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New York on Film: Eight Movies that Capture the Character and Dynamism of the City
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New York on Film: Eight Movies that Capture the Character and Dynamism of the City

Picture of Culture Trip
Updated: 24 November 2016
New York is one of the most culturally distinctive places on the planet, so it’s no wonder that a great proportion of films are set there. The city has become a cinematic icon in itself and is recognisable the world over. These films use New York as both location and subject.

New York is not a location that can be easily ignored, it affects the look, feel, sound, dialogue, and mood of all the films set in the city, but none so much as the films below which are as much about the city as they are about their characters and plots.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall follows Alvy Singer, a Jewish comedian who grew up in Coney Island, and his tumultuous relationship with the eponymous Annie Hall. As in so many of Allen’s films, the central character is a reflection of New York City and he feels out of place anywhere else. Annie’s move to L.A. is incomprehensible to Alvy, and when Alvy flies out to California to get her back, he criticises Los Angeles and glorifies New York to which Annie replies: ‘What’s so great about New York? I mean, it’s a dying city . . . Alvy, you’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? You’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like this island unto yourself.’ Allen seeks to show how New York is a unique place in America, which could be considered somewhat unreceptive to outsiders, but is a refuge for idiosyncratic intellectuals such as Alvy. Annie’s rejection of New York is ultimately also a rejection of Alvy and their relationship.

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese is another prolific New York filmmaker who uses the city in the majority of his films. Taxi Driver in particular is very deeply rooted in New York and depicts the underbelly of the city to create a portrait of loneliness and urban alienation. The central character, Travis Bickle, is unable to connect with others and remains trapped in his own subconscious. He dismisses the culture and people of New York and yearns for a ‘real’ rain that will wash it all away. Scorsese’s film is a bleak depiction of the New York of the 1970s. Other characters in the film are also isolated and exploited, such as the prostitute Iris, who Travis attempts to rescue. Taxi Driver displays the anomie and alienation so common to the metropolis. Made up of more than 18 million people, it seems that meaningful personal connections in New York can be few and far between.

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

As expressed in one review of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing ‘New York’s distinctive culture and cuisine derive from the city’s radical racial and ethnic mix; but, contrary to the textbook myth of a ‘great melting pot,’ New York is an ethnic mosaic or patchwork quilt.’ These racial groups claim parts of New York as their own, such as Harlem or Little Italy, but rather than living peacefully side by side, there is conflict between these ethnically distinctive neighbourhoods, which can result in violence. Do the Right Thing focuses in on these conflicts in New York City. Lee took care to make the film look and feel authentic by shooting on a single location on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn. The film takes place on a particularly hot day in this primarily African-American neighbourhood and questions how African-Americans are supposed to respond to the prejudice directed at them. Does ‘doing the right thing’ mean Martin Luther King’s idealism, or the Malcolm X’s self-defence? This is a highly significant question for culturally diverse New York and one that Lee’s film refuses to answer definitively, instead leaving interpretation to the audience.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972)

Although Chicago is more often considered to be the mafia capital of the USA, New York crime families have the approach and confidence characteristic of New York. They can trace their roots back to Sicily, and the Sicilian culture influences the manner in which these families ‘do business and wage war’. Coppola’s classic film The Godfather starts with ‘Don’ Vito Corleone overseeing his daughter’s wedding. His son Michael has just returned home and makes clear that he does not wish to carry on his father’s business. Through Michael’s eyes the nature of the family business becomes clear. The film depicts the effects of social environment, how it can shape and change an individual, and how the use of violence in particular can corrupt a person.

Luc Besson’s Léon (1994)

Luc Besson’s Léon is another story about finding ahuman connection in the city. In this film the title character, Léon, works as a hit man and lives a singular existence, harming only those whom he has been paid to eliminate. The other of the two main characters is a young girl called Mathilda, who has survived the murder of her family by hiding in her neighbour’s apartment, and has thus been forced to grow up quickly. When she learns of Leon’s true identity, she becomes fixated on him and the world in which he resides, and the development of their relationship becomes a central focus throughout the film. Mathilda’s infatuation with Léon leads to questions about age and maturity, as Mathilda seems to be the more self-assured of the two, with Léon being more simplistic or even childlike.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street highlights New York’s capability for luxury and greed amongst those who can afford it. The film follows two stockbrokers, the younger ambitious Bud Fox and the ruthless and extremely successful Gordon Gekko. Wall Street is synonymous with greed, and Gekko’s mantra, ‘Greed is Good’, came to define the 1980s, which celebrated the greed at the heart of capitalism’s ethos. Michael Douglas plays the highly successful, but ruthless and amoral stockbroker Gordon Gekko. In an attempt to impress Gekko, the young stockbroker Fox is soon swept into Gekko’s world of shady business deals and the ‘good life’. Gekko ultimately finds himself the victim of Fox’s ambitions, as the younger man overtakes Gekko and leaves him a broken man. The film is a parable of the way in which avarice and hubris dominate the world of Wall Street business, an idea which has become acutely relevant in recent years.

Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989)

In the 1920s and 1930s many black people sought refuge in New York, having escaped from the racism and lack of opportunities in the South. United in New York, artists and poets from the black community founded the Harlem Renaissance. Looking for Langston is a tribute to this movement and the allegedly gay black poet, Langston Hughes. Filmed in black and white, it depicts high-society black gay men and the jazz and dance clubs of the Harlem Renaissance. The relationship between beauty, art and politics is further explored and discussed by Essex Hemphill and Isaac Julian in the film. Scenes are interspersed with photographs and archive footage from the period, including some of Hughes himself and Toni Morrison, reading their own jazzy poetry and essays as well as that of others. The freedom of gay men is subtly celebrated through the beautiful cinematography. Also depicted is the historical background of black gay men and the oppression and homophobia they experienced from black and white people. Hughes in the film is the embodiment of the gay black pride and resistance against oppression and is celebrated as such.

Rodney Evans’s Brother to Brother (2004)

Brother to Brother follows the story of Perry, a young black artist kicked out of his family home for being gay. He is stuck between the worlds of the black community and the gay community. When he hears an elderly man recite a poem, he later recognises it when reading about the Harlem Renaissance. Perry then meets this man, Bruce Nugent, who tells him about his involvement within this movement, as well as the experiences of other famous Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. A great deal of historical material was dramatised and incorporated into the script as Rodney Evans was allowed access to over 30 hours of taped interviews with Bruce Nugent and an anthology of Nugent’s art and writing. The film draws parallels between the early phase of Bruce’s life and Perry’s contemporary struggles, as he deals with similar issues of racism and homophobia in the present-day.