Home Movies: Watching New York City Transform on Film

Shot in 1980 and recently dug up like the time capsule it is, Manfred Kirchheimer’s experimental documentary Stations of the Elevated (screening in Brooklyn Friday night as part of BAMcinemaFest 2014) offers a view of New York City that bears little resemblance to the sleek metropolis of NYC 2014. Children play outside of dangerously rotting apartment buildings (presumably long demolished, probably to make way for luxury condominiums). Subway cars aren’t number, letter, or color-coded, instead labeled with street routes like “Lexington Ave. Express.” And most importantly, the subway cars are covered in graffiti, top to bottom, inside and out.

Kirchheimer’s film features no narration or interviews (and only the barest bones of a structure), and does not tell us how to regard the graffiti — either as it was seen then (as an ugly, urban nuisance) or as it is viewed now (as the vibrant work of gifted street artists). It merely treats the subway cars as rolling showcases, as found art objects. And in many ways, it treats the city the same way — which is a genuine thrill for those of us who live in New York, love films, and have spent any time at all considering the difference between the city we live in now and that same city on the silver screen.

I first had the jolt of recognition, the realization that I had gone from a rarely photographed city (Wichita, Kansas) to one of the most popular of all film settings, shortly after moving to New York in 2006. My wife and I had barely finished unpacking our tiny Queens apartment, New York residents for all of two weeks, when we rented Richard Donner’s (wildly underrated, by the way) 16 Blocks, a busted-out cop story set in the city. At one point, Bruce Willis and Mos Def end up in a subway station, and a minute or two into the scene, I squinted a bit, then bolted upright in my seat. “Hey!” I exclaimed to my wife, perhaps a bit too excited. “I was just at that subway station yesterday!”

Still image from "The Taking of Pelham 123"

And I’ve spent the eight years since pretty much doing that over and over again, whenever I watch a movie shot in New York — which is often. Once I’ve ascertained that it’s not one of those fakers, with a few authentic establishing shots supplementing scenes shot in an LA soundstage or (shudder) Canada, I start scanning backgrounds, looking for landmarks, street signs, subway markers. If I recognize the locations, I’ll make connections (“That’s right over by that bookstore I like”). If not, I’ll check sites like On the Set of New York and Scouting NY, which frequently provide not only shooting locations, but the real killer: photos of those locations as they are today.

The transitions are, often, shocking. I’d seen the original Taking of Pelham 123 a dozen times, but got a new jolt during a 2007 viewing (as part of a Film Forum “NYC Noir” series, all vintage films shot on location, catnip to someone like me) when I realized that the cop car flips at the corner of Lafayette and Astor Place — an intersection I’d passed a hundred times on my way to Kim’s Video and Rockit Scientist Records (both already gone, sigh), an intersection now inhabited by, of course, a fucking Starbucks.

Still image from "Taxi Driver"

Taxi Driver is even more remarkable. Its key location (thematically, at least) is “The Deuce,” the block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues that lined up a murderer’s row (sometimes literally!) of over a dozen porno and grindhouse theaters — grimy, rundown joints like the New Amsterdam, the Victory, and the Lyric. This is where Travis Bickle took Betsy on their ill-fated date; it’s where Joe Buck meets his john in Midnight Cowboy. It was a seamy block, populated by hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, junkies, dealers, thrill-seekers, and even a few exploitation movie lovers, who would settle in to the sketchy seats for double- and triple-features, or slip from one auditorium to the one next door via side entrances and back doors.

The New Amsterdam, the Victory, and the Lyric (now the Foxwoods) are still standing, but they’re not the same; they’ve been rebuilt, often from the ground up, to accommodate high-priced Broadway shows. The New Amsterdam, once a hotbed of X-rated activity (on- and off-screen) is now owned and operated by Disney. Next door is a mega McDonald’s; down the block are Stone Cold Creamery and Dave & Buster’s. “Today’s Times Square has a Disney-dominated Blade Runner aesthetic,” write Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, in their indispensable “Deuce” history, Sleazoid Express, “designed to service New York’s international tourist market.”

Still image from "Shaft"

So in a way, films like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy and Shaft and Pelham 123 and The French Connection aren’t just great, atmospheric New York movies; they’re accidental documentaries, capturing a specific moment in our city’s history that is long, long gone. And is that for the better? Who knows; it’s not for me to say. It’s easy for a transplanted New Yorker who’s only known the city in its current, sanitized, post-Giuliani iteration to wax rhapsodic about the days when NYC had more “character” and “personality.” It’s also easy for me to take for granted the safety and comforts that I enjoy here on a daily basis — after all, while walking that block of “The Deuce” and sneering at the Starbucks and at Madame Tussaud’s, I’m also not getting mugged.

And maybe that’s why I love movies like these — and like Stations of the Elevated, which foregrounds the stuff I’m usually straining to see in the background. No doubt I’d have been knee-jerk uncomfortable in one of those graffiti-covered subway cars; hell, I get annoyed by the momentary irritation of mariachi singers strolling through the train. But with the distance of time and the barrier of a film projector between us, I can long, safely, for that old, wild New York, and wonder what it would’ve been like to wander these same streets in a very different city.

Stations of the Elevated screens Friday at BAMcinemaFest.