The Offbeat Marquee #4: “Down and Out in New York City”

The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.

This fourth installment is not a matter of obscure cinema, but of an obscure idea about cinema, the hypnosis that certain images can instill. Places locked in a certain time and place that captivate time and time again and carry with them a certain aura. For Jacob, that time and place is New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.

Aesthetics have always fascinated me. With film being a visual medium, it’s kind of hard to ignore that. People deriding “grimdark” camerawork bent on low-key lighting and heavy desaturation, the swinging pendulum leading to Hollywood’s rediscovery of color over the past few years; it’s stuff we all notice from time to time but will often set aside when exploring the film thematically. I admit to oft times being far more captivated by the look of the film than the narrative. It may be a reason why I’m so kind to quite a few films that have been lashed by the viewing public at large. But today, I do not wish to divulge “hot takes” and “unpopular opinions,” but to try and characterize a time and place that captivates my imagination regularly: New York City, circa 1971 to 1984.

The French Connection (1971): Dir: William Friedkin, DP: Owen Roizman

The appeal to me isn’t so much romanticizing grime, but more about the simple pleasures born out of the realist aesthetic often applied to location shoots in New York. I cite 1971 as the beginning of my favorite era in gritty New York cinema courtesy of the brilliant crime classic The French Connection. Lensed by Owen Roizman (who also shot another NYC classic, 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), the New York I was shown in this film was unlike one ever really seen up until that point. Now you can point to a bevy of films shot before this one, films like Midnight Cowboy and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, but there is a magic to Roizman’s use of natural lighting and almost documentarian rawness on display. What separates this grit from, say, that of a Zack Snyder film, is that nothing feels altered. Setting issues of color grading aside, there are shots in The French Connection where I can really feel like I’m there. Stuff like this has an effect on me comparable to Stendhal Syndrome. I’m just so deeply captivated by the image it comes close to overwhelming.

Top: Taxi Driver (1976): Dir: Martin Scorsese, DP: Michael Chapman
Bottom: Mean Streets (1973): Dir: Martin Scorsese, DP: Kent Wakeford

I always have felt Martin Scorsese has understood this magic, being born and bred in New York. Look at the nocturnal worlds shown in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The lights, the figures, the buildings; Scorsese and his DPs (Kent L. Wakeford for Mean Streets and Michael Chapman for Taxi Driver) create the equivalents of Currier and Ives prints for the Big Apple, warts and all. Both feel at home with the urban crime pictures that came out in the 70s, blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Superfly and thrillers like The Seven-Ups and Death Wish. What makes these two stick out in particular is that nocturnal element. New York is the city that never sleeps, and what embodies that best than illustrating the busy nightlife of small-time crooks, or of a troubled cabbie who’s got some bad ideas in his head. There is an otherworldly feel to it all. It kind of makes you understand why Godard was able to use everything in the here-and-now to create the future of Alphaville. Scorsese’s New York isn’t a distant future but has a futuristic quality to it, one akin to a dystopia. The barrage of colorful lights from cars, neon signs, and marquees against the backdrop of modern skylines and store fronts, with crime all over town. Almost an anticipation of the worlds of Blade Runner.

Top Left: The Driller Killer (1979): Dir: Abel Ferrara, DP: Ken Kelsch
Top Right: Windows (1980): Dir & DP: Gordon Willis
Bottom Left: The New York Ripper (1982): Dir: Lucio Fulci, DP: Luigi Kuveiller
Bottom Right: Maniac (1980): Dir: William Lustig, DP: Robert Lindsay

I also find this darkness particularly enticing when illustrated in the following four films: The Driller Killer, Maniac, Windows, and The New York Ripper. Here are films about the fractured mind. Men and women who are compelled to carry out twisted, occasionally psychosexual acts of violence. What these films present is the underbelly of New York. Even the polish of Lucio Fulci’s location shoot in The New York Ripper, as well as in his films like Zombie, Manhattan Baby, and Murderock, still exposes the subway cars coated in graffiti and some of the more worn-down areas of the city. The same goes for Ferrara’s use of locations around Union Square in The Driller Killer, and Lustig’s shoot in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens for Maniac. Windows I find the most fascinating of the bunch because of its one-time director, but long-time cinematographer, the great Gordon Willis. A veteran of filming in NYC, having worked on classics like The Godfather and Manhattan, his breathtaking approach to location shoots lends the flawed but intriguing thriller a tremendous beauty, crafting painterly frame after painterly frame. The frame you see, with Elizabeth Ashley holding up a knife to Talia Shire’s throat in silhouette, with the blurred skyline in the background, is easily one of the finest in the film, as is the many wide shots that are filmed during “magic hour” when the Sun is setting.

What makes this fascination so curious for myself is the source. The films all mentioned here are cinema at its most raw. Nary a soul can look at The French Connection without grappling with its brutality and the complex character that is “Popeye” Doyle. Maniac finds yourself viewing the life and times of a man so deeply troubled in his youth, he spends his adult years as a serial killer. These are not pleasant pictures, and yet there is a pleasantry in seeing the Big Apple frozen in a time and space within each film. It’s a cognitive dissonance that doesn’t impede the viewing of the film, but leaves me feeling a most peculiar way. I find this is easiest explained when I’m not the one explaining it. By that I mean, watch the aforementioned films and see what you make of it. Or better yet, ask yourself a few questions: what do you love to see on film? Is there a certain model of car or a certain city that catches your eye? Is there a decade that you enjoy immersing yourself in through cinema? If there is any meaning to my ramblings, beyond my attempt to profile a city through the films that depict it, it is something I will say time and time again. Cinema is a medium of sensation. Not just breaking taboos or pushing boundaries, but creating a particular feeling within you. A chill down the spine or that cliché “warm fuzzy feeling.” I can say that, for myself, seeing those skyscrapers glistening in the sun, and streets bustling with traffic from days gone by is one way to bring about such feelings.

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