City on Screen

Book cover
Street Smartby Richard A. Blake

University Press of Kentucky. 335p $35


Mel Brooks once said that the toughest and most interesting thing about making a movie was “cutting out each of those tiny sprocket holes on the film strip so that the scenes don’t jerk all over the place.”

Pace Mr. Brooks, it is enlightening as well as comforting when a reader learns that there is actually much more to moviemaking than this, especially so when the guide is as astute and informative as is Richard A. Blake, S.J. Father Blake’s is a familiar name to readers of America, who have been beneficiaries of his eminently sensible and insightful film reviews for the past 30 years. His most recent book will provide a special treat for his many America fans with curiosities about filmmaking beyond those sprocket holes.

Street Smart’s unifying focus is New York City itself, which, as Blake reminds us, “has appeared in more movies than Michael Caine.” Why so? To answer, he provides a masterly chapter that offers a mini-history of the New York-American movie connection, beginning with film’s very origins during the silent era in the Union Square area (1895-1915) and, with the arrival of sound (1927-30), the arrival of New York theater types (playwrights, musicians, actors), summoned in desperation to give Hollywood a voice and something to say. Just as Hollywood created the western myth of the lone cowpoke bringing law and order and the myth of small-town U.S.A. with its soda fountains and picket fences (both myths contrasted with the evil Big City), so too these expatriates from Gotham would Hollywoodize New York in their recreation of its extremes—low-life gangsters, wise-guy cops and cab drivers and the elegant high life and high livers in enormous nightclubs, art deco high rise apartments and chic cabarets.

Everywhere else on the globe, Hollywood New York was the New York—except for native New Yorkers, who hardly recognized it and seldom if ever experienced either its low life or high life. As Blake emphasizes, the real New York is a constellation of separate villages, neighborhoods often more distinctive than any small town, each with its own personality and cherished identity. When non-New Yorkers make a New York movie, they simply recreate some slice of the Hollywood version. Native New Yorkers know different, and when those natives become movie directors, their films reveal a more “catholic vision of the city” and “an insider’s awareness of [its] pulse and the social patterns” of neighborhood styles and mores.

To illustrate his thesis, Blake concentrates on four contemporary directors: Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. Each comes from a different city neighborhood, and each tries, by locating “their own neighborhood footbridge,” to understand how that neighborhood experience endows each one’s films with “a particular texture” and an idiosyncratic perspective on the city.

Sidney Lumet grew up in the Lower East Side amid a poor Yiddish-speaking Jewish population, and his movies are “like New Yorkers struggling to rise beyond the confining world of the neighborhood …but not eager or even soaring so high as to sever the ties to their history.” The typical Lumet conflict is that “the character cannot have solidarity and individuality at the same time” (think “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Serpico”).

Woody Allen grew up in a comfortable, predominately Jewish neighborhood (Midwood) in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, in a world of assimilated Americans. On his first visit to Manhattan, he became enchanted and, ever since, has attempted to recreate “this wonderland across the river” of his childhood imagination. Allen’s New York has no grit, no crime, no slums and is populated by affluent, well-educated WASP’s and Jews (think “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan”). Nevertheless, a tension always exists amid the Gershwin glitter: the typical Allen hero never feels he fits in and is ever afraid of being “unmasked as an impostor or interloper,” i.e. some guy from Brooklyn.

Martin Scorsese grew up on Elizabeth Street, the Sicilian enclave in Manhattan’s Little Italy, one block from the then-seedy Bowery. He was a homebound, sickly child, and his early knowledge of the outside world was derived entirely from television and the movies. When he ventured outdoors, he encountered depravity, danger and degradation nearby, but apparently remained untouched by it emotionally. Blake astutely suggests that “his recollection of images of graphic violence coupled with his seeming nonchalance about his experience helps explain the terrifying but dispassionate violence of his films” (for example, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”). Like Lumet, who grew up a few blocks east, Scorsese seems to feel that New York natives—whether Italian, Irish or Jewish—as they became more Americanized, gradually lose their very own identity along with their ethnicity.

It will surprise many to learn that the African-American director Spike Lee, unlike the others, came from a well-educated (three generations of college graduates) and fairly affluent family. He was not a tough kid from the projects but from the then-fashionable area of Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, a peaceful, non-racist neighborhood composed mostly of Italians and Jews. At the age of 12, he moved with his family to Fort Greene, Brooklyn. By the time he arrived, Fort Greene had become predominately black—a community on the upswing, however, populated by strivers. As Blake points out, Fort Greene seemed to be “making it,” and “making it” becomes the metaphor for the trials of many of Lee’s movie characters.

But he alone among the directors studied always makes race and class the basis of conflicts in his work. As Blake says, it seems that “if his characters were not black or Italian, poor or uneducated, they would not face the problems they do” (think “Do the Right Thing”). For those movie-viewers who get headaches from the thematic and moral confusions about race in Lee’s films, Blake’s summary judgment will be confirming: “Spike Lee, like Fort Greene itself, remains a bundle of contradictions, as do his films.” Enough said.

Great city. Good directors. Insightful author. Fine book.

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