Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Helluva Town

In the 1949 musical On the Town, three sailors on shore leave have a mere twenty-four hours to explore New York City. Lucky me: I’ve just spent five whole days satisfying my jones for New York. The occasion was the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a group of smart and lively people dedicated to actually making a living from their writing skills. (Imagine that!) Though I was at ASJA to conduct a serious workshop on interviewing techniques, my movie memories of New York quickly kicked in, making me want to dance down the street like Gene Kelly in a sailor suit.

In many of my favorite movies, New York is all about romance. Think of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr arranging a tryst at the top of the Empire State Building in An Affair to Remember. Think of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra meeting their dates high above it all in On the Town. Think of Pillow Talk, of Sex and the City. And – yes, of course – think of Woody Allen, whose best New York movies shimmer with love and lust. I can’t forget the gorgeous city montage that opens Manhattan, accompanied by the plaintive clarinet of "Rhapsody in Blue" and by Allen’s own voiceover: “To him . . . this was still a town that existed in black and white, and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”

On Sunday, I took the subway to Brooklyn, which has less of a distinctive movie personality than its skyscraping neighbor borough. There’s the down-and-dirty Brooklyn of Spike Lee (for whom She’s Gotta Have It is something of a home movie), but I chose to explore Brooklyn Heights, a collection of historic rowhouses that gaze lovingly at the Manhattan towers across the water. I’m told Moonstruck was filmed in Brooklyn Heights, though how bakers and deli owners could afford such pricey real estate I can’t imagine.

Late Sunday evening, as I was packing to fly home, I got word of the slaying of Osama bin Laden. Which, in retrospect, made my visit to Brooklyn Heights all the more poignant. Strolling the esplanade that skirts the bluffs, I’d seen graphic reminders of the view that once was, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center looming proudly above the rest of Lower Manhattan. Because of bin Laden and his fellow ideologues, that view was gone forever, and with it a good slice of New York’s finest. What came to mind, suddenly, was the last shot of Munich, hardly Steven Spielberg’s best work, but still a film trying hard to tackle disturbing issues of hatred and revenge. The glimpse in the film’s final moment of the Manhattan skyline – complete with Twin Towers -- from a Brooklyn vantage point was to me a stunning reminder of the way that violence begets violence. The news of bin Laden’s death reinforced Spielberg’s implicit question: now what?


  1. Good question. I certainly don't have an answer. But I do love the cinematic Valentines to the Big Apple that its admirers continue to make. I drove through NYC one time - the Bronx at 3 am in winter, with giant ice stalactites hanging in every tunnel and overpass - but I've never really been to the city - I hope I get to visit it one day.

    1. I too hope you get to really enjoy this wonderful city -- a great place to visit (but I'm not sure I'd want to live there!)