Crisis Cinema: New York, Austerity, and the Movies.
Issue No. 2 - Autumn 2017.
For much of the American population New York is a movie set, a celluloid city experienced at a distance, its jagged skyline glowing across screens large and small. This was the case for me during my childhood. Two films released during the mayoralty of David Dinkins shaped my early perception of the great metropolis. The first was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), whose opening sequence hammers home the fact that New York has a major crime problem. Crowds hustle down congested sidewalks as April O’Neil’s news broadcast details the shadowy deeds of an “organized criminal element.” The camera focuses on a man beside a newsstand reading the New York Post, whose headline proclaims: “CITY CRIME ESCALATES.” Ironically, the Post-reading pedestrian becomes a victim of this crime wave that very instant, as a hand reaches into his pocket and snatches his wallet. The crimes turn out to be the work of a syndicate that exploits teenage delinquents, run by a swarthy Asian man dressed in a sinister assortment of sharp metal armor. Thankfully, a quartet of wise-cracking humanoid turtles manages to defeat these antagonists of law and order, whom the police forces are helpless to stop.
I encountered a nicer balance to this depiction of the city; however, in the form of Chris Columbus’ Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). I remember seeing it in a multiplex on suburban Long Island, excited beyond belief. I also remember how my mother dutifully leaned over me as I munched my popcorn, informing me upon each devious injury suffered by the hapless burglars that they would most likely be dead or seriously injured, perhaps fearful that my young mind would fail to comprehend that setting someone’s head ablaze with a blowtorch is not desirable behavior. Home Alone 2’s vision of the city was much more inviting than what I saw in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and made the city look quite fun, save for a sequence in which young protagonist Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) is menaced by a cavalcade of grotesque paupers. Here New York was a veritable playground, a dizzying carnival of profligacy where you could indulge all manner of juvenile mischief, so long as you had your parents’ hard-earned cash in hand.
My family departed the strip-mall dystopia of Long Island for the wooded hills of Connecticut when I was a pre-pubescent nerd with an overactive imagination. I escaped the traditional small-town ennui through movies, a habit that morphed into full-fledged cinephilia by the time my voice grew alternately deep and squeaky and a wispy fuzz of a mustache made me feel like some debonair sophisticate. My continuing visits to the city were exclusively of the family-oriented tourist variety, with major sights seen and embarrassing group photos requested of passerby. I can therefore say with confidence that my exposure to the Big Apple via cinema far outnumbered my experience of it in reality. And in this crucial phase of teenage movie mania, most of the New-York-based films I was drawn to weren’t contemporary productions but rather those that depicted the city during one of its most legendary eras: the gritty 1970s and ’80s, when the subways were splashed with spray paint, the citizens endured routine muggings, and murder was as rampant as the rats.
When I finally moved to New York in the middle of the Bloomberg era, I confronted a much different urban environment: a sleek cyberpunk metropolis steeped in spectacle and obscene wealth. Like many art students I fell prey to the nostalgia for the New York of the “bad old days,” which were also rather perversely the “good old days” when it came to art and culture. The downtown art scene, punk, disco, hip hop – the halcyon days of the period’s cultural advances are memorialized time and time again, even though the crime is not missed with equal longing, nor are the AIDs crisis or the crack epidemic. Still, for many navigating the city’s treacherous real estate market, it’s often with regret that we consider how we’ve traded the high murder rate and low rents for a low murder rate and rents so exorbitant it’s criminal.
Film theorist Andre Bazin once likened cinema to a process of mummification that preserves the dead. In this sense, movies have preserved for us the New York City of the 1970s and ’80s: people that are dead, buildings that are gone, socioeconomic situations long since past, political crises consigned to the history books -- all of these are still there, lingering on film, recorded not necessarily with the purported objectivity of documentary, but rather, organized into genre-specific narratives that utilize the city for certain purposes, their images suffused with various connotations, which taken together tell an interesting story of how both the city and the world evolved into the particular situation we find ourselves in now. But we must be sure to look beyond the surface details of these movies and turn a critical eye toward the ways in which they enshrined and also perpetuated crucial attitudes concerning the city and its role in a divided American value system, which is now undergoing its own period of crisis and tumult.
To place the films of the period in their proper context, we first need to grapple with New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis. One can discover a great deal about this ignominious event from Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (2017). Phillips-Fein focuses on how “the 1970s crisis was a crucial point on the way to a new New York, helping transform the city into the highly stratified metropolis it is today -- a city of apartments bought as investment properties for the wealthy of the world even as almost 60,000 New Yorkers live in homeless shelters, a city that’s among the most unequal in a nation that itself has become radically more hierarchical than it was during the post-war era.” (7).