New York City in the movies

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

QUEENSBOROUGH BRIDGE has been destroyed by the Green Goblin in Spiderman, bombed into smithereens by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.


STUFF happens in New York City. Also, stuff happens to New York City, like that one time in the summer of 1984 when a giant marshmallow wrought havoc up and down Midtown Manhattan. Or recently when this scrawny kid from Queens got bit by a radioactive spider and caused all that traffic, made me late for work. That’s just the stuff that goes down in this town, and that’s just one of the reasons why living here is never boring.

I’m talking about the movies, of course. And New York, with its nooks and crannies energized by a million fables, has been the setting for many iconic films, it has become a cinematic character on its own. I’ve been asked many times by friends and family for a tour of Movie New York. So here’s my go at it. And who better to take us around than the fine theater and film actress from Spain, Blanca Vivancos. She knows about this world: she lives and breathes acting. On one of her rare days off from writing plays, performing off Broadway, auditioning and rehearsing, she agreed to show us the film landscape of the city, one sunny and breezy Saturday afternoon.

Blanca came to New York as a Fulbright theater arts scholar. As an actor and a student, she loves the minefield of material in NYC. “At any given time, there are a dozen projects being shot every day, so we could really just start at any spot and you can find a movie setting.” Her favorite location is the kosher deli where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm at Billy Crystal in that great romcom When Harry Meets Sally. Two decades later, that deli and that table still exist. Travelers still flock here and the line to get in can reach around the block. Once in a while, some woman will fake an orgasm and scream and the room will ask for whatever she’s having (pastrami on rye for $12). Like Harry and Sally, they’re all just trying to answer that age-old question of whether men could ever just remain friends with women.

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A stone’s throw away from Katz is the fabled West Village. “In the sixties, this neighborhood was a hotbed of culture and creativity,” Blanca points out as we walk along tree-lined McDougal Street. And as depicted in the Coen Brother’s masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis, this was the center of the era’s cultural movements, where the likes of Dylan, the Beatniks, and the great Dave Von Ronk had their start. Unlike in the movie, though, which depicted a wintry and grey Greenwich Village, the scene back then was open, vibrant and joyous. So much music and literature came out of this place and time and its influence is still felt now. Café Wha? is the only bar that remains from that period, but alas, it now has a house band that covers Maroon 5 and Coldplay.

Blanca’s third stop on this tour takes us a little farther north to Grand Central Terminal, that busy transportation hub that has been memorialized in movies like the Avengers, Superman, North by Northwest, and countless others. One of the most indelible scenes filmed here is the shootout scene in Brian de Palma’s 1993 oeuvre, Carlito’s Way, in which Al Pacino winds his way through a 30-minute, uncut sequence around its halls, climaxing in a Battleship Potemkin-style massacre on the escalators. As is wont to happen in movies, the scene makes the escalators look operatic. In real life, well, they’re mostly utilitarian.

Busy room

That’s not what one could say of the location itself. Grand Central sees a million commuters each day, and is one of the largest and busiest rooms in the world. It gets crazy, but somehow the ambience here belies its hurried nature: it is a peaceful and cozy place. You’ll get that feeling from watching the fantasy sequence in Terry Guilliam’s The Fisher King, where the crowd suddenly bursts into a hallucinatory waltz oblivious to the worries of the world. That scene captures that daily dance that happens here, where charm and magic still find its expression in the midst of chaos.

Which brings us to the romantic corners of our city. We’ll always have Paris, but New York is up there with it when it comes to love. “Its hard to chose which one’s my favorite!” our guide protests, as we head to this little pastry shop on 61st Street called “Serendipity” from the eponymous movie. “I mean, that scene in Central Park on Christmas eve, when the snow starts falling gently, Nick Drake sings about magic and finding the one special person, that’s gotta be up there as one of the most romantic of all.”

For me though, there is one movie that is not just a love story, but a love letter dedicated to New York: Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The opening sequence, black and white cityscapes shot at dawn, set to Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is what made me fall in love with this metropolis, or perhaps with my romanticized notion of it. To celebrate the film, Blanca and I walk towards the East River on 57th Street to replicate its poster: the majestic Queensboro Bridge in the Sunrise. I don’t do it justice.

Least likely

To end our tour, we are taking you dear readers to a most unexpected place. Let’s hop on the J Train to Brooklyn to channel the spirit of Reagan-era Bedford Stuyvesant. You know the movie, Spike Lee’s greatest, Do the Right Thing. Who could forget Da Mayor and Mother Sister, Sal trying to run his pizza place, and Buggin Out just buggin out. Back in the ‘80s of the movie, Bed-Stuy was ghetto central, and you could cut the racial tension in the hood with a knife. Nowadays, the place has changed. For better or worse (and to the consternation of Mr. Lee himself) gentrification has brought in restaurants, and bars, even an Aussie café. Still, it has one of the best-preserved collection of Victorian architecture in the country. Its streets and stoops still remain as beautiful as before and exploring it is a real treat.

So this is New York in the movies according in a day. Of course ours is an abridged trip, we can never cover all the locations, fuhgedabboutit. But give us a call when you find yourself here and we’ll gladly take you out. Who knows, in a town of eight million souls each with its own selfish, self-absorbed narratives, chances are we’ll rub elbows with just about everyone, including the characters from our collective fantasies. See ya.

For more photo essays, one may log on to dagosantos.com

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 28, 2014.

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