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A Cinematic Ode to New York at Just the Right Time

Launched in September 2021, in my desolate era of self-isolation, the Criterion Channel's new collection #NewYorkStories boasts a 61-film celebration of "the anything-can-happen energy that has made NYC an unforgettable canvas for filmmakers." The project encapsulates everything I love about film and everything that turns me on about New York~ there's always something for whatever mood I'm in. With eleven subcategories to choose from, including "New York Romance" for a lonely night or "New York Sounds" as a more experimental grouping, each selection offers overwhelming potential for a truly inspiring night. The following short essay/reviews piece together my meditations on the films I've seen and the creators, visions, and lore they support. Spoilers ensue!

My honorable mentions and ratings:

King of New York (10/10)

Paris is Burning (10/10)

Just Another Girl on the LRT (10/10)

Variety (9/10)

Putney Swope (9/10)

Do the Right Thing (9/10)

Mr. Jealousy by Noah Baumbach (8/10)

The Daytrippers (7/10)

The Squid and the Whale (7.5/10)

Frances Ha (6.5/10)

Moonstruck (6/10)


Kissing On Either Side of Central Park: The Panic in Needle Park & Metropolitan

Central Parks runs from 110th street to 59th. There are probably an infinite amount of New York stories to choose from and compare on those 51 blocks, but no two stories feel as disparate and opposing than the one portrayed in the dramatic The Panic in Needle Park against the rom-com Metropolitan. While both films are housed together under the "New York Romance" heading, and both stories unfold on the streets surrounding Central Park (albeit two decades apart), each film depicts the lives of two starkly different communities of young people, representing a truth that is still all too real in NYC: a tiny one-mile radius can be home to obscene riches and extreme poverty all the same. The Panic in Needle Park (1971), directed by Jerry Schatzburg and with a screenplay written in-part by Joan Didion, shows a dense type of love--where funding an addiction is the bedrock and potential wedge between heartbreaking lovers. Meanwhile, Metropolitan (1990) directed by Whit Stillman, shows us that on the other side of the park, wealthy teenaged socialites attempt to seduce each other with Jane Eyre, their existential theories on class failure, and Fourier's Utopia, all while indulging straight out of their silver spoons.

Kissing and loving, as these films understand, are the coping mechanism for the troubles we face, particularly in our youth. Al Pacino and Kitty Winn plunge into their roles as Bobby and Helen, two lost and (maybe) hopeless victims of whatever story they lived before the film's setting. They cope with each others' affection at times, but mostly they are trapped in the twisted grip of Heroin. Helen tells Bobby she came from a nice home out in the country. We don't get much else, but somehow she's ended up homeless in New York. Now she's fallen for Bobby, and promises she won't leave him the way she left her family. In fact, despite the heartbreaks and rock bottoms they endure together, and despite considering it and threatening to, she doesn't leave. Is she dependent of his love, just like she is Heroin? To experience an all-encompassing, all-consuming love is like a drug--with highs that cause raptures of ecstasy, the dependence, and those withdrawals that rip all your guts out. But the darkness that looms in their love story is more subtle than the usual romantic drama might aim for. Reminiscing on Didion's writing, particularly her studies of the American life in the 60s, life just it it is. There's no grand conclusion to be drawn. Akin to a "slice-of-life" romance movement, that still breaks your heart to watch. I feel a lot of stillness in Bobby and Helen's rock bottoms. And at the end of the film, when they're walking together even after Helen's betrayal, even after Bobby's failed drug dealing dreams, there's no conclusion to be drawn from their expressions, but heartbreak lingers long after the movie's ended.

Maybe positioning a romantic-comedy alongside a romantic-drama like The Panic in Needle Park seems inconclusive, but the truth is these movies seem to me to illuminate perfectly the social spectrum that has made New York City the unbending microcosm for the world. A walk across the park (and a time-jump of 20 years), landed me in the debutant season of the elite Upper Eastsiders, or the preppy class, or even the "urban haute bourgeoisie" (U.H.B.) as they call themselves. It is the first of Stillman's trilogy which he calls his "Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love series." These kids, riding cabs to their gold-plated afterparties, musing over who is who's date, intercutting notes on socialism, Western literature, and running trains, represent the most distant "coming-of-age" story I can imagine from my own, and probably most people too (children of the top 1% have this advantage). Kissing and loving still appears to provide a desirable escape from the woes that trouble them. And, while they spend late nights figuring out who to kiss and how to do it, I can't help but wonder why exactly they are doomed...? One of the character's in the film, Charlie, has an answer: "downward social mobility." They struggle with what they consider the failure of the upper class--apparently there will soon be no upper class, as they are *doomed* to commit the mistakes their parents have, who they consider to be failures. And so, who will run the world then? The film is under romance because the young preppies devote a lot of energy, as any teen would, to figuring out this kissing thing, but deeper in the context and intention of this film is a study of another kind of lost youth--out of touch with the majority of the world and looking at it through a lens mirrored in silver. I wonder what the debutants would say about Helen and Bobby...

"New York Romance" led me to question class struggles (so unexpectedly), revisit some of my favorite Joan Didion essays (On Keeping a Notebook), and relive some shit (honorable mention: Mr. Jealousy by Noah Baumbach). Overall, Criterion never fails to provide the most dynamic experience for film fanatics, with this collection already proving to be an iconic example of their curation power. Romance is absolutely brewing in these two films, but while I might have expected a cathartic ugly-cry or the warm fuzzy feeling I typically get from the genre, I'm actually guaranteed to have a deeper context to think about post-watch. And about kissing-- either side of the park we do it, there's no better way to forget our troubles.


The Panic in Needle Park (8.5/10)

Metropolitan (8/10)


Nine Circles of Hell--Except It's Just Soho: After Hours

So of course, some clarification for this title is necessary because while the Soho of Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours looks quite different than the Soho I know today, there's no doubt that the most accurate metaphor for this neighborhood is still in fact, Dante's Inferno. After Hours is a pretty fun story--a man, Paul, ventures off into the artistic underworld of Manhattan's downtown, but when he realizes he can't keep up with the crazed inhabitants of that world, he decides to bail. Except he literally can't leave. This poor guy is taken through this hellish neighborhood and each new character is crazier than the last, trapping him in a never ending, torturous night that will eventually render him a shell of himself (pun).

Why he can't go home is not really the point, what Scorsese does though is create a rabbit hole for us to explore and laugh through at the expense of his main character, who represents the absolute worst category of New Yorker-- the Yuppie. He is a well-oiled corporate machine, though clearly bored out of his mind. He's horny too, so when he meets Marcy at a coffee shop (1. Limbo) and gets her number, he decides to hop in a cab and make his way downtown to visit her. The ominous impending doom set forth in his chaotic taxi drive is the beginning of a journey to the Inferno... would Paul then be Dante?

Once Paul arrives in Marcy's apartment at 28 Howard street, he's confronted by Kiki, Marcy's sexually inclined (2. Lust) punk, sculptor roommate, an off-putting story of assault from Marcy, and implications of weird disfigurations on Marcy's body which immediately turned him off. So his first attempt to bail sets off the rest of the plot's looping labyrinth. Paul finds himself at a bar (3. Gluttony) where he can't even drown out his contempt with the increased subway fare that prohibits him from making his way home. He meets the bartender who offers him money, but first he must retrieve the guy's keys to the register from his house. Ok, Paul makes it to the guy's apartment but he's questioned by other residents as there's been a series of robberies in the neighborhood (4. Greed). "It can't be me, I have the guy's keys," Paul says. Cool, he is making his way back but-- is that the robbers?! He sees two guys with stuff from Marcy's apartment so he chases them down, takes Kiki's sculpture back to the apartment, and finds her tied up-- but it's not because of the robbers, she's a masochist and they're not even robbers, they're her friends and she gave them the sculpture! Kiki tells him to apologize to Marcy, so he goes to do that but Marcy has committed suicide (5. Wrath). He's shocked! Kiki has gone to some club, so he calls 911 to report the death and then remembers he has the bar guy's keys. Runs back to the bar--it's closed! He sees the waitress that was making moves on him earlier and decides to take her up on her offer to visit her apartment. She's cute I guess, but very weird and though he's still a little horny, at this point he's just too tired to make a genuine effort. She tries to seduce him but he's distracted by a rat that is killed in a mouse trap by her bed--he's going to die here. He decides to leave but promises he'll be back because this woman is a bit needy...He has no intentions of coming back (6. Heresy). He leaves and goes back to the bar, finds the guy and is about to get his money but the guy gets a call--his girlfriend committed suicide... Paul is fucked up, it's his fault... He runs back to the waitress to make sure she hasn't also committed suicide. She hasn't and is confused by his erratic behavior. He leaves her and this time says he wont be coming back. Goes to find Kiki to tell her about the suicide and ends up at a hardcore punk club. They grab him and forcefully try to shave his head, what I can only assume is forcful atonement, (7. Violence) but he escapes. He's so fucked up... He meets an ice cream truck driver who after teasing him a bit offers to take him home--finally. Until she begins to mistake him for the neighborhood robber (8. Fraud). Paul runs away, but a mob of angry neighbors forms and begins to chase him down. What is he to do? He can't understand why he just can't go home. He meets a woman who he stumbles to seduce as a last resort, and she offers to help him. To escape the grips of the mob who's really on to him, she (also a sculptor) covers him in plaster and makes him out to be a sculpture. But, once the mob leave she refuses to release him under the jest that they may return (9. Treachery). Paul is now rendered immobile, stuck in a plaster shell like the sinners of Judecca--traitors to their lords, doomed to immobility in Hell's eternal ice.

But who has Paul betrayed in this story, so much so that he is now condemned to immobility parallel to the ninth circle of hell? His social class? His corporate bracket of Yuppies who while they may desire the artistic, free-spirited, sexy, gritty world of the downtown folk, must never forget their place? He returns to his desk the next morning covered in the residues of plaster, and trauma of the previous night. What is Paul thinking? is he a ghost? How can he even sit at his desk after everything he’s seen, I mean he’s been to hell and back! While the credits roll on the dizzying images of his corporate office I thought, "damn... What has that cool Soho neighborhood become... Now it’s the Yuppie's legit playground with celebrity lofts and Gucci stores." The most fascinating element of this film for me now is that it remains a document of the worst NYC neighborhood that I've ever been to at a time when it actually seemed really fucking cool, for everyone but the Pauls.

Soho today as the nine circles~

  1. Limbo: The BDF on Broadway-Lafayette.

  2. Lust: The Calvin Klein billboard on Houston and Lafayette

  3. Gluttony: Cronuts from Dominique Ansel Bakery (shoutout Publix who did it first!)

  4. Greed: 10K rent for a loft on Wooster St. and luxury shopping on Greene St.

  5. Wrath: A cacophony of car horns from the outraged. Though this is city wide.

  6. Heresy: The Saint of SoHo vs The SoHo Grand Hotel

  7. Violence: Gentrification.

  8. Fraud: The Museum of Ice Cream (also Pizza/Selfies/all the other subsidiaries).

  9. Treachery: The 1st Precinct


After Hours (10/10)


The City's Geometry: Daybreak Express

Cut to the wonderful frenzy of Duke Ellington's track of the same name, Daybreak Express (1953), a short by D. A. Pennebaker, depicts a beautiful run through of NYC skyline, subway silhouettes, and commuters on the go. The short wraps with a fascinating kaleidoscope of colors and patterns that abstract everything that came before. The discernible figures and shapes of the first 4 minutes are comforting and familiar, even though the shots are all of a 1950's New York. The windows adorned with rusty fire escapes, the endless subway tracks, the sun peaking out from behind the high rise. The first few shots feel like a study, a fleeting capture of the here and now. A quick google search reveals Pennebaker as a pioneer of American direct cinema, or cinema verité--the camera as an observational tool, concerned with capturing what's there before it as truth and reality. But then, the camera gains life. It begins to spin playfully, the frame warps into fisheye. The day is just going and going--as it does in the big city--and we're dizzyingly making it through. Ellington's track exacerbates the craziness and begs you to "let loose" for the best listening and viewing experience.

And then, the last minute obliterates it all, poetic like a true New York minute. What the hell is that red shape? Is Pennebaker using a prism, oh yes!...byron? Ok more people walking in a subway station. The abrupt shift into abstraction of any recognizable image is what happens when you're sitting on the train home after a long work day commuting to the city and your mind just disappears into the white noise of life. The loss of any sense of time, a thought that maybe that shape looks like a foot but you're too tired to figure what face it belongs to. The kaleidoscopic lull of stop, after stop, after stop. Then, you wake up from the trance and see a familiar subway station once again, it's home.

What a trip.


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