Flickchart Road Trip: New York
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
There are so many things to talk about in New York, I’m gonna need a bigger post. (With apologies to Jaws.)
For starters, it’s the first state on this trip that I once called home. I lived on the upper (upper) west side of Manhattan — 107th and Amsterdam, to be exact — from 1998 to 2001, while attending Columbia Journalism School and for a few years afterward. They were fun years, but since I had no money at the time, they were unsustainable. Also, since I’m a Red Sox fan and the Yankees won the World Series every fall I lived there, I had to get out. (Once I moved to California, they didn’t win it all again until 2009.)
Secondly, it’s the first state on this trip I’ll have to go through twice, no matter how I slice it. You have to drive through it in both directions if you want to get in and out of New England. (You can say the same thing about the state of New Hampshire if you want to get in and out of Maine.) As such, I was thinking of covering New York after New England, since you go through a much larger chunk of the state when traveling from Vermont to Pennsylvania. That’d also give me more time to agonize over the movies I plan to choose for this state. However, the third thing worth discussing about this state is the reason I chose to write about New York while traveling through the comparatively smaller section of I-95 between New Jersey and Connecticut.
Third thing: It’s the first state on this trip where I’m lined up perfectly to watch my featured movie in the theater. That seemed like a fun goal, but I knew I’d have to choose one of the big states if I wanted any chance of it happening. It ain’t gonna happen in North Dakota. There’ll probably still be another New York movie in theaters six weeks from now, after New England … but I want to watch The Great Gatsby now.
Lastly: How does a person choose which five previously seen movies to best represent a state like New York? It’s certainly one of the two most popular settings for American movies (with California). I may have seen 500 movies that have scenes in New York; how does one even begin to choose among them? Then, does a person choose to recognize the rest of the state as well, or just New York City?
I decided to address the problem by choosing one movie each from five directors who define themselves as “New York filmmakers.” When a friend I texted came up with the same five names I came up with — Scorsese, Allen, Lee, Lumet and Burns — I knew I had my guys. While I want to recognize each of these directors’ best movies, that’s just not the format. So, some of them are going to get screwed. At least I have an entry point for handling this daunting state, though. (I may try to sneak in a mention of some of their other movies as well.) Because they are “New York filmmakers,” that did tend to focus things on New York City. Sorry, Schenectady (and Synecdoche, New York). Sorry, Buffalo (and Buffalo ’66). Sorry, Niagara Falls (and Superman II).
So what did I actually do in New York? When I lived there, I never did any of the touristy stuff. So I decided to do it all now. I went to the Statue of Liberty. I went to the Empire State Building. I visited Rockefeller Center. I saw The Book of Morman on Broadway. I strolled in Central Park. I went to both a Yankees game and a Mets game. I had a coffee in Greenwich Village. I had dim sum in Chinatown. I bought the Brooklyn Bridge from one guy, and then I sold it to somebody else.
It was a busy three hours.
I also saw Baz Luhrmann‘s latest, The Great Gatsby, at the giant AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, right in the heart of 42nd Street. Add in the 3D surcharge, and I got my viewing of the 5932nd best film among Flickcharters for the bargain price of $23.50.
What it’s about
It’s New York in the summer of 1922, and wide-eyed Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) views the hustle and bustle around him like the Midwest transplant he is — interested and seduced by it, but forever outside of it. His entry point to a lifestyle of decadent partying and luxurious excess is his neighbor on West Egg, Long Island, a mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who takes the unusual step of extending him a personal invitation to one of the bacchanalian affairs hosted at his opulent mansion. It turns out that Gatsby’s interest in Nick relates to his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a socialite in an unhappy marriage to Nick’s college friend Tom (Joel Edgerton). Daisy and Tom live across the water in East Egg, just out of reach of Gatbsy, who struggles with some kind of past connection to Daisy. As this connection becomes gradually clearer and Gatsby’s identity begins to take shape, Gatsby enlists Nick to help make a grand gesture toward Daisy — a gesture that may put everyone on a path toward disaster.
How it uses the state
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work is one of the best examples we have of “the great American novel,” amply demonstrating numerous quintessential American themes. However, it’s probably also “the great New York novel,” capturing the essence of a certain New York ideal: spending the work week toiling away in the city, then using the riches you accumulate in the process to wile away the weekends on beautiful Long Island. Luhrmann’s film is no different, making astounding use of digital technology to recreate a mythical Long Island that might have only ever existed in the imaginations of the people who read this book. The Great Gatsby is New York through and through.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against those five films I agonized over from the five “New York filmmakers,” shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Great Gatsby will battle:
1) Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee). My Flickchart: #32/3523. Global: #306. Words like “incendiary” and “visceral” were invented for Spike Lee’s masterpiece. Though I’m a big fan of Jungle Fever and his post-9/11 ode to the city 25th Hour (and a big hater of She Hate Me), you have to go with Do the Right Thing if you’re talking New York Spike Lee movies. Not only does this astonishing cultural document perfectly encapsulate the city, refusing to look away from its ugliness, but it’s also one of the most unforgettable treatments of race relations, and of how human beings go a little crazy when the mercury travels north of 100 degrees. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant is a bubbling cauldron, and every little percolation is a cinematic wonder.
2) Serpico (1973, Sidney Lumet). My Flickchart: #481/3523. Global: #354. Al Pacino yelling “Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon may be the more famous New York-based Lumet-Pacino collaboration, but for my money, this one’s better. Police corruption was a topic that interested Lumet greatly (he’d address it again in 1981‘s Prince of the City, among others), but nowhere did he grapple with it as fiercely or as desperately as in Serpico. If you want an indication how different the cinematic mainstream was in 1973 than it is now, Pacino looked as you see him in the picture above — and he was the one honest guy in the film. Based on the life of real honest cop Frank Serpico, who went undercover to reveal corruption in the NYPD, this is one of those films that shows just how difficult the straight and narrow can be.
3) Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993, Woody Allen). My Flickchart: #1289/3523. Global: #1142. Until the past ten years, nearly every single one of Woody Allen’s movies occurred within the confines of one of the five burroughs. Manhattan Murder Mystery is not nearly as memorable as, say, Manhattan or Annie Hall, but it’s surely among the more enjoyable of Allen’s minor New York confections. The story concerns a quartet of neurotic New Yorkers (Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston) poking around the apartment of a neighbor they believe to have killed his wife. In Allen’s deft comic hands, the central crime is more an opportunity to explore relationship foibles through wisecracks than to contemplate mortality.
4) Gangs of New York (2002, Martin Scorsese). My Flickchart: #2447/3523. Global: #538. It feels like a bit of a slap in the face to dump Marty Scorsese down here at #4, but I prefer to look at it this way: He’s so good, he doesn’t need any validation from me. So I set aside classics like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and cast my critical gaze on one of his few stinkers. I’ve tried to like Gangs of New York better, giving it the rare second viewing for a film that I knew didn’t work for me. Nope — it’s just not for me. I do like looking into the gangland origins of the city and I like some parts of Daniel Day-Lewis‘ performance, but overall it’s a bit too Oliver Twist for me. I’m thinking specifically of the flimsy sets, the community theater costumes, and an anachronistic usage of Cameron Diaz.
5) Sidewalks of New York (2001, Edward Burns). My Flickchart: #3251/3523. Global: #7764. It’s fitting that the New York filmmaker who’s happiest to be sitting at the table with the big boys has to take my fifth slot. Edward Burns (who worships Allen) has made some really solid New York films — I’m thinking of his memorable debut (The Brothers McMullen) as well as a surprising recent triumph (Newlyweds) — but he’s also made this one, which genuinely bothers me. The premise is that a documentary crew cares enough about these six insipid navel gazers, each one a bigger jerk than the next, to want to record their mean-spirited romantic fumblings for the viewing pleasure of others. Consider me skeptical. As the default good guy, Burns tries in vain to give you someone to root for.
First duel: The Great Gatsby vs. Manhattan Murder Mystery. Minor Woody Allen is not as great as Gatsby. The Great Gatsby wins.
Second duel: The Great Gatsby vs. Serpico. Gritty realism defeats kaleidoscopic CG. Serpico wins.
The Great Gatsby finishes third out of the six movies.
I’m a sucker for CGI, as long as it genuinely gives us something it would not otherwise be possible to recreate. I’ll add a second qualifier there: as long as it gives me something I haven’t seen before, and not just another alien/monster/destruction of a famous landmark.
So it was easy for me to pinpoint the exact moment when The Great Gatsby got its hooks in me. Baz Luhrmann is establishing our setting through a series of “helicopter shots” — shots that would have been accomplished with the use of a helicopter, before computers made them unnecessary. The shot that got me shows us the East Egg mansion of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, its brilliant green lawn stretching out a quarter mile from its front door, and a lone rider on a horse racing down that expanse, swinging a polo mallet. Instant goosebumps. I realized, this is what I wanted from the trademark Luhrmann approach to the material: a recreation of a world not from a comic book, but from a beloved classic of literature; fantastical enough to dazzle us, real enough to seem authentic. Of course, this shot of the lone horseman is a throwaway when compared to the Luhrmann razzle-dazzle most people are talking about: the party scenes. Where some people got queasy flashbacks to Moulin Rouge, I loved Moulin Rouge, so all my flashbacks where joyous. Not only is this a spectacle merely on the superficial level, enhanced enough (but perhaps not crucially) by the 3D, but it’s also a shrewd way to modernize the material through the anachronistic use of (non-diegetic) contemporary music. The hip hop is no mere bit of flash to appeal to young people, but rather, a reminder that all human beings of all eras are capable of pushing the limits of their own hedonism. Partying hardy isn’t a 21st century phenomenon, and just so we don’t get too removed from the source material, Luhrmann reminds us of when we are by cutting away to the music these people would have actually been listening to, toggling our perspectives while making manifest the similarities between them. What’s more, the young New Yorkers of Jay Gatsby’s era had to do it all without designer drugs.
For those who didn’t like Moulin Rouge, the movie calms down significantly after its first 40 minutes. Since I weigh the merits of style with the merits of substance more equally than some people do, I was actually a little disappointed when the movie settled down into a more staid and faithful rendition of the novel. That’s not because this section of the movie ceased to hold my interest, though perhaps it did a little over the full 140-minute running time. It’s just that it became a little less distinctive after that point, while still exploring the novel’s themes in a way that made them freshly relevant and plenty modern in their own right.
With the stars on hand here, I can’t leave you without mentioning what they do right and wrong. Let’s start with the right. Carey Mulligan continues to prove herself the embodiment of the term “luminescent.” Her character can be frustrating, because that’s the nature of Daisy Buchanan, but never is Mulligan herself any less than fully charming and plenty convincing. She fares a little better than Leonardo DiCaprio, who is himself quite good (and quite funny in one scene where he nervously struggles with the clock he just knocked off the mantle). However, his repeated usage of Gatsby’s favorite term of endearment — “Old sport” — almost always seems false, and it does draw a little bit of attention to the artifice on hand here. Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton are both fine, but the single biggest impression was made by an actress previously unknown to me: Elizabeth Debicki, a lanky natural who plays a professional golfer in Daisy Buchanan’s circle. Looking most like an archetypal flapper, she sashays through the scene with a veteran ease that helps us identify with Maguire’s neophyte all the more.
I’m heading deeper into the northeast with my first New England state: Connecticut. I don’t know where I’ll stop, but one place for sure is the fictional town of Stepford, in order to watch Bryan Forbes‘ 1975 film The Stepford Wives. Even though one of my favorite actresses, Nicole Kidman, is in the remake, I hear the original is actually good.