The Pawnbroker

Sidney Lumet's preoccupation with ethnic identities within New York receives its most poignant treatment in The Pawnbroker (1965). In 12 Angry Men he approached the topic as an outside observer, examining the issue from the perspective of the anonymous majority culture as the jurors unmask and confront bias in their own white male peer group. He shows us the representative of a minority, the defendant, only in passing, and thus turns our attention away from the perspective of the one whose...

Beachhead in Manhattan

Woody Allen's visual appearance as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (1977) indicates a remarkable shift in his screen character and in his sensibility of displacement. In the opening shot, he appears against a plain backdrop, speaking directly into the camera, dressed in a nicely tailored tweed jacket and polo shirt buttoned to the top. His hair is stylishly long, for the fashion of the day, but neatly combed. The clownish look, with the wildly disheveled mane, oddball costumes, and dopey facial...

Bed Stuy The Town Next Door

Walking east from Fort Greene Park along DeKalb Avenue some twenty-two short blocks and eight long ones, past the main campus of Pratt Institute, to Stuyvesant Avenue, and then five blocks south to Quincy Street brings one to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the setting of Do The Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee's most widely acclaimed film. The two locations are scarcely two miles distant, but they represent different universes. Fort Greene boasts a strong artistic community, cultural life, and growing...

Serpico and Prince of the City

The justice system fascinates Sidney Lumet, not especially for its effect on criminals as much as for its impact on those who are part of it. This world of police and prosecutors, Feds and felons, provides a perfect setting for Lumet to explore the complex, ambiguous relationships between the individual and the small, tight social system that forms his own personal community and the larger universe that threatens the survival of both the smaller, self-contained world and the individual....

Back to Fort Greene

Scarcely a year after the commercial and critical success of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee returned to familiar territory with Mo' Better Blues (1990). After opening his lens to embrace the tangled moral and interracial issues that enveloped Sal and Mookie, in his next film, Lee narrowed his focus to the world of a small group of African American artists trying to make their way through the jazz clubs of downtown Brooklyn to the big time. Lee admits to trying to create an accurate picture of...

Comedy of Displacement

Those two-way subway rides between Brooklyn and Manhattan of young Allan Konigsberg, tourist and movie fan, I would submit, provide yet one more nuance to a critical understanding of the mature Woody Allen, resident and filmmaker. Most of his critics have agreed for years that his central comic figure, recycled in many guises, is the insecure, neurotic outsider who feels misplaced, misunderstood, and misused in contemporary society. Because displacements of various kinds underlie almost all...

Back in Time to Brooklyn

Several of Spike Lee's later films reiterate his social and political commentary of his early films, but none with a softer touch than Crooklyn (1994). In this film, he returns to the Brooklyn of his childhood, recreated with the rosy glow of nostalgia through the warm earth tones of Ernest Dickerson's cinematography. The heroine is ten-year-old Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris), a spunky little girl growing up with both parents and four brothers in a lovely brownstone on Arlington Place in...

From Strivers Row to Bensonhurst

Spike Lee's departure from his political agenda was short-lived. His next film, Jungle Fever (1991), is arguably the most political of all his films. He returns to the conflict between African Americans and Italian Americans as two hostile communities and makes the mixture even more volatile by adding the ingredient of interracial sex, a theme he merely hinted at in Sal's quasi-flirtation with Jade in Do the Right Thing. He dedicates the film to the memory of sixteen-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, a...

Establishing Shot through a Wide Angle Lens

Putting the number of New York movies in the hundreds may be an overly conservative estimate. Certainly, if television programs were included, the list would reach many thousands. With so many different takes by diverse filmmakers, the stunning variety of images is overwhelming, each with its own meaning. Park Avenue and Wall Street suggest one thing Harlem and the Lower East Side the opposite Schubert Alley and Broadway something entirely different. Other cities have similarly achieved iconic...

Mean Streets of Home

After what he considered the artistic disaster of Boxcar Bertha (1972), the story of union organizers in Arkansas during the Depression, Martin Scorsese was ready to come home. The film served its purpose, however. For producer Roger Corman, it contained the requisite number of nude scenes and episodes of gratuitous violence, and despite what the reviewers said about it, it made a modest profit for Allied International Pictures. According to these criteria, it was a success. For Scorsese, it...

Capitalism of Social Responsibility

Spike Lee's dedication to capitalism and individual self-reliance comes with a strong sense of social responsibility. As one who controls the purse strings, he used his influence to open doors for other African Americans trying to break into the film industry. Like Francis Coppola, he has not shied away from including his family in his film projects. His father, Bill, has done several musical scores, and his sister Joie appears regularly on screen. Through his photography, David Lee, Spike's...

The Village Church

As a rather frail youngster whose health limited his activities, young Martin Scorsese found the parochial school and Old St. Patrick's Cathedral an improbably congenial environment after two years of public school in Queens. Neither of his parents were particularly religious. Their sending their son to the Catholic school did not reveal any particular act of devotion on their part, but it was rather the standard practice for even nominally Catholic families in New York at the time. The...

Epilogue

For a native New Yorker, returning to the homeland after a lengthy absence provokes many conflicting responses. Much depends on the point of entry. A driver coming across the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to connect to the West Side Highway or the Cross-Bronx Expressway can look out the right window of the car, and depending on weather conditions, can see the skyline of Manhattan to the south. The last time I made this trip, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were...

Two Early Comedies

With Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) Woody Allen began to establish himself as a major filmmaker. In these he turned to original material spun out of his own mind, while the earlier ventures were collaborative and derivative.17 He was a writer for What's New, Pussycat, directed by Clive Donner in 1965. He wrote the script and directed the English version of What's Up, Tiger Lily (1966), a film originally shot as a spy thriller in Japanese and dubbed with highly improbable Allenesque dialogue...

You Can Go Home Again

Radio Days (1987) represents a return to Brooklyn, even though it is set in Rockaway Beach, which is technically part of Queens, as are all the islands on the south side of Jamaica Bay, including Breezy Point and Fort Tilden, which are east of the Flatbush Avenue Bridge and thus geographically off the coast of Brooklyn. Connected to the rest of the City by the bridge and the IND subway, it is a small town even more isolated than most neighborhoods in Brooklyn Queens. In the film Uncle Abe (Josh...

Film Painting or Window

Jean Baudrillard's conception of New York as a entity perceived through previous experience of movies raises in concrete form the classical dilemma of film criticism. Stated in its most theoretical terms When viewers look at a screen do they contemplate the film itself or the objects reproduced by the film 7 In other words, is the film an object viewed in itself, or is it the medium through which other objects are viewed As Baudrillard describes his perception of New York, he easily passes from...

Mean Streets of Brooklyn and Queens

Over the years since Mean Streets, Scorsese developed a reputation for his unflinching, or as he would call it, his anthropological, look at the rougher side of New York City life in films like Taxi Driver 1975 , New York, New York 1977 , Raging Bull 1980 , The King ofComedy 1982 , After Hours 1985 , and 'Life Lessons, a segment in the trilogy New York Stories 1988 , yet he never really returned to the mob until GoodFellas 1990 , which is set mainly in Brooklyn and Queens. Five years later, in...

The Journey of Malcolm X

Spike Lee was interested in Malcolm X from the time he read the Autobiography of Malcolm X while he was still at John Dewey High School. He was not alone. Various studios and producers had toyed with the idea of making a film out of the book almost from the time it was first published by Grove Press in 1965. Sidney Lumet, the legendary Lion of the Left, had worked on a version written by David Mamet, and Norman Jewison, whose credentials for this type of project had been established by In the...

Jewish New York

We get ahead of ourselves in the narrative and must fill in a few details. When Baruch Lumet moved his family from Philadelphia to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he brought them into an aggressively Jewish world. In the late 1920s, this region could be characterized as an urban melting pot before the pot did much melting. Recent immigrants of varied tongue and hue settled into low-cost housing, near their low-paying jobs, and at least for a time stayed close to their familiar transplanted...

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is far more Italian than he has any right to be. He was born in New York, as were both his parents, but as we have seen, culturally, New York means nothing and the neighborhood means everything. In the case of the Scorsese family, home was the Sicilian community that settled around Elizabeth Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, only a few blocks away from the Jewish section where Sidney Lumet grew up. Culturally, it was another country, and it ensured the Scorseses'...

Flatbush Woody Allen

Four Films of Woody Allen. New York Random House, 1982. -. Three Films of Woody Allen. New York Vintage, 1987. Bailey, Peter J. The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen. Lexington University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Blake, Richard A. Woody Allen Profane and Sacred. Lanham, Md. Scarecrow Press, 1995. Bloom, Alexander. Prodigal Sons The New York Intellectuals and Their World. New York Oxford University Press, 1986. Desser, David, and Lester D. Friedman. American Jewish Filmmakers...

The Sicilian Factor

The local culture reinforced his genetic heritage. His grandfather, Francesco Scorsese, came from Polizzi Generosa, in the region around Palermo, the major metropolis of the island.1 After his mother's death, Francesco hired on as a live-in farmhand, and at the age of nineteen he fulfilled his dream by migrating to America. He settled on Elizabeth Street with his wife, Teresa, also from Polizzi Generosa. He supported his family as a laborer in the shipyards during World War I and later as a...