The City Revisited (2004)

It seems that my compatriots, many of whom are increasingly put off by the elections, are making their way to the cinema as a barometer of their political sentiments, box office tickets thus replacing ballots. On one particular night at a New York multiplex, the traditional autarkic ritual of popcorn eating was brutally interrupted when the audience who’d come to see Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was rewarded with a series of commercials pompously assembled under the title ‘The 20” (as if it were an additional entertainment and not a detestable obligation). The audience then began to question what was on the screen, savouring with jubilation this moment of collective alienation. Even if care was taken in the choice of advertisements preceding the film, taking into account the tastes of an audience who’d likely come to see a documentary by Michael Moore, “The 20” was seemingly a jumble of incongruous advertising messages but perfectly in step with the times, to the glory of what constitutes the American cultural fund. This assemblage included, notably, the trailer for an anti-terrorist television series, which shone through the ineptitude of its dialogue in order to create a sense of fear, as well as an ad to attract recruits into the American army showing men and women, crowned by a light halo, hearing their country’s call and rushing to its aid. These two ads, which could easily have appeared as scenes in Fahrenheit 9/11, succeeded only in confirming the film’s theory before it had even begun. At the same time, Disney, which – it is well known – refused to distribute the film, instead released, during the 4th of July weekend, the patriotic documentary America’s Heart and Soul (2004), a patchwork of vignettes showing a sample of Americans supposed to represent, as it should, cultural diversity: an alcoholic cowboy now gone sober, a black ex-convict now Olympic boxing champion, a blind mountain climber having reached the top of Everest, all of it sprinkled with declarations oozing out pride and self-sustainability which punctuate the film like the squares of a quilt embroidered with pious inscriptions.

Curiously, the premiere of America’s Heart and Soul took place neither in middle America nor in Hollywood, but at the Tribeca Film Festival, the most recent manifestation of New York’s ambivalent relationship with cinema. The festival, which is in its third year, was created to re-establish the financial viability of Lower Manhattan; it is half Hollywood-on-Hudson – with galas, red carpets and cacophonous premieres reserved for the “monsters” with big budgets and an increase of public hype – and a half remedial opportunity for sophisticated digitally-shot videos and other artistic films which aren’t competing in Cannes: Tribeca exhibits a schizophrenia which no one can escape. Under the ascendancy of this split personality, the flashiness acts as a jinx to artistic merit and the artistic shutter, itself, seems to turn its back on all commercial potential. In fact, the festival has not yet defined itself other than as a morbid fixation on September 11 and the enthusiastic promotion of local “produce”: out of the five sections in the competition, two were exclusively dedicated to productions from the city of New York. Traditionally, Hollywood and Gotham were always opposed on the ideological plan. Indeed, American cinema was born on the east coast with Edison in New Jersey and D.W. Griffith’s studio on 14th (90 years later, in his film Gangs of New York (2002), filmed in Italy, Scorsese is furthermore in search of the powerful mix of myth and immediacy which makes Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) so unforgettable). In the silent era, brown stained buildings and high rises in New York act as a background canvas for a large number of films, amongst which are some of the most memorable. The romantic dreamers of Frank Borzage, the irresistible boasters of Allan Dwan, and the cursed visionaries of King Vidor descend on Broadway, forging a path through the crowd in the metro at peak hour where they strive, beside an agonising child, to drown out the sound of the traffic. And come to think of it, the difference is not so big between the crazy crossing of the city by Harold Lloyd on board a tram pulled by two horses in Speedy (1928) and Toby Maguire’s lightning fast movements on his spider’s web in Spider-Man (2002). With the arrival of talkies, the shooting gradually moved indoors and on to studios sets and, except in rare cases, New York was soon limited to reconstructed streets, bordered by fake walls. At this same time, the motley crowd of characters of various ethnic origins who populated so many silent movies, as well as some of the first talkies, disappear from the screens – the film history books to this day deny that any of this had ever existed (we seem to have forgotten the flurry of insults in Yiddish hurled so well by James Cagney in Taxi (1932), not to mention the entire plot of The Jazz Singer (1927)). It is not until the late 1940s and the early 1950s that cinema freely reinvests in the city’s streets. While films set in New York tended to go for a sometimes too literal “realism”, or too literate, the effective marriage of the city’s vibrant urban areas with elements specific to Hollywood genres produced pearls, of which there are three remarkable ones by George Cukor. With the fighting indoors duplicated outside, Adam’s Rib(1949) crackles with urban vitality. The most fascinating study ever made on celebrity, It Should Happen to You (1954) happens literally on and through the city streets in search of a heroine who will stand out from the crowd. Whereas The Marrying Kind (1954), an almost Shakespearian mix of farce and tragedy, highlights a dialectic of the self and others that is implicit in each composition. There exists a curious air of family resemblance between big-budget films and low-cost movies shot in New York in the 50s and 60s, especially those in black-and-white, in diverse tones to which the city lends itself admirably. Through its contrasting images of a fierce urban jungle, James Wong Howe allows himself only a few nuances of grey in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) by Alexander Mackendrick, whereas with its jazzy rhythms, Shadows (1959) by John Cassavetes deploys itself brilliantly in the zones bordered between black and white. Manhattan still scintillates with black-and-white in Marathon (2002), the last New York piece by the Iranian immigrant Amir Naderi, featuring the character of a crossword puzzle fanatic who explores the extraordinarily dysfunctional beauty of the city’s metro lines. Similar to the connective tissue of the brain, the tangle of rails and tunnels deploy themselves in all directions much like the innumerable synapses, and parallels metaphorically the obsession of the main character.

At the end of the 1960s, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, who wanted to radically reinvent cinema, juxtaposed a brutal minimalism with hints of documentary and the ironic extravagance of “home grown” stars. Furthermore, the more traditional New York filmmakers such as Sidney Lumet, Paul Mazursky, and Woody Allen – each in their own very different and revelatory ways – cultivated a nervous, neurotic and resolutely unreliable or dirty image of a multi-ethnic “Big Apple” populated by eccentric posers with extravagant beliefs. From Midnight Cowboy (1969) to Death Wish (1974), Hollywood obstinately persisted in describing a one-dimensional urban landscape crawling with drug addicts, the sick, and sexual perverts. And it is not until later that directors such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Abel Ferrara, strongly asserted their “belonging” to New York by adopting more unusual and dynamic tonalities to describe their picturesque neighbourhoods. Through the 1990s, New York seems to lose its proletarian vitality. While Whit Stillman delivers independent film into the hands of the upper class, Rudy Giuliani, who had always wanted to turn New York into a theme park, concedes Times Square to Disney and abandons the city to the big studios. So, clumsy attempts are made to rediscover the nostalgic splendour of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) by resuscitating dying genres, and romantic comedies in particular. New York often serves as a theatre to artificial intrigues where we so often see two stars amid sterile air, swept up into situations that end emptily. Success is sometimes at the meeting point, at least on a commercial level, with films such as When Harry Met Sally (1989) by Rob Reiner or Stepmom (1998), which, with its obscene opulence, drowns complacently in sentimental sloppiness. In You’ve Got Mail (1998), Nora Ephron even manages to turn the destruction of a unique characteristic of the city, caused by the inexorable invasion of standardised franchises, into the excuse for her idyllic love.

September 11 changes the iconography of the city once more. The stereotypical portrait of “hot streets” breathing and swarming with dodgy people dies down. Of course, this vampiric darkness erases from our memories a backdrop of marginal benefits, as shown in the fatal encounter between Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor in The Addiction by Abel Ferrara, where we witness the most magnificently bloody doctoral thesis – viva voce – in the history of cinema. But if New York post-September 11 is, on screen, less violent and more pleasant, it is also infinitely more tedious. While Spider-Man 1 showed dim alleys from which repulsive beings emerged and leapt onto and harassed Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man 2 (2004) hosts its action scenes in well-lit streets and the threat is always announced by sirens, deafening cracks and trembling buildings. And after Spider-Man has risked his life by swinging to the rescue of New Yorkers trapped inside an elevated train carriage, the passengers carry the body of the wounded with the care and respect we’d treat the body of Christ descended from the cross. At the moment when New York prepares itself for the Convention with a new patriotism symbolic of the city, there seems to be no end to the dilution of any “otherness” in the best of these multinational worlds. There are Starbucks on all street corners and a Kmart in the heart of Greenwich Village. Simultaneously, the images of a New York of yesteryear – literally all the images – have been bought and are stored near Pittsburgh in vast underground cellars where George Romero shot Day of the Dead (1985). Despite its resemblance to science-fiction, Bill Gates has managed to get hold of almost the entirety of the world’s photography market by buying, notably, the immense collections of Corbis and Bettmann. Only one section has been digitised for commercial purposes. The rest will be regulated to these cellars of oblivion, so that in a near future the whole visual history of the 20th century will be standardised; that is, rewritten with a precision that Stalinist revolutionaries would never have dreamt of. Only films will live to tell the story. And the power of the cinematographic image is such that even the rival and arrogant towers erected by Trump and Time-Warner in Columbus Circle will not be able to erase from our memories the billboard leased by Judy Holliday to inscribe her name in It Should Happen to You. Here’s to you, Gladys Glover!

Originally published in 24 Images, no. 18 (September, 2004).
Republished with permission from 24 Images

Translated from the French by Max Stibio.
Max Stibio is currently undertaking an Associate Degree of Professional Screenwriting at RMIT University.

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

About the Author


Ronnie Scheib

Ronnie Scheib (1944-1971) was a film critic who wrote for Film Comment, Framework, American Film, 24 Images, Variety and Chicago Reader. She also wrote dialogue for Warner Bros cartoons.View all posts by Ronnie Scheib →