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New York: Capturing The Essence

July 15, 2011 | By

New York is much more than a studio where films are shot for reasons of convenience, it has a soul that seeps into and is used by different filmmakers to mean different things

The sheer size and cultural influence of New York City makes it a subject of many similar and contradictory portrayals in film. From the sophisticated and worldly metropolis of Woody Allen films, to the urban jungle in the films of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, New York has always been interpreted and shown to mean many different things.

Serpico

Serpico is somewhat of a hippie, he is not morally upright to prove any larger than life goodness but is just a man of his own principles.

The essence of New York is captured by different directors in many different ways, and the main difference between Hollywood and New York filmmaking is that New York, unlike Hollywood has an essence. The sheer size and cultural influence of New York City makes it a subject of many similar and contradictory portrayals in film. From the sophisticated and worldly metropolis of Woody Allen films, to the urban jungle in the films of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, New York has always been interpreted and shown to mean many different things.

The themes discussed in a film are the most familiar modes to engaging in commentary about the city the film also wishes to portray. In Serpico, Sidney Lumet portrays New York as a dangerous city where crime is the norm and the system is full of corrupt officials who strengthen the roots of the underworld. Crime is not only associated with a few shady characters but is portrayed as an underlying habit that is strengthened by the entire support system in the form of the police, along with other administrative departments who are an accomplice in the lawlessness.

These portrayals of New York as a dangerous place where the underbelly thrives and is backed by a full support system are not limited to the films of Sidney Lumet, or to Serpico. For that matter, Martin Scorsese also engages in a similar argument about New York City in films like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, among others.

However, what is interesting about Serpico, is the fact that it is also a film about the underdog, who is morally righteous, and who stands up for himself, and in turn, helps in cleansing the entire system. This establishes a discourse of rebellion, a rebellion that is very much part of New York. Serpico, captures the essence of New York, and New York filmmaking in a multitude of ways, including the portrayal of the hero and the lack of a romantic angle in the film.

The hero of Serpico, unlike the typical Hollywood hero is not a strong, handsome man, who embodies masculinity and the strength to take up on any immorality; he is on the contrary, a very real person and an even truer New Yorker. Serpico is somewhat of a hippie, he is not morally upright to prove any larger than life goodness but is just a man of his own principles. This is proven when we see him telling his colleagues that he does not mind if they take bribes, and he would not divulge this fact to any higher authority, as long as he is not forced to do the same.

Even the fact that when Serpico does eventually report the misdemeanors of the Police Department to higher authorities, he does so not from a need to make a moral statement, but from a need to safeguard his personal security from the dozens of colleagues who have turned against him, proves how vulnerable as a person he is.

Just because Serpico has a principle against taking bribes, does not make him an angel that defines moral uprightness, he smokes marijuana, and has serious anger management problems, and unlike the typical Hollywood male, he is not a symbol of pure masculinity, he displays his ballet moves in front of his colleagues and is in fact several times even been labeled a homosexual by his colleagues, an allegation that unlike in a Hollywood film, does not seem to be a problem and needs no clarifications.

Serpico also has problems maintaining relationships with women, and a romantic relationship is seen only to the extents of casual dating and not a matter of life and honor, a mere want and not a need. The film does not result in the resolution of any couple, something that can be seen as being even in a way blasphemous to the typical Hollywood film, because from Douglas Sirk, to Steven Spielberg, most Hollywood directors have always aimed at some kind of a resolution of the romantic couple.

Another New York film that comes to mind especially with regards to the resolution of the couple is Dog Day Afternoon, also by Sidney Lumet. Like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon is also an anti-establishment film, a film that captures New York as the city where a homosexual man, committing a bank robbery can be seen as the hero who we want to succeed and with whom we identify. The couple, even though at the center of the film is still extremely different from the Hollywood couple, not only because it is a homosexual couple, but also because Sonny’s gay-partner does not want him in his life.

The heroes in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon are weird, unique individuals with traces of vulnerability, and certain negative traits yet there is still the overall goodness in these characters that warrants our sympathy and identification. This is unlike the New York of Martin Scorsese where all the characters are negative; there is no distinction between the hero and the villain, in fact the hero and the villain are both embodied by the same character, for what would be a more dislikable character than Jake La Motta, the protagonist of Raging Bull.

Martin Scorsese describes his use of negative characters as a way of making a statement about good by showing the bad:

“I think it’s good for an audience to see characters behaving negatively and what that does to one’s life and the lives of the people around them. It’s almost like an object lesson in a way. A lot of people find that kind of thing fascinating; others don’t. My pictures are certainly not across-the-board crowd-pleasers for everyone, I can tell you that”[1]

The classic, New York montage opening from Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, featuring Elton John’s, “Amoreena.”

In both Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, female characters even though present are essentially useless to the purposes of the narrative. Their existence or lack of does not change the story in anyway, this again is quite unlike Hollywood, where also because more often than not the resolution of the heterosexual couple was the aim of the narrative, which automatically put the female character in an important, even if secondary position.

In Goodfellas, the filmic world is full of women, seen in conventional, conservative roles like the wife, the mistress and the daughter. The only difference between this position and the one in Serpico, for example is the fact that the woman is the one who ends up creating trouble for the men. This is shown many times in Goodfellas, including when, despite several warnings against it, Henry’s house keeper ends up using the house phone for the messages regarding the drug deal, and then again when Karen, his wife flushes down all the heroine that Henry had saved to cash in during hard times.

From a feminist point of view, choosing between these two positions of existence, i.e. the one in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, of nonexistence to the one of Goodfellas of the fools, is essentially like choosing the lesser of two evils.

Goodfellas

A different perspective on this is offered by Woody Allen in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan. In these two films, female characters are of utmost importance, they are the central characters, around which the story revolves and without which there could have been no film.

In Annie Hall, the film starts out as being a story of Alvie Singer, but ends up being the story of Annie Hall, around which the life, at least in narrative terms of Alvie Singer revolves.

In Annie Hall, the film starts out as being a story of Alvie Singer, but ends up being the story of Annie Hall, around which the life, at least in narrative terms of Alvie Singer revolves.

In Annie Hall, the film starts out as being a story of Alvie Singer, but ends up being the story of Annie Hall, around which the life, at least in narrative terms of Alvie Singer revolves. The flipside to this however is the fact that the character of Annie Hall is seen as a malleable person who needs to be shaped and made, in a way, more intellectual, for her existence in the world of Alvie. This, I believe is not as much a feminist affront as it is a personal affront to all the characters in the film, because essentially the only character who has intellectual supremacy is that of Alvie himself, therefore it is not so much a statement that women are less intelligent as it is a comment that the only really intelligent/intellectual person in the film, is Woody Allen, and intellect, even, is defined by the own terms of Woody Allen, who dismisses the understanding of all other characters as being bizarre and trite.

Regardless of how feminist or anti-feminist the portrayals of women in these New York films discussed are the most important thing that remains true is that they are extremely different from those offered in the typical Hollywood film, where women are used only to construct the other half of the couple. Also proven is the fact that New York filmmakers use female characters in a variety of ways to capture the essence of the city through their own respective lens.

The geographical region that is described as New York, for Woody Allen, the New York that is desired and wanted is confined only to the extents of Manhattan, for him New York means a very specific thing; it is the upper class people and neighborhoods of Manhattan that he wants to integrate into, and even though he pokes fun at the bourgeois Manhattan intellectual elite, it is only these characters, i.e. the people who play tennis in clubs and eat at fancy restaurants that he can survive with.

Woody Allen portrays Brooklyn as a terrible place that one would want to move away from at all costs, this can be seen very clearly in his exaggerated portrayals in Annie Hall of his childhood house in Coney Island, Brooklyn that shakes terribly with the rollercoaster passing right above it. Also associated with Brooklyn are the grossly unsophisticated characters of his childhood, as embodied by the character of Alvie’s Uncle.

Unlike Scorsese and Lumet, Woody Allen’s films are criticized for a lack of reality; they have a dream like quality where the city is seen as almost unrealistic. Therefore the essence of New York that Woody Allen captures is closed off to the dangerous realities of the city, and focuses on only several elements of beauty and desire for the perfect city. This is completely opposed to the general essence that the likes of Scorsese capture, where only the dangers of the city are captured leaving behind any aspect worth desire.

For Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx are as much a part of New York as is Manhattan, in fact there is hardly any distinction being made between the geographical locations of New York, and New York means something much bigger than the geographic area itself.  For Lumet the essence of New York is the essence of reality, In fact, in the world of Sidney Lumet, New York plays an integral part in creating what is different, because it is real. He believes that in order to create reality, it is important to confront reality on a daily basis. For Lumet, “New York is filled with reality; Hollywood is a fantasyland”[2].

To sum up, New York is much more than a studio where films are shot for reasons of convenience, it has a soul that seeps into and is used by different filmmakers to mean different things. Whereas Sidney Lumet uses New York for the purposes of realism, Woody Allen uses it to produce fantasy like unrealistic depictions of an ideal city. The themes discussed, issues raised along with the depictions of the heroes and the female characters all combine to form the essence of this multicultural, diverse city which means something very different to each filmmaker that films it. 

END NOTES

[1] Martin Scorsese quoted in an online interview, sources not available

[2] Rapf, Joanna E. Sidney Lumet: Interviews, Univ. Press of Mississippi (2006)

More to read

An Attempt At Understanding Woody Allen

Cinema Made in Spain: A Historical Outline 1896-1980

Satyajit Ray: A Critic of Contemporary Ethics

Absurdist Themes In The Virgin Spring

 

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Ayesha Arif is an independent filmmaker currently working on a Hindi film as screenplay writer and director.
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