for the early 2000s? What a terrible time, and the dark palette and somber mood of Lee's movie reflects that, from the memorial lights at Ground Zero right down to the mechanical, joyless partying in the club sequence late in the film. Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is a drug dealer, betrayed by someone (he doesn't know who) and sentenced to seven years in prison. His terror of being raped and abused in prison marks his every action. The question of who betrayed him gets a fair bit of screen time, but it's subordinated to the real suspense--will Monty go to prison, or jump the bail his father put up for him and go on the run?

In his book Making Movies, Lumet doesn't spent much time on Serpico and when he does, it's to remark that the title character, despite Al Pacino's towering performance, was rather irritating to him, "a kvetcher." Well, the Siren thinks poor Frank had plenty to complain about, what with constantly wondering if a fellow cop was going to off him and all. It has to be admitted, though, that Serpico does complain a lot, driving away his loving girlfriend and at one point his only real friend on the force (Tony Roberts). Monty, too, worries ceaselessly, doubting everyone around him and also tormenting his girlfriend, the improbably named Naturelle. (Rosario Dawson is one of 25th Hour's problems--she is all femme, no fatale, and so the question of whether she actually turned in Monty is never very convincing. Of course she didn't, she's just a real-life Jessica Rabbit.)

One of many things Lumet and Lee have in common is a general refusal to romanticize New York. They love the city as it really is--crass, tough, dingy, crumbling and perpetually in a pissed-off mood--not, as some might argue Woody Allen does, for its romantic illusions. Serpico was filmed in more than one hundred different New York locations, each grittier than the last. It's a feast for anyone who treasures small details about the city, like the way a banister in an old building will sway if you're rash enough to put any weight on it, or the marvelous fact that subway platforms used to have snack machines. Every painted surface is nicked or peeling and it seems that in the early 1970s there was no such thing as floor wax or maybe even mops.

Lee was dealing with a considerably cleaned-up, but far sadder New York. We first see Monty in Battery Park, now very different from the park we saw in Desperately Seeking Susan, the weeds gone, the benches all painted and the trash picked up. The characters hang out in high-end apartments painted dark, trendy colors, with huge picture windows and shiny fixtures. Even the scenes that are supposed to convey a more down-market feel (the Russian mobster's office, Monty's father's bar) are cleaner than anything in Serpico. The air of corruption is still there, however, as is the sense of hollowness left from the opening shot of that terrible hole in the ground.

In both movies, with the exception of Monty's bravura face-to-the-mirror rant about New York and all its many sins, New York's social problems are attacked obliquely. Serpico remarks to his girlfriend that if the cops poured the energy they use on maintaining the corrupt system into actual police work the crime problem would shrink to nothing. The ghastly Rockefeller drug laws hang over 25th Hour, another instance of a rotten system, although the laws aren't used to justify Monty's actions. He was a drug dealer, and his lousy choices in life are faced head-on by his friends and his father.

The Siren re-watched Serpico last night instead of the debate (and what a good choice that turned out to be, huh?) and was immediately struck by the movie's first shots, of Al Pacino, shot in the face, his head lolling back on the seat of the patrol car as he's taken to the hospital. Spike Lee has some remarkably similar shots of a bloody Edward Norton as his father drives him to prison. Ultimately, both movies are about moving past the wrongs that have been done to you--on a personal level, as with Monty's bust and the many cops who refuse to help Serpico, and on a larger plane, as with the top-to-bottom rot of the New York City police department pre-Knapp and the enormity of 9/11. Neither suggests that the past is healed, quite the opposite, just that forward is the only way New Yorkers know how to move. The movies are simultaneously depressing as all hell, and yet reassuring too, in the eternal-ness of their New York viewpoints.


Vanwall said...

StOpMeB4EYeKilAgINN. I lashed out in frenzy over on the Newcritics thread, sorry.

The Siren said...

Uh-oh. Was it something I said? Right now Newcritics seems to be down so I can't go on the site and see what angered you ...

Uncle Gustav said...

Van took out the site?!? No clicky, no shirty. Damn, dude, how'd you do it?

Karen said...

Sorry I missed this. Have I really not seen Serpico since it came out? Is that possible? I'm trying to remember. Maybe once since, but surely not in the last 25 years. I need to go remedy that.

Yeah, it's a lot tougher to wax nostalgic over NYC in the '70s. I didn't move into Manhattan until November '78, but I spent a LOT of time there in the '70s, living as I did in Fort Lee NJ, right on the opposite side of the George Washington Bridge. And yes it was dirtier, no question, and reported crime was higher, but I will tell you something: 12- and 13-year-old Karen and my 17- and 18-year-old sister were free to come into the city on our own back then, and don't think we didn't have over-protective and old-fashioned parents. And NOTHING BAD EVER HAPPENED to us.

I'm just sayin'.

I would also cut class in high school and come across into the city with my friends. A bunch of 14- and 15-year-old girls, wandering stoned and giggling around the city.

NYC was full of a kind of dark magic and character in the '70s, and the whitewash that has been effected on it in the last 10 years has broken its spirit.

I still love my town, but I miss much of how it was in my youth. Films like Serpico or The French Connection or Prince of the City bring that old feeling back. It's tough to re-create, as even Spike Lee discovered in Summer of Sam, which had its moments but which felt very artificial.

Vanwall said...

I must've shuffled my feet too much on the shag carpet - static electricity on a planetary level really hurts.

I miss the innocence of my youth, altho it mostly involved sneaking outta the cheap seats during spring training to get closer to the Sox outfielders. Drinking Talisker from the cabinet was later but more discreet. I wish there had been a viable downtown to wander about after those episodes.

I wasn't really angry, just disappointed I couldn't get my money back from the theater when I saw Serpico.

The Siren said...

V., I finally saw your Newcritics post and I didn't think it was overly harsh at all. Always okay to dislike the movie. I really like Across 110th Street too. Serpico is too slow and somber to work as an action movie, I have to admit that.

Flickhead, you crack me up.

Karen, I am one of the few who really liked Summer of Sam. I wasn't in the city then so I can't testify to its accuracy but I thought it had great verve and texture.

Buttermilk Sky said...

So you aren't doing my favorite New-York-In-The-70s movie, "The Taking of Pelham"? It has Walter Matthau, subways, Tony Roberts again, and a mayor who looks like Ed Koch!

Karen said...

Oh, I actually liked Summer of Sam, too! The story was compelling. Its NYC just didn't feel altogether authentic to me, which is what I was addressing, not the power of the film itself.

The Siren said...

I like that one very much too, but this was just a five-week series. I am now withdrawing for a bit though I think Weds. Night at the Movies will return shortly, with a different guest host. You know, like the Tonight Show.

Joel Bocko said...

Nostalgia is too positive a word, but 25th Hour definitely stirs up feelings of regret. I was new to the city at the time (I've since left), and saw it a month or two before the Iraq invasion. It was a snapshot of a time that was already slipping by: the period right after 9/11, when everyone was so shocked that it seemed like maybe we could come together and achieve something.

No such luck, and with 7 years retrospect the scabbed-over gash of Ground Zero (physically and pyschologically) stings all the more. 25th Hour has its problems but I'll always have a special regard for it because it's the ONLY feature-film snapshot we have of one of the most important moments in U.S. history - a moment that most filmmakers ignored and which, consequently, has never really been dealt with in the popular culture. But this has been a decade of denial, so perhaps that's fitting.