Monday, April 11, 2011

New York, 1971.

The other day, one of “The New York Times’” film critics, AO Scott, had a video piece about William Friedkin’s 1971 movie “The French Connection.” I watched the piece, including about two minutes of a seminal chase scene and realized I hadn’t seen the movie since I was 14 or 15 and lit out of school to see it with friends—even though we were probably too young to properly get into the theatre.

What I saw in Scott’s video review was the New York I grew up in. A faster and more brutal place than the New York I live in now. A threatening place where it seemed like people were lining up to kick the shit out of other people and the cops were too busy kicking the shit out of people to prevent people from kicking the shit out of you.

I remember playing a high-school baseball game in Central Park. The grass on the Great Lawn was brown, there was little actual growth. The outfield with rutted by car or truck tires—park vehicles drove willy-nilly over the park. In the outfield ruts you would see drug paraphernalia. Needles. Syringes. I was playing outfield one game, in the white double-knit uniform we wore in those days and two guys walked over to me—it was quiet in the outfield--and tried to sell me drugs. That was par for the course, just the way things were. Everybody or nearly everybody had a mugging story. My friend Jill was a fairly adept runner, capable of a 7-minute/mile pace over the length of a 10K. She was mugged during a race and she wasn’t even running alone. Many of my friends also had run-ins with cops, cops who would harass you if you had long hair, suspecting there was a legitimate link between hair-length and marijuana possession.

Today, New York is a much more benign place. The brutality comes not from petty street criminals but from Wall Street speculators, manipulators and profiteers. They wear suits and get their pills legally from their doctors. Their crimes are harder to see. The regular cops don’t intimidate anymore, though one did give a citation to one of my kids for drinking beer in public. However there are those who carry assault rifles who are meant to protect us from terrorists. They make me think of collateral damage and scare the crap out of me.

It all makes me think of the Ferris Wheel scene from Carol Reed's "The Third Man," with lines delivered by the inimitable Orson Welles' Harry Lime. "Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."


lurker said...

How weird! - I watched it last night too, it was on here in the UK. I had seen the first hour about a year ago but missed the last one - so I watched that last night.

It was a great film, obviously, with great performances - I only really know Roy Scheider from Jaws and Blue Thunder so it was great to see him a really gritty piece.

To chime with what you say about remiding you of a different New York - it was made 8 years before I was born and one of the main thrills I get from watching 'old' films is the chance it gives you to peer back into the past. I like looking at the backgronds of shots, particularly ones in city scenes, just to catch a glimpse of ordinary people going about their day, and to see shop fronts that are real business full of real people. There are some fantastic New York shots in The French Connection that give me a chance to virtually time travel back to New York in a time before I was born, and see it as it really was.

Even silly stuff like looking at the cars, (what a fantastic chase sequence under the railway train that film has) - as a non-American, there were loads of manufacturers I didn't recognise (was it an LTD the girlfriend of the gangster drives to drop him off? Never heard of them) and locations in New York off the usual tourist trail that I've seen on my visits there. The Pan Am building is in one shot, and it's great to see the buildings I was in, but 40 years ago. Its so much better than old photos, which whilst great, can't capture the energy of places, like moving footage with sound can.

Barring nuclear apocalypse, I envy those in the future who'll be able to watch these films and see real live New Yorkers, from 150 years ago. Will make the study of the past much different to how it is now I think.

Will stop now - thanks for the post George.

geo said...

Lurker, the LTD was a Ford model, I believe it was the top of their line and used the same chassis as the Mercury Marquis. The drug carrying car was a Lincoln Mark III, a car my father drove. It was, along with the Cadillac El Dorado, the most expensive American-made car back in 1971.

dave trott said...

Lurker and George,
I was at college in Brooklyn from 67-71 and that film was so-oo accurate.
There were 8 murders a days, TV just reported the best 2 or 3.
(That's around 2,400 a year. Now I hear it's down below 1,000.)
Incidentally I read the book, the whole film is true except the car chase actually took place with a subway train, but that wouldn't have looked good on film.
And the real-life Popeye Doyle character is the one who plays Doyle's boss in the movie.

geo said...

I was at Columbia in Morningside Heights in the late 70s and early 80s, it was like a tinderbox; it was waiting to blow. I know we're supposed to bemoan the loss of "grit" and character, but NYC felt like the rape scene in Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." Horrifying and out of control. The end of civilization. Today it is civilization's apotheosis, or nearly so.