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New York, New York

An Extremely Incomplete Taxonomy of Cinematic New Yorks

New York has faced the apocalypse many times. Unfortunately, it’s usually Bruce Willis who saves us. A report on the many versions of the five boroughs produced in film, and why Nora Ephron lives alone.

Looking for New York over the last 7 years, I’ve gone from the bottom of Staten Island to the tip of Pelham Bay Park, to the far end of a pier off the West Side Highway, to edges of Flushing Meadows, to the shores of Red Hook. I found wonderful places, components of a whole, but what I ended up with was a collage of impressions, no unified sense of the place. For the whole picture, I think, we have movies. When you say ‘Manhattan,’ people are as likely to think of Diane Keaton as of Rockefeller Center, and Brooklyn is as much Al Pacino robbing a bank, or a pizzeria’s window shattering, as a walk through Prospect Park. The camera is the only thing that can show us all of New York; it can pan out to the troposphere to show us a Manhattan the size of your thumb, then zoom into the open pores of a mobster’s sweating face. After 7 years of walking and 7 years of moviegoing, I think the city is in its cinema, not its buildings and architecture.

Or perhaps I just want to sit on my ass eating popcorn rather than walk through Staten Island. If so, I’m not alone; New Yorkers are among the most cinephilic people on earth, and over 173 feature films were made in NYC in 2001 (the last time the Mayor’s Office updated its site). We love movies because, for us, they are not an escape into fantasy as much as a peek in the mirror for our pathologically self-absorbed selves—a chance to check out how you’re doing relative to the rest of the people here. Without movies, I don’t know if we’d have any idea why we should come here, or why we should stay.

In film, there are hundreds of New Yorks. There is a New York permeated by crime and violence, where you’re likely to get beheaded by junkies as your daughter is forced into prostitution; there’s the pickle-eating or pizza-throwing New York filled with ethnic charm and romance; and there’s the New York that Satan, after swapping Hell for a loft in TriBeCa, calls home. Below, I’ve cataloged 8 cinematic New Yorks; they bleed into one another, and I don’t recognize any of them when I get on the train for work, but still, they fill my daydreams of the city.

1. Gangsterland Everyone’s favorite New York, with the epitome, to me, not The Godfather, Mean Streets, or even Goodfellas, but King of New York. How can you tell you’re in Gangsterland? Look for the scene where someone snorts a kilo of cocaine, then, while lying on a mattress filled with cash, attended by five nameless, disposable women, is shot 132 times. Sadly, I fear that the age of New York Gangsterland is over. It’s too expensive to be a criminal here, so filmmakers have had to make do with New Jersey, as in The Sopranos and Ghost Dog.

2. Corruptionville A variation on Gangsterland, but instead of the pleasure of watching criminals at work killing, maiming, pimping, and snorting, we watch a bright-eyed, innocent young man grow increasingly disillusioned with the system. City Hall, Copland, Serpico, Prince of the City, Q&A, etc.

3. Central Park Brigadoon Any film where a newspaper vendor is a played by a smiling old white fellow who says, ‘here you go, lady!’ instead of a nervous, tired-looking man from Indonesia. You know the type: When Harry Met Sally. Or Sleepless in Seattle, where, at the end, the camera zooms out to show us a priapic, gag-inducing computer-generated Empire State Building emblazoned with a heart. All the apartments are the size of a floor at Macy’s, and you never have to step gingerly past fresh human feces in order to get where you’re going. Nora Ephron lives here, alone.

4. The Gate to Hell Rosemary’s Baby, sure, but it’s almost a given that the Devil would live on the Upper West Side, or at least in Hell’s Kitchen if he can’t afford the U.W.S. And there’s always End of Days, where Satan comes to New York to rid us of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that movie’s so bad they don’t even show it on buses. The best—as in, most amusing—of the lot is The Devil’s Advocate, wherein we learn that Keanu Reeves is the child of Mssr. Darkness, Al Pacino. Pacino, as Satan as-a-lawyer, acts with more ham than you’ll find in a Boar’s Head truck, and it’s easier to see Keanu Reeves as the child of the devil than as the progeny of a decent actor, but the film coasts by on the conceit of its titular pun alone.

5. Spook York With Satan living here, all sorts of strange things go on. Ghostbusters gets extra points for casting a woman covered in foam as Gozer the Carpathian, an ancient Sumerian god come to destroy the city, then the world. The Ghostbusters rip-off Men In Black showcases some nice world-eating aliens. But the guilty pleasure of the lot is Ghost, where Patrick Swayze, after dying, enters Whoopi Goldberg’s body (you write the joke). Also, Midtown is a good place for giant gorillas with complex romantic impulses.

6. Melting Pot It’s a Melting Pot film if it shows classes, masses, races, and people of various sexual persuasions races working out relationships (as opposed to just punching each other). Classic moment: Spike Lee’s new 25th Hour, which has Edward Norton calling one of his cohorts a ‘fat Russian fuck,’ to which the man cheerfully answers, ‘fat Ukrainian fuck!’ Other examples: the Muppets navigating the cultural pathways of the city and learning to deal with human beings in The Muppet Movie; John Travolta navigating the cultural pathways of the city and learning to deal with human beings in Saturday Night Fever. Somewhere between Melting and Boiling Pot is Black and White, which features Robert Downey, Jr. cruising Mike Tyson, truly the bravest acting anyone’s ever done.

7. Boiling Pot Is the main character named Mookie, or Travis? Does he sport a mohawk and a weird flame for Jodie Foster? Is it always raining (but never enough, never enough to just wash away the human detritus), or incredibly hot? Did they kill Radio Raheem? Does the pavement glisten with a sheen that makes you so angry, so incredibly ready to just take a fucking BASEBALL BAT and let people KNOW? Does a group of young men known as the Sharks start dancing out of nowhere?

8. New White City Woody Allen is seen by white people who use the word ‘quintessential’ to be the quintessential New York City filmmaker. He is not. He is the quintessential Upper East Side filmmaker; undoubtedly brilliant, but come the fuck on, Woody, your first serious African-American character, in Deconstructing Harry, and she’s a dull-witted whore? Work it out off-screen, man. In addition to most of Allen’s films, we can also include the entire oeuvre of Nora Ephron here.

You are never fully outside of a film in New York. You’re likely to find the movies taking over your neighborhood, even if it’s a remote neighborhood in Brooklyn. One morning my subway platform was filled with men dressed as soldiers, all standing at attention for The Siege; a block away the warehouses were cast as a mob storage facility for Goodfellas. In Manhattan, you’re likely to stumble on a movie being made at any time, downtown or up. The filmmakers occupy our shared physical space with cameras, props, and actors. Later, we vicariously occupy the narrative they create. When I’m below the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m in King of New York, and when I walk past the Dakota, I imagine Satan stopping by for a tryst with Rosemary. When I sit and look out on the 59th St. Bridge, I’m in Manhattan as much as Manhattan. Here, there’s so much to see, it’s no surprise we need it edited.


TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford