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The Reeler Blog

Over Us

By S.T. VanAirsdale

For a while I wasn't sure if I felt like responding to David Edelstein's list comprising the film section of the "New York Canon," or more specifically, "A Bunch of Lists Patting New York Magazine on the Back For Surviving 40 Years." It's not like there's much to respond to; charged with the thankless task of selecting 40 titles over four decades that "capture something emblematic about New York ... in all its splendor and tumult," Edelstein's got pretty much the stock gang of classics you'd expect, with brief capsules extrapolating their cultural values. It's '70s-heavy with a few obvious later-era high points like Do the Right Thing, Kids and, only somewhat ironically, sex lies and videotape, featuring some turnabout for recent Edelstein whipping-boy Harvey Weinstein:

The film itself has zero connection to New York, but New Yorker Harvey Weinstein was nearly laughed out of Sundance for paying $1.1 million to acquire it, and when it broke through commercially, it changed the fortunes of Miramax, lower Manhattan (as a production-distribution powerhouse), and American indie cinema forever. And New York had a new King Kong.

Fair enough. Anyway, at the end of the day, it's just another list providing an excuse to jam Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Woody Allen and Spike Lee on the cover and, by its own admission, get people arguing about untoward inclusions or omissions... or is it? Guardian blogger Danny Leigh replied Friday with an item asking, "Is Hollywood Leaving New York?" He openly acknowledges his disinterest in squabbling over selections, but his obvious affirmative reply still names names when suggesting that nostalgia is what sustains the best of recent New York cinema (and I quote at length for context's sake):

[S]omewhere between [NYC's] perennial mythic standing as the first great American city and the siren song of its mad capitalist hubbub, it spent the middle years of the 20th century becoming a staple location for every Hollywood genre except the western. This role eventually led to the ubiquity apparent in Edelstein's list, an ever-reliable vista of steam-billowing sidewalks, ethnic mélange and cheek-by-jowl extremes of wealth and poverty.

But in the last decade, the tradition of genuinely potent New York movies has ebbed away - the grimy, crime-flecked city of scumbags and dreamers last convincingly put up on-screen as contemporary reality in the weirdly durable Kids (which makes it on to Edelstein's list) and The Addiction (which doesn't). Since then, while there have been several inspired portraits of life in the city, almost all, tellingly, have been set in its recent past - Spike Lee's chronically underrated Summer of Sam, the similarly overlooked American Psycho and the (for once) justly acclaimed The Squid and The Whale.

For the last truly great New York cinema, we're probably going to have to trek all the way back to the last breath of the 80s/first of the 90s double-whammy of Goodfellas and Do The Right Thing. Technically dizzying and viscerally thrilling, these were movies that weren't just set in the city but seemed to showcase its soul, to percolate its choking, heatwave air through every movie house they screened in. But the New York of then is not, of course, the New York of now: the aggressive sanitations of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani did more to gut the identity of the place than could ever have been achieved by the likes of Cloverfield, even before the strange survivors' pall of 9/11.

Edelstein's list made critical sense to me at this point, because remarkably, Leigh misses its point by confirming it: For the 20 years between Midnight Cowboy and Do the Right Thing, New York reappropriated its perception in the movies. The wider, Vietnam-era disillusionment feeding American mavericks of the time -- both behind the camera and behind studio desks -- was compounded locally by the city's most protracted political and economic ebb since the dawn of cinema. Hollywood didn't necessarily walk out on the city or its radical new cynicism (see Serpico, Taxi Driver, Network et. al.), but it had little choice but walk out on its myth, leaving a new generation alone to reconcile its anxiety with its aesthetics.

You've heard that story a zillion times, of course. But if you don't believe the local implications, look at the homgenization of quasi-mainstream New York cinema since Ed Koch left office, a phenomenon implied by Edelstein's selections and, as recently as last week, the dovetailing of interests in New York's latest tax-credit boost to Hollywood productions in the city.

Anyway, for his part, Edelstein clarified himself to Leigh:

I did not intend my choices to represent the "greatest" New York films--or I might have included Addiction, as well as my friend Michael Almereyda's Nadja and Hamlet. And I certainly wouldn't have included Death Wish. I wanted to write about the films that defined New York in the public imagination or caught some aspect of the city that connected with one or another cult.

Thus the omissions of Keane, Half Nelson or Man Push Cart, all excellent recent depictions of New Yorkers pushed further than ever onto the post-Giuliani social fringe. Thus also, strangely, the selection of United 93, "perhaps a rough draft for the 9/11 New York works of art to come."

Here's where I disagree with Edelstein, who overlooks that the "public imagination" hasn't been that literal-minded since Kids at the latest. Rather, mass-market entries like Enchanted, I Am Legend and the upcoming Sex and the City movie are far more emphatic evocations of the real post-9/11 New York: a municipally authorized spectrum of urban fantasy. (The Mayor's Office of Film, TV and Broadcasting, coincidentally or not, also celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2007.) It's what makes the metaphor of something like Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night -- with its bomb-packing outsider prowling tourist-heavy Times Square -- so inaccessible yet utterly essential. It is as if to say, "Your imagination is not your own."

It also suggests a second New York canon existing for the city's indie and art-house populace -- a permanent cleft in the terrain left over from 1989, when the Weinsteins went seismic with sex lies and videotape. But that isn't what Edelstein's piece is about either. Or maybe it is: an informal timeline of how film culture got over us, and how desperate we are to just be loved once again.

Posted at April 13, 2008 12:39 PM

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