In my opinion, New York City is truly incomparable. I lived there until I was eleven years old, and although I now proudly call Boston home and am a big admirer of Baltimore, my current city, there is something about New York City that I can't shake. I am definitely not the only one who feels this way. New York City has long been an object of artistic fascination. Artists, writers, musicians, actors, and, most definitely, filmmakers have consistently used New York City as their muse.
After watching Annie Hall for the first time last year, I came away electrified by the way Woody Allen was able to represent New York City on the screen. So much more than just a location, the city becomes a character itself; it comes alive through the camera and deepens our understanding of the film's other characters, as well. In short, I loved it, and it got me thinking: how do different films engage with New York City? How do different directors depict New York in their films? Are there similarities in their depictions? Differences? How do depictions of New York City change through time?
I started my New York City film journey with the 1949 film version of the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town. Initially based on a Jerome Robbins ballet, with music by the renowned Leonard Bernstein, the musical made a big name for itself and is still widely performed today. The film, which features the iconic Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, clearly depicts New York City as a utopia. The story follows three sailors, Gabey, Ozzie, and Chip, who have only 24 hours in New York City before they must head back to sea. They each look for, and ultimately find, love in the bustling city, and after their escapades conclude, they head back to sea, while three new sailors, fresh off the ship, embrace the city just as the original three characters did, suggesting a cycle of fulfilled hopes and dreams. The opening of the film stuck with me most. With the euphoric "New York, New York" backing them, the three sailors visit all of the famous New York City landmarks: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, etc. New York City truly glistens in front of them; it holds the promise of love and grand adventure. To the three sailors, and to us viewers, New York City is quite simply "a wonderful town."
Woody Allen is known for his obsession with New York City. While Annie Hall provides a good example of this captivation, his 1979 film Manhattan is considered his ultimate ode to his beloved town. Manhattan follows 42-year-old Isaac, played by Allen, and his romantic relationships with, first, the 17-year-old Tracy, and subsequently Mary, the woman with whom his best friend was having an affair. Just like in Annie Hall, New York City is displayed prominently in the background of the story. As in On the Town, the opening montage provides a perfect starting point for analysis. Set to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," this montage does contrast with the jubilant movie musical's opening montage. Each shot is undeniably breathtaking, but the shots almost contradict themselves, in a way. There are some more delicate shots, such as streets at night in the snow and a couple on a balcony with the city lights behind them, but then there are also some more formidable, powerful shots of infrastructure, namely skyscrapers and bridges. Allen's voiceover complies with this pattern. Isaac attempts to write the first chapter of a book about his relationship with the city, but struggles to find the description that feels right. "Beautiful women," "street-smart guys," "decay of contemporary culture," "drugs, loud music," "garbage," "tough and romantic" ...nothing is satisfactory. Finally, he concludes with, "New York was his town and it always would be." No longer simply the shining beacon of promise and utopia New York provides for the three sailors, New York is more difficult to describe in Allen's view, and he resorts to claiming ownership of it without further explanation. The ending sequence does a perfect job of illustrating this feeling, as well. As Isaac and Tracy part ways, we are given an image of the New York City skyline that, along with the score, feels triumphant and beautiful, but ominous and ambivalent at the same time. In this way, New York City mirrors Woody Allen's character and his situation. Isaac's future is strikingly ambiguous at the end of the film, just like our feelings about New York City.
Through the comparison of On the Town and Manhattan, we see a change in the portrayal of New York City. No longer just a place of promise, achieved goals, and happy endings, Woody Allen suggests complication and contradiction in New York. To end my exploration of New York City films, I looked to an extremely difficult period in New York's history: post 9/11. I was only four years old on September 1, 2001, and thus I have minimal recollection of the event's occurrence and its immediate aftermath. However, after taking an English course last year entitled "Novels After 9/11," I now know more about the huge outpouring of art that occurred in response to the tragedy as artists attempted to make sense of what happened and help those around the world make sense of it, as well. For my post 9/11 film, I looked to Kenneth Lonergan's 2011 film Margaret, which, though it was released a significant amount of time after the tragedy, thematically captures the feeling of living in a post 9/11 New York society. The story begins by introducing us to Lisa, a high school girl living a normal, uninterrupted life in New York City, until she accidentally distracts a bus driver, resulting in the death of a pedestrian. The story follows Lisa's attempt to figure out how to live with this disaster. There don't seem to be a lot of answers in this film; what stands out are the complexities of a world and how those complexities are attempted to be dealt with. This is exactly what life in New York City is after 9/11: having to suddenly figure out how to live in an altered world. The ending sequence illustrates this idea well. The film ends in an iconic New York performance space: Lincoln Center. This choice of venue suggests a connection between New York City and art. After Lisa enters the space, we are given fragmented shots of different people in the audience, all united through the performance they are about to watch. This choice is poignant in that it suggests a responsibility art forms have to unite a population and provide an outlet for suffering and grief after a tragedy. Lisa and her mother, despite their strained relationship, unite at the end of the scene in support of each other as they attempt to deal with the complicated world they both inhabit. In this way, Margaret actually functions as that support. Margaret provides us with an image of somehow learning to live with disaster, no matter how difficult that may be.
The change New York undergoes through these three films raises many questions. Is it possible to return to the view of New York City as a utopia? Will New York films ever again conclude with perfectly happy endings? In these three films, we see a loss of innocence and romanticism about the city. It's almost as if New York comes of age through these three films; it grows up and is exposed to more and more complexities and ambiguities surrounding the future. If there is one thing that remains perfectly clear, it is that New York City remains an object of fascination for different filmmakers throughout the years. That is something I don't think will ever change.