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 still clearly visible in the distance, and surely I'd notice the sickening void today. (No wonder Spike Lee made the memorial Towers of Light that pierced the night sky on the anniversary of the attacks, and the gaping scar where they once stood symbols of Monty Brogan's [Edward Norton] ruined life in 25th Hour.) Yes, this is New York, the commercial and artistic capital of the country, if not the world. It's probably an illusion, but the pulse seems to race a bit more quickly, and the energy level rises as well. My driving certainly becomes more proactive. This is the New York of song and fable, a land where all rainbows end and on every street corner pots of gold await the talented, the aggressive, or the lucky. Welcome to Broadway, the "great white way," the "boulevard of broken dreams"; Times Square, the "crossroads of the world," Wall Street, Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, Trump Tower. As Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra have promised, if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.
One can also take the southbound New Jersey Turnpike a bit further, cut through Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Staten Island and cross into Brooklyn by the Verrazano Bridge. On this bridge a driver can look through the right window to see Gravesend Bay, the enormous gray hulk of the Veterans Medical Center, some remaining green space within Fort Hamilton, and the forlorn skeleton of the parachute jump at Coney Island in the distance. To the left, Fort Hamilton High School exerts a dominant presence among the elegant private homes on Shore Road, and just before the exit ramp drops down to ground level, one can see the tiny War Memorial and cannon at the end of Fourth Avenue. The connecting road makes a loop from Irish Bay Ridge, past the edges of Italian Bensonhurst, skirts Scandinavian Sunset Park (now largely Latino) and the ivy-covered New York State Arsenal, and rises again to enter the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The road slides past the monstrous white fossils of the Bush Terminal industrial complex and the remnants of a working waterfront, finally plunging into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to Lower Manhattan. This ride creates a time warp. It slows me down and brings me back in time to familiar people and houses, to schools and shops and churches, many of them lost long ago in the endless cycle of decay, renewal, and gentrification. It's my hometown.
Other people, even famous filmmakers, also have hometowns that provoke memories and a sense of belonging "here" before they made it "there" in midtown Manhattan. These are the parts of New York that stamp an impression on the imagination that lasts a lifetime. Over these past several chapters, I've tried to take four very well-known filmmakers out of the category of generic "New Yorker" and recover some sense of their real "hometown" in the hope that such a consideration might provide still one more avenue of access into their films. At the end of the project, I'm more convinced than ever of the importance of the origins of the directors as a valuable critical tool for understanding their work. At the same time, I'm much chastened in looking at the results of my endeavors. Let's examine both propositions.
To the first point: now that the project is finished, I remain confident of the validity of its thesis. Neighborhoods do indeed provide a key element for appreciating the development of an artist's view of the world. This assertion is simply a variation on mainstream auteur criticism. Since the mid-1960s, when Andrew Sarris introduced the auteur movement to American film viewers in his groundbreaking monograph in Film Culture, and through the 1980s, critics have routinely concentrated their attention on key directors.1 During the years when the auteur method exercised dominance, film scholars were tireless in amassing information about the biographies and opinions of the artists they studied. The interview became one of the dominant genres in critical writing in the professional journals.
In the last few years, critics and film historians have moved away from their narrow focus on directors. Those who still deal with directors as the principal creators of a film, as I have in this book, have widened their perspectives to include their interaction with producers, studios, and business interests; writers and cinematographers; and even marquee movie stars. Auteur criticism is still practiced, but in a way that the early Andrew Sarris and writers of the Cahiers de cinema would scarcely recognize. It is now important to consider a director as part of a team, a business, an industry, or, in this instance, an ethos. This shift to a wider context has led to a far more sophisticated and nuanced appreciation of films and filmmakers as key contributors in a very complex artistic process.
As a result, a great deal of work remains for us classical auteur critics as we try to locate our subjects within an intricate network of relationships. Even during the period when the biographical auteurists ruled the journals and academic film departments, before the theorists came on the scene, and even after the auteurists expanded the scope of their study to include the artistic contexts of the directors, it is striking that much of the auteurist inquiry was limited in its scope. We fastened our inquiries to very few formative elements in the lives of the directors we studied and ignored several others.
In hindsight, this was not surprising. Through the 1960s to the 1980s, and to a certain extent even today, much of the academic world's perception of the universe was colored through the twin lenses of Marxism and gender studies, which in turn were developed out of its earlier preoccupations with Darwin and Freud. Of course film scholars were no exception to the general trend, and in fact, as practitioners of a relatively new discipline, we were eager to gain legitimacy by adapting the agenda of the more traditional fields of study. Plot and character development could be analyzed in terms of conflicts in power and stereotypical gender roles. The business end of the industry was characterized as "Fordism" and films as the product of economic determinism. As is often the case with academic research, inquiry into the artist's thinking often reflected the intellectual preoccupations of the scholar. The journals published studies whose purpose was to uncover the biographical elements that explain the political philosophy and perceptions of gender that influence his or her work. Who was on the blacklist, who supported the ACLU, who was gay, who marched at Selma, who protested Vietnam were seen as important questions. And they were, but they should not have been the only types of questions.
My discovery of a growing sense of the incomplete nature of auteur criticism arose from my own intellectual preoccupations, which were somewhat different from those of other film students. Because I studied theology before concentrating on film studies, I was acutely aware that in the intellectual climate of the time, religion was a topic that rarely appeared in serious critical analyses of directors and their films. When theological issues did appear in commentaries, they were often addressed on a primitive level and by scholars whose interest in film was secondary. Theologians could look for religious symbols in certain key films of Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, for example. Pastors would explicate themes that were likely to be useful in raising topics for discussion. Much of the work was valuable for what the authors intended to achieve, but much of it remained oddly extrinsic to the films and filmmakers. Scripture scholars use the term eisegesis for reading a desired meaning into a text, and the word describes a lot of what was going on. If it is true that the Judeo-Christian imagination permeates American thought and artistic expression, then a film critic should rather engage in exegesis, and try to extract latent theological content out of the films, even— and this is important—in instances where no religious message is included, suggested, or intended.
With some rashness, I tried to do a theological analysis of the films of Woody Allen, a most secular American filmmaker.2 The study had its roots in auteur theory, to be sure. Its premise was that because Woody Allen attended Hebrew school and synagogue as a child and absorbed the stories of the Bible, these early experiences exercised an influence on his imagination and view of the world, and these in turn influenced the purely secular films he put on the screen. He does not use religious symbols consciously, nor does he raise issues of belief, but his films are unmistakably colored by Judaism. As I reread my work some months after publication, I realized that the idea should go one step further by distinguishing between cultural Judaism and theological Judaism. Although Jews in Eastern Europe and Jews on the East Side of Manhattan share a theological heritage, and one could legitimately discuss it in the films, as I did, still, the criticism really needed further refinement. For all Jews, the writings of the prophets might have sharpened the sense of sin, guilt, or vulnerability before the inexplicable forces of the universe, or the historical books might have provided the self-image of cultural alienation, understood as something like a journey through a desert in search of a promised land. This assertion is defensible, I believe, but these biblical themes have been modified through centuries of Jewish experience and have taken a particular shape from life in Jerusalem, or Warsaw, or New York. Even at this point a further refinement would be useful. Certainly the New York Jewish experience for intellectuals and artists living in University Heights around Columbia on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would differ dramatically from that of the struggling working classes in Borough Park or recent immigrants in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Clearly, the idea of a Jewish religious imagination needed further precision through cultural and geographic distinctions.
Some years later, I tried to make some distinctions within the Catholic tradition by treating several Catholic filmmakers with very different experiences of being Catholic: Ford, Scorsese, Coppola, Hitchcock, Capra, and, on the farthest fringes, De Palma.3 This grouping provided the opportunity to look at the Catholic religious experience as it was modulated by different ethnic identities, geographies, and age brackets. The Irish Catholicism of Ford and Hitchcock, for example, was quite different from its Italian counterpart in Capra and Scorsese. And even within the two ethnic groups, there still remained vast differences. Ford grew up in a heavily Irish Catholic town on the coast of Maine, and Hitchcock felt the occasional sting of prejudice as a scorned minority in working-class London. Although they both share a common Sicilian heritage, Capra grew up in agricultural Southern California and Scorsese amid the sweatshops in Manhattan. As this project drew to its conclusion, it seemed clear that although they shared a common Catholic imagination, the ethnic differences demanded more attention than I was able to give them. To speak of a shared sacramental sense, or their valuation of community over the individual, or a redemption paradigms, or the sense of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and regeneration again made a valid point, but surely other cultural factors entered in and modified the shared Catholic sensitivities these directors brought to their films.
It was clear, even to me, that it was time to move beyond my initial interest in religious identity and to look into another area that has at tracted little attention in most works of auteur criticism. Identifying and investigating the ethnic neighborhoods of these four directors has been rewarding for me, as I hope it has been for readers. The study has helped me look at the films with a richer sense of why these men picked certain projects, became preoccupied with some themes and not others, regularly dealt with certain types of characters and settings, and became associated with certain styles and genres and stayed away from others.
This present study represents a definite step beyond my earlier auteurist studies in that it omits religious influences almost entirely and focuses on ethnic neighborhoods as a key influence on the imaginations of these four New York directors. Although those of us who stay with auteur criticism have embraced the notion that film is a collaborative art form and other artists as well as business considerations contribute to the finished product, still we maintain our belief that a strong director leaves readily identifiable fingerprints on the work. The film remains an artifact touched and shaped by the director's imagination, as that imagination in turn has been shaped by the artists' living their formative years not in the abstraction known to the outside world as "New York," but rather in Fort Greene among upwardly mobile African Americans or in Flatbush among middle-class Jews, or in the constantly shifting ethnic mix of the Lower East Side among recently immigrant Italians or Jews. The four subjects of this study constitute a cross section of very different New York experiences. And as a result, they have become four very different kinds of New York filmmakers.
Despite a general sense of satisfaction that these essays have helped me understand the artists a bit better, the work still remains incomplete, as it must. Even though I am a New Yorker and will remain so even if I never return "home" to live, I'm painfully aware of the fact that I write about these New York neighborhoods as an outsider. This is why I feel chastened. In a perverse way, my very limitations and sense of inadequacy in accomplishing all the objectives of this book really support its central thesis. I am not Jewish, or Italian, or African American. I've never lived on the Lower East Side, in Little Italy, in Flatbush or Fort Greene. It's quite possible that my personal New York experience may have led to several misconceptions and false conclusions about life in their neighborhoods. Yes, it's a weakness of the book, but it proves the point that like me, these directors are really products of vastly different cultures, and even a well-intentioned fellow New Yorker from another clearly defined neighborhood may have difficulty in fully appreciating the insulated small town just a few stops away on the subway. One who attempts this kind of study is like the quintessential New Yorker who proudly advertises his roots by peppering his language with Yiddish, and continually risks getting it wrong. Still, this is a beginning, and perhaps someday, native critics, writing from the inside, will take the project further along.
Orson Welles expressed the conundrum quite well in Citizen Kane (1941). At the end of the film, the reporter leaves Xanadu keenly aware of the fact that he had failed to understand the inner workings of Charles Foster Kane. Discovering "Rosebud" painted on the sled really solves nothing for the audience either. The investigation was not fruitless, however. Through his diligent research, the reporter came to know a great deal more about Kane's personal life than he did at the beginning of his quest, and even though he did not solve the ultimate riddle of the man, he did learn quite a bit about him. I hope this book has provoked a similar conclusion: We don't understand everything, but we're better off than when we began.
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