The myth provides a weirdly satisfying sense of self-identity, even if it strays from the truth a bit. New Yorkers know that, even if they won't admit it. Those living in the tough neighborhoods of New York surely harbor few illusions about the reality of violence, corruption, and degradation in their hometown. Even people in comfortable middle-class areas read the Daily News and the New York Post, tabloid papers that leave no local stone unturned if there is any hope of finding something slimy underneath it. The facts are undeniable. Even so, it's not the whole truth.
The movies, like the tabloids, present only one part of the picture, but lived reality is something far more complex. Although the streets provided threats to physical and moral well-being in abundance for any youngster, just as the movies proclaimed, fear was balanced by a sense of security, of being at home. Hollywood movies frequently miss this. The neighborhoods included the churches and synagogues, the schools and candy stores, the delis and movie houses that gave the young person a sense of belonging to a comfortable, living community. Friends played stickball in the playground, or if there was no playground, in the street, despite the intrusive interruption of cars. The block was a small town, and the street, as the focal point surrounded by stoops, formed a village square. The building was something like an extended family. The odors in the stairwell revealed what the neighbors were having for dinner. Unlike the movie version, which stresses the impersonal nature of living in high-rise apartments in Manhattan, the ethnic neighborhoods, especially in the outer boroughs, create a small-town atmosphere within the megalopolis. The longtime British correspondent in America Alistair Cooke once referred to New York as "the biggest collection of villages in the world."37
Village life brings its own consequences that mitigate the impersonal life of movie New York. New Yorkers have a complex relationship to their city that involves balancing the tension between two lives: one among the strangers of the vast metropolis, and the other among acquaintances in the neighborhood. The one encourages paranoia for survival's sake. It explains in part the legendary aggressiveness of New Yorkers toward strangers: Why be polite to someone who intrudes on your space and who you will never see again? At the same time the other side of New York life fosters ferocious loyalty to the block, the neighborhood, or the borough. (People in Brooklyn still seethe at the departure of the Dodgers nearly fifty years ago and hate the Yankees more than Bostonians for their annual ritual of defeating those magnificent Brooklyn Dodger teams in the years immediately before the perfidy.) Living among hordes of strangers can be both exhilarating and intimidating; living among family, friends, and acquaintances in familiar settings can be reassuring. Native New Yorkers have it both ways.
Jane Jacobs, a pioneer apologist/advocate of city life, writes insightfully about the personal experience of the streets in any city, but her comments have a particular pertinence to New York street life. In their quest for order, urban planners like her nemesis, the storied Robert Moses, see only chaos and clutter on the streets and miss the humanizing effects of ongoing personal contacts in crowded neighborhood: "The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal and neighborhood need."38 Visitors like Jean Baudrillard lack this experience. They find the impersonal crowds on the streets intimidating, if not terrifying, and this is the city that tourists and movie audiences are most familiar with. New Yorkers realize that the cold but frenzied world that Baudrillard complains about exists somewhere in the City, but it certainly does not reflect life on their block. Hollywood versions of city life leave little room for church socials, local taverns, or Laundromats. In a New York created by moviemakers from California, no one visits a beloved family doctor or argues baseball with the barber or buys fruit from the store on the corner.
In the movies, everyone lives in Manhattan, unless the script calls for some local color from another borough: Brooklyn or the Bronx for criminals, Queens for cops. Staten Island rarely appears. It did in Working Girl (1998), where it represents a crude, cartoonish world that stands in contrast to the sleek office towers of Manhattan. Its main character, a secretary named Tess (Melanie Griffith), longs to make the symbolic ferry trip away from her roots and to a new life in Manhattan. Its director, Mike Nichols, was born in Berlin, Germany, and grew up in Chicago, so his parody of the least-known borough and its residents is understandable.
To risk a broad generalization that will be nuanced in subsequent chapters, New York directors do not have to construct their sense of the City from previous films with their limited and highly imaginative per spectives. Thus they have a more catholic vision of the City in its entirety and an awareness of the regional differences that thrive in different areas of the megalopolis. As a result of having grown familiar with the City through years of living there, they present a complex tapestry of the City life woven of strands of many colors and textures, each making its contribution to the whole.
In his remarkable study of the streets and architecture of New York through the history of commercial filmmaking, James Sanders points out that the authentic New York look is something quite different from the Hollywood version:
New York based film makers would view things differently, not only casting their gaze across the full breadth of the city's landscape, by seeing it as a patchwork of urban villages. . . . Under the guise of conventional storytelling, locations-shot features would examine New York's neighborhoods with an almost anthropological precision and care, exploring their local ways of life, observing their streets, shops, houses and gathering places, and ultimately revealing them to be not merely background settings, but powerful sources of narrative conflict and tension.39
For these filmmakers, the City assumes the role of an actor, or rather a whole cast of character actors, that further the story. It is not merely the glitzy or sinister setting that allows stereotypical characters to perform their highly predictable functions.
Sanders's work is cited frequently in these pages because his analysis of the visual contributions of the actual city (or its re-creation in Hollywood) forms an invaluable basis for further reflection on the film themes and styles that emerge from the complex interaction between New York filmmakers and their native city. In the pages that follow, the analysis of the films and filmmakers will move beyond the physical surfaces of the City and attempt to penetrate the ethos of the specific neighborhoods that gave the filmmakers their own particular sense of New York.
Simply by looking thoughtfully at the films, with a conscious awareness of their New York neighborhood roots, one can offer several observations about the artists, and these in turn provide, it is hoped, an added appreciation of their work. They are at home in areas that others, even other New Yorkers, find alien. They know about the dangers of urban life, but they balance the threat of an impersonal city with the security of a familiar neighborhood. They prefer to live and work close to home. They have strong ethnic identities themselves and deal with other groups every day. They realize that being foreign or diverse is not alien to the American way of life, but in fact is constitutive of it. They know tourist Manhattan, but they are aware that the City is much larger than a few iconic areas of one borough. Like most New Yorkers, they harbor ambivalent feelings about midtown. It is both the rich and famous neighbor they resent, and yet it represents a promised land they envy. When New Yorkers boast that theirs is a city one loves to hate, they mean midtown Manhattan. It is alien and oppressive, but it gives an added identity even to the neighborhoods native New Yorkers call home.
Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee have felt at home in New York to the extent that they have kept making their films there, and the overwhelming majority of them have New York settings. The City is the story they keep telling, over and over again. It's hard to imagine a circumstance that would lead them elsewhere for very long. Yet even on those occasions when they move their cameras away to some distant locale, they take the City with them. New York is so much a part of their artistic and psychic sensibility that wherever they are, their characters retain the traits of New Yorkers. They cannot leave town, even when they try. Why should they? It's home.
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