Tickled and Shocked: The New York Mayoral Eras on Film

Every single New Yorker meets a celebrity every single day – whether they know it or not. When I first laid eyes on New York, as a movie-obsessed 16-year-old Pittsburgh boy, visiting friends who lived in Manhattan, I was literally starstruck every time I turned a corner, and my hosts eventually became hyper-aware of this. I would ramble about how a particular scene from an obscure film was shot around where we were standing and how, in some other film, so-and-so had walked exactly where we were walking. I remember commenting at one point how we were walking the same street Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine walk on their way to a dental appointment in 1962’s Two for the Seesaw. I also remember being on a subway platform with my friend Jeff, telling him that I was convinced that were standing on the same subway platform where Charles Bronson gunned down two ill-fated muggers in the original 1974 Death Wish. I am going to reiterate a term I used earlier to redefine and emphasize my condition: starstruck. There is just no other word to describe my state of mind on this first visit to New York. So, the celebrity that New Yorkers meet every day is the city itself – and specifically, sections and remnants of the whole. For the millions of films that have been made in New York, basically every square mile of it has been used for a filming location.

It was not too long after my first blockbuster visit to the city that 9/11 brought an end to an era, needless to say not just for New York. Shortly after that event, when I was able to re-nestle into my cinemania, after being at least somewhat able to crawl out of the epidemic of post-traumatic stress, I couldn’t help but think of the 70’s films that featured the Twin Towers as they were being built, or literally just months after they had been fully erected. The specific films on my mind then included Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970), in which the construction of the Towers serve as the backdrop for a scene between George Segal and Sterling Hayden – and also of the film adaptation of Godspell (1973), which featured a musical number performed at the very top of one of the Towers (in what, to me, qualifies as the eeriest World Trade Center film appearance). Another winner of the Eerie-Use-of-the-Twin Towers Prize goes to Richard Brooks' Wrong is Right (1982). In this film, terrorists actually plant at a bomb at the top of the towers!  Double double ditto for Lizzie Borden's Born Into Flames (1983).

Around this time, I began categorizing New York cinema by mayoral term, calling given films Lindsay Pictures, Dinkins Pictures, Koch Pictures, Giuliani Pictures, etc. By that point, my fascination, great love and even obsession for New York-set films was at fever pitch. If I were debating between watching two films, the one filmed in New York would win out. I became determined to hunt down the most obscure thrillers, the most unusual romantic dramas, the most offbeat comedies and the most obstinate and ethereal art films if I knew they were set in my favorite town. I would see an Ed Koch-era film and think of this gregarious ex-mayor famously asking his constituents, "How'm I doin'?" I'll look at a film like You've Got Mail and see Giuliani's hand virtually everywhere, from Verdi Square (nee Needle Park) to the Amsterdam Avenue storefronts freshly stripped down for the bourgeoisie and trust-fund kids. Travis Bickle's rain came. In large part, the "real rain" did come to wash the scum of the streets.

And what have we missed after the clouds of that real rain passed? When I finally moved to New York after college, I wrote an article about the history of New York City on film. It was probably the most read and “commercially” successful article I ever wrote for this blog, before or since. But I was struck by something upon moving here. Even though I had many allies in New York City, I had never felt lonelier, and slumped into a depression. I eventually rose out of it and now have been living here for a few years quite happily. My recent filmmaking life, however, has been an attempt to commemorate that initial N.Y.C. funk, and to examine the elements that were complicit in this initial feeling of lostness. My latest film is entitled A Simple Game of Catch. It is about a hopelessly naïve (but naïvely hopeful) girl coming from Pittsburgh to the Big Apple, which echoes my own beginnings in Western Pennsylvania. She finds herself babysitting a parrot amidst a lonely city where she struggles to find a job and people with whom to connect beyond a momentary glance. Below the list of films I provide, you can watch a montage of New York on film clips that I compiled, featuring a reggae song appropriately titled "Happy Survival," which is going to be used for the closing credits of A Simple Game of Catch. The montage uses a wide range of obscure, not-so-obscure and classic New York locations, and the actors and characters that have frequented them.

Born To Win (1971) I have written about this film on a few occasions before. It is one of the many New York films over which I obsess – and I obsess often for the most unusual reasons. I have some admittedly strange propensity for romanticizing the Times Square and 42nd Street of decades ago. In many ways, this is Mayor John V. Lindsay's masterpiece. Never before and never since has New York looked so gritty, and grimy, and unforgiving, and the city itself is more of a character in the film than the actors at certain times. The film stock on which it was shot also seems to add an ashen layer of crud, which only augments the grit and grime of everything on display -- the locations, the characters, the situations, the nooks and the cubbies occupied by addicts stringing out on their last few bucks. This is the city at its most tarnished -- a seedy world that fertilizes the efficacy of a discerning artist's eye.

The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) When I saw this film on a print at Lincoln Center this past November, Lincoln Center film curator Scott Foundas commented to the film's screenwriter Buck Henry that the film has a veritable sense of "New York menace," particularly every time it ventures outside the cramped quarters in which the characters hole themselves up. However, the color palette of menace in this film is a rather garish one. From the night rain shots that open the film, to George Segal's furied run from Doubleday Books to Riker's Deli, and finally to the last scene in Central Park. Barbra Streisand has never played street-smart like this, either. This film, ostensibly a stage-to-screen adaptation of a popular romantic comedy, depicts an underbelly of Manhattan from which most mainstream productions shied away. I can tell you right now that I can't name a single other mainstream studio release of its time to feature scenes in a porn theater filled with various slimy, unsavory types ogling an X-rated film -- a film-within-the-film we do not see but only hear, featuring Streisand voicing some rather raunchy (but undeniably funny) dialogue. And when was the last time you've seen a tough leather-jacketed Brooklyn gang patrolling Lincoln Center? This film's got it. You do the same scene today and it's science-fiction.

Greetings! / Hi Mom! (1968/1970) With a titanic sense of youthful vitality that Brian De Palma seemed to shed in later years when he gave way to pale Hitchcock imitations and cinematic overstatement, his two early features (and companion pieces) Greetings! and Hi Mom! use the playground of New York with a thankfully reckless abandon. One of my favorite scenes in any New York film can be experienced in Greetings!, when draft-dodgers Gerrit Graham, Jonathan Warden and Robert De Niro's jaunt through the Financial District, sprinting, crawling and shuffling their way through the deserted streets bordering Wall Street while simply trying to keep themselves awake. In Hi Mom!, a home-movie-camera-wielding young woman shoots an empty lot that used to exist near 14th Street, while also recording other bits of priceless New York ephemera. Pound for pound, these two spry little films, wonderful early entries in the canon of a recognized and admired American director, capture a certain brand of lost New York...West Village-style.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) No account of late 60's/early 70's New York on film is complete without the landmark Midnight Cowboy. This is a film that is so part of the cultural lexicon that it is quoted even by young 20somethings who have never even seen the film, and probably do not know the source of their quotation is found within. This film penetrates every gritty layer of a New York that, thanks to Rudy Giuliani, no longer exists. From the Xs on the windows of the condemned building in which live Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, to the seedy Times Square movie theaters Joe passes by night, this is a film that haunts someone with a penchant for obsessing about a Lindsay-era New York film. This is another one of Mayor Lindsay's seminal masterworks.

The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970) We've gone gritty with addicts, losers and draft-dodgers. With this film, we go gritty with the intently aimless patrons of the 60's counterculture. The main character of this film, Stanley (played by a pre-stardom Don Johnson), wanders wanders wanders, trying to make existential sense of the aimless direction his life is taking. Stanley drops out of Columbia and resigns himself to a life of hippie-esque hedonism. One of the film's most haunting scenes is sort of an expurgated Divine Comedy, in which Stanley is taken underground, where he winds up at an all-but-buried club populated by freaky-deaky drop-outs who groove to a really "heavy" song entitled "Water," as performed by Gay Deceivers star Michael Greer. On the journey to this underground hang-out, the camera quietly takes it all in, examining the remnants of a prodigiously gritty counterculture that one was. Room after room, corridor after corridor, recess after recess, we get a compelling kinetic interior-based snapshot of the New York of 1969. This is all without mentioning a scene in which semi-famous character actor Brandon Maggart attempts to pick up Don Johnson at an all-night diner. The scene ends with Johnson running from the diner out into the unrelenting, wonderland blackness a 60's Manhattan midnight. The character in this film always re-emerges from it in some way that clues us into the beautifully dingy environment in which he is one of millions. It's not a perfect film, but a fascinating one to those who are open to a film that tosses reportable narrative incident to the wind. Andy Warhol dug it, and called it the best studio-produced film ever made about the 60's counterculture. Warning: This one ain't easy to locate.

Coming Apart (1969) Here's a real humdinger of a selection. Here is a film that never once leaves an interior set, except for one shot which peers from its window. This hidden-camera character study of an unhinged psychoanalyst, as played by Rip Torn, cooped up in a tony studio apartment would perhaps never explicitly be called a "very New York" film by anyone else except me. But it is this aforementioned window shot, which would seemingly just be put there as an early intermission from the two-hour freak show on display. This view of a vacant Manhattan lot in black-and-white, which is immediately followed by the endless parade of damaged feminine specimens that land on Torn's doorstep and unspool before our very eyes, is a stern reminder of the land we are inhabiting -- that this studio apartment is simply a microcosm for a much larger framework of urbanity. These women gain an ugly identity when they enter the set from their anonymity in the city's exteriors.

No Place to Hide (a.k.a. Rebel) (1970) This much-maligned independent film is justifiably obscure, and has been seen only by the few interested in a pre-fame Sylvester Stallone's first starring role (not counting the infamous pornographic film with which he regrettably inaugurated his career). No Place to Hide is not really a good film by any stretch of the word, but I have seen it a significant number of times because of its New York locations, from the time I was thirteen years old. Often, the film's locations are dimly lit and/or poorly composed, but they're definitely chosen quite deliberately to evoke a certain Lindsay-era ethos. An early quasi-montage featuring the band of revolutionaries arriving from different sections of New York to congregate in a dingy upstairs storage room in the West 4th Street area showcases the journey these characters take from one part of their town to the other part of their town. They might not be grateful it's "Their Town," but for better or worse, they're the figures in the landscape.

Other Notable John V. Lindsay Films:
The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968)
Jenny (1970)
The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Klute (1971)
The French Connection (1971)
The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970)

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