Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

New York, New York

There seems to be a tend in big-budget action movies this summer, where the film takes place in New York City, to emphasize an element of sentimentality and affection for the Big Apple. The most notable examples I have seen to date are Spider-Man (in which a mob of quintessential New Yorkers come to Spidey’s aid during a battle with the Green Goblin exhorting something like: you pick a fight with one of us, you pick a fight with all of us) and Men in Black II (in which the grand finale features a dazzling special effects display featuring the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline).

Lots of filmmakers, notably Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, have been known for their cinematic love affairs with New York, but this pan-Hollywood romance with the city is a bit schmaltzy and obviously a direct result of American feelings in the aftermath of 9/11.

It occurs to me that I have yet to offer my own tribute to the city on the Hudson. And the fact is that I don’t have much personal to say about New York. I have been there a grand total of three times in my life.

My first visit was the most memorable. I was a university student in Ohio, and my childhood friend Eric flew out from Seattle to spend a week. We decided to hop into my 1965 Chevy and drive to the Big Apple and have adventures. You see, Eric and I had a dream as adolescents. That dream was to someday go to New York, meet Stan Lee (the creative force behind Marvel Comics), impress him with our portfolio of fabulous superheroes that we had created (I was the writer, Eric was the artist), and settle down to a fulfilling life of producing award-winning, universally acclaimed comic books. Now, even though I was by this time a graduate student, part of me still clung to that dream. New York was the mecca for all things creative and artistic. But, essentially, we were just two small-town kids in a Chevy heading for a really big city.

Our first mistake was deciding to get a room in New Jersey. The reasoning was that we could take a bus into Manhattan and avoid all the hassles of driving in the city. What we hadn’t reckoned with was that there would be a transit strike and there would be no buses. So we not only had the hassles of driving in the city anyway, we also had all the hassles of commuting in and out from Jersey. The first time we ventured into the city, we found ourselves trapped in the right lane of the George Washington Bridge only to find that the exit we wanted was on the left-hand side. We were forced to go where the bridge took us, and that was Harlem. Now, you have to imagine what a frightening place Harlem was to a couple of white boys from a tiny farming town in central California in the 1970s. Most of our information about the place had come from TV shows and movies about drug deals gone bad. We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by burned-out shells of buildings, burned-out shells of cars and hardened faces that seemed to look at us menacingly. (This was before I learned about the “cool” Harlem of the Cotton Club and Bill Clinton’s ex-presidential office.) With a bit of panic, we worked our way toward midtown, feeling that we had barely escaped with our lives.

The next time we crossed the George Washington Bridge, we made sure that we were in the left lane so that we wouldn’t miss the exit. What we had failed to anticipate was that this time we were on a different level of the bridge, and on this level the exit we wanted was on the right-hand side. So, there we were again right in the middle of Harlem. Our exciting New York visit was starting to seem downright nightmarish. It didn’t help that, when we finally did get downtown, the first thing we did was go walking down 42nd Street and were nearly knocked down by a guy sprinting down the street and another guy who was chasing him. The guy who was doing the chasing dropped a gun right in front of us, doubled back, picked it up, and kept on running. Welcome to New York.

Eric hated New York. With a passion. He couldn’t wait to leave. It didn’t even help that we found a place where you could a hamburger and all the beer you could drink for one price. There was to be no discussion about visiting Central Park, any museums, or any tourist sites. We had to leave as soon as we could. So we headed to Boston. But that’s another story. For Eric, a movie like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, about an imagined future where things get so bad in New York that Manhattan is turned into a giant prison, was not satirical fantasy but literal truth. In those days, lots of people in America’s heartland agreed with him.

But to me New York City represented something else. It was the one real American city where movies and TV shows were set. Back before all the TV shows and movies seemed to be set in Los Angeles or San Francisco, New York was the background on the big and small screens. (Back then TV comedies always seemed to be set in fictional towns, like Springfield or Mayfield or Pixley or Hooterville, long before they would be situated in real places like Mary Tyler Moore’s Minneapolis or Cheers’s Boston or Frasier’s Seattle.) New York was where Lucy and Ricky lived. It’s where Ralph and Alice Kramden lived. It was where all the detectives and cops worked. And, once Marvel Comics hit their heyday in the 1960s, it was where all the superheroes lived. (Marvel, which always reflected Lee and his collaborators’ unabashed love of New York, didn’t feel compelled to create fictitious cites like Metropolis or Gotham City.) I felt I knew the place just from watching so many familiar characters live and work there and have adventures there. When I finally got there myself, there was something exhilaratingly familiar about the place and yet something foreign about it too. The people talked different. They didn’t talk like me or people I knew. They talked like, well, characters in a movie or a TV show.

That trip more than 20 years ago pretty much ended Eric’s and my dreams of ever moving to New York and writing comic books. But New York continued to live on in my mind as some sort of virtual/mythical entity. For a long time, the city, during its period of empty coffers and seemingly rampant crime, symbolized for a lot of people everything that was wrong with America. I guess it is only fitting that now, when people think of New York (even though not all the heroes of 9/11 were New Yorkers), people think of what is great about America.

-S.L., 18 July 2002

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