NEW YORK F@ING CITY ON FILM!
As I'm in New York this week, checking the final print of "City Island", I'm a bit pressed for writing time. Nonetheless, New York City always works it's mysterious magic on me and--like so many others--I find myself walking about my home town in a trance, imagining what everything might have looked like fifty or a hundred years ago. I'm always amazed at New York's ability to retain the past within the present--staring at Central Park South this morning, with snowfall covering the street and the park, I was momentarily convinced that 1899, 1929, 1959 and 2009 were all of one and the same.
I have a theory that most movies will fail to live on in the popular culture more than fifty or a hundred years. Certainly many films from the past--particularly from the late twenties and early thirties--use plot lines that are mere puzzlements to us now. (If you didn't know, for instance, that once upon a time in a very different America a woman could sue a man for proposing to her, then changing his mind and backing out of it--this was called "breach of promise"--and that the real reason it was considered a very real crime was because it besmirched the woman's "reputation", then you wouldn't understand a great many of the plays and movies from that era, many of which used this device dramatically). However even movies that no longer make sense are of archeaological value, showing us customs, manners and often times scenery that would otherwise have gone unpreserved. Indeed, the earliest movies made by Thomas Edison were often times simply filmed documentations of a given site--say an elevated train riding through the Bronx, or people skating in Central Park. That these little filmed recordings of nothing much soon gave way to the crude melodrama's of the era is, of course, a given; the more provocative question is which of these movies are of value to us now? A strange tale of a girl being tied to a railroad track? Or an actual documentation of New York CIty on a winters day early in the late nineteenth century? Most of us, I think, would vote for the latter. Following this logic, I have to assume that one-hundred years from today my movie "City Island"--a script lovingly crafted and carried around for years before experiencing the miracle of cinematic birth--will be of little if any interest to whomever is alive in 2109 SAVE FOR THE SHOTS OF THE ACTUAL LOCATIONS, places which may or may not still be extant. Who knows if the story and the concerns of its characters will make sense to the people of the next century? But the views of the actual places and the way in which people talked, dressed and behaved a hundred years ago, will certainly be of some value to somedbody who will be only to happy to fast forward their way impatiently through the plot. Does this bother me? As long as I'm not alive, the answer is no.
Below is the first of a series of "Old New York On Film" clips that I'll post this week. In honor of the snow on the ground today, we start with a view of Central Park in the snow, shot in...1898. See if you don't get a chill as the woman crosses in front of the camera about 20 seconds in...and the cop who crosses at 40 seconds, complete with absurd 19th Century cop outfit and hat. The nearness of their presence, the actuality of these people and their lives--which haven't existed in a hundred or so years--are what I'm talking about when I sense the presence of the past as I walk around present New York.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 10:47 AM