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12 Filmmakers’ Musings on New York and Cinema

Indie filmmaking icon Jim Jarmusch turns 60 today. He’s always seemed ageless, sporting a shock of gray hair since he was a teenager, immersed in the underground arts scene with a finger on the pulse of “unassuming cool.” Jarmusch, a longtime resident of the Lower East Side, has explored the hidden exoticism of the everyday in other cities, but he remains a quintessential New York filmmaker. “When I left Ohio when I was 17 and ended up in New York and realized that not all films had the giant crab monsters in them, it really opened up a lot of things for me.” As a musician, Jarmusch was a memorable figure in the city’s No Wave scene during the 1980s with his band The Del-Byzanteens. Last year, he even narrated a walking poetry tour of the East Village called Passing Stranger. We wanted to celebrate Jarmusch’s birthday by looking at other filmmakers who have shared their appreciation for New York City and the way it helped shape their oeuvre. See what they had to say about their favorite New York films, and read their musings on life in the city and its enduring influence on cinema.

Jim Jarmusch

“It was a really interesting time in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the music scene was really, really interesting because you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to make music, it was more about your desire to express things. That period was really, really important, because there were a lot of different artists — musicians, filmmakers — that had this ‘make-it-in-the-garage’ aesthetic that was really inspiring and really good. It was not about trying to be famous or have a career, or be a virtuoso, or be flashy. It was more like having real emotional feelings that you expressed through whatever form, mostly by picking up guitars you didn’t really know how to play and bashing away on them.”

Martin Scorsese

“I’m obsessed with this city. I just find it so remarkable. You really treasure this city when you go to different countries and you see that there is no mix. When you get back to the city, it’s such an exciting place. New Yorkers, we walk in the street, we talk to ourselves. But the issue is the energy, the excitement, and the different ethnic groups all mixed together. We’re spoiled being here.”

“If I continue to make films about New York, they will probably be set in the past. The ‘new’ New York I don’t know much about. It’s not that I’m against contemporary film. I’m open to it in general, but I find the new colors of the city, the new Times Square, kind of shocking. I guess I’m stuck in a time warp.”

“I’ve lived here in Los Angeles, but I’m more of a New Yorker, and the nature of my films is regarded as somewhat violent and the language is considered tough.”

Spike Lee

“I live in New York City, the stories of my films take place in New York; I’m a New York filmmaker.”

“The New York of Do The Right Thing is very different from the New York of Red Hook Summer. You don’t have that animosity with the cops. You don’t have the animosity between Italian-Americans and African-Americans you did. I have friends at Fort Hamilton, when school came, they had to run to the train station. Vinny wasn’t playing!”

Abel Ferrara

“It’s the best place to shoot. I know the neighborhoods. The light is really nice here, for some reason.”

“When you shoot in New York, the landscape is constantly changing before your eyes.”

Kathryn Bigelow

“I began to exercise a lot of cinematic muscle with the precepts I had learned in the New York art world. Film was intriguing. I began to think of art as elitist; film was not.”

Nora Ephron

“I’d known since I was 5, when my parents forced me to move to California, that I was going to live in New York eventually and that everything in between was just a horrible intermission. I’d spent those sixteen years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live in; a place where if you really wanted something, you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to be with. And I turned out to be right.”

“I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people in the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie.”

Milos Forman

“I remember when I first time came to New York, invited by the New York Film Festival, and the Czechs, they loved… oh, the communist secret police, they loved that we were being invited to festivals, because that was their only way to go out, you know, and bring some nylon pants to their wives, you know, back home… When I came for the first time to the United States, visiting, I was absolutely fascinated by New York. I get out of the taxi and it’s probably the only city which in reality looks better than on the postcards, New York.”

Woody Allen

“Cities move me. That’s why I don’t think I could make a film in a place that would appear boring to me, or unromantic. If I’m making a film in Venice, or Paris, I can really do a good job and make the atmosphere part of the story — that’s very important to me.”

“I’ve done about 32 pictures in New York, and I can still find good locations… “

“My relationship with Hollywood isn’t love-hate, it’s love-contempt. I’ve never had to suffer any of the indignities that one associates with the studio system. I’ve always been independent in New York by sheer good luck. But I have an affection for Hollywood because I’ve had so much pleasure from films that have come out of there. Not a whole lot of them, but a certain amount of them have been very meaningful to me.”

“I’ve always felt close to a European sensibility. It’s a happy accident: when I was a young man and most impressionable, all these great European films were flooding New York City. I was very influenced by those films.”

“You know, the whole American culture is going down the drain, you can’t turn on a television set and see anything, or walk in the street and not find garbage, or neighborhoods that were formerly beautiful now have McDonald’s in them, and it’s all a part of an enormous degeneration of culture in the United States. People that exist in that culture are forced to make moral decisions all the time about their lives, their occupations, their love-lives, and they make decisions that are commensurate with what’s happening to them in this culture, and it’s too bad that that’s happening because that’s what Manhattan is about, that New York used to be such a great city, so wonderful, and it has to fight every day for its survival against the encroachment of all this terrible ugliness that is gradually overcoming all the big cities in America.”

Lena Dunham

“One of my favorite parts of filmmaking is the communal aspect, and you feel that even more when you work with people you already have that rapport with. I also live with my parents. So shooting there I was in my own environment. There were definitely surreal moments, though. Sometimes after a long night of shooting I’d wake up and there would be someone standing over me with a boom pole or something. I was definitely living a movie life. But at the same time there was this incredible ease. Since it was with my family and in my home, it gave me a real shorthand with my creative expression.”

“As someone living in New York, [there's a difference between] the New York life being depicted and New York life as it existed. I knew it was aspirational before I knew the word ‘aspirational.'”

Adam Yauch

Fingers, directed by James Toback, released in 1978: I love the way this film was shot, looking very indie and homemade, the camera soaking up NYC in the late ’70s. It’s almost like a time capsule. It’s great to see Soho the way I remember it when I was a kid.”

Sydney Pollack

“I was homesick even when I was home… I’d only seen the city in movies. I got on the train and went there… as soon as I got off the train, I knew I had made the right choice. As soon as I walked down the street, I felt that I was at least at the centre of something.”

Matthew Barney

“I started exhibiting my work pretty quickly, right out of school. I had been making work that needed a context, a site. An interesting thing happened right as I was graduating [in 1989]: The stock market crashed and really changed the landscape of the art world in New York. It made the kind of work I was doing interesting to galleries that wouldn’t have normally been interested in it.”

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