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Cultural Shorts

'Fun City Cinema' covers 100 years of the Big Apple on the big screen

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Nick Dryden
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Courtesy

A new book examines the history of films in New York City as well as the politics that are reflected in those movies and in the Big Apple's history.

Jason Bailey’s “Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It” examines a wide range of films made about and in the Big Apple.

Bailey, a former Wichitan, examines a diverse array of pictures, from “The Jazz Singer” to “Taxi Driver” and from “The Warriors” to “Frances Ha.” The author’s prose is accompanied by an array of fascinating images of the city and the motion pictures we’ve grown to love (and some we may have overlooked).

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Jedd Beaudoin
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KMUW

Published by Abrams earlier in 2021, “Fun City” is now at the core of a podcast that covers a number of the films featured in the book but dives deeper into some that made fleeting appearances. (“Death Wish” occupied about a paragraph in the text but spawned two episodes of the podcast.)

Learn more about all the facets of the project at https://www.funcitycinema.com.

Bailey will sign copies of his book Thursday, Dec. 23, at Watermark Books and Café, starting at 5:30 p.m.

Interview highlights

Tell me about the genesis of this project. I know you watched a lot of movies set in New York City and that you live there, but what was the moment where you said, “I think I can take these observations I’ve made and turn them into a book”?

There were two sort of key points. The first one was that, not long after we moved to New York, the first full day we were here, the day after we had moved, I went into Manhattan for a job interview at CBS Broadcast Center, which is on 57th Street. I came home and my wife was home all day unpacking, and we said, “OK, well, let’s relax. Let’s watch a movie.” And, purely by chance, we put on a New York movie. We put on “16 Blocks,” a Richard Donner movie with Bruce Willis, which is very good, by the way.

And about halfway into it, there's a scene where they're in a subway station, and I like leaped to my feet. And I said, “I was just at that subway station today! Like three hours ago! I was there! 57th Street Station!” I was very excited about it. My wife did not share my enthusiasm. But that was the sort of moment where I realized, “Oh, right, now I live here, and I'm going to see things in these movies all the time, that are places I just go, things I recognize. I'm going to pass things on the street and be like, “Oh, this is the place from that movie.”’ As soon as you start doing that, you start noticing how much things have changed. You start to notice how each of these movies is sort of like taking a little Polaroid photo, that then like two weeks later, it could be different.

A a few months after that, I went to a screening of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” which is my favorite, one of my favorites, New York movies. There's a part where a cop car flips and crashes in the climax, and it does it at this corner that I passed every day to go pick up my wife from NYU, where you know, it's a punch line, but where there's a Starbucks now. That was sort of the moment where I realized like, “Oh, right, these movies really are sort of capturing a city that in many ways is gone, or at least is so different as to be unrecognizable.” It was in my head for years that I wanted to do some kind of a New York movie book or documentary. I didn’t quite know what the hook was.

I found the hook a few years ago because I found out about Executive Order Number 10 that John Lindsay, who was mayor at the time, signed in May of 1966. The shortest possible version of that is that before that executive order, it was extremely difficult -- borderline impossible -- to shoot movies on location in New York. It was just so logistically and financially hard that just nobody bothered to do it. John Lindsay signed this executive order that established the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting. It streamlined the entire process.

It made it so that you could just go and fill out one set of forms and get one signature and they would help you make your movie. And as a result of that there was this huge explosion of moviemaking in New York, starting in the late 1960s, and into the ’70s. The reason I liked this as a hook was that was also the era where New York really kind of went into the toilet, in terms of rising crime, financial unease; that’s when they went to the verge of bankruptcy, social services declined, tax base declined, white flight, all of these things are happening to the city.

Because of this really bold and smart initiative by the mayor, all of that downfall was captured in all of these movies. Had he not taken that step, the rest of America night might not have known what rough shape New York City was in in that period. I just found that the comic timing of that to be sort of irresistible, and the whole book sort of expanded from there the idea of, “OK, what was New York moviemaking before that, when it was this really difficult thing to do, and how did they make it happen? And then what sort of versions of the city did we start to see when it became easier to make a movie here?”

It’s interesting because what Lindsay did coincides with some changes in films themselves. There was a period where musicals and westerns dominated. Then, there are movies such as “Targets” and this new era of cinema that was coming along.

That was really the end of the studio era. There was a new kind of filmmaking being done. The old guard was on their way out. There were these new young filmmakers who wanted to tell stories that were a little more grounded and realistic and set in the real world and were not pure escapism. It also coincided with the end of the motion picture code and the beginning of the ratings administration, by which you could deal with more adult subject matter. For the first time we could see movies that really portrayed life in New York as it was, its seedier side in terms of sex and violence, adult themes and profanity. It really was fortuitous timing that right around the time it got easier to make movies in New York, it also was possible to make movies that really did represent this sort of gnarly reality of urban living.

You’re also dealing with a different talent pool. You’re getting actors who are coming out of a different school of acting and some who had worked in theatre, some of the more avant-garde scenes.

That was a huge part of the sort of the New York movie explosion. There was a talent pool, both in front of and behind the camera. I talked to Jerry Schatzberg, the great New York director who did “The Panic in Needle Park” and a bunch of other movies. He said, “Yeah, when we were making movies, we were getting marquee actors from the New York stage to come in and do one or two days, to just do bit parts.” They could do that during the day while they were doing shows at night. There were there were several sort of great New York casting agents who were really plugged into that stage scene. They were responsible for people like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro suddenly starting to get work.

That acting pool was huge. But also there was this giant pool of great New York filmmakers, directors, editors, cinematographers, who were coming out of the live TV movement of the 1950s because that was all based out of New York. Those were all filmmakers who, because television initially was based primarily in New York City -- Sidney Lumet, Delbert Mann, Paddy Chayefsky, and cinematographers like Owen Roizman -- who had cut their teeth doing these one-hour television dramas, which was really their film school. Then, when suddenly there were opportunities to direct and shoot and edit here, they were ready to go. They really ground those films in a very specific sort of New York sensibility that was a little more cynical, a little more streetwise, a little more grounded in the reality of the moment.

Let’s talk specifically about some of the films you wrote about for the book and let’s start with “The Panic In Needle Park.” I don’t think it’s so much forgotten, but I do think it’s overlooked. It’s so intense and so brilliantly made. 

I was lucky enough to talk to both Jerry Schatzberg, who directed it, and Adam Holender, who was the cinematographer on it, and he also shot “Midnight Cowboy.” He was really versed in that gritty aesthetic that was happening at the time. “Panic In Needle Park” is a terrific example of a movie that was so grounded in what was happening at the moment that its studio didn’t really even know what to do with it.

Adam Holender told me that they were saying, “We can’t even tell this is New York. Where’s the Empire State Building?” He said, “It’s not that kind of movie.” Schatzberg took great pains; he never shot on sets. He came from the world of photography, celebrity and fashion photography; he had just made his first movie [“Puzzle of a Downfall Child”] and it had been very slick. He didn’t want to do that with this one. All of the grimy apartments in [“Panic”] are real New York apartments. If you’ve lived in New York, in a bad apartment, you can tell that. They’ve all got those 17 layers of bad paint like peeling off the walls and all of the hallways are covered in dirt and garbage. There’s always a baby crying somewhere.

[That movie is] about street junkies. Hollander took great pains in the shooting of that movie; you'll see these scenes where they're just out on the streets, out on the sidewalks, out in the medians, that he was shooting from blocks away with long lenses and radio microphones. They put Al Pacino and Kitty Winn out among real junkies and just sort of let them blend in. As a result, that movie has an almost documentary vibe, which I think is present in a lot of the great New York movies of the ’70s.

They were so excited to finally be able to shoot movies on location in New York, that they didn't want to then make it false by hiring a bunch of extras and staging scenes out in the street. It's like if we're here, let's capture the feeling; let's capture the energy of just putting these actors out in the middle of it and seeing what happens. When you do that you end up with things like you know, “Hey, I'm walking here!” in “Midnight Cowboy.”

When we get to “Ghostbusters” in 1984, that’s a different view of New York City. We went through films such as “Escape From New York” and here’s a film that takes some pride in the city.

The tracking of the comedies of New York is really interesting to me. In the comedies of the ’70s, you have the same bleakness as the dramas. You’re talking about these really dark things in “Where’s Poppa?” “Little Murders,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” These are movies that are told from the inside, from New Yorker perspectives, about living in the toilet and the jokes are sort of born out of misery. If you go in the subway, you’re going to get mugged. If you go through Central Park, you’re going to get mugged. Urban decay as comic material. You see some of that in the 1980s.

But then, in the ’80s, there’s a real shift to movies like “Ghostbusters” that are, like, “Yeah, we’re New Yorkers; we can take anything.” [Those movies] have that kind of cynical New York attitude about them and the protagonists are not going to be ground down in the way that they are in some of the ’70s comedies.

The other thing that you see a lot of in the ’80s movies that I think is really fascinating is the rise of the fish out of water comedy. The New York visitor. Someone coming from another country or state of mind, or sometimes even an alien. “Crocodile Dundee,” “Coming To America,” “Brother From Another Planet,” “Moscow on the Hudson,” even “Splash!” which is a literal fish out of water story.

They are about the naïve, wide-eyed outsider who comes to New York and is initially terrified or weary of the weirdos and eccentrics who populate it. Then it becomes a process of almost growing to love that, of them being accepted by the freaks and weirdos. And, in a very broad way, I almost feel like that’s what the city was trying to do in the ’80s in terms of the emphasis on tourism. This was the era where one of the ways that the city dug itself out of its financial hole was by marketing itself as a tourist destination, even though it was still kind of a scary and weird place. This idea that you can come here and still have a great time even though it’s a little sketchy.