4Columns returns with a new issue on September 4. This week we present our first summer missive: New York City onscreen.
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In his superb book Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (2001), James Sanders writes that there are two versions of the metropolis: “One is a real city, an urban agglomeration of millions. The other is a mythic city, a dream city, born of that most pervasive of dream media, the movies.”
Sometimes a film or TV show combines both versions of New York, presenting documentary-like texture within its fictional framework. Shot on location in the five boroughs, the HBO series High Maintenance—which follows the two-wheeled travels of a pot dealer known only as the Guy to his expansive client base—abounds with precise details about myriad neighborhoods: of cities within the city. Writing about the show, Ed Halter dilated on this particular aspect of High Maintenance: “[The Guy] bikes his case of goodies into the apartments of a menagerie of urban types: bodybuilders, lesbian moms, a depressed veterinarian, an indoor nudist, a cross-dressing husband; comedians, dancers, writers; an agoraphobe, an asexual, an ex-Hasid. The series is concerned not so much with marijuana itself as with the wide range of city dwellers who crave its relaxing qualities. Each of the Guy’s customers serves as the viewer’s envoy into yet another self-contained micro-society, variously conglomerated around professions, passions, or family ties.”
Both a fairy tale and an Ed Koch–era chronicle of the efflorescing music scene south of Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81, which features Jean-Michel Basquiat playing a version of himself, reminds us of the nostalgic—if not sentimental and occasionally mawkish—appeal of so many projects filmed in the city before the hyper-gentrification ushered in during Giuliani’s mayoralty. “Viewers of Downtown 81, which follows Jean over the course of twenty-four hours . . . become de facto archaeologists,” film editor Melissa Anderson noted in her review. “We peer into the long-since-shuttered clubs that are key sites in the movie (the Peppermint Lounge, the Rock Lounge, the Mudd Club) and gaze at the rubble-filled lower Manhattan blocks that Jean traverses, where a Whole Foods or Capital One bank may now stand.”
Some of the best movies about New York are those that were filmed thousands of miles away, such as Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945), in which the metropolis was fabricated on MGM soundstages in Culver City, California. The Clock impressively re-creates Pennsylvania Station, where Joe (Robert Walker), an army corporal on a two-day pass in the city, meets Alice (Judy Garland), a clerical worker and wary Gothamite. Revisiting the film just a few weeks after New York went on pandemic-mandated lockdown, Andrew Chan was struck by some of the quotidian aspects of NYC life, now newly poignant: “As the end of World War II—the conflict that haunts The Clock from afar—approaches, the city still runs on a few unshakable certainties: the subway doors slam shut whether or not you’ve made it onboard; the milk gets delivered on time; city hall closes on schedule every afternoon. Until they are proven otherwise, the facts of urban life seem immutable. They form an armor of ineluctability in a world where nothing is promised. They forestall the question that floats into the mind during times of indefinite isolation, the same question that Joe and Alice must be asking themselves at the end of the film: Will we ever see each other again?” As New York—dream city, nightmare city—slowly, tentatively reopens, the answer is maybe.