Real New York in Films
by Heidi Ran Chen
Like many a transplant, my first encounter with New York as a Thing was through Sex and the City (Oh, yours was Manhattan? Right, mine too). A paradigm of real-New York authenticity the show was not, but the hegemony of the city as an idea and an ideal in the collective imagination, even a false one, was too powerful to resist for a 12-year-old sniveling pre-teen. Fortunately/alas, one doesn’t remain a sniveling pre-teen forever and I’ve grown to incorporate some actually quality filmic representations/investigations of this fair, famous city in my aesthetic and intellectual repertoire. Below are a few favorites that are lesser known but quintessential in their depiction of particular (and often underrepresented) segments of New York, all united by and beloved for their extraction of the sublime in the (New York) everyday.
This underground cult favorite was, in 1990, one of the first films to document the then-incipient vogue ball culture (which, though still thriving now, has lost much of the sharp energy that was a response to the raging hostility towards LGBT back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s). The very real dangers that attended being a gay and transgendered, often poor, Black and Latino in 80’s New York was palpable throughout the film, but it was the self-aware, yet shamelessly (in the best sense of the word) hopeful spirit displayed in the many interviews and in the crackling energy of the actual balls that branded itself into my memory.
Some of the most poignant moments of the film were, IMHO, not specific to the inimical conditions of being a transgender person in New York only, but had to do with what it means to be a human, the tragedy of it, the underlying doom and the choice for the sublime, even if illusory (see Dorian Corey, drag queen-cum-knower of the human condition, as she throws on as many truth bombs as layers of make up). Of course it’s a simplification and somewhat gross romanticism to see the group depicted in Paris is Burning as tenaciously hopeful desperados, but it’s also films like these, and the romanticism they inspire, that have helped cultivated New York’s character and reputation as the city of the hustler, the place where glamour and grit are one.
If drag queen/ball culture is specific, this little-seen, critically adored indie’s subject is downright obscure, but only as a subject of study. IRL, we see them everyday, zipping through every NYC street, and occasionally - twice a week, maybe four when you’re “going through a thing” - we exchange cash, cartons, and thank you’s with them. Made in 2004, this cinema verite film is a spare, day-in-the-life look at an illegal Chinese immigrant delivery worker, an individual of one of the many “ghost” communities of New York: those seen but unregistered and, less kindly, ignored. As Ming Ding, our protagonist, takes on more than his share of deliveries in order to drum up the payment installment, a whopping $800, to his smuggler, we follow him on his bike through the streets of Manhattan to the doors of an assortment of customers.
The film takes us into some of life’s deep mysteries - inside the kitchen of a Chinese takeout restaurant - but also turns the camera on ourselves on a role we New Yorkers frequently assume but seldom reflect upon: as the often just-fine but sometimes really not-fine customer whose thoughtless unkindness, especially in contrast with the resigned equanimity the character displays, adds, ever-so-slightly, to his tragedy.
Though Ming Ding’s situation is desperate and his trials - which includes a disastrous robbery - miserable, his very struggle and perseverance, along with some sympathetic friends, ultimately leaves the viewer with a sense of the strength of the human spirit in the face of hardship, another display of that clear-sighted grit New York is, rightly or wrongly, known for.
A mainstay of the mumblecore genre, Quiet City is a movie where… nothing happens. The film, if you want to get technical, follows a young woman, newly arrived in Brooklyn, who fails to meet up with her friend and is instead taken in by a stranger of shaggy young Brooklynite perfection, circa 2007. Claiming “millennials in Brooklyn” as an underrepresented demographic may get you Social Media-maimed, but Quiet City stands out in that representation by taking an un-photoshopped look at two specimen of the group, complete with verbal tics - the like’s, the um’s - and un-soundtracked aimless wandering. Don’t slam your computer in disgust just yet - that aimlessness is, unlike in many other instances, neither cool nor all that sexy.
Though the two characters do end up embarking on a series of nothing-adventures - one of which, yes, is an art show and another, yes, an after-party - there’s less a sense of an American Apparel ad for 20-something, cigarette-tinged ennui than a kind of sad, a little pathetic, examination of human connection for people who are not really sure if they’re a real human being yet and what it is they should be occupying their lives with. Hate it or love it (just love it), mumblecore is a fair vehicle for examining the lives of a very particular sect of people, not a very well liked sect, in its often unflinching look at the ugly bits. Moving from place to place without real intention, as like most mumblecore films where events simply fall on to people by happenstance, the two protagonists’ travails may mirror many of our own lives whose purposelessness is frequently masked by the sheer inundation of available activities in this city, especially those with the insidious mask of cultural (or just cool points) value.
Like some of the best documentaries about New York, Station of the Elevated observes. This 45-minute “tone poem” has little in the way of input - no interviews, narration, or text labeling - and simply rambles on through train yards and platforms, casting its gaze on idling or speeding train cars covered in graffiti art. Shot in 1977, release in 1981 to no reception, and re-release in 2014, this film is the first to document the since-disappeared art of subway graffiti, now scrubbed from the cars and mutated into an increasingly commercialized form of “street art”.
Juxtaposing serieses of shots of graffiti covered trains - which, distorted by the steady zoom and backed by the Charles Mingus jazz and screeching train tracks score, can be highly meditative and/or trippy - with sequences of shots of billboard ads showing bikini-clad women with come-hither looks, Station of the Elevated asks us to examine the difference between art and vandalism, which seems to rest in sanctity rather than legitimacy of content.
Visually impressive, the scale (and artistry) of the graffiti covering train interiors is a showcase, in a moving, ubiquitous gallery, for voices that are otherwise unheard or worse, suppressed by circumstance and venue. In its giving a platform - yep - to these “shouts” from the ghetto, in its contrast of rampant and powerful commercialism with grassroots expression, and, very simply, in its role as visual artifact of a New York lost, Station of the Elevated very certainly speaks to the soul of New York City. Perhaps the film is even more relevant today when much criticism centers around the cooption of “real” modes of expression, including street art, into marketable agents of commercialism and, in tandem, gentrification.