“When I’m in New York,
I just want to walk down the street
and feel this thing, like I’m in a movie.”
— Ryan Adams
New York is one of the most cinematic cities in the world. Its unique architecture and potpourri of culture has been documented on screen since the early days of the motion picture, helping the city acquire a mythic status for natives and non-residents alike. Perhaps that is why we, sitting thousands of miles away in India, are able to find something relatable in Friends or The Devil Wears Prada. Some films explore the effervescent, electric side of the city life, while others focus on its darker underbelly. The city takes on an important role, enough to warrant a top billing alongside the film’s stars, in the way its various structures of culture, politics, geography, or history inform the narrative. According to Romullo Baratto, “In one of the first films ever made, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1925), the Lumière brothers already show the modern urban environment as an important element and part of the contextualization.” Here, we analyse certain landmarks of New York to understand their significance in cinema.
The Empire State Building | King Kong (1933) | Song and Video, Empire State of Mind (2009)
After he is brought from Skull Island and treated as a spectacle for the citizens of New York, Kong climbs atop the Empire State Building in one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, and is attacked by planes. The film has been viewed as a monster movie, as a morality tale, and even as a commentary on racial tensions within the US. Then the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building not only symbolised the resilience of the city and the nation after the Depression era, but also stood for the ascending significance of the US in global relations post the First World War. With the stop-motion gorilla etched in viewers’ minds, it is a constant reminder of the white inhabitants’ perception of non-white outsiders.
Although not an instance from cinema, in 2009, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys collaborated on a soaring love letter to New York in the form of the magnificent track, “Empire State of Mind”. In the opening verse, Jay-Z raps, “I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make in anywhere”, whilst Keys croons, “In New York/Concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothing you can’t do”. The black & white video (a nod to Woody Allen) is a montage of iconic landmarks of the city, and the chorus is accompanied by aerial shots of the Empire State Building, thus paying homage to the indomitable spirit of the city and the endless possibilities it has to offer.
The Statue of Liberty | X-Men (2000) | Brooklyn (2015)
The Statue of Liberty was built to celebrate the US independence, and for transatlantic immigrants, it is the equivalent of an embracing welcome. In the first live-action film of the X-Men franchise, as the mutants led by Professor Xavier try to reason with US Senator Robert Kelly about the Registration Act that would force mutants to reveal themselves, Magneto and the Brotherhood conspire to “mutate” the politicians who have gathered near Liberty Island. While installing his contraption atop the Statue of Liberty, Magneto reveals that as young Erik Lehnsherr, he first saw the Statue in 1949 after he crossed the Atlantic following the horrors of Nazi Germany. Back then, it symbolised the US as the land of tolerance, hope, and freedom. In this scene, however, Magneto points out the irony of the symbol as the mutants are being attacked by their “normal” counterparts.
Offering a more optimistic view is the 2015 Saoirse Ronan-starrer Brooklyn, in which Eilis Lacey leaves Ireland behind in the pursuit of employment, happiness, and a fulfilling life. The year is 1951, and after wading through the choppy Atlantic waters, Eilis spots the Statue of Liberty on the distant horizon, finds a job in Brooklyn — a borough already brimming with fellow Irish men and women — and love in the arms of an Italian immigrant, Tony. New York, as a melting pot of various cultures, becomes the epitome of freedom for the two characters: freedom from the closed-circuit and close-mindedness of her Irish home for Eilis, and escape from the Fascist clutches for Tony.
Times Square | Taxi Driver (1976) | Birdman (2014) | Vanilla Sky (2001)
No discussion on the synthesis of city and cinema is complete without a mention of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 neo-noir, Taxi Driver. The film follows Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam War veteran who moonlights as a taxi driver whilst harbouring ambitious plans to clean up the city. New York of the 1970s, as the film depicts through its attention to Times Square, was a seedy and debauched placed teeming with theatres that played pornographic films and bustling with streets that encouraged juvenile prostitution. Bickle’s vigilante angst wouldn’t exist without New York, in the same manner that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be Batman without Gotham. The city in Taxi Driver is as much a character as Bickle is.
Images of the bustling streets of Times Square have made their way to the celluloid since the advent of the motion picture, but not all of those films have been able to effectively use the imagery. With Broadway and several movie theatres, Times Square is also the biggest entertainment centre of New York. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 Oscar-winner Birdman, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) accidentally gets locked out of a Broadway theatre’s green room whilst he has to change for a scene, and in his bare essentials, the once-blockbuster star navigates his way through Times Square to reach the main entrance of the theatre. The idea of suddenly being under intense scrutiny, particularly in a vulnerable state of undress, could not have been more effective had the setting been, say, Trafalgar Square.
Time and again, filmmakers have exploited the crowded nature of the Times Square to infuse their films with life. Any inversion of this trope, therefore, has a doubly profound effect. In 2001’s Vanilla Sky, the protagonist, David Aames (Tom Cruise) drives through the streets of New York and gradually becomes aware of the city’s unoccupied state. It is only when he arrives at a deserted Times Square that the viewer realises the nightmare David is living through, one of finding himself to be the only living person left in the world.
Other Films Starring New York
Featured Image Courtesy: kinovoid.com