The Big Apple is venerated as the most filmed city in movies, a hustle-bustle urban jungle of possibilities, both magical and harrowing.
It seems there aren’t films made *about* New York City very much anymore; they merely take place there, the protagonists unaffected by the milieu. Perhaps it’s a post 9/11 reluctance to confront the contentious ‘symbolism’ that the city continues to offer. Only Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) confronts NYC in its role as ‘snapshot city’, and attempts to deconstruct its myths and contradictions.
New York is represented in two modes of cinema – it’s a decrepit urban hell or a serene cloud to naval gaze on – guzzle down coffees, discuss Dialectical Materialism, be ‘arty’. The dichotomy is illustrated in two films made three years apart, Taxi Driver (1976) and Manhattan (1979).
Taxi Driver (1976).
If ever the topography of a city mirrored a protagonist’s crumbling psyche it’s Taxi Driver (1976). Travis Bickle here represents purgatory, New York a steaming cesspool of ‘animals’ and ‘filth’. The city is an ill-thought-out maze, a cruel, shallow, uncaring conurbation from gutter to canopy. An utter dump, it’s where people lose their minds.
This movie is paradise. I’d love to live like one of these characters. A bloke in it willingly quits his job because he can. He doesn’t worry over council tax or credit card debt or rent or any of that trivial shite – he just spends the remainder of the movie see-sawing between a neurotic journalist and a 17-year-old high school student. The city here black and white, lit up in fireworks and George Gershwin. There is no crime, there are no social problems. There are only parties and conversations. NYC is a lucid dream.
A film-maker from different backgrounds and experiences will of course develop his own vision of metropolis as distinct from another’s, but this city is ridiculous in its contrasting representations to the extent that one wonders if it’s the same place subjected to the camera. The theme goes beyond a depiction of class divide – its wholly disparate districts captured on celluloid – and channels two states of mind. New York is *the* kaleidoscopic dwelling.